Climate change begins at home: the world is our home

12 09 2009

Yesterday I was at a meeting at DCMS about how the cultural, tourism, heritage & sport sectors can adapt to climate change. Roger Street of the UKCP09 was there with a great set of maps showing flood risk across the regions. Heritage sites such as listed buildings, churches and museums were marked, many swamped by blue (flood water). Central London has thousands of these sites. The bluest region is East Anglia, and this region doesn’t have a flood barrier. I went up close to this map and saw the place I grew up in, my home, a tiny Broads village called Dilham, covered in blue. My mind lurched back to childhood, remembering the expanses of those Norfolk fields and broads, the dense wet woods that nobody walked in, exploring for miles on our bikes. My home was a vast space but on this map it was insignificant. If ‘managed retreat’ is applied in this area, it will also be gone for good not just damaged.

I was thinking about the concept of home throughout this meeting because the discussion was dominated by talk of tourists – visitors not being at home. Culture and heritage were seen within the paradigm of ‘pleasure and leisure’ (escape, fun, culture as commodity and so on) rather than ‘knowledge and learning’ (including ethics, science, community ownership of its heritage, media as educator and so on).  Tourism was probably the focus because it contributes so much to the UK economy (the sector is worth £114.4bn).

Much of the talk was about how a visitor attraction might cope with and make an opportunity from an extreme event such as drought or flood, with positive suggestions including ‘selling more ice cream’. Because we weren’t exploring specific situations we couldn’t articulate the risks and impacts with great clarity. It was stated that if UK has heatwaves and drought, it will be a less enticing place to visit, not taking into account that the UK will be less hot than other places. A key risk was noted to be that our organisations’ reputations will suffer if affected by extreme events, which doesn’t account for public equanimity when a crisis affects us all.

Like most Government departments, the DCMS doesn’t have an international remit, so its sustainability strategy focuses on ‘home’ and therefore only looks at the UK Climate Projections and focuses on regional or local effects. This is an echo of the problem with the DECC assessment of its GHG emissions, because it neglects to account for outsourced industry and so it puts a positive gloss on its own ratings. It is part of the same closed logic which obsesses about carbon trading rather than collaborating internationally to support alternatives and geoengineering solutions. The UK is amongst the countries likely to be least affected in physical geography terms by climate change. However, we are an exceptionally globalised country – our home is the world in more ways than one. We rely on non-domestic sources for our food supply and many of our raw materials and manufactured goods. As more countries suffer severe consequences of climate change, there will be pressures on our aid commitments, our investment in preventing terrorism and war and our management of mass migration. In assessing how climate change will affect the DCMS family, and what we can do about it, we have to take these global impacts into account first and foremost.

These (rather big) quibbles aside, I was really pleased that DCMS is doing this work and talking about adaption strategies (not just mitigation) and I did learn a lot.  I was also very thankful to be invited and hope my quibbling won’t prevent involvement in future. I think that my quibbling may be more effective if my insight can be sharpened by challenge and support from others so do please comment on this and on the Framework for Climate Action for the sector.  I need to know if I’m begging big questions because narrow logic is one of the biggest obstacles to effective action.

Coasting – book about rising sea levels and heritage

1 07 2009

sculpture shed, originally uploaded by bridgetmckenz.

I’m writing a book about coastal and estuary places that are threatened by rising sea levels, thinking about the value of the cultural heritage in these places, and exploring the role of cultural and creative activists in tackling the problem and helping communities cope with change. I’m taking photos for the book too.

Getting back to the garden

23 04 2009

When I was asking around for ideas about how cultural & heritage organisations could provide more of an impetus to environmental actions, two people (let’s credit them, Ian Haynes from Cimex Ltd and Colin Hynson from Norfolk Museums Service) said that Transition Towns had a lot of potential in that it is a grassroots movement but that it could do more to connect better with education and cultural organisations in their local communities. Ian said it wasn’t engaging as much as it could with the education sector, tapping into the Sustainable Schools initiative. Colin said that TT wasn’t engaging the cultural heritage sector enough.

Having been to my first TT meeting of a new group starting up in my locality, I can see how this happens. It’s a very informal, ground-up movement that starts up in people’s houses. However, I did find the meeting very positive. One positive thing is that the funding for our group came from Lewisham Council, so it is officially endorsed, at least in our area. Also, I’ve since heard that two of our Ward Assemblies want to spend some of their £50,000 Mayor’s Fund on sourcing allotmentse and other environmental actions.

