Artists and Climate Change

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Wild Authors: Susan M. Gaines

by Mary Woodbury Comments

This month’s spotlight is on Susan M. Gaines, who wrote Carbon Dreams, her first published novel – and she has just completed another. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, such as the North American Review and the Missouri Review, and in the anthologies Best of the West V and Sacred Ground: Writings About Home. She studied chemistry and oceanography before a love for literature lured her away from the lab, and her book, Echoes of Life: What Fossil Molecules Reveal about Earth History (Oxford University Press, 2009), employs narrative and literary prose to report on research in organic geochemistry. Currently she holds a post as writer-in-residence and co-director of the Fiction Meets Science program at the University of Bremen in Germany. Despite having spent much of her adult life abroad and found homes in Uruguay and Germany, Gaines regularly returns to her roots in northern California.

Carbon Dreams was published in 2001 and is set in the 1980s; it is one of the earliest works in the canon of contemporary novels dealing with climate change. And though the novel is now out of print, it is still available via Amazon from third-party bookstores. As I chatted with Gaines about this novel – and she provided a lot of in-depth thoughts about her writing, for which I’m grateful – she noted that she didn’t set out to write a book about anthropogenic climate change:

In the early 1990s, when I started thinking about the novel that would become Carbon Dreams, I wanted to write about someone for whom science, in particular organic chemistry, is a way of seeing – of understanding, rather than manipulating – nature. I wanted to tell a story about “doing science” as a creative process, about the beauty of deciphering biogeochemical cycles. At the same time, I was interested in altruism – the kind of altruism that makes an environmental activist, for example. Out of that combination of impulses, you get Tina, who is obsessed with esoteric knowledge about the origin of life and the state of the carbon cycle two hundred million years ago. And you get Chip, an organic farmer who is reading the newspapers and worried about the future of the planet.

She went further to say:

Ironically, when I started the book, I didn’t realize how controversial the science of climate change had become. I’d studied at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the mid-1980s, and as far as I knew, the anthropogenic build-up of CO2 was already established science. Revelle and Seuss had shown in 1957 that CO2 exchange between atmosphere and ocean was much slower than previously assumed, so that a greenhouse effect was likely, and Charles Keeling had been documenting the rise in atmospheric CO2 for decades – and they were all Scripps scientists.

When I went to the newspaper archives to see what Chip might be reading on the subject, I was shocked to find that the papers quoted a couple of scientists who cast doubt on what I thought was established knowledge. I tried to track down the scientific studies they referred to and found they had either never been published or had been quickly discredited in the same journals that had originally published them. That’s when this politicization of science, and the problems and responsibilities scientists have in speaking to the media, became the book’s major themes.

I set the story in the mid-eighties, a pivotal point in the history of this politicization, when we might still have done something to change the future we are now irrevocably committed to. Carbon Dreams is just a fiction in which I dramatized these issues, based on a random reading of newspaper archives and scientific papers – I didn’t realize how close I’d come to reality until the book was in press, when I stumbled on Ross Gelbspan’s journalistic exposé The Heat is On, which documented the oil industry’s media campaign to confuse the public’s understanding of climate change science.

It’s interesting to find earlier examples of the topic of climate change in fiction, before the current decade when so many authors have set out to tackle environmental catastrophes. New labels have come about to describe climate change in fiction – some fiction speculative, some literary. But before this time period, a few stories, like Gaines’s, went along with the climate science of the day. (See American Institute of Physics for a timeline of scientific convergence about global warming.) I have spoken with Arthur Herzog’s widow, for instance, who pointed out that when her late husband published Heat in the 1970s, it was after conferring with climate scientists who had been correlating carbon dioxide with global warming.

I have pointed out in this series that if we want to think of a powerful novel (in terms of negative impact, unfortunately) about climate change, we can look no further than to Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which played heavily into the climate denialist movement. The Union of Concerned Scientists debunked the science in the novel. Further, and this is why I say the novel had such impact, Crichton met with President Bush in 2006, two years after the novel was published, and, according to the New York Times:

In his new book about Mr. Bush, Rebel in Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush, Fred Barnes recalls a visit to the White House last year by Michael Crichton, whose 2004 best-selling novel, State of Fear, suggests that global warming is an unproven theory and an overstated threat…fueling a common perception among environmental groups that Mr. Crichton’s dismissal of global warming, coupled with his popularity as a novelist and screenwriter, has undermined efforts to pass legislation intended to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas that leading scientists say causes climate change…Mr. Crichton, whose views in State of Fear helped him win the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ annual journalism award this month, has been a leading doubter of global warming and last September appeared before a Senate committee to argue that the supporting science was mixed, at best.

Crichton’s State of Fear sold 1.5 million copies and reached number one on Amazon.com and number two on the New York Times Best-Seller List in 2005. It significantly helped to put into motion the climate denialist movement. Now that most people have come around to realize that climate change is a fact on the ground, there are numerous authors writing about it in fiction. Gaines was among the pioneers of this fiction, and I think that those of us hoping for another impactful novel – but one that reflects real science – could help turn the world away from fossil fuels. However, according to Gaines:

I think we need to be careful when we start thinking of the novel as an overt tool for activism. First, we run the danger of perverting the art and we get bad literature. And second, a novel is not transparent. It’s supposed to make you feel that it is true – it may even be true, if not real – but it’s fiction and has no responsibility to be real, or true. By definition.

There’s a natural tension between our responsibility to our subject matter – our duty to reveal the world as it is or may be – and our mandate as storytellers, as artists who use facts to make meaning however we see fit. I run a program that supports novelists who are writing about scientific concepts and issues, the idea being to give them access to the scientific worlds they are writing about so that they can balance those tensions responsibly and consciously. But the moment we lose track of that balancing act and start using our novels as polemics or educational devices as Michael Crichton did in his latter works, we are in trouble.

When Crichton started framing his thrillers as carefully researched works of investigative journalism by an expert – not as a metafictional literary trick, but as a literal background – readers started relying on them for information about scientific issues. He effectively turned his imaginative speculative fictions into powerful lies, as we saw when Congress invited him to give an “expert opinion” on climate change research, about which he was entirely unqualified to comment.

T.C. Boyle’s raging environmental novels, on the other hand, don’t masquerade as anything other than the artfully told tall tales they are. They invite readers to think about environmental issues in new ways precisely because they were not written, or framed, or presented as polemics. In A Friend of the Earth we simply empathize with this crazy old environmental activist who finds himself surviving in the world he’s failed to save from itself – and we can’t help but think about what we might do differently.

As we move into the era of actual climate change, struggling through the mayhem and trying to keep step with the ludicrous out-of-control experiment we’ve wrought on the earth’s biogeochemical systems – to paraphrase the final lines of Carbon Dreams – novelists can’t help but write about climate change even if they are not writing about climate change. The novel I just completed, The Last Naturalist and the Terrorists’ Daughter, is not about climate change. It is set in the recent past, not speculative. But it is narrated by a 22-year-old at the turn of the millennium, and climate change and biodiversity loss inform his character on every level: his perception of nature, his relationships with his parents and grandparents, his hopes for the future and his emerging understanding of the many ways in which history shadows and limits it.

