Artists and Climate Change

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How Object Puppetry Confronts Climate Change

By Caroline Reck

I want to tell you a story about a Styrofoam cup, and how, in giving voice to this one cup, many others were saved from a wasted life.

I’m the artistic director of Glass Half Full Theatre in Austin, Texas. Our company creates new works of theatre using the precise physical language of both humans and puppets – through clowning and object puppetry, in which existing objects are manipulated as characters – to confront global issues of environmental and social justice and explore imaginative solutions. In 2018, we presented an original stage production called Polly Mermaid, Apocalypse Wow!, based on a “walk about” persona that Indigo Rael, a company member, had created. Polly, whose purpose is to help people rethink their interactions with “disposable” plastic, has been an in-demand persona at live events such as Earth Day ATX and the San Marcos Mermaid Festival, and even has a short film detailing her origin story.

Indigo and I co-wrote the script for the stage production, which features live actors and object puppetry. While some of our company’s work is for all ages, this one is aimed at adults. Polly Mermaid is “polymer-made,” a mermaid who, sometime after the demise of humanity, evolved from the plastic trash in the ocean. She reigns over numerous species of sentient sea creatures, including schools of flip-flop fish, crabs made from discarded prescription bottles, and jellyfish created from plastic umbrellas. Polly loves plastic – can’t get enough of it, really – and couldn’t be more pleased that humanity (long extinct) has gifted her ocean with so much plastic garbage.

In this eco fable, an incidence of time travel propels a Styrofoam cup, named Cup, from our present time into this imagined future. Cup describes to the ocean trash puppets how her entire life – from being molded into shape, to waiting to be selected in the store, to being filled with hot liquid – is just the preamble to the shining moment of being brought to the lips of a human woman who is about to take a sip. This magical, sexy moment, this fulfilment of Cup’s life purpose, is so brief, and so honestly performed by puppeteer Gricelda Silva, that the devastation Cup feels once she is discarded after only seconds of fulfillment is legitimately heartbreaking. The other plastic trash commiserate; they too were used only temporarily before being tossed away. They mourn their brief instant of utility and languish, unloved and devoid of purpose for hundreds of years, outliving their “people” ten to fifteen times over.

Part of the value of this scene is that it is slightly ridiculous yet oddly compelling. In our experience as clowns, it’s easier to gut-punch an audience once they’re laughing. Cup is just a small part of the show, one of many that ask audiences to reverse their perspective on patterns of behavior. Yet in the year and a half since the production, so many people in town have come up to me and the other performers telling us how that moment changed how they viewed and used disposable objects. They tell me how they’ve stopped using plastics. They are fixing things that break rather than discarding them. They are buying fewer products. They’ve stopped relying on recycling as a solution. They are enforcing new rules in their households and communities.

Theatrical moments like these put people in the position of empathically recognizing their own ecological impact, which results in them actively changing their daily habits.

In the spirit of climate justice, Glass Half Full Theatre has set a goal to reach people less actively engaged in the battle against climate change, people who might be enticed by a sci-fi play, or a clown show, or a revisionist bilingual Don Quixote. We devise in a variety of sophisticated puppetry and physical theatre forms, but we often return to object puppetry because it is such an effective tool to help audiences reenvision the mundane world.

The Global Arena featuring Adam Martinez, Marina DeYoe- Pedraza, Connor Hopkins, Rommel Sulit, and Indigo Rael. Photo by Jefferson Lykins.

I believe this imaginative reenvisioning is key to breaking open the complex work that must be done to reverse climate change. As a society, we don’t pay attention to the small objects that surround our day. Most of us buy things and dispose of them almost without thought. It isn’t just carelessness; we are compelled by advertising and planned obsolesce to consume and dispose without imagining where the object came from or where it will go when we are done with it. We were raised to demonstrate our own value through the value of the objects that surround us, and that means regularly buying new things for ourselves and our loved ones to show we value ourselves and others.

If climate change is a result of our cultural values, then it follows that we can fight it by reevaluating those values, by championing the future over the present, the givers over the takers, and the collective over the individual. Inherent in object puppetry is a sense of cosmic equality: every object can become the protagonist in its own story. Once an audience accepts this, they can begin to undermine the prevalent assumption that humans are the inalienable protagonists in the story of planet Earth.

Glass Half Full Theatre’s productions often point out that humanity (more specifically, dominant Western culture) hasn’t been the best steward of the planet, and that humankind’s current pattern of behavior does not indicate that we’re well suited to saving the planet. Many of our company’s futurist narratives include the demise of humanity and the survival of a resilient Earth. Our intent is not to be pessimistic. Rather, we provoke audiences to defend humanity’s place on Earth through a reevaluation of lifestyle.

Another of our shows, The Global Arena, features WWF-style wrestlers representing climate change solutions (“Carbon Capture,” “Alternative Energy,” “Rubber Man”) fighting against “Mz. (mass) Extinction” to save the planet. It’s exhilarating to participate in a live theatre experience where the audience is yelling and screaming in support of lifestyle change, propping up the potential solutions against the seduction and ease that is represented by Mz. Extinction. Audiences leave the experience pumped up, looking for action and accountability, rather than depressed by the statistics that occasionally make even the staunchest environmentalist want to curl into a ball and sob.

We want people to feel energized, to be reminded of what we are fighting for. We don’t want audiences to feel judged or that we are somehow holier-than-they for caring about these things. To that end, we are trying to set impossible goals with the likelihood that we will fail miserably and publicly. We plan to produce a show this season with a zero-dollar materials budget. It will mean more time, more labor, more creating, but we’d rather put every cent we can into the hands of the creators and performers, and openly show how much harder it is to avoid buying new. When we fail, because we break down and buy batteries, or gaffe tape, or lighting gels, we’ll share our failures audaciously on social media and as part of the show.

Climate change is such a monumental problem that it can feel like we’ve all already failed, and nothing can be done. So let’s be open about striving hard and failing big. Our cultural narrative is full of characters we love and admire who achieve glory in striving for the impossible. It’s Don Quixote tilting at giants, Luke confronting Darth, David fighting Goliath. It’s time to get comfortable with the likelihood of failure, and practicing terrifying realities onstage is the dominion of the theatre artist.

One There Were Six Seasons featuring Connor Hopkins, Katy Taylor, Rommel Sulit, and Noel Gaulin. Photo by Gricelda Silva.

Cup will be making a return, this time to a virtual reality video experience Glass Half Full Theatre is creating, which will be available on the internet or as a live installation in 2020 in Austin. It’s called Trash Trial/Trash Trail. The year is 2050, and zero-waste practice is strictly enforced. Random audits are performed in landfills using DNA analysis, and the user of any improperly discarded item is brought to justice. Audiences experience this 360-degree movie from the point of view of the defendant on trial. Every disposable cup they’ve ever used, and every hairbrush they’ve tossed out, becomes both evidence and witness in a case against them. Babies fill the jury box and preschoolers are the judge and prosecutor. Our audiences took the planet away from these young people, and now the audience has to pay. Luckily, trash mutant Polly Mermaid is the lawyer, and she’ll be able to get their sentence reduced if they participate in a live event called Trash Trail, a trash hunt where convict-participants collect trash from the park.

The point of the hunt is to expose participants to new ways to view trash. They can collect items and find a new use for them with the help of artists, who will be on hand, to envision that future. Or, they can dispose of it and learn, through our team of experts, how to be more detailed in their sorting. We hope that Trash Trial/ Trash Trail can be replicated in other localities by interested artists to reinforce the “think global/act local” practice that is so important in environmental justice.

In a spirit of joy, hope, and accessibility, Glass Half Full Theatre moves forward into the widening jaws of climate crisis with the recognition that while not all individuals are responsible for this crisis, we must all be responsible for its resolution if we want to stay in it at all. We are always looking for new ideas to make the solutions more palatable, possible, and potent, and we welcome outreach from other groups and individuals in pursuit of this goal.

(Top image: Polly Mermaid: Apocalypse Wow! featuring Indigo Rael.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on October 3, 2019.

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Caroline Reck is the Producing Artistic Director of Glass Half Full Theatre, an Austin, Texas based theatre that creates new works of theatre using the precise physical language of both humans and puppets to confront global issues of social and environmental justice. Caroline is a graduate of Ecole Jacques Lecoq (France) and teaches Physical Theatre at St. Edwards University in Austin. She curates The Austin Puppet Incident and has performed with Trouble Puppet, The Rude Mechanicals, and Ballet Austin.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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Apollo Meets the Climate Youth Movement on Indigenous Ground

“Looking back at my home from space, I heard voices: the soft whisper of stories and songs from across time and space, rising up from the surface of the Earth, like rain falling upwards into the sky.”

Devi from The HomePlanet

Secretly, I had been dreaming of writing a play about space exploration for over twenty years – ever since I encountered Kevin Kelly’s 1991 book The Home Planet, published by the Association of Space Explorers. The photography taken from space, which is set beside personal reflections about space travel from astronauts around the world, is mind-blowing. I wanted those photos on stage, and huge. I wanted the astronauts’ compelling words to be heard.