The other positive thing is the impact of the film we watched, Rebecca Hosking’s A Farm for the Future. I found this quite revelatory. For many years, I’ve been vaguely aware of permaculture and new approaches to farming, but not strongly aware of the connection to climate change. This film very clearly puts into context the relationship between climate change, oil and food. In summary, the future of farming is gardening, a new kind of gardening that is designed for maximum yield for less input and highly nurturing of biodiversity. She visits some ‘forest gardeners’ in Wales and Devon, who describe what they are doing as ‘design’ and ‘gardening’ not farming. Their intelligence glows. Their gardens are beautiful, humming with life and producing more food than their families can eat. Hosking also visits a Shropshire farm where they don’t need to bring the cows in for winter. They know their grass pasture won’t be churned up because their father experimented for years to create a mesh of 20 different grass varieties (rather than the typical three). Also, their soil doesn’t need to be ploughed and reseeded. Hosking says ‘But we’ve ploughed the soil for 10,000 years. Are you saying we don’t need to plough?’ She then shows how the mechanisation of ploughing has depleted the soil quality and also the food web that biodiversity depends upon.

To consider that we should stop what we have been doing for 10,000 years, to end our human heritage as farmers, is pretty radical. When we suggest that we need to stop clearing wilderness and restore biodiversity, the default response is ‘we can’t go back to being hunter gatherers’. This response is either accompanied with ‘You’re talking all Garden of Eden idealistic nonsense’, or ‘People have life too easy now, they would never face the hardship’.  Hosking’s film shows that we don’t need to go back to being hunter gatherers, but we must go forward as intelligent gardeners.

What does this have to do with the cultural heritage sector? Well, it raises questions about our role in preserving heritage and emphasises why our primary purpose needs to shift towards enabling social change. How can we help people learn how to become intelligent gardeners, how to eat differently and how to scale up ‘forest gardening’? Natural history museums, botanical gardens and preservation trusts have a key role to play in this. See, for example, the work of the Horniman Museum, the National Trust’s allotment campaign, and also the BBC’s invitation to museums to take part in the Green Balloon Club festival this summer.

However, supporting issues such as green land use, food production and biodiversity preservation, should be part of thinking about overarching sustainability policies for all cultural heritage organisations. Their sustainability plans shouldn’t focus exclusively on how to adapt and manage their buildings and services to reduce their carbon footprint, although this is of course important.

If Transition Towns is becoming officially endorsed by local authorities, there is an opportunity for locally funded cultural heritage organisations to support it, and to help engineer better connections with schools too.

What else do you think we can do to bring ecological practices into the mainstream in our sector?

Tangled Banks

14 04 2009

This is not going to be a post about how the banks are in a mess or how entangled their corrupt dealings are.  I’m going to save that for a future post about cultural heritage and economics, though I need to do some research first, for example looking at articles from the Institute for Collapsonomics .

No, this is about Darwin’s tangled banks. The final paragraph of his Origin of Species posits an ‘entangled bank’ as a way for us to envisage evolution taking place.

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This ‘entangled bank’ is not one of the various extraordinary ecosystems that Darwin studied on his Voyage of the Beagle, but one close to his home and pretty close to many of his readers’ homes, in the home counties near London. As Easter for me is more of a time to celebrate Spring in nature rather than the Resurrection, we went on a day out to Down House, the home of Darwin for 40 years. We also wandered round the village of Downe, and looked at the church which was for Darwin the significant centre for the community. Then we walked through Keston Common, one of his woodland and heathland areas of study. See here for some photos of these places.

The house is owned by English Heritage, who have put a good deal of resource into improving the experience to coincide with the Darwin200 celebrations. This investment was also part of the bid to make Downe and Cudham (or Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory) a World Heritage Site, although that application is now withdrawn.

Overall, it’s a pretty good experience. The house is perfectly restored and the downstairs rooms highly atmospheric, especially his study. Upstairs, there is a new exhibition, Uncovering Origins, which is very informative and accessible. It includes a mock-up of his room on the Beagle with a ‘pepper’s ghost’ of him at his desk. We spent a lot of time looking at the large map of the voyage, at the family tree that showed Darwin’s entanglement with the Wedgewood family, and at the Turning the Pages treatment of his notebooks. We also spent time in the two (yes, two!) rooms aimed at children, which had some pretty good interactive games designed with a Victorian sideshow feel. We found the gardens a little bit underwhelming, although walking Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ was lovely.

The enriched interpretation in the house is really welcome, although as a family we did have some criticisms:

The provision of free PDA audio-visual guides is a good thing. But this meant that the downstairs rooms were clogged up with people taking their time listening and fiddling with their devices so you couldn’t actually see the detail in the rooms. In the upstairs exhibition, the devices were taken away from you and so in these spaces the visitors were much more able to concentrate, play with the exhibits and talk to each other. I was disappointed with the content of these AV tours as they missed the opportunity to create an ambient layer to enrich your experience of moving around the house and the gardens. I generally find recorded speech far too slow and irritating as a way of taking in information, but I do like it if it is music, sound effects, poetry or drama. A recent discussion on Twitter about audioguides sparked by Nina Simon shows that I’m not alone in this.

Our second criticism is that we would have liked a way to interact with the ideas in the exhibition. There was one video called ‘What does Darwin mean to you?’ but it only showed talking heads and we had no chance to leave our own ideas. There could be some wonderfully creative ways to engage people with Darwin and evolution, for example, by inviting them to contribute to an evolving story or an artwork.