As climate change becomes our daily reality, one might think that this whole discussion about a genre of fiction about it would become moot. And yet, even as I write this, the American media reports the devastation wrought by the latest rounds of weather mayhem without addressing climate change, and I have to marvel at our capacity to ignore it. So perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this discussion about the novelist’s role in reflecting on climate change is not moot at all. Perhaps we should all be heeding Amitav Ghosh’s highly visible but somewhat belated call to arms.

I have to agree with Gaines here, that it’s good for authors to pay attention to our world – specifically to injustice and neglect and abuse, whether economic, social, or environmental. Climate change is a condition of crisis in which we find ourselves, and authors will rise to the occasion to meet this reality in fiction. But good fiction is not preachy or didactic. I am reminded once more of a great piece in Slate Magazine, by John Luther Adams, a Pulitzer Prize (and Grammy) winning composer. He writes, in Making Music in the Anthropocene, that nature compels him to make art – in his case music:

As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself.

REVIEWS OF CARBON DREAMS

“Gaines, who has degrees in chemistry and oceanography, has boldly built the novel around challenging scientific theories…her use of complex concepts and true-to-life practice is inspired.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] story about the devastatingly serious issue of human-induced climate change…. A remarkable job of conveying what it’s really like to be a scientist, and to make scientific discoveries – not in the blink of an eye, as television or movies would have it, but with gradually shifting insight.” —C&E News

“When the heroine is a Latina organic chemist doing research that leads her inexorably into the politics of global climate change and the hero is an organic farmer who happens to be a Sierra Club member…it is difficult to resist.” —The Southern Sierran, Sierra Club Newsletter

“This remarkable book rewards us with a deeper appreciation of geology and oceanography at the same time that we’re engaged with a young woman scientist’s personal and ethical dilemmas…. With this particular blend of fiction and science Susan Gaines comes thrillingly close to inventing a fascinating new genre.” —Jean Hegland, author of Into the Forest

“At last, a book that integrates authentic scientific inquiry with the character-driven magic of good literary fiction….  A captivating story that places romantic love side-by-side with the love of sublime ideas.” —Frederick Reiken, author of The Odd Sea and Lost Legends of New Jersey

Carbon Dreams is more than a novel, it’s also a profound education in earth science. To read it is to be carried deep into the mind of a young scientist, and just as deep into the mysteries of global warming phenomena past and future.” —Louis B. Jones, author of Particles and Luckand California’s Over.

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.

Imagining Water, # 18: Writing the Future of Water

Science fiction writers create stories that take place in the future and include inventive settings and imaginative elements such as new universes and societies, time travel and extraterrestrial beings. American writer Robert Heinlein (1907 – 1988), often considered the “dean of science fiction writers” and author of classics, Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, referred to the genre as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” Effective science fiction challenges us to examine the physical, moral and political consequences of new technologies and scientific inventions as well as aspects of governance, society and human behavior. As global warming and climate change have become an increasingly important part of our collective consciousness, a number of science fiction writers have imagined how future worlds will function without adequate sources of water, the fundamental requirement for life.

Frank Herbert: Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) is the classic story of a society where water is almost non-existent.Often considered to be one of the best science fiction novels of all time, Dune is seton an inhospitable desert planet called Arrakis. The planet is populated by the Fremen, a species of human-like people who, in adapting to their arid environment, have developed behaviors that revolve around the conservation of water. Access to water is so critical to their existence that they consider the acts of spitting and shedding tears to be signs of extreme reverence to the receiver, since those who respond in this way are willingly releasing what is desperately needed to live. The Freman have even designed clothing that captures and recycles perspiration, and they regularly make what we would consider to be cruel life-and-death decision based on the needs of their whole community: they do not waste their limited supply of water on the wounded or fatally ill.

Rereading Dune recently while severe drought conditions were occurring over large areas of the Earth was an eerie experience and has reinforced my admiration for Frank Herbert who, as early as 1965, anticipated the aridification happening today.

Emmi Itäranta: Memory of Water

Interview with Emmi Itäranda, The Daily Quirk, January 2015

In her 2014 novel Memory of Water, contemporary Finnish author Emmi Itäranta has set her story of a near-waterless future society in a military state called New Quan, located in the far north of the Scandinavian Union. Residents of New Quan receive monthly water quotas, which are strictly enforced by water guards who execute those caught building illegal water pipes. Water is so valuable in Itäranta’s world that it is used as currency for food and other daily necessities.

Noria Kaitio, the book’s main character, is a young tea master. A “guardian of water and its servant,” she is responsible for maintaining a secret spring that has served the tea masters in her family for generations. Noria has found a series of discs from “the past world,” which tell the real, hidden story of what happened to the earth. They tell of “ruin and devastation, of oceans reaching towards the centres of the continents, swallowing land and fresh water. Millions fleeing their homes, wars fought over fuel resources revealed under the melting ice until the veins of the earth ran dry. People wounding their world until they lost it.”

In addition to water, a central theme running throughout the story is the moral dilemma many of the characters must face when they are given the option to betray their friends and neighbors in exchange for water rewards. The characters who make the choice to become informers of water violators must witness the dire consequences and live with their decisions for the rest of their lives.

I was very moved by the poignant passages in the novel that describe the yearnings of a people for a time when water flowed freely and snow and ice existed in their land. Noria described how:

I once did an experiment. I filled a bucket with water and emptied all the ice I found in the freezer into it, sneaked it into my room and locked the door. I pushed my hand into the icy wrap of water, closed my eyes and summoned the feel of past-world winters about which I had read so many stories. I called for white sheets of snow falling from the sky and covering the paths my feet knew, covering the house that held the memory of cold in its walls and foundations. I imagined the snowfall coating the fells, changing the craggy surfaces into landscapes as soft as sleep and as ready to drown you.

In another passage, Noria relates how tea masters have always told a story passed on from previous generations that described how water has “a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that has happened in this world from the time before humans until this moment.” Other artists in other disciplines who are working with the topic of water have considered this concept, including spoken word artist, Roni Horn, whom I’ve highlighted in a previous post. Horn imagined how the Thames River contains “not just the rats and sewage but the viruses and bacteria like hepatitis, dysentery, E. coli, biles and even a remnant of the plague.”

Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta’s powerful science fiction novel, ultimately refers to both water’s memory of everything that has already occurred and the memory of what the world was like when fresh water flowed freely and abundantly.

Paolo Bacigalupi: The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi

Another speculative, contemporary version of a future society without enough water, American author Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2015 science-fiction thriller The Water Knife, is set in the American Southwest of the near future. States experiencing life-threatening drought are fighting over access to the limited waters of the Colorado River. Texas is uninhabitable; Nevada and Arizona are competing for water rights; California is plotting to take all of the water; water refugees are seeking sanctuary, and; Las Vegas stands as the model community where water is constantly recycled.

The Water Knife reads like an updated version of the classic western with gun-slinging bad-guys-for-hire protecting the water rights of corporations. Angel Velasquez is the Water Knife, whose job is to find and keep as much water as he can for Las Vegas through whatever means possible. Angel feels no remorse for the lives he has taken or the work that he has done. In a 2015 Kansas City Star interview, Bacigalupi describes his fascination with how people in dire circumstances make moral choices that they otherwise would not make. As in Itäranta’s Memory of Water, characters in The Water Knifemust decide how far they will go to survive.

