Wednesday, 21 October 2009

And Another Thing

Proving that there's more than one way to skin a...rabbit, Robert Butler over at Ashdenizen has another, more cheerful take on the "ACT ON CO2" campaign and the objections that have been made against it.

Drowning Bunnies

A recent advert for the government’s “ACT ON CO2” campaign picks up on the need for climate change discourse to take the form of a compelling narrative, having the story of the changing global climate read as a bedtime tale. Putting anthropogenic climate change in the place where a fairytale might be is clever:

1. It foregrounds the disparity between the narrative dynamics of the traditional fairytale and our own, damaged world. While a fairytale provides escapism (albeit with a moral message) and traditionally neutralises supposed dangers by the end of the story (“Is there a happy ending?” asks the child in the advert), this story is far from ideal, and its ending is unclear. There is no comfortable reassertion of the social order here.

2. It makes use of the “timescape perspective” (Barbara Adam’s term) in emphasising the fact that our present decisions will affect our children rather than ourselves, and in drawing upon a traditional, long-established story structure.

3. It plays up the moral imperatives and establishment of normative behaviours that are at the root of traditional fairytales.

4. It allows the personalisation of the message by reiterating our dual role as stewards of the globe, and guardians of future generations.

However, the Guardian reports that the Advertising Standards Authority has received more than 350 complaints about the advert. The majority of these relate to the misguided belief that the scientific data are not sufficient to make a certain case for man’s contribution to climate change. Others state that the advert's tone is frightening and hectoring. The ineffectual nature of negative future scenarios as a spur to action has been well documented. While a grim future of drowning bunnies might be realistic, it is not the way to motivate the populace. The advert in fact breaks the majority of the rules of the Labour-leaning IPPR’s recent “Consumer Power: A Communications Guide for Mainstreaming Lower-Carbon Behaviour.” Something seems to have gone awry here. There is a mismatch between forceful narratives that draw on stewardship responsibilities, and the creation of behavioural change that will allow such responsibilities to be fulfilled. The cause of this mismatch appears to be the fact that moral imperatives are not a driving force (IPPR rule 9: “Avoid guilt…”). It is a great shame that a six million pound advertising campaign should so fall foul of the latest recommendations in cultural persuasion. It is perhaps an even greater shame that we are more keen to protect ourselves and our children from morally forceful advertising, and the sight of a drowning cartoon rabbit, than from the effects of a warming planet.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Haunted (Tree) House

Something to file under "interesting ideas" is the upcoming project Ghost Forest by artist Angela Palmer who, having grubbed up the stumps of mature trees felled for commercial logging in the forests of Ghana, will install those stumps in Trafalgar Square, and thence in Copenhagen (just in time for the COP15 climate talks). The project's aesthetic value and effect upon the viewer can only really be assessed once it's in situ, but that fact itself gets to the heart of what is being depicted here. To feel, to really respond, you have to "be there." And if "there" is a distant tropical forest then, much as you are told deforestation is a Very Bad Thing, your distance from the denuded forests themselves (assuming you live in the non-tropical regions) can assuage the feelings of compulsion to do anything to prevent the loss. There's a spatial contraction in "Ghost Forest" that puts you where the arboreal carnage is. But also - as the title hints - there's a temporal contraction here too, as the past is summoned up through individual acts of imagination, which will inevitably attempt to reinstate the missing trees. The ghosts will, as ever, be the result of human imagination, a painful reminder of a loss experienced in the past, now felt once again in the present, and perhaps also (as in the prophecies of ghostly figures) hinting at a forest-free future.

