#FLremaking: eco-criticism, re-storying nature

Update: Green gentrification, ha! Why ‘green cities’ need to become a deeply lived experience: “Urban greening provides an opportunity to recast the relationship between people and environment…Rather than simply cultivating green spaces for a narrow set of anthropocentric benefits, we pose the question: who are the participants in urban greening?”

Back half of Remaking nature – see front half.

Composing new natures

Having now introduced some of the reasons why nature must be remade, this week we move on to experiment with different ways of composing new natures.

How do we translate our concerns about nature into interventions that will make a meaningful difference? How can we both discursively (in the way we write, speak and think) and materially address questions of politics and ethics, history and justice, facts and values?

Starting points:

  • what do you want to achieve – to address a specific problem, celebrate nature, acknowledge our interconnections with the wider world, or advocate for a particular outcome?
  • determine how you want your audiences or participants to respond – what do you want them to think, feel, or do?
  • what is your creative idea that will achieve your desired responses?
  • what will you actually do – will your intervention be artistic, discursive, or performative?

Four modes of intervention aka creative eco-activism:

  • challenging or disrupting ways of thinking about nature – increases mainstream awareness, but can you achieve what you want by creating a shared sense of collaboration, or open up public agendas and opportunities for action?
  • narrating possible natures – documenting and re-storying/writing nature, inc digital stories; discursive, but can be dualistic; how can we represent nature and make a voice for it?
  • creating a public sense of identification with nature – #some opens up possibilities for interventions that resonate with your audience’s concerns, values, and attachments: seek ways to create emotional connections and use everyday language that your audiences will identify with – no jargon!
  • motivating action – advocacy and activism
  • plus from comments: embedded and participatory

Challenges:

  • how to talk about environmental problems in ways that will resonate with your audiences
  • how to intensify and mobilise concerns about the more-than-human world
  • how to establish meaningful mechanisms for navigating and intervening in decision-making processes

Examples:

  • artistic representations – eg Nuclear Futures
  • eco-criticism and re-writing nature – see below
  • bio-art – artistic interventions at the nexus between plant science, art, plus earth jurisprudence (bioethics, or nature rights), reflecting on the possibility of plants and other entities having a different way of thinking, a different form of sentience and ultimately different rights, calling for a radical rethinking of humanity’s place in the world (Prue Gibson)

Next, drawing on the concepts developed in this course post a link to an inspiring example of an intervention, possibly relating to your topic. Why does it inspire you? Hmm…it just all goes back to reading Peter Singer aged 14. Any trees stuff? #labbeagles? See Walking with the more than human (and blog). I have an issue though with being anthropomorphic re animals. (From the week 5 discussions: Re anthropomorphism, aka the “*unwarranted* use of human-like characteristics in our descriptions of others. As such, the term tends to largely be used in question begging ways – as an insult that assumes that the animal doesn’t have these characteristics, when that is precisely what is at issue…[see also] anthropodenial…human chauvinism and human exceptionalism. They need not travel together”.)

And now create your own intervention based on yer week 3 issue – say something interesting, provocative, perhaps eye catching, about your issue and its possible futures, ideally in a way that might make a difference to how people understand and live with this environmental issue. Then add it to the creative interventions padlet, with details of  the theoretical context for your intervention – why do you think this is a good approach, and what have you hoped to achieve with it?

Eco-criticism and re-writing nature

Eco-criticism, a field of study that explores the inter-relationships of literature and the environment, is a tool for intervening in the way nature is understood, imagined and made – not simply as a mode of critique but also as a means of effecting change. How can, and do, literary and poetic forms help to trouble mainstream thinking about the environment?

Eco-criticism is a subfield of literary studies and cultural studies that looks at representations of the more-than-human world in poetry, film, and fiction. In the early days of the 1980s and 1990s, eco-critics didn’t have a very complicated idea of nature, but since then the real problem of naturecultures has been taken on.

Eco-critics can help in the project of reimagining nature in numerous ways. One important way is the historical perspective, looking into the history of artistic representation to show up how nature or the more-than-human world has been represented across time…there have been other ways of reading and understanding the more-than-human world in history, and that can help denaturalise the present.

There’s something quite apocalyptic about the mainstream imagining of climate change. We need to take the challenges of climate change seriously, but at the same time we can’t just imagine it in apocalyptic terms. Eco-criticism can show us how the apocalypse has had different incarnations across history. Every generation has had its own apocalypse story – our present crisis is just a part of this bigger history. But at the same time we need alternative visions for the future, and poets and artists, particularly operating in a speculative fictional sense, can help us to get out of this apocalyptic vision and think differently about the future.

Storytelling, and particularly narrative storytelling, is emerging as central to the EH project because it offers a different way of representing information. Eco-critics look at the structure of stories, the formal techniques, the history of different modes of representation and use story as a way of presenting and disseminating their research.

