Thursday, 12 November 2009


A major new exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society’s Kensington headquarters seeks to shed light on those who made vital contributions to the expeditions of the past, but whose names have been overshadowed by the glorification of lead explorers. The AHRC-funded “Hidden Histories of Exploration,” curated by Felix Driver and Lowri Jones of Royal Holloway, University of London, uses the extensive archives of the RGS (with IBG) to bring advisers, guides, porters, Sherpas and artists back into our accounts of famous historical explorations. If the names Mohammed Jen Jamain, Nain Singh and Juan Tepano mean nothing to you, this exhibition will help to explain why this is a grave oversight, but also how such an oversight is produced by our cultural reception of (white, male) hero explorers - an example of Adichie's single story problem. The effort to move these other, crucial participants in expeditions from the footnotes of the historical record to centre stage is ambitious and important. The exhibition is running until 10 December 2009, and an online version is available for those who can’t make the expedition to Kensington.

Image: Tenzing Norgay (Nepal), Edmund Hillary (NZ), Everest 1953. After their successful ascent, debate raged in the press as to who had first stood on the summit, and which country could therefore make the “first ascent” claim. In this case notes about feet threatened to assign one man to the historical footnotes, an outcome that Hillary resisted by claiming that they had completed the challenge as a team.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


An interesting talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for the TED series is available here, on the topic of "The Dangers of the Single Story" (hat tip: Dusty Araujo). It's a simple premise: that the mono-vocal becomes the offensive, oppressive or downright dangerous, and Adichie carefully constructs her talk from a series of stories. Beneath the ostensible subject is a further point: that a single story leads to a failure of imagination and, ultimately, a failure of compassion. More fuel, then, for the argument that when tales of our changing climate come, they must come not in single stories, but in battalions.

Image: Karen Jackson

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Caught in the Web

Sad news today: “The internet is killing storytelling.” Recently there’s been much debate about the role of storytelling in helping us understand, and take steps towards managing / mitigating, the human contribution to our changing climate. Robert Butler, Alette Willis and Robert Macfarlane (following Bill McKibben) have all thought through the importance of stories in this context, and the issue has been a major concern of this blog. Yet the fact that the preceding sentences contain a number of links to other pages on the web demonstrates that a lot of the public discourse of climate change is taking place online. So while storytelling is crucial to understanding changing climates, and while a large proportion of the myriad debates on this issue take place on the web, the latter is anathema to the story. Why? Due to issues of temporality. While the web (as its name suggests) enables connections across previously prohibitive geographical distances, allowing debate across millions of miles, the appetite for quick as well as easy access prevents the telling of tales that unfold over a period of time in excess of the morning flit from blog to blog. While we associate the web with the futuristic and the cutting edge, it can offer (suggests Ben Macintyre in The Times) only glimmers and glimpses of stories about the future (or, for that matter, the past). Macintyre claims that “The internet is there for snacking, grazing and tasting, not for the full, six-course feast that is nourishing narrative.”

Macintyre’s claim recalls the public concern about the shift from the long-length undifferentiated format of nineteenth century newspapers, to the imaginative lay-outs and ad-heavy prints of the papers of the modernist period. There was concern that the newspapers were pandering to a public appetite for “minces and snippets” (claimed Edward Dicey, writing in 1905). Yet it was technology that facilitated the shift towards the new ways: roll feeders that allowed a swift flow of paper through the presses, ultimately enabling up-to-the-minute reports; new developments in typesetting; cheaper paper after customs duties were no longer levied per page etc. We have a familiar debate here: did the public demonstrate an appetite that was sated by the developing technologies of the press, or was the readership fed fragments until it became attuned only to that way of reading? If coherent narratives are our best chance of imagining our climate futures, and therefore a promising prompt to action, and if the web is the place where people increasingly head for information on climate issues, perhaps it’s time for “restorying” the web (to borrow Alette’s term) in the hope that public appetite for a nourishing narrative might be re-established. But as Macintyre states “The blog is a soap box, not a story,” so I dismount.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A Verb with Its Sleeves Rolled Up

David W. Orr is the author of the recently published Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (OUP). As his title suggests, one major theme of his writing and teaching is the squaring up to truth that is necessary to create broad cultural change as a means of tackling and adapting to environmental change. Central to this endeavour is the distinction between optimism and hope. In a short article for Conservation Biology, Orr states that:

Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying or changing the odds. Optimism leans back, puts its feet up, and wears a confident look […]. I know of no good reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future, but I know a lot of reasons to be hopeful.”

The word hope has been brought to attention in activist circles by Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark (2004), and in broader public discourse by Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope… (2006). Orr notes that hope:

“requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions. It requires a level of honesty, self-awareness and sobriety that is difficult to summon and sustain.”

Whatever the difficulties this is, Orr claims, just the kind of thinking necessary in the face of climate change. In this context, Obama’s “audacity” seems incorrect. While the term implies boldness, daring and bravery, it can also indicate recklessness and, as the OED suggests, a “disregard for consequences […] or morality.” If we are to be hopeful about our changing climate, it must be with consequences and morals very much in mind. Leaving audacity to one side, however, hope does seem a useful watchword:

“Authentic hope, in other words, is made of sterner stuff than optimism. It must be rooted in the truth as best we can see it, knowing that our vision is always partial. Hope requires the courage to reach farther, dig deeper, confront our limits and those of nature, work harder, and dream dreams” (Orr).

This rooting in the truth is, for Orr, crucial. The blindness of optimism, much as it prevents panic, cannot create change, since it avoids the sterner future vision of hope. Hope is never blind, although it may suffer a recognised partial vision. Orr writes, therefore, that as an educator “I […] earn my keep by perpetuating the quaint belief that if people only knew more they would act better.” Much as this view goes against recent evidence discussed here at springcoppice, perhaps we should all continue to hope that this greater knowledge / acting better relationship might again obtain, and that educators and storytellers (who “dream dreams”) will have a major role to play in forming this motivating connection.

Image: Obey Giant