Earlier this year, in the lead-up to the anniversary of Apollo 11 and all the media attention that came with it, I longed for more views that contemplated the larger picture Kelly’s book suggests: With all the beauty and wonder, why we are not doing more to safeguard the planet, which scientists tell us is both unique and rare? I decided to write the play I had long wanted in order to explore the tension between the forces of competition and aggression that gave rise to space exploration in the first place, and the sense of love and commitment to home, family, and place inspired by the photography that came back. In other words, as the character of twelve-year-old Millie in the play demands, “If we can go to the moon, and now to Mars, why can’t we fix climate change?” I stole Kelly’s title, The HomePlanet, but deleted the space to use visual language to underscore that our home and planet are indivisible.

What interested me was how the Apollo 11 anniversary and those gorgeous photos could call attention to the climate crisis and give voice to the youth activism that regularly saturates my climate theatre class. I live in Eugene, Oregon, where the first lawsuit by twenty-one youth plaintiffs – Juliana v United States (also known as Youth v Gov) – was filed in Federal court in 2015. The case is making its way to the US Supreme Court as I write, and the Youth Climate Movement has exploded. Young people around the world are challenging the systems that have treated our planet as a stockpile of resources for wealth extraction rather than as a home. I wanted my play to also show how tending to our relationships with family and place is also a form of activism.

As a settler-descendent artist who regularly collaborates with regional Native tribal communities on plays that deal with issues like water rights, it was important that the play include Indigenous voices and perspectives. As a white Euro-American artist committed to allyship, I was also determined that the play include a diverse and international cast of characters.

The HomePlanet is the story a Native family of three generations of women: a mother, who is a US astronaut, who must decide if she can commit to being part of Apollo’s Moon to Mars mission; her daughter, a climate activist; and a grandmother, who navigates the conflict between them by reminding them both of the story of Sky Woman, the Indigenous creation story the grandmother had learned from her elders. The play moves back and forth between home place, outer space, and the astronaut training facility in Houston, Texas. The words of international astronauts are woven throughout, providing a vast spatial and historical/temporal landscape. But, ultimately, it’s a play about coming home, about our collective responsibility, and the concerns of young people whose futures are at risk.

Astronauts Gus and Mira dress Devi in preparation for her trip to Mars.  The HomePlanet by Theresa May at University of Oregon.

During the play’s development, I worked with two groups of students over six months, workshopping ideas and generating significant parts of the play through improvisation and creative processes (Viewpoints, Laban, Element Work). Students also did research on the Apollo missions, focusing in on the environmental and social issues that concerned them the most, and they responded to writing prompts and wrote songs, poems, and stories. They interviewed family members, exploring their own histories to feel the stories they carry in their bodies, and considered where they came from, who they are, and where they are going. Students read the plaintiffs’ manifestos and biographies from the Youth v Gov lawsuit – which alleges that, through its actions, the government has violated youth’s constitutional rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – created composite characters based on the plaintiffs, and wrote their own stump speeches. These became part of the play, and composed a full-on climate protest scene that moved into the audience at the end of act one.

I turned to an Elder in my community, Marta Lu Clifford (Grand Ronde), with whom I have collaborated for several years, to help us explore the possibilities for an Indigenous viewpoint in the story. She shared her counsel and perspective on the topics of home, climate, stories, and space. We dove into the many varied tellings of the story of Sky Woman: a creation story told throughout the Great Lakes region and shared in print by many Indigenous authors, including Thomas King and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Marta felt that the story of Sky Woman had a place in the play.

Apollo 11 was preceded by Apollo 8, which looped around the moon in December 1968. Astronauts on that mission read from the book of Genesis and ethnocentrically wished the world a Merry Christmas. We wanted to link this back to Sky Woman, so decided to flip it by asking: “What are other creation stories, what would others read?” Because of the students’ conversations with their parents, grandparents, and elders, our play included narratives from across the globe, such as the Chinese creation story Pangu and the Norse creation story of Yamir and Odin. We used movement-based devising to explore their sometimes-fantastical imagery, and we talked about the different values each story imparts.

“A moon of my own” from The HomePlanet by Theresa May at University of Oregon.

Sky Woman teaches that humans make and remake the world in partnership with the animals, the water, the wind, and the sun. In Kimmerer’s retelling, she invites us to consider the Native concept of “seven generations”: from our present-moment vantage point, we must look back three generations and account for what we have done, and look forward three generations and imagine the impact of our choices going forward. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, the story of Sky Woman reminds us all that we are responsible for maintaining right relations with the planet that sustains all lifeways. The story of Sky Woman, and Marta’s participation, gave us a central spine on which to hang the many heritage stories, the astronauts’ reflections, the youth climate movement protests, and the international concerns over water, resources, and environmental justice.

Developing the play with students and guest artists over six months enriched my writing process in ways I had not anticipated. While not technically a “devised” play in the sense of complete collaborative decision-making, the process resulted in major portions of the play being drawn from students’ creative work. Many of these students continued into the rehearsal and production of the play in spring 2019 and felt a sense of ownership and accomplishment, as well as involvement in the subject matter that would not have been possible without a collaborative process.

The result was The HomePlanet, a story-weaving that served as a meditation on the meaning of the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, but also on the power of stories to shape our relationship with one another and our home. The journey of the three generations of women is literally brought home in one of the final scenes when Blue, the mother and a Native astronaut, returns to find her daughter asleep on the couch having a nightmare. “I thought you were going to Mars, I thought you were never coming home,” Millie sobs. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to move to another planet. I like this planet!” Blue holds and rocks her, saying, “I do too. We’re not, we’re not moving. People aren’t moving to Mars. It’s just science right now.” Then, she says: “Even if I go, I’m always coming home. What is it you always say, ‘There’s no planet B’? Well, there’s no planet B, and there’s no plan B. We’re here to stay. We live here. This is our home.”

These lines have a dual effect, asserting not only a human commitment to Earth, home, and family, but also an Indigenous assertion that this is still Native land and that “we’re still here.” After telling Blue about the Sky Woman story she learned from her nana, Millie asks, “But are you going back to space?” It is the thing Blue has worked all her life to attain. She tells her daughter the truth. “Yes, probably. But I’ll always come home. I’ll always come back for you.” Similarly, in the face of climate change, there are no easy answers. But when we know what is at the center – home, family, kinship with the land – those choices can be made with awareness.

(Top image: The Story of Sky Woman. The HomePlanet by Theresa May at University of Oregon.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on October 2, 2019.

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Theresa May is a director/devisor and ecodramaturg concerned with how the stories we tell shape the environment we share, and faculty at the University of Oregon where she teaches courses in Native  theatre, Latinx theatre, Eco-theatre/Theatre of Climate Change, and Site-Specific Theatre/Embodiment. She is Artistic Director of Earth Matters on Stage (EMOS) Festival. Currently she collaborates with Native tribal communities around traditional ecological knowledge and climate change in the Pacific Northwest. Her community-based play, Salmon Is Everything,  developed in collaboration with tribal communities on the Klamath River in response to the 2001 drought and salmon crisis, was published in 2014 (2019 second edtion) by OSU Press. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Fire & Ice

By Daniel Ranalli

Growing up along Long Island Sound in Connecticut, I developed a close relationship with the seacoast early in life. By the 1980s, I reconnected with my love for the ocean and managed to spend long stretches of time on the Outer Cape in Massachusetts. Fortunately, the Cape Cod National Seashore has preserved much of that coast and prevented considerable oceanfront development. Until that point, my work as an artist had largely focused on abstraction using photography to make large cameraless (photograms) images. As I began to walk the tidal plain along the bayside in the towns of Wellfleet and Truro, I started to think more deeply about the ecology and natural history of the region – and my relationship to it. I made temporal works in the tidal plain using seaweed and stones and shells that would be erased by the next cycle of tides. I combined photo documentation of these sites with my own texts, building a kind of personal natural history. 

Most importantly, I began to pay attention – to look closely on those daily walks – at the shape of the beach, the erosion on the dunes, and everything that I stepped over and on. In 1995, I began a long series, that continues to this day, using snails (Atlantic periwinkles) to make drawings in the wet sand as the tide receded. I would arrange the snails in geometric patterns and wait as their movement carved drawings on the sand, presenting a pair of images of their start and the subsequent results of their travels.

In addition, for long stretches over the past ten years, I have walked each morning to make a photograph from exactly the same spot, overlooking the bay, at 7:00 am. This past summer, I did this for 115 consecutive mornings. It has sharpened my awareness of the infinite variety of combinations of bay and sky that present themselves. It also serves as a kind of secular prayer or meditation to begin each day. 

The Fire & Ice Series, which I have been working on for several years, incorporates NASA satellite images of major wildfires, glaciers and glacial calving, hurricanes, and floods. For many years, I have been fascinated by satellite images of both astronomical phenomena and our own planet. There is an extraordinary formal beauty to these photographs, but also a powerful inherent tension between that beauty and the reality of the catastrophic or life-threatening weather, fire, or geological events they depict. There is also something about viewing our earth from that perspective that reminds us of our delicate beauty. The 1972 “Blue Marble” image of the Earth from Apollo 17 has sharpened our understanding of how fragile our planet is.

