Artists and Climate Change

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Painter Michelle Irizarry Allows Her Art to Evolve with Her Growing Understanding of Climate Change

by Peterson Toscano  

Originally from Puerto Rico, Michelle Irizarry is a visual artist and civil engineer living in Orlando, Florida. As a result of climate change, she has seen a big transformation in her work as an artist.

A mother of two girls still in elementary school, she not only uses her art to process her own relationship with climate change, but to reach people with a message that will get them to think, feel, and act. Hear about her powerful new paintings and the role of art in her life as she deepens her understanding of climate change.

Coming up next month, writer Aaron Thier and his wacky and moving novel, Mr. Eternity

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, Podbean, Northern Spirit Radio, Google Play, PlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is
part of
The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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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: Paolo Bacigalupi

by Mary Woodbury

Paolo Bacigalupi’s novels tell stories about human impacts on the environment – and, in turn, the results of these impacts back on humans. An award-winning author, Bacigalupi often explores bioengineering and loss of fossil fuels or fresh water in his stories. His novels in this field include The Windup Girl, Shipbreaker, The Drowned Cities, Tool of War, and The Water Knife. A new novel – co-authored by Tobias Buckell – The Tangled Lands, came out in 2018 from Saga Press. His Pump Six and Other Stories is an earlier short story collection that takes into consideration a future Earth, post-environmental neglect and abuse.

Most of Bacigalupi’s fiction and nonfiction deal with root causes of not just climate change but the kind of morality that causes destruction to our physical place on the planet and also to our social and economic structures. Of course, all these systems are related to each other. The definitions given for eco-fiction overall take into account stories that do not disconnect from natural history, natural present, or natural future – that a connection to the environment is noted richly in the story. Bacigalupi accomplishes this in his fiction.

I consider Bacigalupi one of the more prolific storytellers dealing with climate change. As pointed out often in this series, climate change can be explained as a hyperobject, a vast and looming object that is so large it’s hard to grasp. Climate change isn’t really just one subject either. It is connected to a series of other issues that build up to it or trickle down from it. It takes a crafty artist to place moral observations and questions into a story without preaching. I’ll cover a few of his stories here, but urge readers to investigate the rest.

The Windup Girl is a novel in which fossil fuel sources have been depleted. The story takes place in Thailand, where it’s evident the seas are rising. “Windup” refers to a type of spring, called a kink-spring, used to store energy and which post-dates fuel used in the old combustion engine. “Girl” refers to a beautiful genetically engineered windup girl, Emiko, who works in a strip club. In this future age, non-human people, like Emiko, are genetically engineered to be obedient in order to do slave work for the rich, and natural biodiversity has all but disappeared in food growing. Bio-engineering everything has brought on disease and terrorism.

Thailand, however, tries to protect against modified and mutant seeds and beings, and a few brave scientists are trying to hunt out any remaining non-modified foods. As you can imagine, in a world where mega-corporations and rich elite cater to their own whims, there’s also corruption, hit men, and bad guys. Then we have the good guy scientists. So in that sense, this novel, like Bacigalupi’s others, is a suspenseful mystery that is fast-paced and keeps the reader on edge.

As previously pointed out in this series, it’s best that authors aren’t didactic in storytelling. Bacigalupi accomplishes this well by just telling a very good story whose world-building is palpable and appeals to all our senses, and whose characters draw us in. Io9 states:

The Windup Girl is obviously about the geopolitics of the present… and yet Bacigalupi never slides into moralism or judgment. All his characters have their flaws and heroic moments… Ultimately that’s what makes this debut novel so exciting. It’s rare to find a writer who can create such well-shaded characters while also building a weird new future world.

Telling stories about our future Earth seems to be Bacigalupi’s specialty, and Ship Breaker is another story I’ll look at. Geared toward a young adult audience, the novel takes place on the Gulf Coast in the United States in a post-ecologically collapsed world in which New Orleans has been nearly swallowed up by the sea and people literally break old oil tankers apart in order to scavenge for any valuables left. The main character is a teenager named Nailer, whose life is tough – his father is a drug-user and abuses him. Finding a ship full of treasures that he can sell to rich and greedy corporations seems like one way to earn a living, but he is also faced with a moral dilemma when he and his friend Pima find out that the ship is owned by a beautiful girl named Nita, who needs their help.

I am very fond of stories where ragtag people beat the odds by trying to do the right thing. This future Earth has man/dog hybrids, intense storms, and dismal living – more like surviving – conditions. Another thriller, this book packs in very memorable characters and suspenseful moments, making it a favorite among book reviewers.

Many reviewers think in terms of dystopian fiction when exploring books by Bacigalupi. The Guardian points out, however, why dystopia is popular among teens:

Teenagers don’t see dystopias as dystopias; they see them as barely fictional representations of their day-to-day lives.

I think this statement is interesting as it circumvents the idea of present reality represented in the fictional future, which is a common theme in this series. Fiction about global warming and the corruption within finds itself both in the present and in the speculative future. We have no further to glance than at our doorsteps to find rising seas, melting polar caps, fossil fuel greed and industry corruption, and a vast divide between the wealthy and poor – which are always players on the stage of Earth’s demise.

Bruno Latour describes climato-quietism as as “quietism in theology being a laid-back attitude that somehow, without doing anything much, God will take care of our salvation.” But I think a form of it exists among science-believing people as well, in that we hope that climate disruption is something that technology or someone in the future might address so we can continue our current lifestyles without too much of a worry. We’re already experiencing dystopia but cannot see it in front of us. Fiction makes it realer through intense reflection or displacement, but sometimes it still seems too far away. It takes stark fiction, like Bacigalupi’s, to hold the mirror steady.

Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities takes place in the Ship Breaker universe. Another young adult novel, it features characters Mahlia and Mouse in a climate-changed world with half men/half monsters, a sure sign of biotech gone wrong. (But what happens to biotech creatures without their masters? They begin to think for themselves.) The world is bleak, with drowned cities and war-torn landscapes in which survival is a desperate act. What reviewers have pointed out about this novel is its memorable grit and darkness. Even romance can be fleeting and dangerous. The Verge has a similar take on The Drowned Cities as The Guardian did on Ship BreakerThe Verge states: “nearly everything he describes could be taking place right now.”

Tool of War is the third part in the Ship Breaker trilogy – Tool being the half man/half monster we met earlier, a biotech creature left in the woods to its own survival. But the reader can also understand that Tool is a consequence of war in general. Tool has the capability for mass destruction, but left to its own conscience, it finds peace and an affinity to lead its teenage armies into doing the right thing – the only thing that will afford humanity a future at all – and that is rebuilding the drowned cities. It’s heartening to see the trilogy’s previous teenagers unite together in this finale, but in the meantime, the bad corporations are trying to neutralize Tool, so it’s not easy sailing. With characters struggling to find identity and purpose in a climate-changed world, we think that we could be them. That we could also be tools. Ultimately, we know that it’s probably best not to be someone else’s puppet but to join in the good fight.

The Water Knife (a fleshed-out novel from the short story “The Tamarisk Hunters”) is a more contemporary story set in a nearer future, in which the dwindling Colorado River pits three states – California, Arizona, and Nevada – against each other in a water war. Summoning the natural history, present, and future of place, the Los Angeles Times describes the novel:

Bacigalupi’s use of water as sacred currency evokes Frank Herbert’s Dune. The casual violence and slang may bring to mind A Clockwork Orange. The book’s nervous energy recalls William Gibson at his cyberpunk best. Its visual imagery evokes Dust Bowl Okies in the Great Depression and the catastrophic 1928 failure of the St. Francis Dam that killed 600 people and haunted its builder, Mulholland, into the grave.