Frank Herbert, Emmi Itäranta and Paolo Bacigalupi have written three chilling versions of societies where the once-fertile land has turned to desert, water has become a valuable commodity, corporations and governments use access to water to control populations, wars are fought over water rights, and individuals are forced to betray their friends and family in order to survive. As effective science fiction writers do, they have provided us with a realistic warning of what is at stake. We would be foolish to dismiss their predictions as simply stories that are meant to entertain us when the real world tells us otherwise. In just the first two months of 2019, journalists from the New York Times have reported how India has threatened to “cut back on water flowing through its rivers to arid Pakistan” as a weapon of retaliation for a suicide bomb attack, how “In the face of a prolonged drought, the federal government could step in and reduce water use in the Southwest” and how “around the world, vanishing glaciers will mean less water for people and crops in the future.” Just as visual artists, musicians, playwrights, poets and other creatives have used their art to call attention to the predicted impact of climate change, so do these science fiction writers appeal to our love of stories in order to help us understand what could be the future of water.

For more on Emmi Itäranta, see our previous article by Mary Woodbury.

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are popping up 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, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides, our new plastic seas and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

Lessons on the Anthropocene from Dionysus and Mushrooms

As the International Day of Forests dawns, Persistent Acts reflects on American and human questions in the face of climate change, through two authors grappling with conventional notions of growth, prosperity, and progress. I call on The Mushroom at the End of the Worldfor cues we can take from plants, and discuss inspirations for Madeleine George’s latest play Hurricane Diane.

Earlier this year, I finished Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. With the tagline “On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins,” this book called to me, and is a beautiful portrayal of “arts of noticing.” Through anthropological study, Tsing highlights the matsutake mushroom, and the biology, economics, and socio-politics which make this mushroom possible. Despite only growing in human-disturbed forests, matsutake is integral to a global commodity chain from Oregon, US to Kyoto, Japan, and beyond. The book zeroes in on this one type of fungus, weaving ethnographies from the places where it’s grown, eaten, and treasured as a gift. Tsing asks provocative questions for this age of the Anthropocene: “What kinds of human disturbances can we live with? Despite talk of sustainability, how much chance do we have for passing a habitable environment to our multispecies descendants?” Her arts of noticing remind me of my human perspective, however limited.

By exploring some very particular mushrooms, Tsing traces alternative ways of being, producing, and consuming in our world. All the while, she maps our current climate situation:

We might look around to notice this strange new world, and we might stretch our imaginations to grasp its contours. This is where mushrooms help. Matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home.

Tsing looks at patterns of matsutake growth (the environmental conditions for optimal mushroom growing), harvesting (who are the people picking the mushrooms, and how did they get to where they are), selling (what are the systems that sustain a matsutake economy and how do they function in relation to mainstream commodities), cooking (how do cultures cherish matsutake and bring about optimal flavors), and beyond. Throughout Mushroom, I felt called to slow down, take notice, and dig past my cultural constructs of how the world is supposed to work.

Image: Unsplash.

Climate changes everything, as Tsing highlights through mushrooms. She utilizes climate change as an opportunity, an implication to expand our individual and collective imaginations. Earlier this month, I experienced a play with a comparable mission: Hurricane Diane, presented at New York Theatre Workshop and co-produced by WP Theater. Featuring a world where Dionysus – the Greek god of fertility, nature, and theatre – returns to earth, the play employs specificity to pinpoint societal questions about climate change. I had the privilege to chat with playwright Madeleine George about her latest play, which Vulture calls a “Tragicomedy of Eco-Collapse.”

Michelle Beck, Danielle Skraastad, Mia Barron and Kate Wetherhead in Hurricane Diane presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Our conversation began with mushrooms, our cultural revulsion to fungus, and the life-affirming qualities of the species in its role as a necrophage. The origins of Hurricane Diane rest with a different organic matter, apple trees, as described in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. For Madeleine, questions arose out of Pollan’s description of Johnny Appleseed as the American Dionysus: “What if Dionysus actually came back today? What would the god’s agenda be? What would a bacchanal in a suburban backyard look like?” In the play, Diane (Dionysus, disguised as a permaculture gardener) returns to the modern world to gather mortal followers and restore the Earth to its natural state – starting with four housewives in suburban New Jersey. The play is set in the specific New Jersey suburb where Hurricane Diane was commissioned. This town was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy, and Madeleine spent time with residents talking about what has changed for them since the superstorm almost ten years ago.

Rooted in the theatre tradition of Greek tragedy – Madeleine considers the play to be “a sequel to The Bacchae” – she also utilizes the American tradition of sitcom. Though there’s no laugh track accompanying Hurricane Diane, the play is deeply hilarious, and had me laughing from Dionysus’ opening monologue, through the introduction to each of the housewives. While sitcom has particular associations (like being reactionary), Madeleine utilizes this “stealthy American tradition” to drive mainstream thoughts and hook us, as “ideas can move from edges to the center.” I felt a certain level of comfort, because I’d laughed at and with the characters. The end of the play exemplifies a certain notion of comfort, in the context of “how we handle our thoughts and feelings about climate change.” What Hurricane Diane offers is “not a play to tell us what we should do,” but time and space to hold questions like “how are we tolerating what we’re doing wrong.”

Mia Barron in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tsing summarizes: “We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival.” Hurricane Diane reminds me why I make theatre about climate change, and highlights the potential for theatrical spaces to shift consciousness. Madeleine offers an example of a climate play that tackles nuanced questions without relying on doomsday images. By the end of the play, we see an individual gripping onto her remnant notions of consolation. Her outburst reminded me of how easily our culture forgets the limits of our individualism; what Tsing calls out as the potential dangers of fantasizing “counterfactually that we each survive alone.”

As a species, and as part of a larger ecosystem, we need each other to sustain the conditions for life on earth. Through specific narratives, characters, and geographic location – like with Mushroom and Hurricane Diane – I’ve found some universal questions for our current era, about what kind of world we want (and are able) to live in. I’m taking the optimistic route, because we can’t go it alone, agreeing with Madeleine that “from wherever we’re standing, we can make a difference.”

Danielle Skraastad in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

(Top Image: Becca Blackwell, Danielle Skraastad, Kate Wetherhead, and Michelle Beck in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

Wild Authors: Brian Burt

When I first talked with author Brian Burt a couple years ago, we sat in on a SFF World panel about climate change in fiction, and I was surprised at the things we had in common: we both hail from Indiana (go Hoosiers!), still dream of our golden (albeit separate) journeys to Ireland, and love red wine. And we like cycling and hiking. After a few talks about writing, I invited Brian to become a moderator at our Google+newsgroup, “Ecology in Literature and the Arts.” Despite things in common, I was even more impressed that a debut novelist had had such success at creating a following for his books.