I am now, in my studio practice, deeply motivated by the current global catastrophes of climate change and rising sea level, and the failure to take serious remedial action. Every year, we set new records for heat waves, observe more powerful storms, struggle with massive floods, and watch as thousands of square miles of the planet are scorched by wildfires. As an artist, I feel compelled to respond in some way that is both personal and meaningful. We have all become inured to the continuous stream of images of floods, fires, tornados, hurricane destruction, and famine. With this series, I am hoping to make connections on another level of consciousness. Can art that seeks to generate insight on such a subtle level make a difference? I don’t know the answer to that.

Each piece is the result of pairing two or more high resolution satellite images of fire, ice and/or hurricanes, and then adding a third element utilizing my own photographs. In these works, smoke can become clouds, clouds morph into massive storms, and glaciers become abstractions of dark and light. I hope to reference geological history in some way. There are photographs from my Beach Deaths series – made over many years along the Massachusetts coast – of the remains of birds, fish, and cetaceans that had come to rest on the beach. In Fire/Water/Nests, I also reference birds and their nests, riffing on the formal similarity with hurricanes. Birds, being the direct descendants of dinosaurs (having spanned over 150 million years), are a way of linking the imagery to both species longevity and species extinction. We have also learned that bird populations in North America have dropped by as much as three billion over the past half century.

In Russian Fire/Icelandic Glacier + Big Bang-Yin Yang, I draw from my Found Chalkboardsseries, photographed in empty classrooms when I was teaching at a nearby university. The chalkboards are slightly altered and occasionally combined digitally with hand drawn elements. 

In a number of other pieces, I have included the molted shells, tails, and carapaces of horseshoe crabs. For years, I have collected the shells along the shore. I am fascinated by their beauty, and using them in this series, I am referencing their 450 million years of unchanged existence. I don’t see our species as managing such a longevity record. In Cape Cod bay, where high tides now swamp their egg laying areas, these oddly beautiful animals are losing habitat and falling in numbers. In a few pieces in this series, I have also used physical objects such as fragments of whale bone, an animal we once hunted and now hope to save from extinction. 

Pinned to the wall in front of me as I write this is the Robert Frost poem Fire & Ice:  “Some say the world will end in fire,/ Some say in ice.” It plays often in my subconscious as I worked the ideas through.

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Daniel Ranalli’s work is in the permanent collections of over thirty museums including the Museum of Modern Art (NY), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and National Gallery of American Art (Smithsonian). He has had over 150 solo and group shows in the U.S. and abroad, and has been the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and multiple fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Situated within the medium of photography, Ranalli’s work can often be characterized as conceptual and/or environmental, and is frequently rooted in the balance between control and chance. Daniel lives in Cambridge and Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Ecotopian Art amidst Climate Crisis: An Interview with Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Nikki Lindt

By Jena Pincott

An Ecotopian Lexicon is a book that introduces readers to 30 environmental loanwords “that should exist in English, but don’t.” These terms, intended to “help us imagine how to adapt and even flourish in the face of the socio-ecological adversity that characterizes the present moment and the future that awaits,” come from speculative fiction, activist subcultures, and other languages. The book contains artwork created in response to these loanwords, by fourteen artists from eleven countries. I spoke to co-editor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and painter Nikki Lindt about the book, and the role of language and art in this time of climate crisis.

We live in an age of anxiety. Matthew, in the introduction you and Brent Ryan Bellamy write, “As the scale and fallout of climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction and other processes become increasingly undeniable and unavoidable, we will need to change our cognitive maps of the world.” How can language – including and especially the words introduced in this lexicon – help ease some of our anxiety?

Matthew: Novel terms and concepts can help us acknowledge, understand, and respond to the changes that are happening around us. But I don’t know if they can – or should – ease people’s eco-anxieties. Most of these anxieties are generated by deep-seated structural problems – extractivism, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, etc. We need to channel those anxieties into action. We hope that this book might help people find or develop the vocabulary to describe what’s happening and to move towards collective action to address these structural problems.

There’s another passage from the introduction that struck me: “‘Another world is possible’” is a worthy maxim, but without elaboration, it’s shrouded in mist.” We need to move from “knowing” another world is possible to “imagining” that world and how to create it; a shift from passive to active mode.  How can art help us make the leap?

Matthew: Art can help us see the world anew, which is what we need to be doing right now. It can also develop or crystallize feelings or desires. And art can remain with us for a long period of time – a lifetime, even. I remember seeing Nikki’s painting “Solastalgia” for the first time, and was deeply moved by the figure bowing down in a green field, her arms seemingly rooted to the ground. “World-opening” is the phrase that comes to mind. Art has that potential.

Nikki: I agree, art does have that potential and it can be very useful as the existential threat of the climate crisis is so overwhelming and scary. It is tempting to look away rather than face this reality. Many artists are good at getting at and digesting these kinds of uncomfortable nooks between human emotion and larger issues. It is really going to be the collective force of these kinds of projects that will help propel our thinking forward.

Some people see a connection between the loss of biological diversity and the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity. In nature, more species = greater resilience. In culture, the same seems to apply: We need every tool in our conceptual toolkit to cope with change and adversity. Fortunately, we have An Ecotopian Lexicon!  Ideally, how might some of the loanwords in the book start to propagate in Western culture?

Matthew: Some of the terms already have, such as “solastalgia,” which was coined by ecopsychologist Glenn Albrecht in the early 2000s and is now being used widely. We hope that these terms stimulate critical thought, creativity, and action, and of course it would be fun if some of them went on to become widely used. Language can be a playful way for people to think and talk about climate change and culture change. Ultimately the terms and ideas that resonate with people are the ones that will take root.

Sehnsucht, in the Midst by Nikki Lindt 

Nikki’s painting was inspired by the word “sehnsucht,” meaning (loosely) the experience of pining for something lost mixed with a hopeful anticipation of something better; somewhere between dystopia and utopia.  (The text by Andrew Hageman beautifully describes it, “like vision human beings get at dusk when the photoreceptors of their retinas toggle uncertainly. We may feel as if we can’t see what we expect to see clearly, yet new colors and contours come into view.”) You portray a figure at that “pivot point” between the void and the great green yonder. She seems to be blending with the void but her head is in the clear, and she appears to be looking up and outward. Is this you? Can you tell us what she’s feeling?  

Nikki: Yes, it is me! After I made the piece I realized the same as you; in the painting my head is in the clear while the rest of me is being pulled to the darkness. There is simultaneously a sense of balance between the two opposing forces but also definitely a struggle. 

Working on An Ecotopian Lexicon and collaborating with Matthew led to a change in my thinking, which in turn led to this piece. When I first joined this project I assumed my imagery would accompany “solastalgia,” a term (also in this book) that had been the subject of my work for years. Solastalgia describes the feeling of loss caused directly by environmental change. 

As I was reviewing the words that would be included in this book, I realized that many terms were completely up-ending my thinking and presenting me with a much wider and more nuanced view of the climate crisis, and I felt more hopeful.

I ultimately chose the term “sehnsucht,” because it mixed anticipation and hope with a deep sense of loss. The word itself transported me forward; for the first time it hit me that I could dare to tie hope to my view of the future of climate change. At that moment, I realized how valuable a tool the Ecotopian Lexicon really is. 

Can you tell us of an occasion in your fieldwork or research when you’ve felt sehnsucht?

Nikki: I have been traveling annually to northern Alaska to document the dramatically changing landscape due to thawing permafrost. The landscape is amazing, so vast and completely untamed. At the same time, in this very remote spot, the fingerprints of climate change are so extreme they take on a surreal quality. Last spring, I was returning to a site with a very large Thermokarst Failure (a sinkhole of the north) caused by melting ice and thawing permafrost. The site had already been monstrously large the year prior but had since doubled in size. Adult trees were dangling upside down into the craterlike hole and some of the fallen trees I had seen the year prior were now buried under hills of collapsing dirt. A large cavern directly in the permafrost had also been created by the thawing. I spent a long time standing in that cavern. I could see but also smell and hear the thawing of the layers of permafrost. The way wet permafrost shone in the light looked like slowly smelting metal. All of my senses were keenly aware of the horror I was witnessing but also its transcendent beauty. Around me, I heard bird songs; there was an undeniable insistence in the lush growth surrounding me. I was transfixed by the duality of such a deep sense of loss coupled with such a strong force of life – sehnsucht. 

What do you see as the upside to this feeling?

Nikki: I associate this feeling with the creative process. Contradictory feelings are especially interesting as they make you think about and continue to process a situation long after you have experienced it. 

Ideally, what do you hope a viewer might take away from your work, Sehnsucht, In the Midst?

Nikki: I would like a takeaway to be that it is okay to have conflicting feelings about a changing world. And since the changes are so extreme and fast, the feelings that go along can be very intense. But the opposing creative forces of life are also very intense. We will need to get more comfortable with these feelings in order to confront our situation in a proactive (productive) way. 

Dàtóng by Rirkrit Tiravanija 

The term “sehnsucht” is a great upgrade from, say, a clunky phrase like “melancholic optimism.” Because words shape our values and perceptions, some environmentalists have argued for replacing terms like “reserve” or “National Park” with language that is more inspirational or in keeping with environmental values (e.g. “National Sanctuary”). Is there a common environmental term (e.g. environmentalist, eco-activist, climate change) you’d like to replace with another from the lexicon or elsewhere?  