The American Southwest is a region historically plagued by droughts, but climate scientists tell us:

[The] 21st century drought in the Southwest will primarily be driven by increased evaporation due to warmer global surface temperatures. Relative humidity will decrease as temperatures rise, which will lead to increased evaporative demand from soils. Enhanced evaporation due to global warming will reduce soil moisture in the Southwest by an average of 3 cm/year. By 2099, soils in the region will be 10-20% drier than they are today, which will increase the risk of drought by at least 20%.

What has been a very dry region, with droughts, is meant to get worse in the future with water wars becoming likely eventually. This makes drought (similar to deluge, in other regions) a common theme for writing fiction that relates to future Earth. But, as stated before, the way Bacigalupi world-builds and writes driven, memorable characters sticks with readers very well.

Bacigalupi’s newest novel The Tangled Lands – co-authored by Tobias Buckell – is a fantasy novel in which the use of magic in the city of Khaim causes environmental destruction in the form of brambles that begin to take over. Previously, it seems that magic has been good and useful, until, that is, it becomes toxic after a tyrant named The Jolly Mayor begins to collect the magic so that he can control everyone else with it.

The bramble begins as a sprout but grows wildly, with thorns and creeping vines, and produces a sleeping poison. The bramble kind of reminds me of the invasive Himalayan blackberry – which has been called “invasive, noxious, and beautiful” – that spreads wildly throughout the lower mainland of British Columbia. It’s hard to stop it. The story is told in a sequence of four connected tales: an alchemist trying to fight the bramble, a mother trying to find her children, a blacksmith’s family trying to build protective armor, and a family searching for their daughter. An uprising takes place as citizens realize that magic is now destroying the environment.

We might take these stories as ways to combat things that destroy our environment, and ultimately us. The Washington Post points out:

Like we do, the citizens of Khaim grapple with their complicity in the destruction of the world, even as they fight for the right reasons.

The Tangled Lands was released on February 27, 2018.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a writer who has global warming on his mind, for sure. On Facebook, he states, and I quote:

I wrote The Water Knife because I was concerned about America’s willingness to pretend that climate change wasn’t real, and wasn’t a pressing problem for us. I wrote it as a thought experiment: What happens when we try to pretend that facts don’t exist and science data isn’t real? Where does it lead? In that story, the result is that those who have been clear-eyed and planned for the future are struggling, but still hanging on, and those who pretended it wasn’t coming have lost everything. There are drought refugees, border controls between states, and an increasingly dysfunctional and fragmented United States. I added in Merry Perrys, a group of religious fundamentalists who pray for rain, because Rick Perry did just that during the Texas drought of 2011. Now he’s the Energy Secretary. And now, a climate denier is our President, and our government agencies are being asked to remove data about climate change, to not to speak about climate change, and to not acknowledge climate change. The House of Representatives is looking to cut funding to the IPCC, and Trump is looking to pull out of the Paris climate agreement – all while the planet hits record heat levels.

It’s refreshing to see authors admit their concerns and not be afraid to talk about issues. Climate disruption is a valid subject in fiction; fiction has the capacity to hold a mirror to us, enabling us to see what is there that we otherwise do not see, like a dark shadow. Great fiction acts as a conduit for channeling issues to us in story form, and thanks to authors like Paolo Bacigalupi, we are not short of this literature.

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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The Creative Climate Movement

I joined London-based charity Julie’s Bicycle in September 2013 to work with artists, organizations, policymakers, and funders on embedding environmental thinking and action across cultural activity. For over 10 years, Julie’s Bicycle has been supporting the creative community to reduce their impacts and advocate for action on climate change, delivering a rich program of events, training, tools, and freely available resources.

I believe culture is a tool for transformative change – and what better time to transform. Human’s impact on the natural environment – our life support system – has reached a critical stage, threatening to destabilize society and economy. The result: mass involuntary migration, biodiversity collapse, conflict, and famine. The challenge is not confined to climate. In a new report published by UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research, scientists are warning of a potentially deadly combination of factors including climate change, mass loss of species, topsoil erosion, forest felling, and acidifying oceans. And there’s a pretty pressing deadline: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe.

How do we stay resilient in such challenging times? Where do we draw our strength from and find hope? For me, the answer has been in the myriad exceptional creative communities I have worked with. It comes from the DJ who splices recordings of melting ice, the immersive protest performances of artist-activists, the cultural centers that open their doors to flood victims, and the festivals that allow you to experience a microcosm of sustainable society.

Julie’s Bicycle is building a movement at the intersection of arts and culture and environmental sustainability. We believe climate change is a manifestation of human values that are incommensurate with the finite resources of planet Earth. These values uphold the individual over the collective, the extractor over the regenerator, the consumer over the steward, and the present over the future. However, the opportunity is this: if climate change is driven by cultural values, logic suggests it can be tackled by shifting them. The climate change movement is, in fact, a cultural change movement. The good news is that this movement of cultural change is well underway across the world. It’s happening on theatre, concert hall, and festival stages; in museums, parks, and public libraries; at music labels and recording studios; and in the products and ideas of countless creatives, designers, artisans, experimentalists, and visionaries.

Sholeh Johnston leading a workshop in the first Creative Climate Leadership course, Wales, March 2016. Creative Climate Leadership is led by Julie’s Bicycle and co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. Photo by Studio Cano. Reproduced with permission of Julie’s Bicycle.

The first project Julie’s Bicycle undertook, back in 2007, was to calculate the carbon footprint of the music industry. The aim was to gain an evidenced-based understanding of climate impacts and to generate carbon targets based on data (which launched an enduring partnership with the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute). The project fronted a way of working – collaborations between the arts and science communities, with an ongoing commitment to scale what works – that has stood the test of time. This approach has informed our theory of change: to build, act, share, and lead. More specifically: to build environmental literacy and understanding; act on impacts to drive efficiencies and carbon reductions; share and catalyze change through networks and partnerships; and lead and advocate for and within the sector.

This theory of change is encapsulated in our first major support program – a partnership with Arts Council England, the first cultural funder anywhere to require all its national portfolio organizations and major museums partners to submit environmental impact data, policies, and action plans. This powerful partnership demonstrates how a light-touch policy intervention can galvanize a sector into sustained action. The momentum from this consistent policy priority enables cultural organizations to connect climate change and the environment to their work across all activities, including governance and finance, building management, programming and curation, audience engagement, and learning and outreach.

However, there was still an undercapitalized aspect: the deep internal shifts that, when nurtured, reinforced, and channeled, could shake the foundations of what we describe as “good governance.” In short, we needed a new leadership agenda centered on ethics and the environment. Our response to this was Creative Climate Leadership (CCL), an international, interdisciplinary program for cultural leaders.

Launched in 2016, CCL connects and enables a community of global cultural leaders to take an active leadership role in shaping a sustainable future for the sector. If there is a place to feel connected and uplifted it’s there; in my own experience, I have never felt more professionally and personally inspired as when I am collaborating with this community. CCL enables organizations and practitioners to share stories of creativity, optimism, and action, focusing on fostering a critical mass on the ground through capacity and community building. Our course – hosted in Wales, Greece, and Slovenia – has brought together leading cultural voices from across Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia, covering topics such as authentic leadership, change management, climate science and policy, and environmental justice. The program includes ongoing support for course participants to use their learnings to develop new projects, helping them share and distribute their expertise across creative communities.

