New metaphors for sustainability: water on a fire – helping turn the page – a child asleep – the family – failing better

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home is two adults and three children living in Everton, Liverpool. They talked together about sustainability, and here are their metaphors for our series. 

Neal (aged 10): The world is big plank of wood and it’s on fire. The only thing to save it is water. Sustainability is water – that’s what it is.

Gabriel (aged 8): It’s a big round book, the world is a big circular book, but it needs help to turn the next page, it can’t do it by itself so we all have to help the big book turn its next page. That’s sustainability – helping to turn the page.

Sid (aged 3): (Sid was asleep on the couch when we asked him. That struck a chord with us. Sustainability is Sid asleep, rapid eye movements, visceral dreaming, thoughts shooting round his brain, wiring and rewiring the connectors in his head, trying to sort out what happened today ready for some sort of tomorrow. But his body mass seems to rest, refuel. It digests its food, slowly, carefully, puts things in place biologically, mentally, spiritually even so that when he wakes up he’ll have a good chance at getting what he needs and be in a good enough mood to share what he has with his mates at the nursery.)

Gary (aged 39): A family is the best metaphor I can think of for sustainability. Not the family that the Pope, in Croatia in June, said was in the midst of ruin under the new atheism of secularisation, but the queer family, the radical family, the family that depends – indirectly – upon the reproduction of itself with difference. That’s what having kids has been for us. They are us, with difference. You don’t need to be a biological parent for this to happen, though. It happens through friendships, encounters and love affairs.

It’s the indirectness that is crucial. Indirectness is at the heart of all family-making, and sustainability has an element of indirectness about it. I won’t actually suffer climate chaos in Bangladesh or the terrible local effects of the Alberta Tar Sands extraction, except indirectly. That’s partly what makes it so tricky to get hold of. How can everyone act in all-powerful acts of solidarity with massive numbers of people? The indirectness is what stops us.

But we have to embrace the indirectness, like we embrace the difference that is produced in our own kids every day as they grow into and away from us. Embracing indirectness is the only way to be happy in the long-run.

The relationship between me and my kids is the best metaphor I have for sustainability. Maybe because it’s not even a metaphor but a living, loving struggle.

Lena (aged 36): sustainability is allowing difference, allowing impossible encounters to take place and surprise you. sustainability is being naughty. sustainability is getting out of the box you are in, getting out of networks you belong to, seeing beyond your own group. sustainability is travelling the world, learning a new language, but a really new language, a new method, a new skill. sustainability is beyond the local. sustainability is the provocation that stops you being righteous.

fail. fail again. fail better. go for the impossible.


“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

The editors are Robert Butler and Wallace Heim. The associate editor is Kellie Gutman. The editorial adviser is Patricia Morison.

Robert Butler’s most recent publication is The Alchemist Exposed (Oberon 2006). From 1995-2000 he was drama critic of the Independent on Sunday. See

Wallace Heim has written on social practice art and the work of PLATFORM, Basia Irland and Shelley Sacks. Her doctorate in philosophy investigated nature and performance. Her previous career was as a set designer for theatre and television/film.

Kellie Gutman worked with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for twenty years, producing video programmes and slide presentations for both the Aga Khan Foundation and the Award for Architecture.

Patricia Morison is an executive officer of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, a group of grant-making trusts of which the Ashden Trust is one.

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Atlantic Rising


Atlantic Rising is a charity on a 28,000 mile journey circumnavigating the Atlantic overland along the 1metre contour line. This is the level scientists predict sea levels may reach by the year 2100.

Along the way we are creating an educational networkbetween 15,000 students in low-lying coastal communities. Through our photography, films andwriting, we are also documenting what will be lost if these predictions come true.

We don’t claim to have all the solutions to stop sea levels from rising.  But we hope our work will help the next generation understand their responsibility to each other to build a sustainable future.

Atlantic Rising explores what will be lost around the Atlantic Ocean if sea levels rise by one metre. Our work in low-lying communities around the ocean rim is journalistic and educational. We are creating a network between 15,000 pupils; enabling them to build friendships, share experience and collaborate on climate change projects. We are also reporting the stories of people whose lives are already being affected by sea level change and providing a platform for marginalised voices.

We don’t have all the solutions to the causes of sea level rise. But we hope our work will raise awareness about the difficulties faced by Atlantic communities and help the next generation learn their responsibility to each other to build a sustainable future.

We believe education is the most important weapon we have in combating climate change. Today’s children will inherit the environmental legacy of previous generations and it is vital that climate change is a subject that is accessible and relevant. We also believe that most children listen to their friends much more than they listen to teachers.

By building connections and discussing our shared history, we hope to make pupils aware of the interdependence of Atlantic communities. By encouraging collaboration on climate change projects we hope to highlight the immediacy of the problem and the collective responsibility we have to find a solution. By encouraging friendships we hope to make people care about it enough to act.

Atlantic Rising – About the Project.