Matthew: Too many to list! I’ll say that I found Karen O’Brien and Ann Kristin Schorre’s entry on “ildsjel,” a Norwegian word that translates as “fire soul,” to be especially compelling. The terms that we use for activism and politics are so clinical – “activist,” “political actor,” even “change-maker.” If we want to tell a story of engagement, mobilization, and transition that is as inspiring and gratifying as any love story – that is its own kind of love story – we need more poetry. I like the idea of describing the people that make things happen as “ildsjel,” whose burning energy can spread and ignite a social and political conflagration. Change is nonlinear, and it’s helpful to have a word that acknowledges that fact.

Nikki: I found the entry on “apocalypso” in place of apocalypse to be very strong. I love the idea of replacing a word that relays a cataclysmic scenario leading to despair with “apocalypso,” a word which references the joys that working together in the face of a trying situation can bring.  

I also recently discovered the German word umwelt,” which describes the individual experience of the world from one human or animals’ point of view. Though I would want to expand the meaning to include all living things such as plants and trees. Our collective umwelt is really the puzzle of how we co-exist: A grand interlinked network of our shared experience with all living things on this planet.

The linguist has a role in tackling climate change and so does the artist. Nikki, what do you see as the role of the artist? What have you observed in your field?

Nikki: Art takes so many forms that it is hard to generalize, but I would say that artists can bind ideas and emotion together in order to engage people. Also, art is not tied to rules or conventions. There is a tremendous amount of freedom that is useful for reaching towards an unseen future.

The immensity of the problem paralyzes many of us or even makes us apathetic. How should we all keep ourselves awake and active?

Nikki: This problem really can feel paralyzing and this is a completely normal feeling to have. I would say it is important to find our own way of being part of a positive push forward. There are endless ways to get involved and we may even be surprised by how much better we feel once we do.

Matthew: The interconnected socio-environmental crises we face can be overwhelming, for sure. But there’s also a sense of possibility and opportunity, if we’re open to it. There’s literally an ongoing struggle for the future of the planet and humanity, and we have the opportunity to write and be part of a new script, to join with hundreds of millions of people around the world to do all we can to maintain a livable planet and create a better and more just future. It might not have been the life people expected, but there can be a deep sense of purpose, connection, and joy in choosing to be part of this movement in whatever way we can.

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Jena Pincott is a science writer with a background in biology, and the author of eight books, including Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: The Surprising Science of Pregnancyand Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes: The Science of Love, Sex & Attraction. She writes about science and psychology topics that fly under the radar, from microbes in breast milk to the mysteries of working memory; from the biology of attraction, in humans and other species, to the psychology of the inner critic; from cutting-edge developments in medical technology to the scientist-activists who are transforming women’s health and medicine. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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An Interview with Amy Howden-Chapman & Abby Cunnane

By Amy Brady

Meet Amy Howden-Chapman and Abby Cunnane, two artists who founded and edit The Distance Plan, a journal that includes art, essays, and experimental writing on climate change. The journal is an offshoot of The Distance Plan organization, a collective of artists and writers who produce exhibitions and participate in public forums on climate. In the Q&A below, we discuss what inspired them to launch the journal and what they hope readers will take away from it. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

The Distance Plan journal is published by the Distance Plan organization, which is a collective of artists, writers, and activists. Can you describe your organization’s mission and the type of work you create and promote?

We founded The Distance Plan in 2011 because we felt that discussion about climate change wasn’t happening in humanities contexts that we knew. While there were people working on the issue in various fields, especially in the sciences, we wanted to bring them together with artists, activists, and writers, and to provide a platform that would present these interdisciplinary conversations to a broader audience. Today a lot of people understand that the response to the climate crisis will require a mobilization in the arts; we need to represent the problems of the past and present and imagine a better future, and telling stories that reflect the diversity of our experience is important in these regards. But back then, knowledge about climate change was relatively siloed within a few academic spheres, and the way this knowledge was communicated to the public involved equally remote images and narratives. All those photographs of polar bears and melting arctic ice!

The Distant Plan journal, issue #5: “Charismatic Facts”

The journal contains gorgeous poetry and prose about climate change. What do you hope readers take away from each issue?

Our most recent issue, “Charismatic Facts: Climate Change, Poetry and Prose,” focuses on the ways language can be used to circulate powerful pieces of information about the climate crisis (one example, borrowed from David Wallace-Wells, is the fact that humans have emitted more carbon in the last thirty years – since the premiere of Seinfeld – than in all prior history). For other issues, we’ve invited artists and scientists to produce images of local climate impacts: things happening within their various communities. The idea is that this may inspire others to attend to the more immediate effects of climate change while also acknowledging the global scale of the problem. The hope is that readers will take away an anecdote, image, or feeling – something that relates to their own sphere of life and work and enables them to imagine possibilities for climate action within their own practices and political endeavors. We want people to get involved. 

The “Lexicon” is a project you are exploring both in print and in your exhibitions. What is the “Lexicon” and how did it come about?

The Distance Plan “Lexicon” is a collaborative glossary of terms (each accompanied by an image) that describe aspects of the climate crisis, providing language through which we can address problems or giving names to under-represented categories of experience. One example is “Gendered Climate Impacts,” a Lexicon term that refers to the way global warming affects women and non-binary folk differently from others, often with disproportionately negative outcomes. Another term is “Real-Time Attribution,” which is a relatively recent phenomenon within climate science wherein extreme weather events are now being linked to anthropogenic warming, even as they are happening.  

Why are narrative and artistic responses to climate change important?

Climate change is a cultural problem as much as it is an economic, scientific, and political one. We need to radically transform our societies and social ideals (at least our contemporary capitalist ones) in order to meet this challenge. Historically, art – and especially storytelling – has played an important role in mobilizing social movements, critiquing wrongdoing, and envisioning positive change. But because the climate crisis is transcultural, the visual arts and other non-verbal forms are increasingly valuable as we seek to activate a global response. It’s wonderful to see Extinction Rebellion using creative modes of performance and a strong graphic-design identity to speak to people around the world.  

Large presses have given us several novels and poetry collections about climate change in the last couple of years. But what kind of freedoms does an independent zine allow you? Do you feel that there are ways in which you can discuss climate change in the journal that you may not be able to elsewhere?

Well, to begin with, we’re not subject to the constraints of a for-profit publishing model. But our independence also means that we can be more nimble and mobile when it comes to what we do and the audiences we engage. The Distance Plan is run between Aotearoa New Zealand (where Abby Cunnane is based) and New York City (where Amy Howden-Chapman now lives). The project has represented the work of contributors from all over the world and we value the ability to turn our attention in each issue to different places and concerns. 

What’s next for you both?

We just participated in the Our Futures Festival, which was associated with the UN’s Climate Week, and also hosted a discussion with Janine Randerson, a climate artist and writer, and Albert Refiti, an architect and researcher who studies Pacific spatial and architectural environment. Stay tuned for updates about more Distance Plan events in New York. And we’re working on the next print issue. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed about everything and to receive our next call for submissions. 

How can my readers get copies of the journal?

Within the US and Europe the journal is available for purchase directly through our website. If you’re in New York City, you can find the latest issue at Printed Matter. There are a number of bookstores in New Zealand that stock our issue and they are listed at TheDistancePlan.org.

(Top image: The “Lexicon” on view at an art festival on Governor’s Island.)

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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The City and the Sea

Current-day Mumbai was originally an archipelago of seven separate islands in the marsh waters of the Arabian Sea off the western coast of India. As a result of large-scale civil engineering projects in the 18th and 19th centuries, the islands were joined into a single land mass appropriated from the sea itself. Now the financial capital of India with a population of approximately 20.19 million residents, Mumbai continues to build on every available piece of land, a policy that has dramatically impacted its natural ecosystem. In addition, unseasonable rains, stronger monsoons and higher tides – the results of climate change – have damaged the area’s crops and caused major flooding in a city with few places for the water to go.

Meera Devidayal

Mumbai painter and video artist, Meera Devidayal, has a lot to say about her city’s relationship with the sea that surrounds it. Born in Delhi and raised in Kolkata, she moved to Mumbai in 1967, where she has lived since. Devidayal’s work over the decades has focused on the city and has included subjects such as the city’s destination as a “dream city” for migrants, and the ghostly presence of its ruined textile mills. It was an experience in 2015, though, that turned her attention to the ocean waters around Mumbai.

On a visit to her husband’s office, which is located in a dense complex of high-rise buildings at Nariman Point, Devidayal suddenly noticed reflections of the sea on the windows facing the building next door. It was a stunning observation because she could not actually see the ocean from where she was standing. In a 2018 article in the publication Firstpost, Devidayal describes her initial reaction to what she was seeing:

It intrigued me because there were these reflections, but the sea was nowhere. Visually, it was surreal and very interesting. I had begun thinking about the idea that the sea had always been there. This area was built on reclaimed land, and the sea had been taken over by it. But it was still visible in the form of these reflections. That set me on the track to explore the sea as a metaphor for nature or the planet, while the concrete buildings are a metaphor for what man’s place on Earth is…You can’t go on and on disturbing the ecological balance. The sea is going to have its revenge…

MeeraDevidayal_Mirage-_-2018.jpeg
Mirage, charcoal, acrylic, digital print on canvas, 39” x 127”, 2018
Water Has Memory

Photographing the reflections on the windows over the course of the next year, Devidayal captured how they varied significantly depending on the time of day, the weather and the motions of the waves. She began to think that “it was almost as if the sea was trying to tell you that ‘I am here even if you can’t see me.’” The notion of the ocean “speaking up” to assert its presence and power over the man-made environment became the focus of Devidayal’s two-year project.