Participants of the second Creative Climate Leadership course, Slovenia, October 2017. Creative Climate Leadership is led by Julie’s Bicycle and co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. Photo by Karim Shalaby.

Amazing creative expressions have emerged. Creative Climate Leader Budi Agung Kuswara, from Bali, launched Kekasih Hati Sang Bumi (the Sweethearts of the Earth), a creative intervention that takes place at “tumpek uduh” – a ceremony devoted to Sanghyang Sangkara, Lord of all food. On this day, offerings and engagements are made for and with the trees, reminding people to express gratitude and establish a positive relationship with nature. The project uses art as a catalyst to convey traditional values and bridge the gap between ancient philosophy and the current generation; it aims to preserve traditional knowledge and respect its roots.

In Istanbul, Jessica Sim received a CCL in Action grant (support allocated to eleven CCL alumni to develop their local dissemination projects), which eventually led to her co-founding NADAS, a new creative co-working house dedicated to urban biodiversity. NADAS aims to support projects that value the diversity of urban life and the interconnection of people and environments. It hosts creative workshops, gatherings, gardening and planting, private art studios, and co-working spaces to build a community around living slowly, mindfully, and empathetically. As Jessica explains: “CCL is still a big part of my everyday life and work – it gave confidence to me and credibility to my work, and has given me the endurance to continue in a difficult context.”

By bringing together an international, supportive, and entrepreneurial community, we can create better conditions for innovation and develop appropriate solutions faster. Building this movement doesn’t just benefit the climate, but culture too. With it, we are seeing new jobs, goods, and services arise. And the Arts Council England program alone has provided momentous value to the sector. For the organizations involved, there have been savings of £16.5 million since 2012 due to reductions in energy use. On top of that, 65 percent of the organizations have produced creative work with an environmental theme, and 70 percent of them have reported annual improvements to staff well-being. Imagine if all the cultural funding bodies across the world followed suit.

All of these new partnerships, designs, systems, and investments are supporting the sustainability of our sector and prompting a new way to articulate cultural value. The creative climate movement is unveiling itself everywhere, though it can manifest in different ways. From the very beginning, Julie’s Bicycle’s methodology has been about focusing on actions relevant to local contexts – whether it’s improving energy efficiency, protecting local wildlife or heritage, fighting pollution, or supporting climate justice.

Culture is the answer to the climate challenge. It provokes and encourages us to think bigger and beyond ourselves, it strengthens community and empathy, and, most critically, it connects us to our common humanity. In all its diverse expressions, culture belongs to everyone, and it is a tool for social change. As Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

(Top image: Participants of the second Creative Climate Leadership course, Slovenia, October 2017. Creative Climate Leadership is led by Julie’s Bicycle and co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. Photo by Karim Shalaby.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 25, 2019.

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Lucy joined Julie’s Bicycle in September 2013 to work with the Environmental Sustainability Team on embedding operational sustainability and environmental management within artistic and cultural venues and activities in the UK and Europe. She works on a variety of programs, facilitating and delivering workshops and training, as well as offering consultancy. She holds a BSc in Environmental Science from Newcastle University. She has worked in a variety of paid and voluntary roles including two years as a Sustainability Officer, a Scientific Field Officer in the forests of Honduras and an Environmental Education Officer in Botswana.

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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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Aerosolar Sculptures

by Joan Sullivan

You’ve heard of the Anthropocene: the proposed name for the current geological epoch during which the collective activities of Homo sapiens have irrevocably and unwisely (man!) altered the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans and systems of nutrient recycling.

But have you heard of the Aerocene?

Tomás Saraceno, Aerocene Gemeni, Free Flight, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. Pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen; Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo by Tomás Saraceno, 2016.

Brainchild of the prolific Argentinian interdisciplinary artist Tomás Saraceno, Aerocene is the proposed name for a future planetary epoch – post-Anthropocene, post-fossil fuels – during which Wise man turns increasingly to the Air, to the unlimited potential of the Sun, to the borderless highways of the Wind. In this enlightened future era of ecological awareness, Saraceno imagines our species evolving beyond the Anthropocene to achieve sustainable co-habitation of our shared planet, no longer governed by extractive geopolitics.

To date, the Aerocene is perhaps best known for its open-source aerosolar sculptures (some made of reused plastic bags). These emissions-free floating airborne sculptures are filled only with air, lifted only by the sun, and carried only by the wind. Aerosolar sculptures are kept afloat in Earth’s stratosphere by the heat of the sun (during the day) and infrared radiation from the surface of the Earth (at night). No solar panels, no helium, no batteries, no fossil fuels. Just the sun and wind doing their magic.

Screenshot of Museo Aero Solar website

You can download free open-source do-it-together (DIT) instructions for making your own aerosolar sculptures here.

The Aerocene is also the name of an open-source participatory platform for global artistic and scientific collaboration to mobilize an urgent international and cross-disciplinary response to the Anthropocene. It has quickly evolved into a vibrant planetary movement of artists, meteorologists, engineers, architects, anthropologists, geographers, philosophers, historians, scientists, musicians, explorers, balloonists and several institutes (e.g. CNES, MIT, London’s Royal College of Art). An unsigned online manifesto calls for, among other things, “building a less anthropocentric relationship with our environment” and to “re/entangle ourselves with the surrounding milieu.”

While Studio Tomás Saraceno is located in Berlin, Saraceno “lives and works in and beyond the planet Earth”. He has been widely exhibited internationally in solo and group exhibitions including, among others, the Venice Art Biennale (2009), Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum für Gegenwart (2011), New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012), Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (2015), COP21 (2015), London’s Royal College of Art (2016), Zurich’s Haus Konstruktiv (2017), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2017), and Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2018-2019).

In 2017, Saraceno was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, as well as the TED2017 in Vancouver where he inspired audiences to “consider the impossible.”

By creating positive new narratives, Saraceno and his collaborators around the world challenge conventional thinking about climate change, architecture, the energy transition, mobility. The result is often a palpable sense of awe – a cosmic jam session – that inspires new ways of thinking about our relation to our only home, Earth.

In an interview posted on an MIT website, Saraceno explained his fascination with the Air: “We like to think of ourselves as living on the Earth’s surface, but we are living at the bottom of an ocean of air.” In a second interview, he added “There are highways in the sky; the jet stream moves at a speed of 300km per hour.” Saraceno’s aerosolar sculptures that glide on wind currents prompt us to “speculate on how mobility shapes the way we live on the earth.”

The Aerocene’s focus on nature as an endless source of inspiration is in stark contrast to many contemporary artistic interpretations of the Anthropocene’s planetary destruction as a fait accompli. For example, a recent major multimedia exhibition in Canada entitled Anthropocene at two simultaneous art museums featured hauntingly beautiful but emotionally numbing images of human-altered landscapes by the award-winning Canadian collaborators Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicolas de Pencier.

While reaction to this ambitious concurrent exhibition was generally positive, several reviewers astutely questioned “Do we need (more) images of the Anthropocene, and why?” and “It feels frankly preposterous, not to mention criminally self-indulgent, that we are still observing, documenting, recording – still bearing witness, though what we are mostly bearing witness to is our own profound denial. Is another artistic project, no matter how spectacular, really what we need at this stage?”

Jayne Wilkinson, independent curator and Managing Editor at Canadian Art, concluded her review of Canada’s recent Anthropocene exhibit with strong words: “It is dangerous to continue to uphold the aesthetics of destruction.”

