“Climate change is often described as a ‘wicked problem.’ One of its wickedest aspects is that it may require us to abandon some of our most treasured ideas about political virtue: for example, ‘be the change you want to see.’ What we need is instead is to find a way out of the individualising imaginary in which we are trapped.” Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 2016, p135.
Amitav Ghosh is struggling with the role of literature and why he and other authors find it difficult to in any way speak to the climate crisis even as it unfolds around us. His contention in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) is that the novel, the primary form of literature, developed in precise alignment during the 19th Century with “the regularity of bourgeois life” (p25). He argues that it is this concern with regularity as well as a focus on the individual which makes the novel a form ill-suited to dealing with the magnitude and strangeness of the planet speaking back to us.
But this might be only one way in which the arts are implicated in the climate crisis as it is manifest around the globe. Ghosh asuggests that the visual arts (along with film and television) have found it much easier to address climate change (p83).
But what Ghosh perhaps doesn’t account for is that some people are ‘being the change’ specifically experimenting with ways out of the trap of the individualising imaginary. The political virtue of ‘being the change’ can take the form of collectivism and acknowledging the agency of all things. Climate Atlas, the current issue (#10) of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, is concerned with exactly the same challenge, not of what literature can do, but of what we can do. And it is also concerned with the dangers that in the arts we might think we stand aside from the climate crisis, drawing attention to it, but not responsible for it. It offers both small flickers of hope and also warnings.
The first thing we need to attend to is that the arts do not have a monopoly on imagining the world differently and showing ‘on the ground’ what that might look like. David Haley reminds us that the root of the word ‘art’ is in the Indo-Aryan noun/adjective rt which meaning ‘the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously.’ Thus art is not the property of people who identify themselves as professional artists, or even of people who would describe themselves as making art.
That being said when editors of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest sent out an open call in December 2015 they explained that this was,
“…a project charting concrete and abstract ecological relations that people operate within to address, bolster and alter (through creative work) their relationships to a changing world. The project will use the metaphors of geology to add to a conversation about what it is to live, create, and challenge our changing world. We aim to locate these tectonics and humors, and identify the characters of forces working to sustain and reshape our ecological world.” (from an email received 3 December 2015)
Ghosh says speaking about the world we are living in,
“For these changes are not merely strange in the sense of being unknown or alien; their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognize something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors.” p30.
Both are seeking a different configuration, not wholly bound up in the human. The fifty eight projects hand-transcribed presumably from emails and then risographed onto A3 landscape paper that make up the body of Climate Atlas submitted in response to the call are all experiments at various stages and scales in imagining and making new relations between people, other living things, and contexts.* They are only the tip of the iceberg – for every project included, there are certainly 10, probably 100 and maybe 1000 like them. They range from small projects – activities that last a few months and are driven by an individual – to things like the ZAD and La Via Campesina, organisations and resistances which are multi-dimensional ongoing examples of being the change.
In addition to examples there are 5 essays which provide a measure of the challenges, for being the change at this point requires careful attention to several dimensions of imbrication: of the business of art; of “Escaping the apparatuses of capture such as the nuclear family, class condition, gender, identity, etc”; of the intervention by the state using militarised police against activism; of seeking ‘the other’ as a way to become alert to petro-subjectivity; and finally to understand that our ‘being the change’ is not appropriate to impose on other cultures and ways of living on this planet.
It is vital to recognise that the arts are the culture which needs to change. The arts are the problem as much as corporate capitalism is the problem. Art changes culture. But if art doesn’t change then culture doesn’t change either.
Ghosh is clearly deeply concerned that the primary literary form, the novel, may actually be part of the problem as a form, not merely in its instantiation in any particular novel. But the Climate Atlas opens up some other dimensions, each of which is an issue worthy of detailed attention. Each is worth exploring. One is the sponsorship of the arts by business, specifically in this case the sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale by Transfield, a corporation holding contracts for the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and refugees. But the trajectory of the critique following on from the action which forced Transfield to withdraw is into the formation of neo-liberal capitalism and the ways in which artists in particular behave has homo economicus,
“The point is not just that all artists must now also perform their artisthood but that the economization of culture and the culturization of economy involves distinctive forms of value creation.”
The Sydney Biennale Working Group is one of a number of activist groups including also the Gulf Labor Coalition and Liberate Tate deeply questioning the economics of the cultural industries. By any measure these political action has been successful – not only did Transfield cease sponsoring the Biennale, but it also had to rebrand. The Tate no longer accepts sponsorship from BP. Ways in which the arts have become bound up with migration and migrant labour are brought into the visible realm. The social license to operate provided by the cultural sector to business has been challenged. The bigger question of whether the culture of growth – bigger museums and bigger exhibitions – is being effectively brought into question remains unanswered as yet. Can we imagine a degrowth agenda for the cultural industries?
Another is focused by the conflicting assumptions between western liberal cultures and indigenous ways of life including seal hunting. This brings us up against so many assumptions, of ethical supremacy over savagery, of the ‘White-Saviour Industrial Complex‘, assumptions about sustainability and the need for predators within an ecosystem. Many indigenous peoples’ languages have no word for ‘art’. The things that have more recently come to be called ‘art’ are for indigenous peoples ways of understanding the world and communicating that understanding to each other. Those ways of knowing and being in the world are in complex relationships with other living things, complex relationships which urban metropolitan colonial settler culture doesn’t understand. But we still make judgements. We accept the privatisation of detention centres but we condemn killing seals. Our hypocrisy is boundless. Our effort to live differently minimal.
Just as this essay calls for setting aside assumptions and asks questions about our understanding, so the whole of Climate Atlas asks us to invest in doing something differently, and to be attentive to our imbrications. The introduction to the Issue says,
“…this issue recognizes thought and action that exceeds its own logics by insisting upon the central need for space of variation and for the other. So, while it is possible and useful to concisely order thought, in this curatorial space we have chosen to instead focus on how pieces sit rather than how they are organised. In the face of climate change, we prioritize lifes’ capacity to organize its own variation. To what end is one meaningful question.”
Art is powerful – we shape the world through the stories we tell ourselves and the arts comprise the best stories. We may try and take the canon to pieces, redraw its boundaries, question its white male privilege, its heteronormativity, but art still comprises the best stories. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, eminent post-conceptual ecological artists and great storytellers say,
“Our work begins when we perceive an anomaly in the environment that is the result of opposing beliefs or contradictory metaphors. Moments when reality no longer appears seamless and the cost of belief has become outrageous offer the opportunity to create new spaces – first in the mind and thereafter in everyday life.” Quoted on www.theharrisonstudio.net accessed 10 November 2008
Climate Atlas draws attention to examples of people creating new spaces in the mind and in everyday life. It addresses the cost of belief and brings together examples of ways of facing the multifaceted crisis of climate change, the sixth extinction and rapid sea level rise. It draws attention to several of the large cracks in our reality.
* And remember David Haley also reminds us that ‘ecology is he study of organisms in relation to one another and to their surroundings, derived from the Greek word, oikos, meaning house, or dwelling.’