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White Paper: Art + Climate Change

As of Mar 6, 2020 Almanac for the Beyond website's About page said it “is an edited volume of experimental eco-criticism. Providing a twist on the almanac tradition, this collection of essays, graphs, poems, art works, miscellaneous references, and more critiques the limits of the petroculture imagination, honors the rhythms of nature, and builds capacity to attend to contemporary environmental and societal change. The edifying, mystifying, editorializing and amaz-ifying contributions offer ways to see the weather (and the climate) “beyond” current and often damaging assumptions about what can and cannot be done to predict, fix, or modify it. Beyonds are everywhere—moving towards new possibilities of regeneration and diverse futures.”

“As it has grown in numbers and technological might, the human race has become a force of geophysical proportion, on par with the asteroid that struck the Yucatan during the Cretaceous era, dethroning Tyrannosaurus rex. Extinction is final. Yet no species is immortal. Extinction has been part of evolution since life emerged on Earth.” - The Post Carbon Reader, BIODIVERSITY: Peak Nature? by Stephanie Mills.

Have we reached peak nature? Is it all doom and gloom from 2020 onward? What does life look like after peak oil? Will homo sapiens be next on the list of endangered species? Where do we go from here, and can we actually do anything about it? These are all questions I was thinking about as I read through both the Almanac and Peak Nature? In my daily life, I’ve often wondered if my efforts are enough, what more I could be doing, and if we’re all fucked anyway.

In Peak Nature? Stephanie Mills discussed our ecosystem’s coevolution and symbiosis of all species on Earth. Without the 50-100 million different kinds of microbes, fungi, plants and animals that make up this life, the world as we know it would be a vastly different place. We have already been seeing the effects of broken dying relationships with nature; in Maoxian, China honeybees have vanished entirely, and two dozen human workers have to hand-pollinate a hundred apple trees (the work of two beehives). Without pollination the apple trees will eventually go extinct––as will many species that are intricately connected to those trees––and as more extinctions take place other micro-ecosystems begin to go extinct, eventually causing macro-ecosystem collapse. The author explains that sustaining what remains of the planet’s biodiversity will ultimately require a paradigm shift in economics and far better public understanding of the connections between the things we consume, their places of origin, and the consequences of their extraction and production.

An entry in the Almanac, by Jeremy Bolen, was about Lake Michigan, which holds one-fifth of the world’s fresh water supply yet it has been consistently abused by heavy manufacturing, agriculture and more. His project was a series of photographs that were created using Lake Michigan’s water as a camera of sorts. Sheets of exposed negative film were submerged in the contaminated lake (contamination is largely invisible on the surface). The final images were then coated with traces of asphalt collected from the shoreline.

Peak Nature? went on to discuss the interdependent nature of vegetation and precipitation, and the biodiversity found where land and water meet that can make a life-and-death difference for the oceanic ecosystems. “Marshes, swamps, and everglades filter and clean runoff from the land and help mitigate the intensity of floods, which now affect more people than all other natural or technological disasters combined.”

In one Almanac entry, Inland Tide Tables by Gretchen Bakke, the author listed timetables to plan vacations in 2099 for major theme parks and other interesting attractions. “Vacationers will find some useful pointers for visits to submerged, newly buoyant, or desertified locations. Opening hours, activities, and tethers for these parks may change seasonally and with tides and currents.”

From Peak Nature?: “Vegetation and precipitation are interdependent: Plants draw soil moisture up through their roots, stems, trunks, and branches and emit water vapor from their foliage. The process, called evapotranspiration, influences cloud formation over landmasses. Thus deforestation generally lends to a decrease in rainfall. “Forests precede civilization, deserts follow.”” And “Because we human beings […] are among the most adaptable animals of all, we may not comprehend that climate change can happen too rapidly for evolutionary adaptation to occur […] The direct and indirect effects of climate change, say Stuart Pimm and his colleagues, will result in the extinction of 15 to 37 percent of Earth’s species by 2050.” (I’ll only be 63!)

Portable Seed Pouch Library, by Anne-Lise François, in the Almanac, showed a printed diagram for cutting-out and constructing a seed pouch with instructions to leave a record of deposits and removals of seeds. “When depositing, note the date, the plant’s name, its preferred climate, habitat and time of year in which to plant; when removing, leave the date of removal and date and place of projected broadcasting or reburial in the ground.” This made me think of a flyer insert in Peak Nature? titled: Where You At? (Reprinted from CoEvolution Quarterly, winter 1981). It was a self scoring test on basic environmental understanding of a place. It said “basic,” I thought I would know the answer to at least a few questions, but I found that I could only partially guess the answer to one of the 20 questions posed (without googling it). Examples: 1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap. 7. Name five native edible plants in your region and their season(s) of availability. 9. Where does your garbage go? 17. What species have become extinct in your area? I scored “0-3, You have your head up your ass,” which felt very sad because I've tried to understand climate change and it’s effects, but realized I knew nothing of the land I live on. I wouldn’t know how to survive without the technology I’ve become dependent upon and the oil that's produced it. Sure an art degree has been great for thinking about these issues, but it hasn’t taught me “what were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived in the area before you.”

In the Almanac, A Monologue from The Cyanobacteria Collective was brilliantly written as a conversational, first-person narrative from algae to humans talking about how they’ve evolved and actually created the earth as we know it, and without them we would be nothing (read: fucked). It was wonderfully nerdy, hilarious, and educational without being textbook-dry, or pretentious. I learned that their excrement is oxygen and their over population caused the Great Oxygenation Event, but now their overpopulation is killing them because their dead ‘bodies’ cover the ocean floor suffocating the life there, which starves them and in turn causes a lack of oxygenation for us.

Another entry in the Almanac, What Can You Do? By Eva-Lynn Jagoe asked “Do you get scared when you read stories of how much our climate is set to change in the next century? […] What, you may ask, can you do?” The short article went on to describe how ‘you’ as the sole reader can’t really do anything. How there are other culprits, big ones, such as capitalism, industrialization, resource extracting, and mass agriculture that have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, and asked why we are personally internalizing the guilt that should be felt by those huge companies. The author concluded with an encouragement to create solidarity, join collectives, and make communities, because each time we become part of something more than self, we become a force than can revitalize, help, and make change.

Peak Nature? pointed out: ““Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” […] an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. […] By rewilding large landscapes we can work to achieve reintroduction of large animals, like the bison on the plains, to resume their ecological roles. For the sake of the world to come, we must become a constituency for wild nature and do everything within our power to mitigate the extinction crisis we are causing.”

For me these different approaches to climate change were equally important. One addressed the current and future issues head on, and offered practical solutions to our shrinking biodiversity; the other playfully and artistically discussed the future (and present) without any prescriptive advice. I found myself excited by thoughts that my art degree could allow me to go beyond adding to the conversation, and support me in making change even if I never know “what day of the year the shadows are shortest where you live.” I've become more eager to learn how to combine art and permaculture, or environmentalism, and fuse art and life together to get something that is a gestalt, something that is beyond the assumptions of what can and cannot be done, and connect with communities who've been doing the same, because as Eva-Lynn Jagoe said: “You (singular) can’t do much. But you (plural)––that’s a different story.”


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