An increasing number of scientific and arts/cultural organizations are calling on artists to help “change the narrative” about climate change and planetary destruction by creating positive stories that offer a compelling vision of a post-carbon world we want to live in. I am personally interested in forward-looking stories that focus on solutions. Stories that invite audiences to ask themselves “How do we get there from here?”

Tomás Saraceno shows us how to get there: by daring to imagine, by embracing the impossible.

No more looking backward. No more dystopic discourse. It is time to focus all our creative energy on collectively imagining a post-carbon, post-Anthropocene future of clean abundance and endless opportunity. We can not build that which we cannot imagine.

(Top image: Screenshot from ArtNet website)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to keep our eyes on the prize – a 100% clean energy economy in our lifetimes. Joan is currently working on a documentary film and book project about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on ElloTwitter and Visura.

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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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Agritecture: Portmanteau for the Anthropocene

Agritecture, a portmanteau that marries agriculture and architecture, has made it into the art world.

Roca London Gallery‘s 2019 spring exhibit London 2026: Recipes for Building a Food Capital explores the question “Can ‘agritecture’ make cities self-sufficient?” Curated by Department 22, this fascinating exhibit imagines architecture morphing into agritecture over the next decade in order to feed London’s ever-growing population – projected to pass the 10 million mark in 2026. The exhibit runs through May 18th, and admission is free.

Of the exhibit’s 25 projects – most at the prototype stage, a few at the implementation stage – my favorite is Power Plant by Dutch designer Marjan van Aubel, whom I’ve written about previously. Using transparent solar glass to power her proposed rooftop greenhouses, van Aubel envisions a future in which urban residents can harvest both food and clean electricity by maximizing the use of under-utilized rooftops on existing infrastructure.

But agritecture is not limited to green roofs and hydroponic rooftop greenhouses. Think urban insect farms and floating dairy farms. Think edible walls and living bricks that are “fed” with grey water. Think balconies filled with suspended orchards. Think commercial vertical farms inside converted warehouses or underground in abandoned WW2 bomb shelters. Think edible schoolyards and agrihoods dedicated to soil-based community gardens. Think regenerative agriculture and food systems more broadly.

The concept of combining agriculture and architecture is not new: Babylon’s fabled Hanging Gardens are believed to have been built between 8th-6th century BCE somewhere in south-central Mesopotamia. Today, in the context of climate change, agritecture refers to an architectural renaissance that could transform cities from consumers into producers by dramatically increasing local food production – notably fresh fruits, herbs, vegetables and insects – in order to feed rapidly growing urban and peri-urban populations. Note that grains and pulses such as maize, rice, wheat, soy, lentils and quinoa would still have to be produced on farms outside of urban centers. Nevertheless, cities that embrace urban agriculture will be more resilient in the Anthropocene to food shortages and global warming than cities that don’t.

Coined in 2011 by the self-described agritect Henry Gordon-Smith, the portmanteau agritecture builds upon the work of pioneering architects such as William McDonoughwho was an early adopter of green roofs and biophilic design. In a 2008 article, Vanity Fair described McDonough as “a prophet of the sustainability and clean-technology movements, which set in motion many of the green design practices that are commonplace today.” (I will write about McDonough and Braungart’s manifesto Cradle to Cradle in a future post.)

To me, the concept of agritecture speaks to a new way of thinking about urban planning that, in the words of architectural firm Sasaki Associates, “celebrates food production as one of the most important functions of a city.”

For example, Sasaki has designed the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District (currently under construction; see rendering below) in Shanghai where urban food production could become, in the words of Gordon-Smith, “the main cultural connectivity, the main producer of jobs, the main connector of public spaces and the main scientific driver for innovation in the community.”

Rendering by Sasaki Associates of their proposed vertical farm at the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District in Shanghai. Reprinted with permission.

Another example of iconic urban food production design is currently under construction near the city of Tainan, Taiwan. The Tainan Xinhua Fruit and Vegetable Market, designed by the Dutch firm MVRDV, is an open-air wholesale and retail market with an undulating terraced green roof that grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. This living roof also includes sheltered spots, benches and picnic tables for visitors to relax and take in views of the surrounding landscape. Like Shanghai’s Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District, the Tainan Zinhua Fruit and Vegetable Market aims to become a destination for meeting, socializing, learning, employment and commerce. Urban agriculture 2.0 for the Anthropocene.

“In the next 50 years, we will consume more food than in the last 10,000 years combined,” predicts the Austrian architect Chris Precht in an interview published on Designboom. “The world population will grow more and more, specifically in urban cities. I think future cities will need to have a vital role in growing their own food.” In a recent Instagram post, Precht added “During the last two centuries, we became disconnected to our food. The process of farming moved out from our sights and out of our minds. If food reenters the centers of our cities, it reenters our minds and we become reconnected to a life-cycle. This offers a great opportunity for architects!”

The United Nations projects that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, up from 55% today (and up from 12% at the start of the 20th century). Furthermore, large cities – which represent just two percent of the Earth’s land surface – consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and create over 70% of global carbon emissions. Further still, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has calculated that the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is the single largest contributor to global warming, at 39% of global energy-related C02 emissions. Houston, we have a problem.

Cities are clearly at the forefront of global efforts to reverse global warming and to ensure adequate food, water and shelter for two-thirds of humanity’s 10 billion who will be living in urban areas by 2050. Speaking about the architecture profession’s central role to help urban planners navigate these multiple daunting challenges, Drawdown‘s Paul Hawken recently said, “There may be no other profession better positioned to leverage innovation toward (these) challenge(s).” The American Institute of Architects has gone on record to state, unequivocally, “We believe that the climate change battle will be won or lost in cities.”

Agritecture, urban agriculture, biophilic and regenerative design, and cradle-to-cradle material flows are but some of the many strategies that are crucial to urban design in the Anthropocene. With regard to rooftop gardens, greenhouses and living roofs, let me end here on a positive note by citing a recent tweet by William McDonough: green roofs have the “potential to make the cities and farms one organism again.”

(Top image: Rendering by Sasaki Associates of their proposed vertical farm at the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District in Shanghai. Reprinted with permission.)

This article is part of the Foodstuff series.

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Daughter of an architect, Joan Sullivan writes frequently about the architecture profession’s central role in reversing global warming. As a renewable energy photographer, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to help others visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. Joan is currently working on a photo book about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on Ello and Twitter

The Literary Method of Urban Design

Smothered in soaking tropical heat, I’ve been chasing my two-year-old as he runs through fields of strange flowers, treads around frog-filled ponds, and attempts to climb the local banana trees. He’s having a ball, feeling adventurous and free, but his mum and I are drenched in sweat as one of us tries to film him and the other tries to keep him from jumping into the water with the frogs. The resulting footage has since transformed into this short environmental film:

We are here in South East Asia to study and teach urban ecology at a university in Thailand. As part of our research into the eco-challenged character of urban settings, I’ve come up with a certain technique to predict and plan for future cities. I call it the Literary Method of Urban Design and I use it to engage with students and professionals about what our urban futures might be like. As you can see from the short film, it involves lot of “envisioning” and, thusly, it calls for a lot of art.

Dragging up long idle skills from my high school years, both the visual arts and literary arts became research tools and expressive channels that we could use to foster public debate about the future.

As its name indicates, the Literary Method of Urban Design places literary art at the base of urban studies, exploring the complications and possibilities of our potentially catastrophic unfolding urban existence. Literary art might seem to some like an unwieldy pathway by which to plan a city but my argument is that literature usually does far more than just entertain; it narrates upon the complicated challenges of life – often from the point of view of individual characters as they engage with the wider social world.