As Donna Haraway said in her recent article in Environmental Humanities it matters which stories tell stories. The stories we tell about the world, matter the world, and actually have an impact on the way that we behave, and the way that we live, and the way that we imagine the future. And so stories, both fictional and non-fictional are really important to this broad project. (Jennifer Mae Hamilton; from transcript)

  • narrating possible natures – documenting and re-storying/writing nature, inc digital stories; discursive, but can be dualistic; how can we represent nature and make a voice for it?
  • storytelling, particularly speculative forms that offer alternative visions of the future, is an important tool for engaging with environmental challenges, see article by Margaret Atwood, reflecting on the growing rise of speculative fiction, principally ‘cli-fi’; a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions, or just another part of the ‘entertainment business’?

Eco-criticism linkage:

Have to say, so far none of this does as much for me as I feel it ought to,  and others’ creative intervention projects don’t appeal either. Still, I wrote a bit on what now turns out to be EH in October 2014, summing up two events in Copenhagen from Energy Futures at ITU (@EnergyFutureITU; gone a bit quiet since). On Pynt eller politik?:

The debate on engagement stuck out, with participants highlighting the need for new forms of communication, perhaps reducing the dystopian angle on climate change in favour of something more positive. More idealistic was a call for more of the aesthetic, which in turn would emphasise the ethical in society and education (this works better på dansk), more solutions and positive stories, less of the victim, endless facts and figures – current discourse is too functional and economically driven. What is needed is collective action rather than passive individuals, a lifestyle and value system change away from consumption.

New narratives for new natures

This week we looked at the power of storytelling in composing new natures. We encountered the recurring idea that telling stories draws us into new connections, accountabilities and obligations. You invented your own creative stories about the future through the Game of Global Futures, which illustrated how different connections, or coalescences, lead to different environmental outcomes.

Sadly, this is where I lost the plot and reached my personal tipping point. Games don’t appeal, but thanks to a fellow students for posting some material re the dominance of storytelling, specifically  Galen Strawson in Aeon and Tyler Cowen via the medium of TEDx (really), who went from Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots to the three problems with stories (they’re simple and manipulative, they end up serving dual and conflicting functions, markets and politicians don’t always send us the right stories) – embrace mess!

We were also introduced to the concepts of re-making and re-worlding, “used within EH and a range of other fields which acknowledges that our understandings of the world are made and re-made through encounters between different imaginaries…art interventions and other forms of research — as forms of worlding — can envision new worlds that demonstrate greater ethics of care and concern, and can potentially open up more responsible imaginaries and ways of knowing”.

Moving on, there are four different modes or lenses for telling stories within EH:

  • justice – the social justice expression of environmental ethics; breaks down the division between the social and the environmental and acknowledges the role of social and political power in shaping environmental outcomes
  • care – affective, ethical and practical (a vital affective state, and an ethical obligation, and a practical labour), but care not without risk; what kinds of emotional, political, and epistemic frames orient our caring acts? what am I really caring for, why, and at what cost to whom? (come in, CPH Zoo)
  • art – what are the implications for knowledge and public engagement in environmental issues, when an artistic mode is adopted?
  • democratising knowledge – questioning existing public engagement approaches that concentrate on public acceptance of pre-determined, technology-driven responses to environmental problems and engaging with complex issues around who has access to framing environmental problems and driving change; what counts as facts and what counts as values? We’ve tended to value facts, which we assume are objective, over values, which we assume are sort of subjective or sort of irrational (comment from co-student: “the general public has ‘values’ right enough but these are often of the NIMBY variety or based on sentimentality…there is a whole industry grown up around public participation which keeps everyone in a fine state of ferment”)

Each of these storytelling modes offers a different framework for understanding and working through the stories humans tell — and hence the relationships we establish, with their world-making consequences. Together, these modes can help us to tell new stories that exhibit greater responsibility towards humans and the more-than-human world.

Where do these new natures take us?

Final week, a conclusion? Discussing the importance of care and responsibility in future-making, introducing the notion of ‘staying with the trouble’, and why it’s important to base our accounts in situated experiences of the world.

Forget utopias – the lure of hope as a form of denial or distraction can be very strong. Engage in practical and concrete modes of care and responsibility for possible worlds – what’s needed is a critical lens on, and more attention towards, what it is that we’re specifically hoping and working towards.

Forget apocalypse – use optimistic stories that provoke a sense of agency, rather than focusing on apocalyptic visions of the future. If the communication does not resonate with social norms, values or attachments that influence audiences’ sense-making processes, it cannot succeed.

We now leave you with a final provocation: What is your next step? How will you use the knowledge and connections that you gained in this course to influence change in a situation that you care about?

Overall, too many new concepts, too much jargon, too many earnest academics talking to each other – a rather more high minded MOOC than many.

EH linkage:

From the Walking Encylopedia (2014), walking as a way of expressing environmental concerns and tracking climate change – see for example Jess Allen’s All in a day’s walk and Tilting at windmills. Jess is exploring the concept of tracktivism, “utilising walking and moving and talking in rural landscapes to address issues of environmental, social or political concern”. (Update: on Talking Walking. Aug 2o14; see also on Academia.edu.) Also Peter Ward’s Pebble Ridge and BIOsphere. Steph Bradley is involved in with the Transition Network – see her blog – and uses storywalks to tell Tales of our times.