Brian’s Burt’s biography: While on a consulting assignment in Dublin, Ireland, Brian became sufficiently inspired by the magical scenery and the rich literary tradition to try writing his own short stories. He had more than twenty science fiction and fantasy tales published in small press anthologies, genre magazines, and online publications over the years. Along the way, a short story entitled “The Last Indian War” won the Gold Award (grand prize) in the Writers of the Future Contest, and a dark fantasy story called “Phantom Pain” received an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. These encouraging experiences finally gave him the motivation to try his hand at a full-length novel.

That debut novel, Aquarius Rising Book 1: In the Tears of God, won the 2014 EPIC eBook Award for Science Fiction. It was followed by Aquarius Rising Book 2: Blood Tide, also released from Double Dragon Publishing, which won the 2016 Readers’ Favorite Gold Award for Science Fiction. Book 3: The Price of Eden was recently published. This trilogy of novels stems from Brian’s passion for environmental themes, exploring a potential future in the wake of accelerating climate change when a disastrous attempt to reverse global warming goes horribly wrong. The series focuses on human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians, who have built thriving reef communities among the drowned human cities along the coasts but are caught in an escalating struggle with human scientists determined to restore the continental wastelands at any cost.

From the following passage in the trilogy, you might see how hard it is to put these books down – how myth-building to page-turning thrill starts to suspend the reader immediately.

We were born in the tears of God.

When the First Creator wept at the fate of His Creation, His tears fell like burning rain to melt the polar ice and swell the seas, the cradle of all life. His grief swallowed the mighty human cities of the coast and gave them over to the realm of Mother Ocean. Humanity, who did not aggrieve the Maker out of malice but out of ignorance, wished to atone for their sins against the Earth. We are that atonement. We are Humankind’s offering to the First Creator, the Maker of All. The Great Father-a man, and nothing more-crafted his transforming virus and infected his own kind, so that we might be born as the children of Man and Mother Ocean. Humanity became the Second Creator, Aquarius the Second Creation, and we the stewards of its bounty.

We owe much to Man, who is our father and our brother. We must honor our debt to him. But we must always remember this: he who has the power to Create also has the power to Destroy.

—Delphis, Third Pod Leader of Tillamook Reef Colony, from a speech to commemorate the Fiftieth Aquarian Birth Day

You can read excerpts of the first two books at the Dragonfly Library, here and here.

In the series are various human and hybrid species living in a futuristic world where global warming and geo-engineering have greatly altered the planet ecologically and socially. Earth’s land is irrevocably dry and barren, making survival harsh. Seas have risen and slashed the coastal populations with devastation. Scientists create human-dolphin hybrids that can adapt to a climate-changed world. The creation of hybrids, however, also introduces class differences and other battles among different factions – and, unlike in some climate novels where technology has gone by the wayside, this series has developed science such as bio-tech and chemical warfare.

In the first book, human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians are living among reef colonies where cities used to be. Ocypode the Atavism, a genetic throwback, holds the key to why the Aquarians begin dying to an “invisible weapon” known as the Medusa Plague. Ocypode works with allies to save the coasts and their inhabitants. In Part II, Blood Tide, Megalops (an Aquarian) seeks revenge for losing his wife and daughter to the plague; he unleashes a Vendetta Virus that turns live humans into Aquarian corpses. Ocypode, hero from the first book, battles again to stop Megalops’s genocidal plague. In the final book, Price of Eden (published in June 2017), the civil war has caused mass casualties and triggers further hostility. The tribes of whales who “sing an ancient prophecy of Storm-Slayer, a legendary child of Mother Ocean and Mother Earth, who is destined to defuse the conflict and save the world” offer hope. In the end, we see rays of peace, but at what cost?

Brian’s world-building is unique, and numerous readers have given kudos to the trilogy.

I was also impressed with Burt’s imaginative ideas about biosculpting, or what we might call species manipulation. Over and over, throughout the story, we see examples of creatures altered in stunning, horrifying, and amazing ways to serve the needs of the plot. —Sandra Girouard

Readers should anticipate a heady combination of action and intrigue based on the events of Book One, in a post-apocalyptic setting that questions heroes, leaders, and a looming war between Mother Earth and Mother Ocean. Based in a world that’s survived climate change, the impact of loneliness, life-or-death decision-making processes, and the effects of ongoing conflict illustrate the very different challenges of handling interactions between two worlds almost inhabiting the same body of Earth, making Blood Tide a top recommendation for readers who like “climate change” dystopian stories with more than a dose of philosophical reflection paired with nonstop crisis mode style action. —Midwest Book Review

The rich descriptions of the world envelope one’s senses with ocean beauty, kelp forests, and fantastical creatures dancing in the light and shadow.

When I asked Brian about this trilogy, he said:

The last novel in my Aquarius Rising trilogy (Price of Eden) ends on an optimistic note, despite the sometimes dark currents that flow through the trilogy in general. I think this is vital, personally. There are so many sources of dismal news, so many depressing scientific developments; I think it’s crucial to look for a light in the darkness, to emphasize that we as a species still have a chance to chart a course to a better future rather than a dystopia.

He is not the only author with belief in human survival, despite the ecological catastrophes we have brought on. He also writes psychological suspense and plays with our heart strings when it comes to recognizing both difference and similarities among individuals – and encourages that during disaster if we work together, rather than apart, we might just have a chance.

And Brian recognizes that he is not alone as an author writing about climate change. In his article “Can Eco-fiction Turn the Tide?” he writes:

Can fiction of this kind succeed where raw, unadorned facts have failed to convince so many Americans? I don’t honestly know. But I do believe in the power of story, of imagination, to move us. So do many, many fiction writers across many genres. Climate change is daunting when it acidifies our oceans, destroys ancient reefs, melts polar ice, and leads to relentless sea level rise that threatens to swallow coastal cities. Let’s hope that the combination of science fact and fiction can succeed where either, alone, seems doomed to fail.

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.

Treefxxxers – in a Climate of Change

Sheffield Hallam University in South Yorkshire, England, recently presented a student performance produced by Doppelgangster, a company that has become infamous for their avant-garde theatrical interventions into climate complacency. I went along, intrigued to see how this collaboration was going to work, particularly in relation to the community uprising against Sheffield’s tree cull led by Sheffield Tree Action Groups (STAG), which the show was responding to.

The acronym’s irony, combined with the arboreal loss, was not lost on me; with my own sci/art protagonist, The King of the Sea Trees, murmuring encouragement from West Wales as I trudged through Northern rain. The King of the Sea Trees is a mythical being who takes the form of a stag and speaks through poetry about environmental change, pollution and eco-responsibility. He haunts a submerged forest along the Welsh coastline, tending to the fallen and forgotten trees. His image, that of disembodied antlers, is plastered all around this city, as if watching from the sidelines.

The Performance Lab entrance was hidden away on the side of the building too. The  approach wasn’t quite like a Brith Gof bus ride into a darkening forest, which was how my first experience of a site-specific production began back in the early 1990’s, but it did disrupt assumptions about where access to a theatre should be. In this, it showcased the work in an official building whilst simultaneously breaking up our route to expectation. Inside, the foyer was lined with related propaganda and computer screens playing loops of scene snippets: young people in masks, felling an invisible array of trunks.