The future, I contend, is not opened up by advancing technology alone. It also involves an array of personal responses to the changing patterns of society as this technology is taken-up, fought over, celebrated or rejected, and then also used by the powerful to control the powerless. Works of fiction have often explored just how complicated and varied these changing techno-influenced patterns can be – as they unfold their plots with unique characters, highly specific settings, peculiar moral quandaries and particular cultural conflicts.

Thus, anyone who contemplates the future of cities in any way could benefit from the Literary Method of Urban Design since it may very well prompt a broader outlook in the “making” of a city as it is pushed, gently or roughly, into a different form.

In pop media, and in the public mind, the future is a key cultural battleground. So far, the techno-warriors (not the eco-warriors) seem to be winning, as Silicon Valley and the big players of the military-industrial complex lobby both leaders and the public with seductive ideas of Smart Cities, super-fast transport links, and the supposed beneficence of omnipresent AI. Through my work with youth, I’ve discovered that if you ask an urban schoolkid to draw a picture of their city’s future they will most likely dot the canvas with futuristic techno images of flying cars, super-sized sports stadia, and rocket-trains, though there’s often a splash of sea-level rise here and there as well.

If the future is a battleground, my contribution – the Literary Method of Urban Design – might seem like a completely neutral party, since there’s plenty of literature out there promoting visions of hi-tech super-gadgetized utopias (especially within the science fiction genre). However, the way I’ve utilized the Literary Method till now might suggest otherwise, and the best way to explain this might be by looking at some case studies.

CASE STUDY 1: THE FUTURE OF LONDON AS INSPIRED BY THOMAS MORE’S UTOPIA

Utopia by Thomas More as republished by Wisehouse Classics. Illustrator: Ambrosius Holbein

In 1516, during the reign of King Henry VIII, a little novel called Utopia was published. It was about an idyllic island which suffered none of the ills of Henry VIII’s London. No corruption, no poverty, no plagues, no tyrants. Just happy people living free in an ideal land.

Henry celebrated Thomas More as a great scholar but they would soon have an almighty falling-out over who should lead the Church of England. Thomas More thought it should be the Pope and Henry VIII thought it should be Henry VIII. Therefore, King Henry charged More with treason and jailed him in the Tower of London before, finally, executing him.

London, nowadays, is maybe a little fairer. Except for all the homelessness and economic inequality and toxic air and dangerous traffic, that is.

Here though, inspired by Utopia, is an alternative future; a child-friendly, clean and green London with urban forests instead of paved roadways.

You might think this is only a dream but if London becomes a “UN child-friendly city,” children may claim a right to decide urban policies. Probably, they’ll vote for fewer cars and more green spaces to play in. Whilst in a homage to Thomas More, they may repurpose the Tower of London, to keep out the tyrants, and to keep out the air polluters.

London as a Green Utopia. Illustrated Alan Marshall.

CASE STUDY 2: THE FUTURE OF SINGAPORE AS INSPIRED BY JONATHAN SWIFT’S GULLIVER’S TRAVELS

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift as republished by Sterling Classics. Illustrated by Scott McKowen.

Gulliver’s Travels follows an 18th Century explorer to fantastic lands across the globe.

During one expedition, Gulliver discovers a city floating in the sky. Named Laputa, it hovers over an island in the Asia Pacific. Motivated by this setting, here’s a design for the future of the island city of Singapore.

Whereas Laputa floated via magnetic forces, Singapore is held aloft by hydrogen balloons. The hydrogen is produced by electrolysis of sea spray, a process taking place within the solar-cells painted upon the balloon’s membrane.

So, what’s the point of a floating city? Well, up here, Singapore can escape the rising sea levels cause by global warming.

Yet just as the tales within Gulliver’s Travels are often laced with satire, the same might be said of this design, for if this is how cities are to survive sea level rise, it might be easier just to slow down or stop climate change.

The Floating Bubble City of Singapore. Illustrated by Alan Marshall.

CASE STUDY 3: THE FUTURE OF INGOLSTADT AS INSPIRED BY MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley as republished by Simon and Schuster. Illustrated by Oscar Dominguez.

Most of us are familiar with the creation scene of the Frankenstein story: an ambitious scientist labors with strange technologies to invent a new human creature from dead body-parts. However, as soon as the creature flickers into life, the scientist is overcome with horror and runs away.

The original novel was set in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt. When the monster wanders through the city, townsfolk beat him away with rocks. To escape this trouble, he leaves the city to live in a nearby forest where he joyously communes with the unbiased company of nature.

In his forest home, the monster becomes fond of a refugee French family. The family have been exiled from their homeland because of the French Revolution and are living in a little cottage in the forest. Though the monster doesn’t dare show his face to them, they nevertheless inspire him with hope. Socially outcast like himself, the family seem to be loving and happy. Perhaps,  the monster thinks to himself, love and happiness might some day visit upon him as well.

Every day, the monster wanders amongst the trees to collect food, laying the bounty secretly at the door of the family’s cottage. The family never discover who their kindly helper is. Maybe a “forest angel,” they conjecture.

Motivated by the creature’s elevation from “monster” to “angel,” we arrive at the following design for future Ingolstadt.

The main feature is a bat-faced noise barrier whose monstrous 3D faces, drawn from the structure of real-life bats, reflect traffic noise pollution back at the cars and trucks moving on the highway. In this way, the forest may remain peaceful.

The Bat-Faced Noise Barrier of Ingolstadt. Illustrated by Alan Marshall and Nanthawan Kaenkaew.

CONCLUSION

These three case study cities of the Literary Method of Urban Design are not fantastic escapes from reality. They are explorations of alternative urban life. The Literary Method expands the toolbox to predict the future of cities and to plan for that future, all the while encouraging the use of wisdom held within the world’s literature.

If none of the stories above seem very relevant to you, you can instead draw inspiration from your own favorite novels or local literature. These works may then help you to creatively pre-vision a design for your own city’s future. And then to forge ahead anew with whatever project you might have to better fit into that future.

(Top image: The future of Birmingham, England set within a restored Forest of Arden, as inspired by William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It.)

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Alan Marshall is a scholar in the field of human ecology and he has explored the relationships between “Nature” and “Humanity” from myriad perspectives: philosophical, political and artistic. He’s now engaged with seeking out the potential future relationships between humans and their urban environments through a variety of projects, including The Ecotopia 2121 Project and the Frankencities Project. Dr. Marshall has a BSc (hons) from Wolverhampton University (England), a Masters degree from Massey University (New Zealand) and a doctorate from Wollongong University (Australia). Currently, Marshall is a full-time visiting professor at Mahidol University (Thailand).

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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: Morgan Nyberg

Morgan Nyberg grew up in farming country in southern British Columbia. After graduating from the University of British Columbia he worked as a laborer for a decade before finally settling into teaching. For most of the last 30 years he has lived abroad, teaching English as a Foreign Language in Ecuador, Portugal and the Sultanate of Oman.