I’ll soon make a visit to the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum and will be interested to see how it enables visitor interactions. It’s so important that we get beyond simplistic debates about evolution vs belief and extend public understanding of historic ecology and biodiversity. That’s why heritage experiences must be as interactive and creative as possible.

Climate crisis and the MLA sector

3 03 2009

Here’s a post imported from my Culture, Learning, Innovation blog which explains my current thinking:

If, like me, you follow environmental news, you will be feeling a tad unsettled these days. I’ve been unsettled about the environment for decades but lately it is clear that a drastic ecological crisis is unfolding, with the threat of runaway climate change. For some time it has troubled me that the cultural heritage and collections sector in the UK has approached this crisis so weakly. There are a small number of standout organisations, such as English Heritage and now the NMSI (helped by its new director Chris Rapley being a climate scientist). However, it has mystified me that there is so little central co-ordination and so little evident drive or publicity in whatever central activity that exists.

The first place to look for action is the DCMS. They held a conference in January 2008, which appears from the website to have led to no follow up action. (That said, see below for an update.) Of the DCMS family organisations attending this conference, those which really seem to be alert to the nature of the crisis are in the performing arts or contemporary arts sectors. These include Tipping Point and RSA Arts Ecology, supported by the ACE Arts & Ecology team. The cultural collections or MLA sector by contrast appears to be very timid and partial.

The MLA (the body which oversees museums, libraries and archives for the DCMS) has published nothing that I could find on its website about this issue. MLA does have staff responsible for sustainability but this seems to focus on economic sustainability (future funding and so on).

The Museums Association published a consultation document on sustainability, which does mention environmental sustainability as one of several themes, including economic and social sustainability, but there is no mention of an ecological crisis and the environmental actions proposed are very weak. None of these initiatives explores how the sector will need to adapt to the effects of climate change, nor do they really address the power of the sector in raising public awareness and helping us cope with a climate-changed future. They make the common assumption that environmental action is all about making operational changes to reduce carbon footprint.

I’m intending to do some more research and take further action on this so if anyone out there can help answer my queries below with information or just vague thoughts I would be really grateful:

1. What agreement does the Department for Climate Change & Energy have with other Government departments, such as DCMS and DCSF, to help them in taking urgent action (not just in internal action to reduce carbon footprint)?

2. What actions are the DCMS Museums Sustainable Working Group taking? What progress have they made? Who is representing the sector? How can other stakeholders contribute to their work?

3. Should work to address climate change & the broader ecological crisis be uncoupled from ‘sustainability’ initiatives? (Sometimes these seem to exist to define the several distinct meanings of the term, and there is a danger that in a recession economic sustainability i.e. where are we going to get money from? takes over.)

4. Would a sector environmental crisis initiative be more effective if it was structured in the following way:

– Uniting sector leaders but also involving a wider public & independent agencies (e.g. using digital media)

– Covering both measures to ameliorate the crisis and adapt to future change (given that this is not an ‘if’ scenario but a ‘happening now’ scenario)

– Covering both pragmatic/operational measures and public engagement

– Covering both climate change (the crux of the crisis) and broader aspects of environmental degradation including the loss of biodiversity and pollution

– Encouraging intersections with higher education, creative industries and science & technology research industries to promote innovation

– Investing in digital culture

– Using the set of risks posed by climate change in the UN report as a basis for adaptive actions, see my chart in this essay on Cultural Education for a Changed Planet ?

Update: I had a brief chat with Patricia Mandeville (followed by an email exchange), responsible for sustainability at DCMS. She told me that although the Sustainable Working Group doesn’t have resources to be continued, some more things are happening:

– She told me about this strategic plan

– A focus group on Feb 25th covering five topics of waste, lighting, events, setting up an Environmental Management Strategy and staff awareness.

– Having realised there wasn’t a lot of research on climate change and the cultural sector, they are undertaking research led by Arup which includes work on adaptation, using the UK climate change projections that will be published in April. This will include considering the impact of loss of land mass.

– I asked about work in public engagement: She does get involved in the outreach side but is aware that the DCMS can’t be too prescriptive. She says that more public-facing initiatives are happening and in the pipeline, including a major Science Museum exhibition coming on climate change.

– In terms of relationship with MLA, she said there is no formal agreement but they do encourage them to reduce their carbon emissions as an organisation. This is clearly an area where they could do more.

– On a question about their relationship with the Dept for Climate Change she said they are bound to reduce emissions across sector bodies by 80% by 2060, must follow sustainable procurement rules and must complete an annual report on Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate.

– In answer to a question about how people could interact on these policy areas, she mentioned English Heritage’s site: (Given that I meant how we could interact on DCMS/MLA policies on environmental issues, this isn’t quite what I had in mind, but I do think English Heritage could potentially lead in online community building around this topic.)

– She also mentioned a new website coming soon called set up by a freelance consultant called Rachel Madan.


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