The tech standard was big, yet the view of it was otherwise: these were just every day screens, lined up like miniature versions of Pearson and Brooke’s gods in a recent production of The Iliad by National Theatre Wales. A row of computers as if in a college study hall. The audience seemed to bypass them warily, engaging only from a distance despite being within easy reach, interacting more comfortably with the traditionally-styled political statements plastered over unstable benches.

Photo by Erin Kavanagh.

Some attendees were clearly locals, clad with matching logos in defense of the 17,500 trees on Sheffield Council’s death row. Others, such as the representative from National Theatre Wales (and myself), had come from further afield. Undergraduate shows tend not to be out there in the “real” world, let alone in response to a £2.2 billion street project, or invite review, so this experiment held intricate layers of both professional and personal risk. Such risk is essential if the practice of theatre is to develop with the experienced and the emerging side by side. To create a performance with young people, both for them and a diverse city demographic, was a bold move for all concerned.

The value here is perhaps in giving alternative voices some control over their own platform. Encouraging political eloquence may seem frightening to those who wish to maintain the status quo, but for those who take the long view, educating all sides can lead to a more robust democracy. This is becoming an ever more pertinent demand as climate change debate rises in line with the seas.

All at the Lab seemed unified in our uncertainty about how to approach this show, with parents eyeing the direct challenge to sensibilities that the few visible flyers for Treefxxxers blatantly advertised.

Once the stage was set, Dr. Tom Payne, lecturer of Performance Studies at the university and co-director of Doppelgangster, took control, suggesting that we read up on the show via social media, which was the preferred medium for the students involved. This was instead of using up paper for  printed programs. It’s solid advice – and I urge you to follow the link and do the same.

Thus contextualized, he ushered us inside…

…where we filed quietly around the edge of a floor level stage, beneath huge photographs of the cast under which they each sat; art refocusing reality.

We edged along to a raised seating area, supervised at the decks by Doppelgangster’s other co-director, Tobias Manderson-Galvin . There was a friendly air of anticipation, not the usual theatre-going “must play this cool” attitude anywhere in sight. Yet it was a fragile space, the acting out of a Proof of Concept regarding what happens if… What happens if an established company puts young performers in the driving seat? What happens if students are encouraged to politicize themselves? What happens if site-specific theatre is inside an actual theatre, designed and acted by people who are only transient residents? What happens if the narrative is still being formed right up to Beginners Please…

The precarious nature of this collaboration was perhaps not on everyone’s minds, but the vulnerability of being on a stage with no wings was surely more than enough. Particularly when the front row was also the apron. All were exposed. Responsibility weighed heavy in the dry iced air.

The students on stage tried not to fidget. So did we.

Once the show began, any concern I may have had that this might require a large dose of tolerance, was soon expelled. My experience of academically-centered theatre is a mixed bag. This though, was certainly different.

We were immediately engaged by two hosts: a badger on the brink of death and the ghost of a wolf. Faded and fading inhabitants of woodland, figures of both public fear and public support. The exchange between these two was a strong opening – albeit somewhat bewilderingly abstract.

“Bewilderingly abstract” could describe much of what followed. However, a willingness to do away with ideas of chronology and scene cohesion allowed for the authentic randomness to speak for itself. It reflected notions of fragmentary unification, taking us back again to the work of performer Mike Pearson as we were partially submersed into a flurry of meta-stories; all held together with a score by Jules Pascoe that kept momentum fresh and unflinchingly loud.

The set was similarly direct, costumes were second skins to their wearers which gave the ambiance of a documentary, albeit a color-coordinated one. All movement was punchily choreographed by Sarah Lamb; not too smooth though, each person’s style shone through despite a general synchronization. Initially I found this annoying; but it rapidly won me around, resulting in my appreciating the original quirks and mis-timings as points of heightened interest rather than deviance from some polished visage.

The overall style was somewhat burlesque, a contemporary vaudeville embodying a political claim. For my taste, there was perhaps a little over indulgence regarding the subjects of Sex and Death, with an obvious satisfaction being gained from mocking up intercourse, and salacious verbal profanity. Whilst in some respects this detracted from my engagement, it still managed to relay an honesty that was effective. I’m still not entirely sure how they did that. Maybe it was that this was genuinely who and how their generation were in that moment; youth caught between procreation and destruction. The provocations were not superficial but a statement about human fragility paired with the mortality of nature at the hands of Big Brother. A fight led mainly by the city’s older inhabitants, to whom they were speaking out in solidarity. It was an accurate (re)presentation of collective frustration – offset with some beautifully poignant moments and splashes of inciteful humor (especially the song, where a dogged determination to fail made the whole thing a total success).

It’s rare to get an audience this supportive, so when a person was called out to participate directly by marrying an apple tree-that-wasn’t-actually-a-tree (and was already dead), this was met with cheers. Treehugga, the gentleman in question, did rather steal the limelight from that moment on. A big burly chap with quick wit, he was able to quip and banter as a bridge between watchers and players. This could easily have intimidated the actors, but instead, they bounced off his presence like true professionals. It was also extraordinarily funny – even it didn’t make much actual sense.

Perhaps sense-making is overrated. Perhaps we need more opportunities to let the abstract silent screams from our psyches take character and reach out – antlered and dancing. Throughout, the soundtrack held this space, even when the speakers and microphones briefly went mute… because the performers just paused, transforming it into a deliberate hiatus. It’s moments like that which make one realize that audience, actors and crew are breathing together to create a shared world; and that for me, is the true magic of theatre.

Meanwhile, the STAG campaign continues to try and protect Sheffield’s trees; habitats are being fought for flora, fauna and the folk who live amongst them. Unlawful arrests, investigations and inspections, a disease resistant Elm. The fight for unpolluted air is more than an aesthetic desire to see leafy terraces; it’s a collective call to breathe. Who knows if the students from Treefxxxers will continue to add their voices to this battle cry but by taking to the stage, they’ve had an opportunity to begin.

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Erin Kavanagh is a poet and Creative Archaeologist who specializes in Sci/Art collaboration, deep-mapping and site-specific communication. With a background in philosophy, theatre and geoscience, her work is inherently interdisciplinary, with a particular focus on lost and submerged narratives. She is also currently a PhD Candidate at Sheffield Hallam University in English and Performance, funded by NECAH.

Making Climate Change Sexy: A Journey

As a cartoonist working on climate change communication for three years now, I’d like to share a story about what I’ve learned making a book about climate change into something people actually want to read.

On November 30, 2018, I launched a book on climate change called Eerste Hulp Bij Klimaatverandering in Dutch, or First Aid for Climate Change. The first printing consisted of more than two thousand copies and they sold within two months. I’m a nobody and I have no publisher. I made this book together with five other nobodies. Nonetheless, we sold over a thousand copies before the book was even finished. I’m still baffled by this. Proud of course. But mostly, I’d like to share some insights on how I’m trying to make climate change sexy.