His first book, The Crazy Horse Suite, a verse play, was performed on the stage in New York and was broadcast on CBC Radio. Soon after that a memoir won the CBC Literary Competition. His first venture into book-length fiction, a children’s novel, Galahad Schwartz and the Cockroach Army, won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award. Since then he has added a further children’s novel, Bad Day in Gladland; two literary novels for adults, El Dorado Shuffle and Mr. Millennium; and the post-apocalyptic Raincoast Sagacomprising The Fixer, Since Tomorrow, Birds of Passage and Medicine. He currently lives on Vancouver Island, Canada.

interviewed Morgan Nyberg three years ago. We talked then about his Raincoast Trilogy, and at that time I had read the first two novels in the series: Since Tomorrow and Birds of Passage. Since then, Morgan has added Medicine to the series and also bumped up the order as he wrote the novella The Fixer later. We recently chatted, and Morgan explained that The Fixer is an introduction or a prequel to the trilogy (parts 2, 3, and 4). The Fixer is also free on Amazon, and as Morgan notes about this series of books, they might allow the reader “to see the very plausible effects of climate change and our reckless economic policies, as well as the ever-present threat of international pandemic.” The saga takes place mostly around futuristic Vancouver and north of there, and is a multi-generational, post-apocalyptic novel.

I think what Frederick Brooke at Goodreads wrote is a great intro to the books, particularly volume 2, which leads into the saga:

I read this book slowly on purpose, revelling in the beautiful, spare descriptions, and was totally caught up in the story from the start. I could have been reading Faulkner or Hemingway, the writing was so powerful.

The time is two generations in the future; the place is Vancouver. But you wouldn’t recognize this blasted landscape as a city, let alone as that thriving metropolis in the Pacific Northwest. Gone entirely are modern essentials like computers, cars, telephones, airplanes and electricity. Buildings are abandoned. Roads are overgrown with weeds. The world as we know it has been destroyed by a series of calamities and plagues, leaving only a few hardy bands of survivors. They go around in the mud wearing sandals made from cut-out pieces of auto tires and subsist mainly on potatoes and whatever meat they can raise or hunt.

At the center of the story is Frost, a grandfather who is a leader and a fighter and a thinker. Frost and his group of refugees and survivors conduct a war of wills against the enemy, Langley, who wants to take away his farm for its good strategic location and solidly built stone farmhouse. It is a simple story, a struggle between good and evil.

The story presents a bleak, Ballardian sense of place on one hand, and the characters’ hopes and joys on the other. The story is chilling and well-crafted, the characters highly memorable and vivid, which makes the Raincoast Saga stand out from the glut of modern-day apocalyptic fiction. I was also attracted to the saga because it’s set in a city that I consider home. Hardly recognizable in the Raincoast Saga, Vancouver and the areas north exist in a wildly altered reality. This can be tough to wrap our heads around because it’s tough to see places we love crumble, with perhaps only the sky, water, and a hint of infrastructure remaining as artifacts. I recall a scene of a bridge over the Fraser River in Since Tomorrow, and it seemed familiar, but not. When writing about place, Morgan said:

Two factors influenced the way Vancouver is represented in Since Tomorrow. One is obviously a transformation caused by economic, technological and societal breakdown as well as a major earthquake. The other is the impossibility of presenting an up-to-date picture of a rapidly changing metropolitan area. So I simplified, altered, removed, exaggerated and generally bent the setting to the demands of my narrative. Nevertheless, I assumed that local readers would recognize that “Town” is a post-collapse version of Vancouver, so I added an introductory proviso that “Some features of Greater Vancouver have been altered, removed or exaggerated.”

Morgan writes with such detail and mood that I recognized hints of home in the fractured landscape and became saddened by Vancouver in a futuristic state of collapse. I caught a glimpse of such disaster when the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup playoffs game in game seven in 2011. At that time I worked near Gastown, a historic area in Vancouver, which is near the stadium. I had hopped on the skytrain to head home before the game, at Chinatown, and saw hundreds of fans gathering for the game that night. I watched the news in horror later, as crowds, upset by the loss to the Boston Bruins, stormed the streets surrounding the stadium, rioting, looting, and breaking shop windows. They pushed and pulled; a few were injured. In one scene a couple good Samaritans tried to help a guy who was being beaten.

The riot was unexpected and consisted of what we think of as “regular” people mostly. The fine line crossed in one’s ability to be peaceful and completely destructive frightened me more than anything else. I was saddened by the collapse and the broken frames of familiar places where I worked, ate, and played. Morgan’s saga gives the area a much bigger shake-up. In the Raincoast books, the Fraser River serves as that fine line in a way, between peace and destruction. Morgan explained, about his novels:

The Fraser River (nameless in the story) has become a barrier between the relative civilization and benevolent atmosphere of Frost’s farm at the south end of Frost’s Bridge (today’s Oak Street Bridge) and the horrors of Town just north of the river. Through a kind of nostalgia for the “Good Times” the young men of the story have been given the names of old streets and districts: Granville, Oak, Pender, Steveston, etc. The young women have been given names from nature: Fire, Snow, Willow, etc. Birds of Passageis set mainly north of Town in the coastal mountains of British Columbia. Medicine plunges deep into the darkness and endless dangers of Town.

In this case, the collapse was brought on by something much larger than a lost hockey game – our destructive acts that have led to mass global warming. When I asked Morgan about writing fiction about climate change, he replied:

I imagined climate change to be one of the causes of the collapse inasmuch as climate change feeds a self-destructive economic process based on greed that, combined with a global pandemic, finally brings everything down. In my mind the major causes of the collapse are overpopulation, the rampant depletion of natural resources and the destruction of ecosystems, and the production of waste, e.g. CO2, beyond what the planet can safely carry. The more marked effects of climate change, e.g. the disappearance of fish from the river, happen after the collapse. When I wrote Since Tomorrow I did not know that post-apocalyptic was a literary genre. I was simply writing a story set in a world that seemed to be a plausible projection of today’s trends, i.e. what is waiting for us at the end of the primrose path. It scared the hell out of me and still does.

In our previous interview, I asked Morgan:

Having read a lot of novels wherein something has caused a collapse in economic systems (and ecological ones), I’ve seen all sorts of aftermaths play out. In some cases there is a dystopian sort of central governance. In others, characters are on their own and trying to adapt and survive and work together to do so. Your novel seems credible and likely: community/familial groups form and do what they can. There are a couple main leaders in Since Tomorrow: one is good and focused on survival and helping others. The other is akin to an evil overlord drug type taking advantage of others.

I don’t think we could argue against good vs. evil being a major element of any future society since it is and has been a major theme in past and present societies. But I think that in many futuristic ideologies there is almost a romantic notion that by then we will have learned from past mistakes and all work together to create some sort of more utopian society. Your book definitely seems more realistic and almost brutally raw. Can you comment on how you decided to form this post-collapse continuance of good vs. evil?

And his reply was:

Beyond what Frost and a few others are attempting to do as individuals, there is no possibility of larger social action. Everything we think of as civilized is gone. There is no government, no education, no medicine, no law, no modern technology. People live by subsistence agriculture, by bartering and by scavenging. In such a future, in every possible future, as has been the case in every epoch of the past, both good and evil will thrive. There is no reason for what started in the Garden of Eden to change simply because circumstances change.

And it is this story of the human condition that plays on, and will continue to do so, throughout the future, as long as we survive as a species. Like other authors in this series, Morgan Nyberg deals with climate change and storytelling well, presenting readers with a story that will not leave their minds any time soon – one which makes us think about our path to the future as we deal with collapse brought on by “self-destructive economic process based on greed.” Morgan is working on a fifth book currently, and I’ll be in touch about that as it comes into being.

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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From One Island to Another

The new year brought major breakthroughs and inspiration for the 2018-19 Superhero Clubhouse Fellows who shared their progress last month at the SHC Salon. Spoken word poet Shy Richardson and climate scientist Karina Yager traveled from New York City to Puerto Rico to explore the resilience of the island during and after Hurricane Maria for the performance they are currently developing. With the help of a NET/TEN travel grant, the generosity of El Puente LCAN (Latino Climate Action Network), and Shy’s family, the team spent six days on the island and met up with David Ortiz, Program Director of El Puente Puerto Rico.