Wood, once its origin in a living entity is reiterated, seems at once more beautiful, but also more unsettling - it is hard to resist the anthropomorphic inclination to associate wood with flesh. This move is deftly achieved in Kathleen Jamie's poem "The Tree House," from the prize-winning collection of the same name. As a careful observer of the natural world and, not least, as the wife of a carpenter, Jamie is alert to the beauty of wood. But her poem also addresses the sacrifice of other living things that goes into the human effort to dwell:
Would we still be driven here,
our small town Ithacas, our settlements
hitched tight beside the river

where we're best played out
in gardens of dockens
and lady's mantel, kids' bikes
stranded on the grass;
where we've knocked together

of planks and packing chests
a dwelling of sorts; a gall
we've asked the tree to carry
of its own dead, and every spring
to drape in leaf and blossom, like a pall.

Image: Associated Press / BBC

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Great Ungreened

Ten recommendations in the IPPR’s recent document “Consumer Power: A Communications Guide for Mainstreaming Lower-Carbon Behaviour”:

1. “Don’t focus on climate change"

2. “Focus on saving money now”

3. “Prevent the rebound effect” (in which people spend money saved through low-carbon behaviours on other, high-carbon practices)

4. “Talk about carbon pollution, not CO2 emissions”

5. “Satirise high-carbon behaviours”

6. “Make lower-carbon options desirable”

7. “Remember that being in control matters” (e.g. with regard to controlling personal energy costs)

8. “Make it fun”

9. “Avoid guilt and the ‘environmental’ label”

10. “Use messengers that ‘keep it real’”

What with this being a communications guide, it’s inevitable that it has something to say about the kind of stories we tell about climate change. But numbers 5, 8 and 10 open a role for storytelling (and appropriate / engaging storytellers) in a straightforward way. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the document, however, is its insistence that the people who must be compelled to change their lifestyles in the interest of mitigating anthropogenic climate change are not currently operating in blissful ignorance. The discourse of public policy documents, journalism and activism in relation to climate change is beset by the notion that the world is currently suffering from a deficit in climate education, and that information-giving or awareness-raising strategies are the way to address behavioural change. “Consumer Power…” states that, in fact: “A lack of awareness of climate change is not the problem. Most people are aware, but awareness is not motivating enough. For many, climate change is just boring. […] Recognition of that should be the starting point of all communications efforts to encourage mainstream consumers to adopt lower-carbon behaviours.” It is pleasing to see this addressed directly and in plain terms. Too often, an audience for climate education or activism is sketched in the broadest terms, and its ignorance presumed. The vagueness of the sketch allows unpleasant assumptions about the class, educational level and political leanings of its constituents, the “great ungreened.” But the discourse of climate change is so widely promulgated that, as the IPPR’s report reflects, information fatigue is already kicking in. For this reason, the dissemination of facts is of only limited use. We are back, then, to stories; back to the move from “Thou shalt not…” to “once upon a time.”

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Future-Oriented, Radically-Imagined Polar Bears

In a 350-word statement commissioned by Bill McKibben’s, Rebecca Solnit hits upon several ongoing preoccupations of this blog: polar bears as the poster boys of climate change and indicative of synecdochic thinking, the temporal models of the discourse of climate crisis, and the possible role of the imagination in averting that crisis. Solnit begins: “Remember that twenty thousand polar bears are on your side,” a well-worn opening gambit, and therefore an odd choice of starting point for a piece that ultimately makes the claim that “what needs to be the most radical is your imagination.” She is not alone in beginning here, with reference to an animal with particular appeal, of course. The Scott Polar Research Institute’s excellent online archive of expedition photographs contains a section devoted not (as elsewhere) to specific expeditions, but to “penguins,” testament surely to the appetite of the press for these images as a kind of shorthand for our fragile world.