Devidayal used photographs and footage she had taken of the sea reflections to create a video entitled Water Has Memory. The video became the centerpiece of a 2018 exhibition of the same name at the Chemould Prescott Road Gallery in Mumbai.

Water Has Memory begins with a quotation by German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, whose monumental body of work deals with the weight of memory. The quotation, which is particularly appropriate to the theme of Devidayal’s project, reads as follows:

No empty space is really empty. Everywhere it is filled with the traces of the past. The past will always be there in the present. Whatever we put into a place will be mingled with whatever was there before.

The video goes on to reveal a series of images of the worn-out façade of Mr. Devidayal’s high-rise office building and reflections of the sea on its windows. Employees are visible behind the reflections working at desks, talking on phones and conducting meetings without regard for the outside world. In one image, a window washer is cleaning right over one of the reflections as if he is actually erasing the sea.

The patterns of the water reflections are sometimes horizontal and sometimes diagonal; the water shimmers, moves quickly or slowly, consumes all of a window or just a portion of it. We hear sounds of the sea sloshing against the shore, fog horns and the motors of boats. Within some of the reflections, tiny vessels cross the window space, creating a surreal impression of an alternate world. Eventually, our viewpoint moves to a view of the sea itself overrunning a busy city street and then subsuming the built environment.Water Has Memory, 2018

A second video, entitled Mirage, was also part of Devidayal’s 2018 exhibition. Our viewpoint at the beginning of this video is from the sea looking towards Mumbai. At first, the city is just a shadowy image, a silent “mirage.” As the soundtrack kicks in, we begin to see a clear image of a bridge and then the skyline of the city. We move to a construction worker in the process of building a new structure and a series of high-rises, which morph into a skyline of ice. Then a barefoot laborer feeds slabs of ice into an ice-cutting machine until that frame morphs once again into a silent view of the sparkling sea. As Devidayal said in an April 2018 article for the Hindustan Times, “the buildings will ultimately melt away.” Mirage ends with a boat crossing the water with just the shadow of buildings appearing underneath the sea.Mirage, 2018

In addition to the videos, the Water Has Memory exhibition included poetry and a series of drawings grouped under the title The Serene Brutality of the Ocean (see above and below). In these drawings, the ocean is both calm and powerful. The boats, general travelers, and refugees that journey on its surface are under its control and will reach their destinations according to its ultimate will.

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The Serene Brutality of the Sea, graphite, acrylic and blue marker on paper, 11.5″ x 16.5″, 2018

In our recent Skype conversation, Devidayal spoke about her ideas for her next project, which will also focus on water. She stressed how precious water is in Mumbai, a city that relies on the monsoon rains that normally occur from June to September to satisfy the needs of its enormous population for the entire year. She spoke about the residents of Mumbai’s slums and the 50-60 tribal villages who don’t have access to running water. Although these villages are located near the main catchment area for the city, their residents must walk long distances to reach unreliable wells for their water. Devidayal plans to use images of the vast network of water storage tanks that are universally visible on the city’s buildings juxtaposed with images of the wells that villagers are forced to use.

IMG_20190925_140333.jpeg
Water Tank, digital print, charcoal, dry pastel and acrylic on paper, 7.5” x 9.5”, 2019
PHOTO-2019-10-16-15-08-55.jpeg
The Well, 11.5” x 9”, digital print, dry pastel, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 2019

In all of her work, Devidayal’s devotion to and affection for her city are apparent.  She tells what she calls “visual stories” that are not meant to be literal or didactic in order to encourage the public to think about and be aroused by what these “stories” represent. Water Has Memory, her tale of the city and the sea, is both a warning about what may soon occur as well as an aesthetically powerful portrayal of Mumbai.

(Top image: The Serene Brutality of the Ocean, graphite, acrylic and blue marker on paper, 11.5″ x 16.5,” 2018)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate change a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received numerous grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and drawings have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – dead trees that have been exposed to salt water as a result of rising tides.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Emin Madi

By Mary Woodbury

Today we travel to Borneo, to Sabah’s Lost World, a wondrous and isolated basin that surprisingly has not been too explored nor exploited like many other areas in the world that contain such beauty and abundant natural resources, all within a montane ecosystem. Nature explorers are allowed but must get advance permission from the Yayasan Sabah Group, a state-sanctioned organization in Malaysia, which designated the basin as a conservation area in 1981. Imagine rolling mountains and tall Agathis trees, white sands, and a jungle woodland snuggled beneath the place where the mist meets the sky.

Published in June 2018, The Green Gold of Borneowhich author Emin Madi describes as docu-fiction, takes us there. Emin, a Dusun, was born in 1949 in Sinungkalangan, a remote village in Tambunan District, and grew up in Kampung Bayangan, Keningau, Sabah, East Malaysia. He served in the Malaysian Armed Forces for several years before quitting; he took up journalism in the early ’70s. He is still freelancing for the Malaysian National News Agency (BERNAMA). He and his wife, Siti Habsah Abdillah, and their two sons, Mohd Ezrie and Mohd Erwin, live in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah. He is currently working on a book about his life in the army.

The docu-novel introduces a strong-willed journalist who fails to heed a Murut shaman’s advice to conquer the unexplored, saucer-like forested mountain summit that sits in the middle of a 390 km remote nature paradise, better known as Maliau Basin (a.k.a. Sabah’s Lost World), in the Eastern Sabah State of Malaysia Borneo. Before embarking on his quest, the journalist encounters unusual happenings and experiences strange events in unlikely situations. He suspects these weird incidents have something to do with his plan to conquer the summit. He’s also suspicious that the Tingkaayoh have kept many secrets from him and dislikes the idea that anyone is about to reveal it to the world.

Maliau Basin

The book is a fast-paced read, which leaves the reader in suspense page after page. I caught a whiff of Socratic dialogue, somewhat similar to Daniel Quinn’s My Ishmael. In The Green Gold of Borneo, a journalist named Erwin has interest in entering the basin – but he is also engaged by a shaman who has wisdom to share about the importance of spirituality and sacredness of the nature within the basin. One could call this a cautionary tale.

I talked with Emin about his book, which had put me under a spell. Imagine a faraway land, which seems too good to be true, and then imagine it really exists. Here’s our conversation.

Can you tell us about your background and how it led to writing about the Maliau Basin?

The story incorporates historical and real life events, places and names of certain distinguished personalities, foreign and local institutions, environmental players, and environmentalists. The book also detailed the place and historical background of Maliau Basin Conservation Area (MBCA).

As a journalist, I had the opportunity to participate in many resource and wildlife surveys inside the Malaysian eastern state of Sabah’s last remaining virgin rainforests. My first foray into environmental reporting was back in the 1980s, covering a scientific expedition in the now world renown Danum Valley Conservation Area in Lahad Datu, Sabah. The scientific research also involved foreign researchers, including from the Royal Society, UK.

Sabah has three premier conservation areas (totally protected areas): Danum Valley, Maliau Basin, and Imbak Canyon, which were established for the purpose of scientific research, recreation, protection of ecology, environment, and climactic conditions.

In 2013, I spent 10 days with a group of researchers at the 58,000-hectare MBCA, and that was where I got the idea to write an environmentally-based docu-fiction or eco-fiction. I came to realize that natural wonders, and, in this case, the last remaining undisturbed wilderness in Sabah, are very interesting topics for creative writing.

I was even more excited after some expedition participants told me about mysterious events that took place around MBCA. So I used MBCA as a central theme for The Green Gold of Borneo and also based it on my own hands-on experiences working alongside scientists and researchers.

Being a journalist, I would say that environmental reporting was truly an awakening experience, because the survey and research works were meant to monitor potential threats to one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining stronghold of virtually undisturbed rainforest. In fact, the Danum Valley Conservation Area is one of the three leading rainforest research centers in the world, besides La Selva in Costa Rica and Baro Colorado Island in Panama.

My affinity for the forest must have come naturally, as my childhood upbringing is somewhat surrounded by great forests. My small thatched-roof house happened to be on the fringe of a vast virgin forest in the interior district of  Sabah (formerly a British colony), and almost every day I could hear birds singing, the calling of monkeys, and I watched all that crawls, leaps, and dances in its wake. Unfortunately, the forest has since disappeared to make way for agricultural activities. However, I could never forget those wonderful feelings of traversing the peaceful and magical tranquility.

In hindsight, it was a rather misguided passion, because at that tender age I had no way of understanding the meaning of a dipterocarp forest and ecosystem, let alone its great conservation importance.

What an amazing memory! What is “green gold”?