A sister hub of El Puente in Brooklyn, this branch of the social and climate justice organization had an important role to play in the aftermath of the storm. David explained that money was raised to buy and distribute thousands of solar lamps to Puerto Ricans, many of whom had to wait months for power to be restored after the hurricane. These seemingly small and simple tools became beacons of hope in the darkness.

In addition to El Puente staff and volunteers, the team conducted interviews with Shy’s family members, climate experts, and other residents of the island. The team asked each one of their interviewees the question: What is your hope moving forward? They heard answers ranging from wishes for a more sustainable Puerto Rico as a whole to the very personal desire for family members to be alright in the aftermath. From the big picture of the island to the health of individuals, these hopes are connected.

What does this kind of collective wellbeing look like? For David, it wasn’t an image, but a sound. He said he first knew that everything was going to be okay after the storm when he heard balls bouncing in the street. Kids were outside playing again. Breathing, rebounding, yelling – sounds of life. “The hope brought back the sound,” David remarked. Soon, neighbors were coming out of their homes, sharing resources, and in some cases, meeting each other for the first time.

Shy and Karina are now in the process of taking the materials collected on their trip (hours of interviews and hundreds of pictures) and mixing them with their own text to create a performance piece. Shy is filtering the experience through her poetic skill, creating a series of poems capturing the displacement one can feel after a loss, whether it be of a home or a loved one. Much of the work has been colored by the recent passing of Shy’s beloved grandmother, Maria. In the poem “How to Make Pasteles as Per the New York Times,” Shy mixes the traditional recipe with memories of Maria preparing the dish. When the narrator remarks that you “assumed you’d have forever to learn,” it aches with love and regret. It also drives home how the loss of a matriarch can shift your position in your family and your worldview.

Karina is embarking on an additional trip that will also inform the piece. She’s traveling to the Andes region of South America, where she studies the social and ecological impacts of climate change on mountain environments, to conduct glacier research. Rapidly melting tropical glaciers affect pastoral agriculture and local indigenous communities. Though the glacier is literally thousands of miles away from Puerto Rico, Karina sees a connection through the global water cycle. As she continues to unlock the narrative potential of water moving through this system, she will examine larger themes of loss and change over time.

Shy and Karina left those who attended the last Salon sessions with a wealth of material from their travels.

The sound of a ball bouncing
The sound of a glacier melting
The sound of a story told
A recipe recited
An island honored
For every loss, a hope

What will Shy and Karina create from this thoughtful and intentional investigation? A work-in-progress of Trés Marias was performed on March 23 at The Tank in New York City, marking the culmination of Superhero Clubhouse’s six-month paid Fellowship for environmental justice and performance. Weaving personal stories of loss and resilience that bridge New York, Puerto Rico, and the glacial Andes, Trés Marias is a love poem to the communities that emerge from the wreckage of displacement. Associate Fellows Aya Lane and Imani Dennison also showed a work-in-progress of Drexciya, an underwater mythical resistance story honoring the black diaspora’s complicated relationship to water.

This is the fourth of five blogs in our Building Bridges series about the intersection of environmental justice and performance. These blogs will be responding to a monthly Salontaking place at The Lark in New York where our FellowsAssociate Fellows, and others in the Superhero Clubhouse community are exploring this intersection in their own ways.

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Megan McClain is the resident dramaturg for SHC’s series of Planet Plays, Flying Ace, and other projects and co-leads The Salon. As R&D Program Director at the Civilians, she’s guided the work of over 70 writers, composers, and directors creating original works of investigative theatre. She is also the Accessibility Manager at The Lark. Additional dramaturgical/literary work for Goodman Theatre, Disney Theatrical, Hartford Stage, PlayPenn, Playwrights Realm and more. M.F.A Dramaturgy: UMass Amherst.

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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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Writer Elizabeth Rush Distills the Stories of Communities Affected by Sea Level Rise

Author Elizabeth Rush talks about her award-winning book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Elizabeth spent time in nine different coastal communities. She explains, “Each chapter opens with a monologue from a resident. The idea is to give them a microphone; I don’t want to give them a voice…Any amount of essaying or writing that I could do felt not important at all. Just listening to those stories was most engaging to me; I wanted to give readers that.” Elizabeth reads a section from her book about the coastal community in Miami, Florida.

Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award
A Chicago Tribune Top Ten Book of 2018
A Guardian, NPR’s Science Friday, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal Best Book of 2018

Hailed as “deeply felt” (New York Times), “a revelation” (Pacific Standard), and “the book on climate change and sea levels that was missing” (Chicago Tribune), Rising is both a highly original work of lyric reportage and a haunting meditation on how to let go of the places we love.

Coming up next month, artist and engineer Michelle M. Irizarry talks about her paintings and how climate change has altered her art.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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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: Barbara Kingsolver

From Barbara Kingsolver’s official site: “Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955, and grew up in rural Kentucky. She earned degrees in biology from DePauw University and the University of Arizona, and has worked as a freelance writer and author since 1985. At various times in her adult life she has lived in England, France, and the Canary Islands, and has worked in Europe, Africa, Asia, Mexico, and South America. She spent two decades in Tucson, Arizona, before moving to southwestern Virginia where she currently resides.” See her complete bibliography here.

An award-winning author, Kingsolver has a vast amount of experience, including writing and traveling as a child, entering college under a piano scholarship but switching her major to biology, working as a lab tech and teacher while in grad school, scientific writing and journalism after completing her Master’s, farming, further travel, gardening, raising poultry and Icelandic sheep – and, of course, her many years of writing poetry, novels, and nonfiction. Her world-wide experiences are nothing to scoff at, but what is most appealing about the author is that she is a humble world citizen, concerned about the planet and social justice. Like many great authors, Barbara Kingsolver’s lifelong wonder of the world comes through in powerful stories. I encourage readers to check out all her books, as they are significant works dealing with nature and justice in various places she’s lived, from the Arizona desert to the Belgian Congo to the Appalachian Mountains.

Kingsolver has been mindful of the environment all her life. Her books are seeped heavily in themes such as local farming, wilderness survival, the great outdoors, and natural places. In this article, I’ll look at her novel Flight Behavior, which was applauded for being a contemporary fiction dealing with climate change, whereas many other novels in the same vein are futuristic. And even though there is always imagination in fiction, Kingsolver’s novel reflects the actuality of Monarch migrations. She explores the here and now.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Flight Behavior is personal. It’s no secret that I research how climate change and fiction interact, but not all novels I’ve read are ones I feel very moved by. This one, I was. The novel is set in Feathertown, Tennessee, a fictional town that would be near real places I’ve spent a great deal of time in, especially as a child and teenager. I recently watched a YouTube talk with Jeff VanderMeer and Lorna Crozier(I’ve been fortunate to chat with both authors in the past), and they discussed how childhood places inspired their writing. I was motivated by that conversation, and think Barbara Kingsolver also did well with Flight Behavior when it comes to the matters of place and memory.

My childhood place was an area of the world where many people in my family came from – they had settled in Virginia after coming over from Scotland and Ireland, and then scattered into the eastern Kentucky and Tennessee hills. From the time I was a baby, this area of the country was our “home” to travel to, since my parents both had roots there; though Dad came from Louisville – his ancestors were Grayson County farmers – Mom was a bonafide child from the hills of Kentucky. She was born in a log cabin in a holler, and when I was a child I hiked by the cabin often. It was next to a rushing creek, and leading over the creek from her cabin to the holler was an old rickety bridge from which she had fallen once and broken her arm.

