I recently attended the TippingPoint Weatherfronts conference at the FreeWord Centre, London – a two day meet-up for scientists and writers to explore the nature and future of our changing climate. Questions posed included: what is the role of the writer in addressing climate change? What kind of story is climate change – tragedy, comedy, documentary, science-fiction? From working with groups such as Virtual Migrants, PARCOE and Platform I was also interested in asking questions around who gets to tell this story? Whose voices are negated? Whose voices aren’t in the room? And how we can approach climate change from a climate justice and reparations angle?
The first day began – appropriately enough – with an ice-breaker. The facilitator outlined how these first moments of entering such a space stress our synapses into firing questions: who is in the room that I know? Where shall I stand? Is this a comfortable space? Do I trust this facilitator? The professions of scientist and writer being traditionally solitary pursuits, this talking-to-strangers exercise proved useful in beginning conversations.
Professor Chris Rapley kicked off the talks with a climate science update. In referencing the Space Race he asked us to consider our relationship as human beings to the planet. The image used to illustrate this point was an un-tethered astronaut floating above the earth. Stitched onto the space-suit, two visible patches: NASA and the USA flag. A first climate justice themed question surfaced: which other unacknowledged areas of the globe also contributed to this “peak in human endeavour” in terms of the mining of materials, minerals, sweat shops…?
This opening talk highlighted the validity of science as a knowledge system. The immense length (up to four miles) of the ice cores drilled out of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets to measure past centuries of carbon use boggled the mind. Rapley speculated about taking one of these ice cores and melting it in the Tate Modern – a pertinent art/activist intervention considering the BP-sponsored nature of this space. I couldn’t help but also wonder: with all this scientific drilling to determine the effect of human-induced climate change, has anyone ever done a survey examining the contribution to human-induced climate change of all these climate surveys? Or more seriously, how much actual scientific data do we need when impacted communities are measuring the oceans’ rise with their own wretched feet?
The writers’ panel featured contributions from Maggie Gee, Gregory Norminton, Ruth Padel, Jay Griffiths and Ruth Little. In extolling the virtues of story-telling Griffiths urged that “propaganda doesn’t work”. Goebbels, ad-execs, marketeers and their victims would surely beg to differ, yet where is the oft blurred line between hectoring, persuasion, politics and art? And in questioning the idea of art itself let us recognise those indigenous cultures that do not separate art from every day ritual, story-telling, living, being. Norminton hit the colonial nail on the head in describing how “in the West we suffer from an excessive sense of entitlement… most of our polices don’t think past the next decade…”. He talked of our modern day obsession with ‘progress’ and how our rhetoric of straight lines rather than circles leads us into traps. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s words came to mind: “You cannot have art for art’s sake. This art must do something to transform the lives of a community, of a nation” opening up further questions of the privilege of the artist, engaging different audiences, platforms, youth…
Day two began with former government advisor on Climate Change, John Ashton stressing the importance of voice for the assembled writers. The need to go beyond “scientific technical languages – economists, social scientists, biologists and so on…”. “You are shamans of the story, engineers of narrative…” he enthused. While there was indeed plenty of engineer-type input throughout the conference what weight if any, is given to shamanistic knowledge in our culture? Where were the shamans in this room? What other forms of indigenous knowledge systems are negated? What other languages?
‘Carousel’ discussions filled the rest of the day: roundtable conversations offering a needed chance to explore climate change concepts more fully. Whose Risk? Whose Decisions? led me to draw parallels between the movement for the abolition of slavery and the current need for an abolition of fossil fuels. In both cases, the need to take a lead from those on the frontlines of these battles in the global south was/ is paramount.
In discussions of utopias and dystopias in the End Times roundtable, the victims of technological advances (coltan mining in the Congo, huge CO2 releases from server farms) were to the fore of my thinking. Oonya Kempadoo’s Naniki project centering around Caribbean mythologies gave prompts to learning from the past, Sankofa principles.
Another session: Making a drama out of a crisis centred around best practices for creating art: the importance of co-creation and dialogue; focusing on the process, not being outcome led. “Go forth and co-create” became a rallying cry.
Conversations around and outside of these sessions bubbled away. Weatherfronts was a success for me in this respect and I plan to continue dialogues begun here (with writers such as Selina Nwulu, Zena Edwards, Dorothea Smartt) and develop these further into international dialogues with various communities and environmental justice activist/ artists such as Nnimmo Bassey.
In a final conversation of the two days I was excited to learn of writer Kathryn Edwards’ study with the pioneering shaman Malidoma Somé. In the chapter, “Trying to See” in his book Of Water and the Spirit, Somé comments on how this bureaucratic Euro-American obsession with measuring and cataloguing every single detail contrasts profoundly with the folk science of real felt experience… As he attempts to re-orient himself back into a harmonious relationship with his community he observes that, “debates, theories, for criticism [are] a legacy of the white world”; myriads of questions slow down the journey to traditional indigenous knowledge; “one cannot always sculpt theories to frame experience, or top experience with the roof of theory….”
As highlighted by communities leading the climate marches this weekend, although indigenous people’s are least to blame for global warming it is indigenous peoples who are most impacted by climate change and it is indigenous peoples who are at the forefront in demanding action against climate chaos. In seeking to solve these apocalyptic questions that face humanity – questions that as a species we have never before been asked on this global scale – it appears pertinent to take the advice of Europe’s most foremost scientific thinker, Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. Seeking the knowledge of those whose wisdom lies beyond scientific thought may be a way out of our (largely Euro-American) man-made predicament.
Just a thought. Or a question.