Green gold is a metaphor to describe the mindboggling wealth/value of the undisturbed natural resources (forests) in Sabah’s most important natural heritage areas, i.e., the Maliau Basin, Danum Valley, and Imbak Canyon conservation areas.

From my own observations, despite realistic conservation efforts by the Malaysian Government, particularly the Sabah State Government, the fully protected forest would still be vulnerable, especially if future political leaders or government of the day had little concern or passion for the natural environment, not to mention threats from poachers, gaharu (Aquilaria or eaglewood) hunters, and illegal logging. The biggest threat would be destructive, short-sighted political decisions, such as sacrificing the pristine jungle and wildlife habitat for “economic growth.”

Sabah’s wild is home to some 1,500 Borneo pygmy elephants, which are listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red Data Book.

Let’s hope that no such destructive decisions happen in the area. Can you explain the spiritual beings in the book?

The shaman, spiritual beings, and certain characters are fictional and are based on my acquaintance with some local traditional healers, including the Murut people,  who are able to communicate with spiritual beings.

You mentioned that the spiritual beings might feel the effect of global warming. Is the tie-in between spiritually and natural areas real or common in North Borneo?

These are purely imaginary and not in any way related to physical characters. I was simply assuming that the spiritual beings are also very disturbed about the destruction of their world (the forest), and therefore voice out their grave concerns about the ecological impact and contribution to global warming. I used the spiritual beings as advocates of a particular cause or idea. Betarak is probably a myth about a person performing a solitary animistic ritual, usually in a quiet place, far away from human settlements, supposedly to gain supernatural power by submitting himself as “student” to the spiritual beings.

Is it true that nobody has ever really explored Maliau Basin?

Some areas have been visited but not the highest part of the rim. It’s difficult to say where the innermost part of the basin is, because as a basin shape area, the innermost part would probably be located on the valley floor or gorge of the river.

Dubbed as the “Lost World of Borneo,” Maliau Basin is one area where all the conditions for extremely rare human visitation combine. The 2003-2013 MBCA Strategic Management Plan did not specifically mention people having conquered Maliau Basin’s highest part of the rim, but stated that people have been to the basin often enough in the last few centuries for the local Tagal Murut to call it the “Land of the Giant Staircase” from its step-like rivers and abundant cascading waterfalls. Maliau means “bowl” or “basin.” One reason why there is no official record of people reaching Maliau Basin’s highest rim is because it is too rugged. The earliest reported sighting of Maliau Basin was in 1947 when the British pilot of a light aircraft, flying from the west coast of Sabah to Tawau on the east coast, nearly crashed into the steep cliff, rising 1,900 meters above the jungle floor.

It was reported that geological and soil survey teams passed nearby in the 1960s and early 1970s. Only in 1972 did a Forestry Department team reach Lake Linumunsut at the foot of Gunung Lotung. None of these groups tried to enter the basin, and the first attempt of the forest botany group in 1976 failed in the near-vertical terrain of the northern rim. In 1980, a Sabah Museum team attempted the western rim but was hampered by malaria and lack of supplies.

This is all fascinating. Thank you so much, Emin, for bringing to light the delicate nature of this basin in Borneo. And thank you for the gracious time you extended in providing this interview.

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The Green Gold of Borneo provides a fictional story surrounded by factual history and modern concerns about the basin; it’s an interesting novel that takes us to a different world, but the potentiality for crisis is real, something that people everywhere might connect to. Nature Economy and People Connected says that the basin is an area under threat:

Scientific exploration has established Maliau as a global biodiversity hotspot, home to more than 270 bird species, many of which are IUCN Red Listed species. BirdLife International has designated it an Important Bird Area (IBA), marking its importance within global biodiversity conservation.

Besides this, vast stocks of carbon are stored in its trees and soil, which only underlines its environmental importance. Failing to secure this carbon reserve will further fuel climate change.

The article goes into concerns about deforestation and palm oil extraction in Borneo – something that the Maliau Basin has escaped so far. It is great to see that Yayasan Sabah and other organizations are protecting this land. With books such as Emin’s, the forest – in myth, song, and nature – comes even more alive and important for those of us wishing to imagine it from afar.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Fábio Fernandes

By Mary Woodbury

I’ve recently been enjoying Adam Kirsch’s The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century.

In his book, Kirsch states:

The global novel exists, not as a genre separated from and opposed to other kinds of fiction, but as a perspective that governs the interpretation of experience. In this way, it is faithful to the way the global is actually lived – not through the abolition of place, but as a theme by which place is mediated. Life lived here is experienced in its profound and often unsettling connections with life lived elsewhere, and everywhere. The local gains dignity, and significance, insofar as it can be seen as a part of a worldwide phenomenon.

One of the things eco-fiction is concerned about is the environmental destruction of the planet. Global eco-fiction lifts the gaze above the norm and into a worldly perspective in which authors and artists understand that ecological collapse is both a global concern and a local one. In essence, it’s something everyone is or will be affected by, yet in different ways. I’ve always been intrigued by diversity yet common ground – cultural differences yet universal understandings. I believe in travel through imagination, people world-round working together to mitigate such catastrophes as climate change, extinction, and dwindling biodiversity.

I want to first look at an anthology titled Solarpunk – Histórias Ecológicas e Fantásticas em um Mundo Sustentável, by Gerson Lodi-Riberio, originally published in 2012 by Editora Draco in São Paulo, Brazil. Last year, World Weaver Press began a kickstarter to translate this book to English, and I happily helped back the project, excited to read the book that seems to be the first using the term solarpunk, a concept I have been interested in for a few years now. The new anthology, Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastical Stories in a Sustainable World, came out on August 7, 2018. I’m thrilled that World Weaver Press took on this important translation project.

Here, I talk with Fábio Fernandes, who translated the book from Portuguese to English. Fábio lives in São Paulo, Brazil. He has published two books so far, an essay on William Gibson’s fiction, A Construção do Imaginário Cyber, and a cyberpunk novel, Os Dias da Peste (both in Portuguese). Also a translator, he is responsible for the translation to Brazilian Portuguese of several science fiction novels, including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published online in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, the UK, New Zealand, and USA, and also in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded and Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction(2011), The Apex Book of World SF, Vol 2, Stories for Chip. He co-edited, with Djibril al-Ayad, the postcolonialist anthology We See a Different Frontier. He is a graduate of Clarion West, class of 2013, and slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

The anthology features nine authors from Brazil and Portugal, including Carlos Orsi, Telmo Marçal, Romeu Martins, Antonio Luiz M. Costa, Gabriel Cantareira, Daniel I. Dutra, André S. Silva, Roberta Spindler, and Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro.

I bought the original anthology titled Solarpunk – Histórias Ecológicas e Fantásticas em um Mundo Sustentável, published in 2012 by Editora Draco in São Paulo, Brazil, and I was hoping back then for an English translation so that I could read it better than fumbling through it with broken understanding of Portuguese. Lo and behold, Word Weaver Press bought the translation rights from Editora Draco and ran a Kickstarter fundraising campaign in 2017 to translate the book, hiring you as translator. The campaign was very successful. Had you heard of solarpunk before this project, and what was it like working on this project?

I had heard of solarpunk before, yes, but only in passing. I had stories published in Brazilian cyberpunk and steampunk anthologies, but when I heard about Lodi-Ribeiro’s anthology the deadline had already passed, so I never got the chance to send a story – but I read it and loved it. When Sarena invited me to translate it to English, I was thrilled. I loved translating such good stories from awesome Brazilian writers (a few of them personal friends).

I first heard of solarpunk several years ago and eventually interviewed Adam Flynn, who, at least back in 2015, seemed like a spokesperson interested in getting the genre moving. To you, what is solarpunk? I think a lot of people are still wondering about the term as a genre, an aesthetic, possibly a movement.

Solarpunk is more than a literary genre, that’s for sure. It’s rapidly becoming a lifestyle. Approximately a decade ago, a few science fiction writers tried to coin the word Greenpunk, meaning pretty much the same thing, which is: caring for the environment and looking for quick-and-dirty short-term solutions to save the planet. In my opinion, Kim Stanley Robinson is spearheading a solarpunk movement, at least in literary terms.

You have previously worked with Jeff and Ann VanderMeer as well as translated Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange to Portuguese. You’ve also written short stories and novels. Can you tell us some exciting stories about your background with such projects?

I worked with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer on the Steampunk II anthology, in which they published part of a story of mine in a very complex (and awesome) backstory that thrilled me. I became a Clarion West alumnus, having as instructors some of my literary heroes, such as Neil Gaiman, Chip Delany and Ellen Datlow. Since then, I’ve been honing my skills in English and publishing in English-language anthologies, such as Stories for Chip and POC Destroy Science Fiction. I just finished writing my first novel in English, and will submit it to an American publisher.

How many stories are in the anthology – and are they diverse? Can you give a sense of how they differ from each other?

There are eleven stories in the anthology, and they are very different from each other. There’s a noir murder mystery, several dystopias dealing heavily with politics (the “punk” half of the equation is strong in this book), utopian tales of future tech and quite a few alt-hist narratives featuring a modern Aztec and Mayan rule over Latin America, or an ecologically correct afro-Brazilian government. A smorgasbord of stories.