We took a trip back to that holler a few years ago, and everything had changed. The holler was no longer a dirt path. Now it was a modern road, and the old homes had all been torn down to make room for new modern houses. Mom’s cabin was gone. Even the cliffs edging the mountains and flanking one side of the holler were gone. Kudzu, an invasive vine, now covered hillsides everywhere. The precious wildflowers were gone in the holler, and so was the old woman at the end of the road who used to let us pick black walnuts in her yard. Her simple country house was gone too, and in its place a fancy modern house.

It was a sad moment for our entire family, as we hadn’t been to that area for a long time, ever since Mammaw and Pappaw died, both fairly young. The mountains had been flattened, though I’m not sure why. It seems to have had to do with housing development instead of mountaintop coal mining. But I recall the sweet wonder of the old Appalachian mountains: The southern way of speech, the long tales my pappaw told while we sat on his large and summery front porch, the best food on the planet (shucky beans, cornbread, apple cake), the lonely sounds of distant highways and trains echoing through the hills, the surrounding pine-covered mountains that were wild with foliage overflowing to the old hollers – where on cliff sides, icicles formed in winter and tiny waterfalls in summer. These things are my strong memories of place, and I summon them quite often in my own fiction.

Looking past the personal experience I felt when reading Flight Behavior, I wondered how others were affected. One question that I often have to authors I interview is: Do you get much feedback from readers who say that your novel changed them in some way? The answers vary, but most authors agree that readers say they have an increased awareness of various ecological crises, including the climate catastrophe we are undergoing. Can this effect real change? One can only hope. In a “Climate Change and Storytelling” panel that I participated in on Earth Day 2017, at the West Vancouver Memorial Library, one of the questions was: Can fiction really change people’s minds? Among the panelists, we agreed that:

When we read fiction, sometimes it speaks to us at a level in which our heart gets involved. That emotional reaction is important. The type of fiction that has impact does so without necessarily the intent of the author. If the author writes a story that the reader likes, it can change the reader, in a small or large way.

So the emotional reaction is personal among readers, but some authors are superb at affecting the reader deeply. Kingsolver is an effective writer, not only for someone like me, who has history in the same place as where Flight Behavior takes place, but for others as well, regardless of where they’re from. I think readers are affected so much by this story because she makes characters and situations real, without the glossy coverup meant to romanticize them – in other words, she builds an ordinariness of life to which we utterly relate.

In the novel, Kingsolver’s heart-warming scenes are marked with lively and often humorous dialogue in circumstances that some might think of as mundane: a baby’s antics in a high chair, a conversation between two friends texting, the marital ho-hums between two adults. These everyday happenings that speak to the reader’s heart take place under the umbrella of a fabulous event, something that seems like a miracle: hundreds of thousands of beautiful orange monarch butterflies landing in Feathertown.

According to the New York Times:

Her subject is both intimate and enormous, centered on one woman, one family, one small town no one has ever heard of – until Dellarobia stumbles into a life-altering journey of conscience. How do we live, Kingsolver asks, and with what consequences, as we hurtle toward the abyss in these times of epic planetary transformation? And make no mistake about it, the stakes are that high. Post-apocalyptic times, and their singular preoccupation with survival, look easy compared with this journey to the end game. Yet we must also deal with the pinching boots of everyday life.

The main character, Dellarobia, is a young mother in a shaky marriage. She’s on the edge of tradition, lost and lonely, wanting to have an affair, unsure of where life is leading her. Like a butterfly, she transforms beneath the auspice of this miracle of monarchs – but that umbrella is really climate change, not a divine event. The reason the butterflies have migrated to Feathertown is that, due to global warming, their normal winter habitat in Mexico has flooded and they need to change their traditional route in order to roost and survive. When scientist Ovid Byron arrives to the mountain to study the butterflies, Dellarobia is fascinated by his exotic appearance as well as by his different world view, something she increasingly latches onto.

The New York Times points out:

Do global warming and intimations of doomsday tax the storytelling at times? Yes. But they share these pages with smaller-scale, deliciously human moments. Without overreaching she delivers line after line that can be at once beautiful, casual, wry, offbeat. Whether she is describing Dellarobia’s malcontented, ambitious in-laws or the environmentally earnest rubberneckers or Feathertown’s rumpled young preacher, she never employs, as she says of one character, the “ordinary tools of contempt.”

Kingsolver beautifully explores the conservative culture existing in some pockets of rural southern America, without pointing fingers at climate change deniers. Instead, she underscores the difficulty of a culture in transition. The New Yorker has a wonderful piece about Flight Behavior, which discusses a changing world as science and religion contradict each other but can learn to coexist:

“We all take information from sources we trust,” Kingsolver said. “Church communities are extremely important in the area where I live, and they’re not necessarily what outsiders picture when they say ‘Bible Belt.’ The Green Church movement is one of the rare places where the environmental conversation is successfully reaching across these difficult cultural divides.”

At one point in the book, Dellarobia tells her farmer husband, Cub, that “a lot of things are messed up” because of climate change. “Weather is the Lord’s business,” he replies. And yet it is Cub who puts up a fight when his father wants to log the forest hollow in which the butterflies have taken shelter.

This reminds me of a story Mom recently told me. We occasionally chat on Friday nights over red wine, and I learn incredible things from her, like old memories she has of the Kentucky hills. When I told her about how much my cousins and I loved climbing one mountain range after another when we were kids (the adults were usually occupied with their own things), Mom said she had done the same thing as a child. I had never known, until recently, that my dad’s mom belonged to a sorority in Louisville that opened the elementary school house my mother went to, years before my parents ever met, and started a tree-planting program for the school children, which Mom took part in. As a kid, she and her schoolmates planted pine trees on hills that had been environmentally devastated. When I was older, I remember Dad showing me the hills with those now-grown trees – but at the time I didn’t know his mother had helped start that program.

Mom was raised in a somewhat conservative household, though her mother was religious and her father, not so much. I still remember the dirty-eye Mammaw gave him when he didn’t go to church on Sunday. I have no clue what my grandparents would have thought of global warming if they were alive today, but they lived close to the land, so respected the land and ensured that trees were planted, water was clean, air was clean – as much as possible. The desperation of needing a job, in my pappaw’s time, however, meant he worked as a coal miner. But when I  listened to Pappaw Collins’ stories, I knew he was deeply in awe of nature. He helped me with numerous 4H projects that focused on wildlife. He knew the behaviors, appearances, and many facts about flora and fauna native to the Appalachians.  It felt right that Kingsolver addressed this fundamental issue of climate-change deniers, but put them into the light of real people going through, well, a metamorphosis.

The title Flight Behavior, and the practical metaphor of butterflies in a novel about people resisting, or adjusting to, climate change, is perfect, really. Monarch butterflies in diapause make a 3,000-mile round-trip migration only once. They go to the same areas, and sometimes even exact trees, that their parents and grandparents went to, without, of course, ever having been there before. A monarch has an innate sense (due to shorter days and changing light, fluctuating temperatures, and healthy host plants populations – and research has explored how antennae help keep time) of when to begin migration and where to go. Compare this journey to that taken by people who have learned information passed on from generation to generation, involving a slow-moving ideology, in a drastically changing world. At some point, they will transition too, and Kingsolver’s novel explores how while telling a wonderful story.

(Top image: Photo by Steven Hopp, downloaded from KCRW.)

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.

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