ClimateCultures, agency for change and the environmental imagination

The Danish journal Anglo Files invited me to contribute an essay for their Climate Matters issue, which was published in February 2019. I wanted to focus on the power of art and imagination, and was pleased to be able to draw on my experience setting up the ClimateCultures initiative for artists, curators and researchers and to illustrate the article with text and images from a few of the ClimateCultures Members who have contributed to the site in its first two years.


ClimateCultures, agency for change and the environmental imagination

I’m grateful to Eva Høeg and colleagues at Anglo Files for creating the climate change special and agreeing to me republishing my article here. 

Climate change has come to be an era-defining topic. And yet it’s a confusing one, with many different definitions, demands and approaches competing for attention. It seems we need an array of ideas to help us understand what it means, what its impacts are and what actions are necessary to help us head off the very worst crises and adapt to those changes that are now unavoidable.

The challenge of the climate crisis is so huge that many find it too daunting and it becomes harder to find hope. I’ve talked to many people who, like me, have been active for many years — and those who are new to the issues — who find it harder to fight off pessimism. Even when there’s good news about the growth of renewable energy, shifts to less polluting lifestyles and welcome progress on international agreements to limit carbon emissions, it can seem that our successes just don’t match the scale of the problem.

To create change that seems hard or impossible, individuals need at least two things above all: a sense of agency and a sense of community or association. We need to feel we can do something meaningful and that others are on board. Of course, we also need action itself, and increasing awareness of the problems. And these things are all interrelated: action, association, agency, awareness. Sometimes it’s personal action that comes first, providing the spark to taking more action as part of a community; these experiences help to grow both our personal and shared awareness of the issues, leading to yet more action, and so our agency builds and builds. It can be a virtuous circle, rather than the vicious cycle of frustration, disappointment and despondency.

If there’s one thing that helps drive this virtuous circle and motivates change, I think it’s imagination. A sense that things can be different, that there are other ways of acting and living than we now take for granted. Even if we don’t know how to enact these differences, imagination gives us a new picture, casts new light on the old picture, or helps us realise that other people who we’ve barely acknowledged until now have pictures to share with us. Imagination is both an exploration and expansion of our horizons.

Humans are imaginative beings. We live in our visions as much as in our intellects and emotions. The three are linked, of course. And art is one way in which we externalise and share our imaginations, talk about them and develop them further. Art is a form of change driven by imagination, because both artist and audience come to see and feel something differently. 

Art — making it, experiencing it, reflecting on it, seeing the world through it — has agency, association, awareness and action built in. Without imagination, it’s not just that change doesn’t happen; the idea of change doesn’t really make sense. And without art, imagination is a much more closed off, internalised affair, something limited to the individual rather than a shared exploration.

Maggi Hambling’s sculpture Scallop is one work of art that has a lasting impact on me. It seems to say something about this shared venture, and of coming up against the reality of other lives affected by climate crisis. I first encountered it in 2007, when I was taking a career break after 15 years working on environmental and climate change. Six months visiting and photographing parts of my own country I’d never been before were also a chance to think about my next steps. I’d decided to start on the beach at Aldeburgh, an historic small town on England’s crumbling east coast. Where Hambling’s massive, four-metre high stainless steel seashell now stands on Aldeburgh’s shingle, there would once have been fields. The 16th century Moot Hall, which was Aldeburgh’s geographical centre as well as its political one, is still an impressive building. But now it’s on the seafront. The eastern side of the town has long since disappeared with coastal erosion, and the ancient building, like Scallop a little further up the beach, looks out onto rising waters.

'I hear those voices that will not be drowned' Image by Mark Goldthorpe
‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ Photo: Mark Goldthorpe © 2007

Carved into the giant metal shell — cut right through it, so the sky writes the words as an absence of solid matter — are the words: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” Hambling took these from Peter Grimes, a tragic opera by one of Aldeburgh’s famous 20th-century residents, Benjamin Britten. Britten adapted his opera from The Borough, a 19th-century poem by George Crabbe. And I took my photograph from Hambling’s sculpture. Artworks in conversation with each other. And we all took inspiration from sea and sky and the violence they can visit to dwellers on the land’s edge.

The full quote from Peter Grimes, which the shell can only show in part, is:

I hear those voices that will not be drowned
Calling, there is no stone
In earth’s thickness to make a home
That you can build with and remain alone.

To act is to work with others. Together, we grow our sense of meaningful change. Voices that will not be drowned.

Try to imagine a better world than the one you see without having any thought at all about a story you’ve read, film or TV series you’ve watched, exhibition you’ve visited, song or symphony you’ve listened to. It’s not impossible, but I think it’s likely that any change you think of without some reference to art of any kind will seem very abstract and vague: unconvincing, and not full of much hope it will come about. And try talking with someone else about that change without either of you eventually referring to a creative endeavour one of you has experienced and now the other has a feeling about too. Art enlivens our imagination, our conversations, our actions, our sense that something ‘other’ is possible. It’s certainly enlivened mine.

