“You are so brave and quiet I forget you are suffering” —Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)
Resilience is a word often understood in terms of strength—something is resilient because it is strong. In the Anthropocene, however, we would do well to understand resilience in terms of fragility as well. One of the more troubling arguments I have heard in relation to resilience is this: that nature will find a way to survive no matter what we subject Earth (or ourselves) to. For me the issue at hand is not just whether nature will survive the 6th extinction that we are currently living through, but rather whether we can afford to be so complacent about the increasingly diminished form it is taking. Be certain, there will be no clear ‘winners’ on our current ecological trajectory.
Here I present a series of paintings that bear witness to the novel ecologies of the Anthropocene. These paintings are dedicated to landscapes that embody the duality of vulnerability and strength inherent in resilience for both humans and the natural world. Three of these paintings,Edith Stephens I, II and III, address a damaged, watery realm on the outskirts of Cape Town, a place I find particularly pertinent to the topic of resilience.
In the 1940s, Edith Stephens, a botanist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, found that the diverse flora and (small) fauna of the wetlands outside the city were under threat from ongoing habit loss and degradation due to urban and agricultural expansion. Her conservation efforts to preserve something of the wetlands eventually resulted in a nature reserve being established.
Now triangled between two busy roads and a densely populated informal settlement, the Edith Stephens Wetland Park is in an area where both humans and nature are subjected to severe stresses, trauma, and fragmentation. The park is a windswept place, heavy and damp with ecological and social unease: it is not only a vestige of threatened plants found nowhere else in the world, but also a contested open area adjacent to densely packed shacks, in an age when the wisdom of conservation is questioned.
Edith Stephens’ nature reserve has been found to be one of the few homes to an exceedingly rare plant, Isoetes capensis, a small, fern-like ‘living fossil,’ which has remained almost unchanged for 200 million years. That it has survived since the Carboniferous era tells us that it must be incredibly resilient, but does this mean anything in the Anthropocene, where it is now finally facing extinction?
Is resilience itself endangered? We have yet to see whether this may be the case, but our high expectations of resilience from nature (and, indeed, people, too) may be dangerous.
Ribbons, gwilt and traveling icebergs: the other side of Paris during COP21
While policy-makers, scientists and governments worked late into many nights during the Conference of the Parties (COP21) as they crafted the Paris Agreement, across the city other groups of people came together to do different, but no less essential work. I speak here of the hub of artists, writers, film-makers, linguists, poets and story-tellers that also gathered in Paris during the conference. I attended both Conference of the Youth (COY11), where I presented my research, and COP21, where I was an observer. As well as attending these two events, I made time to explore the creative outputs inspired by climate change that were so abundant in Paris during COP.
My first exposure to art was the Ribbon Project at COY, where a poster posed the question: what do you love and hope to never lose to climate chaos? People were invited to write their responses on coloured ribbons, which would then eventually result in an installation featuring thousands of climate stories. The Ribbon Project walked the thin and dangerous line between despair and hope that all communicators of climate change (including scientists) are familiar with: evoking in its question both love (a connecting and purposeful emotion) and fear (an emotion which has created much dysfunction in climate change action). What was apparent was that it was important for people to tell their personal stories. At ACDI’s COP21 briefing several of the panellists mentioned that this personal story-telling was something that was missed (and needed at COP21).
I watched young people from all over the world either confidently put pen to ribbon, or go through a small pile of ribbons as they scratched their words out and started over again and again. They paid careful attention to their words, with so few being permitted on the thin colourful strips of cloth. Could it be that it is hard to write about climate change succinctly because we lack the words to do so?
Yes, say Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott, founders of the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, a project that collaborates on creating new words for our new world, as defined by climate change.
For Quante and Escott, the unprecedented phenomenon of climate change necessitates new words, words that construct the reality of climate change. Escott gave examples of two such words that demonstrate why new words are important: the portmanteau, “smog” and neologism “genocide.” Where would we be without these words, that so aptly make real what we might have had difficulty describing before.
Perhaps the best known and most accepted word in our new environmental era is “Anthropocene”(1). The Bureau of Linguistical Reality offers several more words that should be in common parlance. A favourite of mine (especially in water-stressed South Africa), was ‘gwilt,’ which is defined as
“To cause wilting in plants by not providing proper horticultural care out of concern for water consumption, especially during a time of drought. [And] the feeling regret and responsibility for its wilting. The accompanying compensatory feeling caused by watering said plants and experiencing further gwilt for not practicing water conservation.”