Climate change communication is a science too

Back in 2015, nine months before the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris (COP21), I got involved with climate change activists in the Netherlands, where I reside. After feeling lonely and disempowered for most of my life, it was great to finally find a crowd of people who cared as much as I did about the biggest challenge of our time. But it also struck me that we weren’t reaching a big enough audience with our actions. Since I already had an interest in psychology, I enrolled in a course about Psychology for Sustainability, offered by an initiative called Impact Academy in Utrecht. I vividly remember sitting in the room together with sustainability professionals and being told that all of us present were a complete underrepresentation of the larger population. We all suffered from a condition, scientifically known as “morally deviant behavior.” If there was one insight that helped me most, it was this one: Not everybody thinks like… me.

Studying the psychology behind climate apathy, I learned that most people simply avoid depressing news. But, people sensitive enough to engage with climate change and feel the pain, anguish, and terror that comes with knowing our window of opportunity to save the planet is closing fast while politicians argue over semantics, don’t avoid it. So there’s a gap there that’s hard to bridge. It turns out that there are effective ways of communicating climate change and downright useless ways of doing it. Because when you try to communicate, the most important lesson is to know your audience.

Learn from entrepreneurs

Caring about the person you’re directing the message to isn’t something activists are generally very interested in, and neither are artists. But there’s a group of people that does nothing else: entrepreneurs. Having been an entrepreneur myself, I was acquainted with some marketing literature and tricks of the trade. That’s why I started with defining a target audience. This quickly became: People who care but are too overwhelmed to become active. Who feel guilt and shame for not doing enough. The goal of the book: to deliver something that would make people happy. No guilt. No depression. Sounds impossible, so it gets the attention right away. A neat marketing trick.

I call the book a tongue-in-cheek self-help guide for people suffering from Pre-Traumatic Climate Panic. It’s a book for people who love the planet… and a good steak. People who care about coral reefs so much… they want to fly there. There’s no judgement, just acknowledgement that it’s a hard position to be in. The book addresses this cognitive dissonance with cartoons to make the subject matter easy to digest and fun to look at. Also, by making fun of literally everyone – activists and deniers alike – people won’t feel excluded.

However, the book is most definitely about system change and taking responsibility. It never shies away from the urgency of the issue. But it focuses on happiness, values, and purpose to help the reader carve out a new life that will not only be more sustainable… but also much more fun. It’s about compassionate, non-judgmental activism.

First the audience, then the product

Getting a book, any book, to sell like ours did, without a publisher, is no small feat. It doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s been three years of campaigning: social media posts, meeting other people, talking about the project at gatherings, building a newsletter fanbase, testing the concept, engaging with potential audiences. During this time, I stretched beyond my comfort zone and took up stand-up comedy, to further develop my presentation skills. Storytelling is everything.

This work made crowdfunding to cover sustainable printing costs in the summer of 2018 a smooth ride. We got 130 percent funded and the more people supported the project, the more people got interested. Harnessing herd mentality: another marketing trick. We received generous support from leading Dutch sustainable entrepreneurs, and major Dutch NGOs placed large pre-orders. As for the book itself? I drew 80 percent of it between July and November 2018. In my humble opinion, the biggest lesson for anyone doing climate change art is: don’t focus on climate facts or on your product. Focus on people and relationships.

Rise to attention

The day after the book launched, we were featured in one of the largest national newspapers in the Netherlands. We captured a lot of people’s attention. With climate change now firmly on the agenda, thanks to Greta Thunberg and Youth for Climate, media attention continues. Our book has been given to members of the City Council in Amsterdam, libraries are purchasing it, even the National Meteorological Agency of the Netherlands has ordered copies. Now that our second edition is out, we are planning for an English translation.

Our success is not only due to the quality of the book, of course. Great timing is essential and can hardly be planned. But it does make clear that in an era where the debate on climate change is often heated and filled with hatred and fear, the power of art can still make a difference.

I hope sharing this journey can help you bring your own project to life!

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Anabella Meijer works as a visual storyteller, cartoonist, and graphic recorder, which basically means she gets paid to doodle during meetings. Turning complexity into attractive visuals is her core business. Besides that, she’s been specializing in psychology and communication on climate change since early 2015. Because she hasn’t always felt empowered about system change, she has a keen intuition on how to get there. For this book project, she joined forces with co-authors Rolf Schuttenhelm (science journalist), Hille Takken (human interest journalist) and Neža Krek (career choice mentor). Tim Witte (campaign video), Ruben Stellingwerf (overall concept and design), Ditta op den Dries (editing) and Aral Voskamp (sales and logistics) further supported the project.

Reflecting on (the) Rising Horizon

by David Cass

We have passed the turning point in terms of environmental change. To achieve the colossal aims of reducing our global average temperature, slowing sea level rise and decarbonising the planet, we must all do what we can: no matter how seemingly insignificant our actions may seem. For artists, this truly does come down to making conscious choices between using acrylic (plastic) paints or natural (handmade and completely lead free) oils; toxic resins or eco-resin alternatives; turpentine or zest-based cleaners; new papers or recycled papers… even one’s studio lighting should be considered. Every decision counts.

My most recent exhibition at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh – part of my ongoing series Rising Horizon – comprised over 150 paintings. The exhibition discussed sea level rise and in the majority of the artworks, it did this not only visually but through material choices too.

As an artist, I’ve received most coverage thus far for my repurposing of found objects – doors, table tops, drawers, street signs, matchboxes – into the foundations of paintings. These works have explored environmental themes both historic and contemporary. Every artwork I have created since leaving Edinburgh College of Art in 2010 has been made from recycled materials, and recently I’ve aimed to present commentary on sustainability and the need for a circular economy.

Years of Dust & Dry, gouache on 1750s wooden door, 2013.

Rising Horizon was perhaps the most far-reaching (by this I mean non-site-specific) exhibition I’ve ever created. The series describes the coming global crisis that is sea level rise: not exclusive to any one coastline. True, we see certain locations already impacted but overall, the rise affects the World Ocean.

Rising Horizon followed another exhibition of mine which described Venice, Italy as an example of localised inundation: a result of environmental, anthropogenic change. The series examined the tide-marked brick and plaster façades of Venetian buildings as we see them today: still exquisite but eroding, stapled together, plastered with advertisements and often covered with graffitis admonishing cruise ships and tourists. Venetians are already feeling the impact of sea level rise: many have permanently evacuated their ground floors and basements. Others have had the foundations of their homes raised hydraulically. Underwater walls are treated with waterproof (ironically, plastic) resin.

Waterline, Venice (detail), Pełàda Series, 2016.

This Venice series used the face as a vehicle to convey change, while the ongoing project Rising Horizon zooms out to illustrate, quite simply, a rising horizon line. The artworks in the show were hung so as to position the viewer within the exhibition: within the water. One simple goal behind the series overall, was to chart a gradually rising horizon-line, but we chose not to display the works along a linear path. In part, this was to mirror the non-linear way in which sea levels are rising. Ice melt, for example, is not a steady stream. Rather, run-offs happen in waves.

Rising Horizon, The Scottish Gallery, February 2019.

Scale and materials matter. Understated expression is important to me. Individually – no matter the scale, no matter how turbulent the sea surface – my paintings aim to be subtle. They do not shout. But when taken together, the obsession which lies underneath is evident. Surfaces are worked and re-worked, paint is applied and then removed and re-applied. This repetitive approach mirrors the functional past lives of the surfaces themselves: motorway signs, tins, advertisement plaques… these items aren’t fragile, they were built to withstand time and the elements.