I set up ClimateCultures two years ago to help sustain creative conversations I’d been having with artists and scientists of all kinds: engaging imaginations, not just intellects. Our online directory of members now has over 120 artists, curators and researchers sharing something of the work they do to imagine, understand and develop what ‘change’ means for them. We have novelists, short story writers, poets, playwrights, painters, composers, filmmakers, landscape artists, gallery owners, online curators, historians, archaeologists, climate researchers and more. Most are based in the UK, some in other parts of Europe or in North America. The network is growing.

The site provides an archive of over 90 blog posts where members share original work and perspectives, as well as personal reviews of books, exhibitions and other cultural responses to climate change. Our resources include ‘Views from Elsewhere’ — a monthly roundup of articles, broadcasts and podcasts from a wide range of sources — and ‘Anthropocene Learning’, with links to free online courses on different environmental topics. Our ‘Curious Minds’ section offers a set of ‘Space for Creative Thinking’ prompts, and members’ contributions to our current creative explorations. These include A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects (where, for example, I explore my experience of Maggi Hambling’s Scallop in more depth, along with two other objects that have a personal resonance for me).

ClimateCultures is a space for creative engagement along the widest possible spectrum of what ‘climate change’ might mean. Not just the climate itself, but all environmental issues. Not just environmental dimensions: social ones too. Not just ‘nature’ but ‘culture’. Often, these distinctions are unhelpful, limiting our imaginations. On the other hand, artists know that constraints can often help stimulate creativity. So maybe a more positive way of seeing these distinctions between nature and culture, science and art, human and environment, and the different disciplines of natural sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences we use to study the world, is that they can ‘discipline’ our imaginations — and then our imaginations can break free of them and be creative. 

Another powerful encounter with art has informed my imagination and work — including the appearance of ClimateCultures. I encountered The Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson’s amazing installation, in 2003. I happened to have my camera ready at the moment that someone else — someone I only ‘met’ through my lens — happened to rejoice at the same spectacle that I and hundreds of others were enjoying. My image, Sun Worshipper, made itself. The day I visited the installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, groups of people — like day-trippers having a picnic on an alien planet — were sitting beneath the mirrored ceiling, gazing up in the light of this strange sun.

Sun worshipper at the Weather Project Photo by Mark Goldthorpe
Sun worshipper at the Weather Project Photo Mark Goldthorpe © 2003

We seek to encompass all the big changes that are going on around us within the even bigger label of the ‘Anthropocene’: the new era of geological change humans have brought about. Many people object to this label — ‘the Age of Human’ — for many very good reasons. There’s much debate over whether human-induced mass biological extinction, resource depletion and disruptions to atmosphere, ocean, land and ice actually make this a new planetary ‘age’ or not; and if so, when it started; and if it has, what caused it. Who exactly is responsible: all humans, due to our sheer numbers, or just the privileged minority because of our wasteful economies, politics and lifestyles? There are many alternative suggested names for the Anthropocene, depending on what you think is our problem’s root cause. If nothing else, ‘Anthropocene’ starts a conversation about these questions, and naming the big problem of our times for our species is a huge and provocative act of imagination. What we do from here on in — from individual to nation to species — matters.

Naming ourselves as responsible for what’s going on and what could be done differently is a huge responsibility. It comes with a psychological cost. One of the topics our members have been writing about since the start of ClimateCultures has been the emotional impact of being aware of the crisis, of the Anthropocene. Feelings of joy, hope, grief, anger and despair all play a part.

The first member to write for us was Laura Coleman, an environmental activist, writer and cultural entrepreneur. She shared her experiences of two of her personal Spaces for Joy and Grief:

The first is a small piece of the Bolivian jungle. I have watched it grow, flood, burn, and grow again. The creatures that live there – rescued, sheltered and cared for by Bolivian and international staff and volunteers – have, over the last ten years, threaded through me, to the point that I dream of them. There is one in particular, a puma. Her name is Wayra, and she is one of my closest friends.

The second space is a building, in Brighton, England. It has four floors, a basement and a cave (tunnel included). It has been a hairdresser’s, a Middle Eastern food store, a mod bar, an Internet café, and an empty shop. Five years ago, it became ONCA. ONCA is an arts and performance venue that I started after coming home from the jungle, having no clue what to do with the stories I found now sitting at the base of my stomach. I didn’t realise that ONCA would be radical, or important. I just wanted to find a way to tell stories like Wayra’s.

Wayra Photo by Laura Coleman
Photo: Laura Coleman ©

One of our recent posts comes from Mike Hembury, an English writer and photographer living in Germany. Mike had read an earlier ClimateCultures post by Deborah Tomkins about how writers deal in their writing with grief and hope about climate change. Mike responded with a poem about his own environmental emotions, called Sweeping the Dust. Here is a short extract:

I’m homesick.
But I’m still here.

I understand

That I am grieving
That we are grieving,
As our landscapes
Lose their meaning:
“Is this how you feel?”