Also interesting were “Phantom Species Syndrome” (when a society cannot accept the extinction of a species and subsequently exhibits behaviour such as reporting sighting of said animals) and “Slow Ennuipocalypse.” Slow Ennuipocalypse is explained further by Mike Arcega (2015):
“ While the media often depicts the apocalypse as a sudden and dramatic event, Slow Ennuipocalypse, or Slowpocalypse (slang) offers the concept of a doomsday that occurs at an excruciatingly slow day to day time scale. [It] may occur in a geologic blink of an eye, but for the Homo Sapiens in urban/suburban settings who are often disconnected from the natural cycles, it is painfully boring. As a result of the perceived slow pace of the apocalypse those who live through it feel a compulsion to distract themselves with ever faster technology, media and economic systems – all of which feedback into a disconnect from the pace of natural systems we need to survive”
Defined as such concept of Slow Ennuipocalypse speaks to the last artwork I address here, Ice Watch by artists Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing. For Ice Watch they installed of blocks of Arctic ice at the Place de Panthéon in central Paris. There are many gimmicky click-bait artworks about climate change out there that I think contribute to the technological distraction from climate change that Aregega takes issue with, 'fizzle mildly in some other, less important part of the mind' (2). Ice Watch is not one such work. As people milled about the ancient ice, licking it, kissing it, even crying over it, their apathy seemed crack as the ice in turn cracked and melted.
We are mistaken when we disregard art in the climate change arena, as works such those I have discussed are not only positioned to complement the efforts scientists, policy-makers, NGOs and governments, but can play an essential role in making climate change tangible, personal and important. As the Ribbon Project put it “We must share our climate grief, so we can move towards solidarity and action.”
Picture credits: Katrine Claassens, Bureau of Linguistic Reality, and Ice Watch.
(1) I have written about some of the news words being used in a previous blog
(2) With apologies to Johnathan Johnson
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the ACDI, or any other entity affiliated with the ACDI.
So, how do you feel? The physiological impacts of climate change.
“I feel nervous. I get worried and anxious, but also a little curious. The curiosity is a strange, paradoxical feeling that I sometimes feel guilty about. After all, this is the future of the people I love.” - Dr. Ailie Gallant, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University
Adverse psychological and emotional responses to climate change are racking up a repertoire of names: “Climate Depression,” “Climate Change Delusion,” “Climate Trauma,” “Pre-traumatic Stress Disorder,” “Solastalgia” and “Ecological Anxiety Disorder,” to name a few. The physical health impacts expected (and manifest) ofclimate change are well documented. Less well-known are the impacts that the problem will have on our psychological well-being.
“So, what do I feel about climate change? Interest, intellectual curiosity, satisfaction, excitement, extreme worry, sadness, fear and perhaps a glimmer of hope...” - Dr Ruth Mottram, Danish Meteorological Institute
Humans have lived through climate change before. Throughout pre-historic times our species faced threats to our existence as populations battled to adapt to dramatically changing climatic conditions (mostly due to advancing and receding ice ages). It has even been suggested that these fluctuating climatic conditions propelled human evolution. We will never know how those early minds experienced climate change. What we do know is that they adapted themselves accordingly and survived. However, as our world departs from the Holocene (the current geological epoch that has been characterised by relative climate stability), we face conditions arguably more testing than those of our ancestors: the world’s population is exponentially bigger, largely dependant on the climate-sensitive crops, and water and other natural resources are much depleted. It seems we are more vulnerable than ever. How will people cope emotionally with the losses of livelihoods and homes, dislocation and conflict that climate change heralds? Already documented are depression, suicide, anxiety and general emotional distress. Furthermore, inaction on climate change has all been linked to the toll it takes on the human psyche.
"I am always hopeful – but 4 to 5 degrees Celsius of change will be a challenge to survive." - Dr. Jim Salinger, University of Auckland
The Yale project on climate change communication recently published a paper entitled “The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition.” They found that emotions of fear, anger, worry and guilt were “stronger predictors of global warming policy support than cultural worldviews” and that 50% of variance in public support for global warming policies could be explained by emotional measures alone. A paper by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) argues that how we feel affects how, and whether we act, on climate change. Climate change, the WWF says, threatens not just our existence but our self-esteem, integrity of our identity and capacity to function normally mentally.
“It makes me feel sick. Looking at my children and realizing that they won't have the same quality of life we had. Far from it. That they will live in a world facing severe water and food shortages, a world marked by wars caused by the consequences of climate change.” - Katrin Meissner, Associate Professor, Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales
It is not just those who are geographically vulnerable to climate change that experience psychological distress. The US-based researchers Paul Robbin and Sarah Moore move the focus to how scientists working at the forefront of ecological crisis are dealing with the implications of their research. Robbins and Moore found that that in some sciences, the observation of rapid ecological change and its implications are effecting not just personal emotions but how science is communicated. We need to take the emotional implications of climate change for scientists seriously when we read that Camille Parmesan, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace with Al Gore because of her work as a lead author with the IPCC, said that she has contemplated leaving the field of climate change research because it has made her “professionally depressed.”
“So, what do I feel about climate change? Interest, intellectual curiosity, satisfaction, excitement, extreme worry, sadness, fear and perhaps a glimmer of hope...” - Dr Ruth Mottram, Climate Scientist, Danish Meteorological Institute
It seems Parmesan is not alone. Similar views are expressed on the website isthishowyoufeel. The site is the product of Joe Duggan, a scientist from Australia, who wrote to top climate scientists asking them to send him hand-written letters on how they feel about climate change. The idea behind his project was to show how scientists, who have dedicated large parts of their lives to the study of climate change, are feeling. The letters range from expressing deep sadness to cautious optimism. They are a compelling and moving testament to how those who truly understand climate change are dealing with the issue intellectually and emotionally.