For Solnit, our responsibility in placing pressure on governments to make tough decisions for the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change (and the saving of the bears) is to shift our orientation away from the present moment, and consider the “tens of billions yet unborn who could live decent lives over the next several centuries if we get radical in this one.” In a recent lecture, inaugurating his Personal Chair in Ethics at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, Michael Northcott suggested that the Communion of Saints offers a model for this kind of trans-generational thinking, potentially moving us away from our status as “now people” (as defined in this recent IPPR report). The Communion connects the dead, the living and the unborn in a web of mutual responsibility (although, as Northcott noted, after the twelfth century this web was somewhat reimagined as a narrative, in which a foretaste of future paradise was available in the present). Solnit claims that the path to future-oriented activism is a radical imagination that contributes a vital emotionally compelling aspect to climate forecasting: “Scientists have described the inferno this world could become with runaway carbon levels. Will we let it happen because we could not imagine these glaciers melting […] these seas dying, these croplands failing, these famines taking away millions?” The role of the imagination within environmental activism, and in particular within climate change campaigning, has been much discussed in recent years, but Solnit’s piece, after an unimaginative beginning, finds a new way to frame what is at stake here: if climate change continues unmitigated, it will in part be the result of a failure of the human imagination.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Reading the Runes

When he read at the University of Edinburgh last week, poet and author John Burnside made some illuminating points about his own work. First, while he appreciates the problems that are inherent in using a “fallen” language, Burnside also likes to explore the conjuring capacities of that language, best represented by the figure of Orpheus, who is able to sing creatures into being. Second, he can identify only a few moments in his life when he has been able to “step outside” of this problematic medium of language: when taking LSD, and when experiencing certain states of mind brought about by phases of mental ill health. In relation to this second point, Burnside attributes his poetry’s repeated attempts to gesture towards meaning or pattern in the universe, without recourse to a named deity, to his status as a sufferer of apophenia – the tendency to assign meaning to randomly occurring events. Habitually reading the runes of the meaningless informational “noise” of the everyday, the apophenic can drift towards paranoia, but also towards elation (depending on the way the signs appear to tend).

Apophenia is one state among several connected to “magical thinking,” a form of thinking that can produce anomalous beliefs of causality, apparently supported by experience, but having no necessary basis in truth. This is not, of course, so very far from religion, which haunts the work of lapsed Catholic Burnside (who claimed last week to have “a crush on Presbyterianism”). The phrase “magical thinking” is perhaps most familiar not from the field of psychiatry but from the title of Joan Didion’s grief memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. In the latter, it is understood in its anthropological sense, as a belief that a series of rituals or behaviours can put off a terrible event, or alter what has already occurred. It is a kind of fantasy of control in an unresponsive universe. This anthropological interpretation of the phrase is of course also relevant to Burnside’s work, which contains many small, ritualistic gestures of tribute or hope.

Last week, the writer read in part from a work-in-progress, a novel set in the Arctic Circle. Given the notes above, it will be interesting to see how Burnside tackles the far North, these days more heavily freighted than ever with ideas of a sacred space under threat, carefully watched for signs of the planet’s fate.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Put Off Thy Shoes

This summer’s collaboration between poets Melanie Challenger and John Kinsella, published on the RSA Arts & Ecology website, draws attention to the sense of touch. Mel’s fourth poem in the series refers to the “Unconquerable eye, dux of body’s province” which, with its passion for sites and sights, is “A blight at the dying rootstock of body’s / Other charms.” The series was born out of the mutual agreement between the poets that travelling by aeroplane to complete readings was indefensible. The recalibration of the hierarchy of the senses that results in touch being foregrounded is therefore a product of the attempt to refocus on the regional, to reconnect physically and mentally with immediate surroundings. The capacity of the human body to be in touch with its environment through being restricted to its own, unmediated scope is hymned by these poems.