We are sick now.
Sick of watching
The world crumble and burn

I want you to know
I am not
Submitting to despair.

I am sweeping the dust.

Mike explained:

This poem came to me while I was researching the topic of ‘climate grief’ for a longer magazine piece. I must say that it is a recurrent theme for me. I am a great believer in action, and the need to stay motivated, but I also think that it is vitally important for us to feel the immense sadness and loss that is increasingly part of our common experience on our wonderful planet. Despair can be immensely debilitating but, to be honest, I think it is also part of a broader awakening.

In her ClimateCultures post, Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change, Deborah had collected the thoughts of fellow members of the Bristol Climate Writers group on topics such as the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that permits us to sidestep reality that’s too discomforting — “the intersection between climate change and ecocide and mental health.”

I too write in order to explore that cognitive dissonance. My second novel (unpublished) explores the deep climate grief and pain experienced by someone who understands all too clearly what’s happening to the planet, yet is surrounded by people who belittle her anxieties and believe she’s mentally ill because of her ‘extreme’ beliefs. Writing it has helped consolidate my own position, alleviated some of my climate loneliness, and encouraged me to keep campaigning and writing – the only sane response.

Among the many others taking part in our creative conversation are visual artists such as the photographer Robynne Limoges and multimedia artist Julien Masson. Robynne’s post on Rock Pools in the Desert took her deep concern at the plight of people and wildlife suffering drought and desertification and shared her response in a series of beautiful abstract photographs:

I am interpreting my own feelings through a series of metaphorical images. The series came about in a somewhat interesting way, to me at least. I found myself standing in front of a scratched, hammered stainless steel sink. To the right of me was a window onto the sea. As I looked at the dried droplets while I was washing my hands, I thought, ‘yes, this is it. This is the last bowl of water I will have at my disposal, the last source of water’. I stared at it so hard that I began to focus on the change in light from the out-of-doors and how it affected the surface, the water and the scratches. I returned to that sink many times, at different times of day and photographed it at different angles over time. I actually became a bit obsessed by its changing nature.

Rock Pools in the Desert 1 Photo by Robynne Limoges
Rock Pools in the Desert 1 Photo: Robynne Limoges © 2018

In The Call of the Forest, Julien used a residency in England’s New Forest National Park to explore scientific scans of the local geology, streams and flora and create rich multilayered images in paint.

Our digital culture brings us into a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the technology we rely on to drive it. I am interested in the ways we rely more and more on technology to record and survey our environment, and how this over-reliance is possibly misplaced. Through the numeric lens of digital devices that have a direct impact on how we perceive the world, spaces, objects and people are all analysed in the same manner — reduced to datasets that can be disassembled and reassembled at will. My works often consist of a dynamic mass of marks echoing digital networks and our complex interconnected world; they criss-cross the surface of the paintings like a giant mind map generating new meaning.

Full Cycle Image by Julien Masson
Full Cycle
Image: Julien Masson © 2018

These are examples of the sort of imaginative leaps that first transform the thinking of the individual and then, through the art they produce, enliven the thinking of others. Their paintings, photographs, poems and stories inspire new modes of awareness, new possibilities for action, a new sense of agency, and a new experience of association with others who are thinking and feeling their way through the same difficult but important issues.

Laura concluded her post with words that I think, almost two years on, sum up ClimateCultures and the wider artistic approach to our crisis very well:

Spaces where the joy and the grief of this is made real, is made possible, is made communal, are so urgent. I don’t think it matters what kind of space – a little camp in the jungle for lost creatures, a bricks and mortar art gallery in central Brighton, an online blog, a community centre, a sports club, a church. As the earth seems to alter more rapidly each week, this is a cry to hold onto our spaces, and to create new ones, to step through the door, over the gate, across the river, into the screen, through the glitter curtain, and look our ruins honestly in the face.

But I’ll end here with words that Mike quoted from Greta Thunberg’s speech to a demonstration at the COP24 climate conference in Katowice in Poland, last December. A remarkable 15-year-old activist, Greta encouraged fellow activists with these words:

Once we start to act, hope is everywhere, so instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then and only then, hope will come.

Anglo Files - Climate Matters


ClimateCultures posts and Members mentioned in this article:

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects, by Mark Goldthorpe (22/3/17):

Spaces for Joy and Grief, by Laura Coleman (22/3/17):

  • Laura Coleman is the founder and chair of Trustees of environmental arts space ONCA:

Sweeping the Dust, by Mike Hembury (12/12/18):

Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change, by Deborah Tomkins (12/10/18):

  • Deborah Tomkins is chair of Bristol Climate Writers:

Rock Pools in the Desert, by Robynne Limoges (25/7/18):

The Call of the Forest, by Julien Masson (23/5/18):

Artists and activists mentioned in the article:

I have written short pieces on imagination for my small blog: ~024 Imagination, the key ingredient and ~092 Imagination: not just the mind’s eye