"Life would be so much simpler if climate change didn’t exist. But as scientists, we don’t have the luxury of pretending." - Kevin Walsh, Associate Professor, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne
George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, gives us some suggestions on how we can adopt emotional coping mechanisms that don’t lead to emotional or environmental dysfunction. According to Marshall, we need to look at how we are evolutionarily hard-wired to react and perceive threats and understand what motivates and threatens us. This, he writes will enable us to gain the tools we need to rethink and reimagine climate change, for it is not an “impossible problem.” Our understanding of the psychology of climate change is still in very early stages, but if emotions drive people and people drive change, then consideration of the mental health effects of the issue will be important in the resilience to climate impacts.
All quotes from
The internet has become a better place since Russians started uploading footage from their dashcams. Originally deployed for protection against the Russian Highway Patrol (GAI) and insurance scams and hit-and-run accidents, Russian dashcam footage has become an internet meme in its own right. The footage ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous: a man pushes himself blissfully from one side of a four-lane highway to the other as he sits in a shopping cart; cows emerge placidly out of an overturned truck and an SUV bursts into flames in a particularly damning lightning strike. Of all these poignant moments, none is so striking as the 2013 meteor event that took place over Chelyabinsk, a small city in Siberia. Recorded by hundreds of dash-cams, the meteor is the largest object to have passed through our atmosphere since the Tunguska event (also in Russia) in 1908. The footage shows the meteor arching through the sky and reaching the earth with a spectacular show of, predictably, the largest reported fireball since Tunguska. The impact was registered in stations made to detect nuclear blasts and picked up on seismic records over 4000 kilometres away from the impact site, a frozen lake.
According to NASA, the fireball burned thirty times brighter than the sun causing at least 20 people to suffer from severe sunburns and
flash blindness, though most of the harm caused to people resulted from glass that shattered due to the sonic boom the meteor created.
Closer to home, South Africa experienced a very bright meteor on the 21st of November in 2009. Seen as far North as Zimbabwe and as far east as Swaziland the meteorite is thought to have landed somewhere in Botswana. The footage we have of it on Johannesburg traffic cameras shows a flash of light that made night day for a flaring moment. Eyewitness saw a fireball of bluish-green light followed by an orange flash and, according to some reports, people ran out their houses with guns thinking the country was under attack.
Meteors, more commonly known as ‘shooting stars,’ are fragments of space rock that ignite from the fraction caused by their speed as
they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. They are called meteorites once they hit the ground, though meteorites are really found as meteors usually burn up before they hit the ground. Mostly, the shooting stars we see are caused by particles as small as specks of dust but every now and then we get them bigger.
After unexpected events such as the Chelyabinsk impact there are calls for better documentation of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and some kind of global strategy for dealing with them. What this strategy would be though, no-one knows. There is a United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space that meets every year to discuss novel ways to deal with threatening asteroids, but the general view is that by the time we see one that is on an earth due trajectory it will be too late to do anything anyway. That we’ve discovered that they pass closer and more often that we thought, might be due to telescopes that are more powerful than before, but sighting them won’t do a thing to help our survival should one come our way.
Asteroids are responsible for at least one of the five big extinction events, most notably the one that killed the dinosaurs and left 180km wide crater in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Known as the K-T extinction event, it is estimated that around three-quarters of life on earth perished, either directly from the impact or the ‘impact winter’ that followed, as particles ejected into the atmosphere would arrest the basic life process of photosynthesis. The sunlight would have been obscured for months forcing the animals that survived to live on ‘detritus-based’ food changes. Even when the skies cleared, the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would cause an increase in the Earth’s temperature, making life uncomfortable very uncomfortable indeed.
The K-T extinction was global, severe and swift. At the rate of human-caused extinction of plant and animals life there is today, we are facing another mass extinction event, the so-called ‘sixth extinction.’ To us this might seem like a slow decline, nothing akin to the dramatics of the K-T extinction, however on a geological scale the current rate of extinction is global, severe and swift. The rate of extinction is at crisis level at between 1,000 to 10, 000 times higher than the natural extinction rate and even faster for some species such as amphibians and corals
Only 850 species have been formally documented as being ‘extinct’ though the rate is known to be higher with many species critically endangered and numerous others marked for imminent demise. On a windy hill on the British Isle of Portland a monument is being built to commemorate these losses. A ‘great geological bell’ is to be its central feature, and it will be tolled each time a species goes extinct. The project is planned by the Mass Extinction Monitory Observatory and is intended to ‘bring home’ the significance and magnitude of the challenges that biodiversity faces. As industrial production continues at an ever accelerating rate is likely that it will not be a 4.4 billion year old asteroid that extinguishes life, but ourselves and that the bell at Portland will need a full-time bell-ringer. As it is the carbon we burn that drives much of the process of global warming, it seems apt that it is on our highways that fleeting moments of flaming meteor beauty are recorded as well-placed memento mories.