In a recent “green book group” session organised by the novelist and environmentalist Gregory Norminton, participant Alette Willis read from The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir by Linda Hogan. Her chosen extract included an incident of barefoot walking, an episode that tied into the book’s contentions about the corrective that Native American thinking can offer to a Western culture that connects knowledge and intellect with the visual sense. Hogan’s approach to landscape is resolutely multi-sensory, but the barefoot walk is particularly resonant in that it enacts a range of emotions, states and intentions. To walk barefoot may, I think, be interpreted in the following ways:

  1. An act of humility
  2. A punishment or penance
  3. A tribute (these first three forming parts of the pilgrimage experience)
  4. A ritual, often involving suffering (e.g. firewalking)
  5. An indicator of disenfranchisement via class, enslavement or other form of submission
  6. Therefore, a marker of poverty
  7. A sexual practice (thinking in particular of barefoot dancers)
  8. A claim to freedom
  9. A statement of nonconformism
  10. A claim to fashionable status (e.g. hippy chic)
  11. A spiritual act
  12. A claim of connectedness to the earth and, therefore, the Earth
  13. An act of mourning
  14. An indicator of innocence (e.g. unshod children)
  15. A mark of respect (removal of shoes in holy places)
  16. A means of treading lightly, in order to prevent harm (as in the Jain tradition)
  17. A marker of commitment to peace
  18. A statement of elemental connection

There may well be more interpretations of the barefoot walk, some stemming from readings within other cultures that might contradict my own reading of the gesture. But crucially there is something about touch, and in particular about touching the land with one’s feet, that suggests both a connection to the regional, and a humble approach. Perhaps a barefoot walk is, at the metaphorical level, the way we should all choose to travel. As Exodus 3.5 has it: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”

Monday, 5 October 2009

It's a Dog's Life

Philadelphia, 1967. A flyer is found throughout the centre of the city. It reads: "On Friday at noon on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania we will use napalm on a defenseless dog to illustrate the horrors of this weapon. Innocent Vietnamese are being burned alive by this jelly-like gasoline, paid for by your US tax dollars." It was signed "Ameri-Cong." Before the appointed day, outraged Philadelphians voice their concern in public statements – the mayor, the chief of police, the ASPCA, local senator Joseph Clark. When 2,000 people arrive at the University, the majority to object to the cruel treatment of the dog, many others to observe what promises to be a fracas, they are handed further flyers reading: "Congratulations. You have just saved the life of a dog. Now, how about saving the lives of thousands of innocent people in Vietnam?" It was the largest anti-war demonstration that Philadelphia had ever seen.

This incident now forms a central part of the life story of Kiyoshi Kuromiya - activist, AIDS educator and campaigner, friend of Martin Luther King and Buckminster Fuller. I was reminded of it when reading a recent Guardian article on species-specific concern, in which Mark Wright of the WWF argued that certain animals have the emotive power that can mobilise action. How very sad that, in this instance, a single dog was the catalyst for concern, succeeding in eliciting moral outrage where thousands of fellow human beings had failed. Many further questions are raised by this story. While "climate change is the new Vietnam" is an inappropriate conflation, several of these questions seem to be pertinent to contemporary attempts to change attitudes to climate, in part for the protection of innocent people many miles from the West:

1. Were those that came to protest guilty of "hippy shit," as recently defined by Tim Smit (hat tip: Robert Butler), i.e. were they channelling energy into the comparatively inconsequential and ignoring the large, painful steps necessary to mitigate a greater problem?

2. Was this a case of what is commonly referred to in today's climate change discourse as "fiddling while Rome burns"?

3. Were they suggesting that such exercises of comparison are invalid, and that any suffering, including that of a single dog, must be stopped?

4. Were they exercising their capabilities in stopping a smaller evil partly in response to feeling powerless in stopping a greater one? Should their contribution on the smaller scale be applauded?

5. Did their perceived powerlessness stem in part from the fact that the (Vietnamese) victims of the Vietnam war were distant from them? Did the case illustrate the effects of “externality,” a recognition that costs were being paid at a distance from the decision-makers and the by-standers?

Kuromiya anticipated the outrage that would accrue to an act of cruelty in the neighbourhood, effectively drawing out the anger that he felt should be present in the city about the continuing war. To gather those people in one place to point out the strange ethical calculations that had brought them out of their homes to defend a single dog, was a stroke of genius. As COP15 approaches, will the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change bring people onto the streets? And what threatened loss will call them there?

Image: MoneySign