What are your favorite stories in the book – if that’s not too personal – and why?

I’d prefer not to choose a favorite – but I liked the more complex stories, such as Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro’s novella “Cobalt Blue and the Enigma,” “Xibalba Dreams of the West,” and “Once Upon a Time in a World.” Come to think of it, they all are alternate histories, which, I guess, makes my preferences clear.

I recently interviewed author Kathleen Dean Moore (Piano Tide, Counterpoint Press, 2017), who talked about hopeful literature in the times of climate change as “lyric polemical,” and I loved that genre idea. I think solarpunk fits into that. As a translator, what do you think are the roles that fiction can play in times of such environmental crises?

I loved the notion of lyrical polemical – solarpunk definitely fits the bill! I think that fiction can and must play an active role in defending a sustainable society. Kim Stanley Robinson has been doing this very successfully for decades now, since Red Mars. New York 2140 is a lesson on how to transform a city that in other times we’d promptly dismiss as totally uninhabitable. It’s a sort of pocket utopia, as once Robinson himself said. In my academic research, I started to call it a “logistic utopia.” I’m all for logistic utopias in science fiction – I think they’re the next big thing. Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions!

It’s been a pleasure talking with you, and thanks so much for our chat!

______________________________

I want to also thank World Weaver Press editor, Sarena Ulibarri, for her help in contacting Fabio and for her work on getting the solarpunk anthology translated. She spoke with the author, Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, about the original anthology. He stated:

Both as an anthologist and as a reader, I would like to see a lot more optimist and greener future narratives. Even knowing it is not so easy to create dilemma and human drama inside post-scarcity mature and less Manichaean cultures, it would be lovely to read a greater number of those ecotopic science fictional scenarios.

In the Solarpunk anthology, we see that South American and Portuguese authors re-imagine old Mayan and Aztec cultures in new histories as well as explore dystopian and utopian futures. Place notwithstanding, the perspectives are ones we all can understand and enjoy from a storytelling angle.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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An Interview with Sean Lally & Matthew Wizinsky

By Amy Brady

This month I have for you an interview with Sean Lally, Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Matthew Wizinsky, Assistant Professor in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. They’re the curators of an exhibition called The Long Now, on view now through December 1, 2019 at Exhibit Columbus in Columbus, Indiana. The exhibition features augmented reality that helps viewers to imagine what the outdoor exhibition space might look like in 120 years as a result of climate change. In our interview below we discuss what inspired the project and what the curators hope visitors learn from experiencing it.

Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired your exhibition, The Long Now?

Sean: The starting point was to question some of the environmental and technological pressures affecting public space. There is no shortage of headlines about the existence of climate change or the impact of wearable and trackable technologies that may be of use, but I think it’s important for architecture to demonstrate and foreshadow the implications, to engage these complex issues beyond simple problem solving.  With The Long Now, our intention was to create a public space that engaged the pressures of a changing environment and evolving healthcare system, and see what that could mean for our public spaces. In much the same way that fountains changed the temperature of publics spaces and street lighting made public parks safer and available into the evenings, there might be opportunities that exist today to help us rethink the needs of public space and health. To open up this conversation, the project needs to not only exist as a physical space for visitors to engage, but include the use of augmented reality to help them see into the future and past environments of that particular location.

Matt: This project is an attempt to see how interacting with data, information, and physical representations of “other” possible realities can create a deeper connection to site or place. To encourage closer attention to the warmth of the ground we touch, the air we breathe, the foliage that’s there today and may be gone tomorrow. The physical installation marks out a small patch of the Earth and modifies its micro-climate. Augmented reality attempts to demonstrate that, just like every little patch of the planet, this one is comprised of its own very long and specific temporal arc of “environment.” When we walk into these spaces, our human interactions with that environment are a tiny piece of the bigger story.

What do you hope visitors take away from the installation?

Sean: Most importantly, I would like people to come away with a broader appreciation for roles available to architecture when engaging the environment. The dichotomy that our environments and lands can only be preserved or destroyed isn’t productive. Earth exists on a very long timeline and for humans to continue to live here, and in a responsible manner, it might just have to look a bit different than it did yesterday. We can design for a volatile and changing future, but we’re also going to have to question some of our ingrained assumptions about what our future environments should look like.

Matt: My hope is that visitors re-think the time horizons of their everyday lives and everyday actions. That’s a huge ambition, but it’s also something that I think is immediately practicable. The project doesn’t presume to instruct visitors what they should do, but I hope the experience creates a springboard for visitors to do their own imagining of alternate ways of being in the present, past, and future.

The Long Now. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

This exhibit is a great example of how science, art, and design can merge to create something that’s both artful and impactful. What are your thoughts on the value of interdisciplinarity, especially when it comes to projects focused on climate change?

Sean: I might reframe the question a little and discuss the importance of collaboration. I only make the distinction because when people hear the word collaboration, I think it more quickly brings to mind the importance of working together towards a shared goal: “Collaborating on a song,” “collaborating on a book.” Too often the idea of interdisciplinarity brings to mind the need for collecting difference – the idea that bringing people of different specialties and expertise together even without a clear end-goal can produce something significant. Getting a consensus on goals that align across interdisciplinary collaborations is ironically another difficulty to be tackled. Architecture today not only continues to collaborate with more traditional relationships like building or material science, but is increasingly engaging a growing list of specialists tied to climate change, human physiology, or sociology, who together, increase the complexity of its delivery.

Matt: A couple of years ago, sci-fi author Margaret Atwood wrote a great essay titled, “It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change.” It was a long and in-depth essay, but the title alone has stuck with me because it really says it all. We’re talking about the complete re-orientation of our relationship to the material world we inhabit. There are really no “disciplinary” divisions to be drawn when it comes to this scale. Instead, I think any effort’s success – whatever the goals are – will hinge on human accessibility. We would do well to get the facts right, but creativity, wit, beauty, and even humor all have roles to play.

Both of you are professors. How does climate change impact your work more generally? 

Sean: As educators we have a responsibility to engage these topics in the classroom. It’s unavoidable. But we must also demonstrate to the students that new creative opportunities exist. Balancing these distinctions is important. If students see the issues intertwined with climate change and evolving healthcare as only technical (or even social) issues just to be “solved,” architecture will fail to deliver what it actually does best – questioning assumptions through the design of new spaces.

Matt: Climate change looms as both one of the biggest threats and opportunities for the creative careers of students today. Teaching Communication Design students, I’m challenged to engage them in the impossible-to-comprehend scale and complexity of the issue. But since it’s everywhere, it’s also right here – wherever you are. Local action is possible, but communication design can only ever be one part of an effective intervention. With so much information available on what’s happening, what’s at stake, and both big and small opportunities for adaptation, intervention, or mitigation, how is it possible that so little change is actually happening? It seems like a failure of imagination and maybe a failure of determination. Seen cynically, that’s a bit depressing. Seen optimistically, there’s much to be done, and most of the young people I work with are aware of the risks and are highly motivated!

The Long Now. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

Both of you currently live in the American Midwest, which isn’t discussed as much in the media as, say, the coasts when it comes to climate change. What is media coverage of climate like where you live?

Sean: As we know, the Midwest is quite large and issues across this large area range. When you live somewhere like Los Angeles, which is dealing with increased wildfires, or the Gulf and east coast that have increased hurricanes and flooding, it’s difficult to forget the continued urgency. However, if you’re fortunate to live in a city like Chicago that hasn’t experienced an increase in frequency of something so destructive, I actually think it’s possible for the issues to remain less scrutinized. Reminding people that the issue is intertwined across our lives is critical. I think the mass refugee migration we’ve seen in the Middle East reminds us all that local water shortages and environmental degradation have both regional and global implications.

Matt: In a landlocked and, generally, hurricane-free city like Cincinnati, climate change can still sometimes seem like it’s happening somewhere else. Then again, we’re sitting in the agricultural heartland of the country, and we just had one of the hottest summers on record. We’re lucky to have many of the resources and buffers we take for granted in the Midwest, but this doesn’t protect the region from damaging effects of change nor, as Sean mentioned, the potential influx of refugees. Last month, I met a young woman from the University of South Carolina, who was in town to evacuate Hurricane Dorian. It’s already happening. Some of my students recently interviewed the Sustainability Officer for the City of Cincinnati, and he’s prepared to promote Cincinnati as a welcoming haven for domestic climate refugees. However, I think he’s one of very few people who is really even thinking about the future like that, let alone doing anything to prepare.

The Long Now. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

What’s next for the both of you?

Sean: There’s always the next project just on the horizon that’s the most exciting, so keep an eye out for that in mid-2020. I also have a podcast called Night White Skies that discusses many of these topics as they pertain to architecture by bringing on a diverse range of guests from other disciplines including scientists, authors, social anthropologists, and science-fiction writers. This is an ongoing project.