The paints are handmade and the metal panels I painted upon for this show are recycled, reclaimed. I used these items to reference the impact of metal production on the environment: 6.5 percent of CO2 emissions derive from iron and steel production. Similarly, I painted upon panels made from re-formed plastic waste. One single square meter panel contains around 1,500 yogurt cups, for example. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, plastics will be responsible for nearly 15 percent of global carbon emissions. This predicted increase will lead to plastics overtaking the aviation sector, which is currently accountable for 12 percent of global carbon emissions.

Certainly, the most discussed piece in the show was a painted copper boiler. Titled Horizon 42%, this piece directly references the warming of (sea)water. The percentage is the proportion which thermal expansion contributes to overall sea level rise. It’s also the target of Scotland, my home country, which aims for a 42% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (and an 80% reduction by 2050). An apt metaphor, as the boiler itself came from a Scottish home.

Horizon 42%, oil on copper water boiler, 2018.

We dismantled the exhibition on February 25 and 26. Those were the warmest winter days on record in the UK. Radio stations were asking “how high will it get?” and the media used headlines like “UK basks in warmest February on record.” One newspaper dubbed the month “FABruary.” The media narrative was all wrong: this was not normal. At this exact time the previous year, we’d been suffering from extreme snow. The record-breaking temperatures should have been cause for alarm, not celebration.

Artists need to contribute to the global and growing bank of environmentally conscious artworks that carry a responsible narrative. The fact that art has the potential to convey messages makes it an essential tool for society. This website is one perfect example of the power of art.

Top: gouache paint upon assembled wooden finds, 2013. Bottom: oil paint upon metal panel, 2018.

Throughout the exhibition, I witnessed public appetite for bitesize environmental facts. My work will continue to explore themes of change; indeed, my next project is a collaboration with fine artist Joseph Calleja, in partnership with the estate of artist Robert Callender. We are exhibiting a series of works in An Talla Solais gallery in Ullapool, Scotland, and we’ve just launched an Open Call, seeking works from artists in response to environmental change. Consider applying (there’s no fee).

I have also just launched a petition. Given my location, it is UK-based but my hope is that it will gauge public interest in having a regular Environment News broadcast on radio. Here in the UK, we really are not hearing enough about climate change in mainstream news.

(Top image: Oil paint on re-formed plastic waste panel (detail), 2019.)

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David Cass’s graduation exhibition at Edinburgh art school (2010) was created using exclusively recycled materials. As a result of that show, he received a scholarship to Florence, where he combined this process of re-purposing with topics relating to environmental extremes. He spent four years exploring the history and legacy of Florence’s 1966 Great Flood, which led him to Venice and a study of its rising lagoon. Soon after, working in the Almería arid-zone, he added the topic of drought to the exchange. His recent projects (such as Rising Horizon) are more universal in their environmental outlook. They take the form of paintings, drawings, collages and sculptures – never using new materials.

An Interview with Photographer Virginia Hanusik

Featured imaged: Lake Verret, Louisiana. Photo by Virginia Hanusik.

Happy “almost spring” to those of you in the Northern hemisphere, and a happy “almost autumn” to those of you in the South.

Happy wishes aside, I’m sorry to report some sad news: This February we mourn the passing of the “godfather of climate science,” Wallace Broecker, who helped popularize the term “global warming.” According to the BBC, Broecker “spent a career that spanned nearly 67 years at Columbia University in New York.” The scientist published an important study in 1975 that helped usher in a new era of thinking about the effects of carbon dioxide on global temperatures. Professor Broecker died on February 18th at the age of 87.

His legacy is felt by scientists, activists, climate communicators, artists, and writers around the world, all of whom continue to produce exciting and vital work that speaks to the urgency of climate change.

This month I have for you a wonderful interview with one of those artists. Virginia Hamusik is a photographer and architecture researcher whose work explores the effects of climate change on various landscapes. You may have seen her photos in The Atlantic, Places Journal, The Times-Picayune, Oxford American, NPR, or Fast Company.

Your project, A Receding Coast, features photographs of “the architecture of climate change.” Please tell us what you mean by that phrase.

We are living in the Anthropocene, which is characterized by human intervention on the natural environment. Climate change is a byproduct of human intervention and is shaping how we build, and will only continue to shape that process more so.

Architecture symbolizes society’s values: it is a physical manifestation of what we consider important and how we live our lives. When I’m describing my work photographing “the architecture of climate change,” I’m referring to the structural response to environmental issues.

Capturing the architecture of this moment is important because we are consciously changing the way we build and live based on environmental conditions, for arguably the first time in American history. I studied architectural history in college, and I approach my photography work in a similar way; I’m thinking about the structural details that describe larger cultural values.

What have you learned about how the communities you photograph are preparing – or not – for future extreme weather events and sea-level rise?

I think it’s important to understand that there isn’t one universally understood solution to the problem. It’s more common to hear about disagreements on the causes of climate change – or if it’s even happening – but with my work, I’ve become much more aware of the various types of approaches municipalities, organizations, and individuals have developed to combat the effects.

There are hundreds of challenges. Some challenges are specific to a community’s geography, some are not. There’s no one-size-fits-all fix, and I think that’s something the resilience field is focusing on too much. Organizations have done an important job of creating shared knowledge among cities, but there’s no global, local, or even state standard to how various communities (coastal and inland) should be re-imagining planning processes. As a result, some communities will suffer more than others due to inaction or policy failures. I’ve been following the work of scholars like Jesse Keenan at Harvard who are researching the impact of “climate gentrification” in Miami. The economics of coastal climate adaptation are already working as they were designed to –  benefiting those with more affluence and means to seek higher ground, and leaving poorer communities with few options but to be even more vulnerable to flooding.

In another project, Liminal Frontier, you explore the change in how people are thinking about coastal land. What has surprised you the most about what you’ve learned or witnessed?

Since this body of work is a lot larger in scale, I’ve spent a lot of time organizing and framing the project in parts. Most of the “chapters” are organized by geography (East, West, Gulf coasts), but there are also sub-categories such as recreation, transportation, and dwelling.

Through this process, it’s become so much more explicit to me that the history of landscape photography has been dominated by the male gaze. As a woman, I’m planning out my shoots based on time of day, whether I feel safer with a partner, and, if so, coordinating their schedules. There are a dozen other factors that I don’t think are the same for men. Some of my favorite projects about American land were all done by men (Ansel Adams, Joel Sternfeld, Walker Evans) who had the privilege to photograph in desolate landscapes alone.

That’s all to say that this project is really helping me think critically about the process and what it means to make a photograph about land as the climate is changing. I think it’s a critical time to not just think about how we live along the coast, but who is telling those stories and how American identity is captured.

Pierre Part, Louisiana. Photo by Virginia Hanusik.

As Susan Sontag writes, “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” What can photographs of architecture, land, and other objects affected by climate change “disclose” to us that perhaps other art forms (including the written word) can’t?