Matt: For the past few years, I’ve been teaching and doing research projects at the intersection of participatory design and speculative design. In plain terms, this means I’m interested and invested in how designers can engage public communities in methodical processes of studying, imagining, and articulating alternative visions of the future. The goal is to create material, tangible visions of the future that they find preferable to the “future visions” on offer by tech companies, governments, or other interests. Over the past two years, I collaborated with researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Illinois at Chicago, to engage over 20 teenagers from Chicago’s South Side on this kind of project. The results were fascinating, and we were able to exhibit the outcomes at various local venues to encourage ongoing discourse on a changing climate and local health implications. To continue this work, I recently co-founded a network of similarly interested creative professionals and researchers called the DEEP Futures working group. Hopefully, you’ll see more of our projects in the coming years.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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We’re Winning

By Joan Sullivan

As far as decades go, the 2010s was particularly hard to swallow. It would be tempting to conclude that the decade that gave us the historic Paris Agreement ended in disappointment, disillusion and deceit. To wit:

  • The 2010s was the hottest decade ever recorded.
  • The Amazon is burning while the Arctic melts.
  • One million species are at risk of extinction (Gizmodo put together this list of all species that went extinct during the 2010s decade).
  • We are all eating, drinking and breathing plastic.
  • Eco-anxiety is a thing.
  • Oxford Dictionary selected “climate emergency” as its Word of the Year 2019.
  • COP25 was sabotaged by the fossil fuel industry and its petrostate disciples.

Lest we forget, the 2010s decade will also be remembered for a host of other equally disturbing news, including (but not limited to):

  • children in cages
  • missing and murdered Indigenous women
  • identity theft
  • cybercrime
  • fake news
  • Zika
  • opioid crisis
  • gun violence
  • terrorist attacks
  • Deepwater Horizon explosion
  • Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline
  • refugee crisis
  • #metoo
  • #blacklivesmatter
  • Brexit
  • the rise of nationalism
  • election and impeachment of Donald Trump

What does it all mean, and what does it portend for the 2020s?

As I ponder these questions, 90km/hour winds are literally shaking my old farmhouse in eastern Québec, while 4.3-meter high tide surges are pounding and eroding the Saint Lawrence coastline (which should be covered with thick ice at this time of year). On the other side of the Atlantic, 45 million people across nine Southern African countries face severe food shortages from a devastating multi-year regional drought. In Australia, residents near Sydney were told this week that it’s too late to leave their homes in the path of a 370,000-hectare bushfire burning out of control. An unexpected consequence: Sydney’s main drinking water reservoir is now being polluted with bushfire ash.

How easy it would be to just admit defeat – which is what the fossil fuel industry wants us to do – and escape into our soma-induced Instagram-perfect world! And while we’re hiding out in la-la land, why not upload another carefully composed photo of our fluffy new slippers, coffee mug and unread book (opened to the first page, of course) in front of a cozy fire? Don’t forget to ask your friends to [like]!

OK, back to reality.

Despite the relentless denial, obfuscation, obstruction, trolling and infuriating inaction of the past decade – all of which have contributed to the climate crisis and the planetary emergency – I’ve some good news about the 2010s: significant progress was made on a several important fronts. To remain sane, we’ve got to celebrate the victories, and there were many over the past decade. But they were drowned out by the constant onslaught of negative news from both the mainstream and social medias.

“The case for climate optimism is strong,” explains Assaad Razzouk in Episode 27 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy podcast. This particular episode is especially timely for those feeling shell-shocked after the failed COP25 talks. Assaad lists his top 10 reasons for climate optimism – each one compelling in its own right, but extremely powerful when presented together. I’ll list them below, but you really must listen to the full 30-minute podcast to appreciate Assaad’s optimism. He argues convincingly that this is truly an exciting time to be alive: we are living witnesses to massive, unstoppable changes that will transform and define the next decade – for the better.

Assaad Razzouk’s top 10 reasons for climate optimism:

  1. Massive increase in awareness and mobilization, not just among citizens but entire cities, countries and companies.
  2. Cost of capital of oil/gas is going up, up up: “Big oil will find it increasingly expensive to finance new projects.”
  3. Renewable costs are going down, down, down: “Fossil fuel is out of the game, it’s just that some countries don’t know it yet.”
  4. Electrification revolution of transport: “Electric bicycles are on fire; 100 electric planes are currently under design. Electrification is unstoppable today.”
  5. Climate lawsuits galore: “More than 1,640 lawsuits right now against fossil fuel companies and governments. We won’t win them all, but the sheer number of lawsuits is a big cause for optimism (by) increasingly exposing the misinformation and obfuscation of big oil.”
  6. The rating agencies and central banks are on the move: “A huge lever for change: financial markets will stop mis-pricing climate risks”
  7. Gradually stronger and global pushback against single use plastic and its proponents (big oil, big gas, big petrochemical): “More than 40 countries have some form of ban or surcharge on single use plastic, which represents a big chunk of future demand for oil. If you take out single-use plastics, demand for oil and gas will decline. That has all kinds of consequences for capital costs of oil and gas companies, which means they will not be able to finance new oil and gas exploration.”
  8. Reforestation, coupled with an increase in nature and marine reserves.
  9. We are at or near peak emissions, finally.
  10. You: “There are activist citizens everywhere I look: activist lawyers, activist teachers, activist engineers, activist bankers, activist politicians. Even activist oil and gas professionals. Climate change is affected by decisions we all make, every day. It is always worthwhile to cut carbon emissions. We have the solutions. We are implementing them. Slowly yes, but soon they will be ubiquitous, kind of like your mobile phone.”

Assaad saves the best for last, and it’s the sweetest medicine for any war-weary activist:

“Always remember that we’re winning. We are winning for now… slowly, slowly. But soon, we’re going to be winning all of a sudden.”

Assaad Razzouk


Paul Gilding reached a similar conclusion in his provocative 2011 book The Great Disruption: “When we [decide to] act, we will eliminate net CO2 emissions from the economy in an amazingly fast transformation and then move on to the rest of sustainability.” Eight years later, in his most recent Cockatoo Chronicles post, Climate Contagion 2020-2025, Paul predicts that this shift is now imminent: “anytime from tomorrow morning to 2025, but not later.”

“Any time from tomorrow morning to 2025, but not later.” This quite possibly could be the most important forecast of the decade. We’re winning, folks.

“The financial logic of acting is now impeccable, meaning the only thing left is for there to be a shift in sentiment – that moment of an intangible, hard to define flip in how the decision makers in the market see the world. That can happen overnight. And because markets hunt in packs – when they go, they’ll all go. Everything is ready, everyone knows it’s coming, we’re just waiting for the storm to hit.”

Paul Gilding


Paul lays out the four critical factors that led him to conclude this shift in sentiment is imminent:

  1. Clean technology is available, scalable, superior and investable.
  2. Physical climate change is obvious and accelerating.
  3. Public engagement and political momentum are rapidly turning.
  4. The financial markets are primed – from central banks, to lenders to stock markets.

The clean energy transition is just one of many reasons for climate optimism. I was privileged to have spent the entire 2010s focusing my cameras on the men and women who are building our post-carbon future. Being surrounded by such talented people who are actively building climate solutions is the main reason why I have managed to remain optimistic throughout this very depressing decade.

https://twitter.com/CleanNergyPhoto/status/1072879652358815745?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1072879652358815745&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fartistsandclimatechange.com%2F2019%2F12%2F19%2Fwere-winning%2F

I believe this is what Greta Thunberg meant when she said:

“The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”

Greta Thunberg, TEDxStockholm, December 2018


For a truly inspiring discussion about climate optimism, check out this live conversation (starting at 15:40) between TED’s Chris Anderson and Global Optimism‘s Founding Partner Tom Rivett-Carnac. In addition to discussing the history of The Paris Agreement, Chris and Tom introduce Countdown, their new global collaboration to turn the tide on climate.

Here’s my quick summary: According to Tom, “Optimism is most relevant when the outlook is the darkest. It is a strategy to drive ambition, and to drive dedication towards something more positive.” In response, Chris added “Optimism is not a feeling; it is a stance. You don’t need to believe that something is likely or that it will happen; you need to believe there is a pathway there. To be optimistic, you take the stance that ‘What better thing do we have to do than roll up our sleeves and try and tackle this?’”

Four decades ago, during the turbulent Vietnam War and Watergate eras (which were overshadowed by the constant threat of nuclear war), we sang collectively there’s something happening here. Then, as now, people took to the streets in the tens of thousands. Then as now, they managed to shift the needle. If you stop and listen, you can feel it: the times are definitely changing. Just listen to this powerful cover by Brandi Carlile:

As the 2010s comes to a close and we turn our attention toward the next decade – literally the make-or-break decade for climate action – we must ask ourselves: is the glass half full, or half empty? Are we winning, or are we doomed? Do we continue to focus on (and contribute to) the dominant negative news stories, or will we train ourselves to look beyond the doom-and-gloom and align ourselves with those who are rolling up their sleeves, taking concrete action?

On December 31st, I will raise my glass to winning. Not because the alternative is unacceptable. Because, as the poet and climate activist Emily Johnston said, “And because we can, we must.

We can let them kill this beautiful world— or we can get to work making space for a decent future.

Emily Johnston


Here’s to new friendships and collaborations in the next decade!

(Top image by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a documentary film and photo book about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan shines a light on global artists, designers and architects experimenting with renewable energy as an emerging art form. You can find Joan on Twitter, Visura and Ello.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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