I love a good Susan Sontag quote. I think that the accessibility of photography is what drew me to it from the beginning and continues to do so. I was raised in a working-class family that was full of artists, but they never referred to themselves as such because of the elitist stigma. Art means different things to different classes. My dad is a sculptor and carpenter, but he never describes himself as one. It’s just what he does when he’s not working, nothing flashy.

I like to think that I make my images in the same way; I don’t manipulate or even edit them much. As a photographer, I control the light and the frame, but not much beyond that. In terms of subject matter, the architecture and landscapes that I photograph really speak for themselves. The evidence is there. It’s real life looking back at you.

As an observer, you are able to step back and take in the details within a frame that you may miss in the context of real life. I like to compare the “banal” landscapes that I capture to seeing photographs of yourself. You analyze pictures of yourself more than when you’re in front of a mirror because someone else’s gaze may have captured something you never noticed before.

Also, I’m really not interested in making work that exploits victims of environmental disaster, but can rather be used as an educational tool to help move the needle on environmental stewardship.

What has the response to your work been like? Have you experienced any push back?

Overall, the response has been encouraging. I’ve been really lucky to have my work published in a number of outlets that prioritize new voices in photography and architecture, and have been able to connect with so many thoughtful people changing their communities.

Most of the push back that I’ve received has come from individuals who don’t believe in climate change. Not a big surprise there, but this exists outside of the South!

Honestly, the most challenging conversations that I’ve had are with self-identified liberals and progressives whose prejudices of the South or rural communities come out with their comments. “How could people be so ignorant?” “Why don’t they leave?” “Why would you choose to live there?” These are all actual questions that I’ve heard posed in a serious way. It’s really disappointing to me, but just shows the work that still needs to be done.

What’s next for you?

I’m still disseminating A Receding Coast and connecting with leaders in the climate adaptation field on collaborations. Right now, I’m in the development phase of Liminal Frontier and am identifying funding to build out the project in phases. I’m hoping to spend time in the Chesapeake Bay this summer and photograph some sites that I’ve been trying to get to for a while. In addition to this project, I’m excited to be writing more and am working on a few pieces for the Louisiana-based store and publication, Defend New Orleans.

Read more about Virginia Hanusik and her work at her website.

For previous articles by Virginia Hanusik, check out:
A New Narrative for Landscape Photography in the Anthropocene

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.

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Sculptor Emily Puthoff: Artfully Creating Bee Habitats

Can art save the bees? Sculptor Emily Puthoff is attempting to do just that through the Hudson Valley Bee Habitat. She, along with her fellow artists, are engaging their community in a large scale art project that builds bee habitats. Learn about this ambitious project and about the essential roles bees play in our everyday life.

Coming up next month, writer Elizabeth Rush and her book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore.

(Top image: Designs for bee habitats.)

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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The Downfall of the Capital City

Featured image: Cheonggyecheon gentrification mapping workshop, Listen to the City, 2017.

I was born and raised in a capital city (Amsterdam), have always lived in capital cities (London, Seoul, Taipei), and expected I would continue to do so. I’m a cultural omnivore and food snob, and (ignorantly, I admit) thought the top-notch cultural and gastronomical offerings were only to be found in cosmopolitan cities.

Two years ago, I moved to a smaller, more rurally located city and realized how much the quality of my life increased. It suddenly became clear to me that capital cities are mostly overcrowded and overpriced; the quality of the air is terrible and you waste too much time on transportation. Though ideas may sprout, they can hardly be developed and reflected upon as everyone is busy-busy-busy trying to survive. I decided I would enjoy capital cities like one enjoys Uber or AirBnB: with no permanent commitment, temporarily making use of these services and amenities when I need them.

But a burning question kept haunting me: Have I given up on cities too soon?

I don’t seem to be the only one being pulled to the periphery. When I re-visited Seoul recently, I saw an exhibition in MMCA, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which showed works by the nominees for the Korea Artists Prize, including Okin Collective.

Okin Collective is a group of artists – Joungmin Yi, Hwayong Kim, and Shiu Jin – whose work often poses critical questions about contemporary Korean urban society. The collective was named after the Okin apartment complex in Jongno-gu, Seoul, where their first project was held and from where a group of residents got evicted in 2009. The exhibition included a film about artists moving from Seoul to Incheon, a bordering city where the main airport is located. The film follows an interesting group conversation where the artists explain why they traded Seoul for Incheon, and how this decision influences their lives and artistic practice. The reasons vary from “I feel less poor here” to “I just wanted to see the sea.”

Searching for Revolution, or Its contrary, single channel video, Okin Collective, 2018.

For so many artists (and non-artists), Seoul is becoming too expensive. It is a fast growing beast; the greater metropolitan area is already home to 25 million people. This population explosion forces us to reckon with gentrification and more specifically, with the ironic relationship between artists and gentrification.

You don’t have to have read Richard Florida to know that artists are often used to make a depressed area more attractive. Artists are offered affordable studios in exchange for their artistic sex-appeal. Then once the value of the property has gone up, they have to pack their bags and move further out to the fringe to gentrify another area. This phenomenon is happening all over the world and creates a tension between locals and “cheap-rent seeking artists.” However, both groups are victims of the same developers and real estate market.

A spring maker who has worked in Cheonggyecheon since 1974. Photo by Listen to the City.

A striking example of the threat of gentrification in Seoul is the Euljiro neighborhood, which is home to a lively artist community as well as some 50,000 tradespeople who sell objects you didn’t even know existed. All kinds of manufacturing parts can be found here: from tiny bolts to endless varieties of wiring. Euljiro tradespeople essentially made the postwar economic boom possible (called “Miracle on the Han” – after the river that flows through Seoul) by providing parts to build everything from phones to boats.

A craftsman who has worked in Cheonggyecheon since the 1970s. Photo by Listen to the City.

In October 2018, it was announced that the intricate ecosystem of small businesses that make up Euljiro will be replaced by swanky apartment and office buildings. Also art collective Listen to the City is located in Euljiro and yet again it is the artists standing up to developers in an attempt to save the neighborhood. They have been co-organising anti-eviction marches and protests. Listen to the City and several artists and designers have set up an organization called “Cheonggyecheon Euljiro Anti-gentrification Alliance”, organizing rallies and debates including an online poster protest. Over 100 designers have uploaded their posters against the redevelopment.

Destruction of Cheonggyecheon. Photo by Listen to the City.

It’s not the first time this has happened: the traditional market was wiped out to make space for Zaha Hadid’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, for example, and whole communities were evicted for the Olympics and for the making of the Cheonggye stream, an artificial stream that runs through the city. On numerous occasions, Listen to the City has staged artistic interventions to address these evictions, often having to face thugs. They have produced Urban Film Festivals, published a Sustainable Event Manual (on how to organize an event responsibly), organized food sharing days and feminist urban planning seminars, as well as presented exhibitions.

These are the people who inspire me, the people who have not given up on their cities and never will. And that’s exactly what still lures me to cities: the fact that they attract diversity and convene incredible talents and energies. If these heroes get priced out (or worse, beaten out), that last bit of appeal might be lost forever and our cities will be nothing more than expensive and soulless places.

(Top image: A protest march with artists and mechanics carrying posters from the online poster protest. By Ueta Jiro , February 18, 2019.)

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Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.

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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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