Tuesday, 20 December 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: include the craft of great design



Following Solitaire Townsend's suggestions for metaphors - teen-aged sex, Shakespeare, and advice to the dude - Ed Gillespie, co-founder of Futerra, emailed us to add a crucial component to the art of sustainability. Ed writes: 

To add to Soli's suggestions I would include: craft.

Sustainability is really all about craft - artful, considered, creative solutions that work for people and planet.

Sustainability is also the crucial third component of great design, building on William Morris's 'fit for purpose' (functionality) and 'beautiful to look at' (aesthetics). I add to these 'sustainably produced, reusable, durable, recyclable'. Sustainability turns good design into truly great design.

photo above of William Morris
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Thursday, 15 December 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: teenaged sex, Tatiana's 'Weather Speech' and advice to the dude


Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.  Photo: Copyright 1989 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.


Solitaire Townsend, co-founder and director of Futerra, the sustainability communications agency, draws on sex, Shakespeare and the party spirit for three new metaphors for sustainability.

I’ve heard hundreds of definitions and metaphors for sustainability. For a decade my company Futerra has been communicating this precious, complicated, simple idea in communities, through brands and across continents. So I’ve picked three favourite metaphors which sandwich the sublime between two moments of the ridiculous.

The first is courtesy of my co-founder at Futerra the guru, professional comic and activist Ed Gillespie. This one comes with humour warning...

“Sustainability is like teenage sex. Everybody says they are doing it, but very few actually are. And those which are doing it – are doing it wrong.”

Ed loves opening conference speeches with that one.

The second isn’t really a metaphor but rather a poetic description of climate change. It’s the famous ‘Weather Speech’ by Titania from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 2, Scene1):

The winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter cheer;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

That in the 1590’s Shakespeare wrote the most chilling description of climatic upheaval inspired Ed and I to shoot a short film of the speech. Called ‘The Season’s Alter’,  it stars a young Keira Knightly.

The final example is my most often used. When asked to define or explain sustainable development I don’t call upon the great Bard, but rather upon Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan:

“Be excellent to each other, and party on dudes.”


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Thursday, 8 December 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the Spanish Dehesa



Our series on new metaphors for sustainability continues with Alison Turnbull's 'Spanish Dehesa', a sylvopastoral system that marries production and nature conservation.  Alison was born in Bogotà, lives in London and exhibits her artwork there.  

I first saw the Spanish dehesa on a trip to Extremadura some twenty years ago. We drove for over fifty miles without passing another car and the temperature soared to 53º C. It was difficult to believe we were in Western Europe and not in the plains of the American west or crossing an African savannah.  I’ve been back every year since, walking and experiencing this unique eco-system in all kinds of weather, under all sorts of light.

Rather like the evocative Spanish term duende, used in the performing arts to mean ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, dehesa is a difficult word to translate. Meadow, wooded pastureland and grazing operation, it is a sylvo-pastoral system that covers 20,000 square kilometres, mostly in southwest Spain but also stretching into Portugal and Morocco. It is one of the oldest created landscapes in Europe – a cultural landscape if you like - just how ancient no one quite knows, but certainly several centuries, and it remains an outstanding example of intelligent husbandry.  It is beneficial to the needs of human beings but also hospitable to a whole variety of other creatures, including many rare butterflies.

The grassed zones in between the oak trees are famously home to acorn-fed Iberian pigs that produce the most wonderful ham in the world. Honey, cheese, cork and charcoal are all products of the dehesa. It is an area of exceptional bio-diversity - for instance it is the wintering ground for most of Europe’s population of Grus grus, the common crane.

The dehesa is special in that it is an area where maximum exploitation sits side by side with maximum conservation. It’s man-made and it’s right here in Europe.


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Monday, 5 December 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: a stranger's compass



Our co-editor Wallace Heim continues our series of new metaphors for sustainability with a guidance system that changes hands. 


Walking an unfamiliar Cumbrian fell with a compass, often without a map, links me to the land in a special way. The invisible, magnetic north that spins into place on the device is often perplexing and counter-intuitive. However reassuring it is to know there are vast forces of geology beyond any I can see, forces that co-ordinate my safe passage, I still have to negotiate the land right in front of me: that granite face, that swamped mire, that fast river. There is no picture in which to find myself, only wit, the land and the pull of a distant polar force.

A few times, I've come across a dropped compass. There's a moment when clearing the mud from its face when I wonder whether it was left behind because it was broken, or not believed. Is the north that was found in a stranger's hand the same as in mine?

I don't think sustainability can be likened directly to a compass, as if there was a pole of certainty to it. There are orientations that guide, but they fluctuate with a landscape that is continually shifting. The incremental decisions made in response to immediate conditions themselves change the situation, alter what is possible to do. I see sustainability as a response to change, one that keeps alive the capacity to respond to further change. What kind of compass would show this light-footed improvisation that makes sure those in the future can navigate their own way?

Walking with a stranger's compass comes closer as a metaphor. The compass is given, handed over, and it connects me to those I will never know, while helping me cross the land that I am in. The instruction is not reliable; maybe not safe. Or maybe it is, and the coordinates are sharper than on my own compass, signalling a clearer route. Is it pulling me in a direction I couldn't have imagined? This uncertain magnetism invigorates the walk. One day, I'll leave my compass behind. 
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Thursday, 1 December 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the surprises

Wallace Heim writes:

When we’ve asked people to think of a metaphor, we tried to present the idea of ‘sustainability’ in neither a positive nor a negative light, but to leave it as open as possible for people to interpret it in their own way. Even for the DVD, we filmed the four people without knowing ahead of time what their metaphors would be. We didn’t want to promote any one idea of sustainability.

It’s been surprising how positive the metaphors have been, even from those people for whom sustainability is not a strong idea, or from those who acknowledge its ambiguities.

It's also been surprising to see how people have found something, maybe not the grand conceptual metaphor, but something in their lives that relates to their view of sustainability. This is as important as the encapsulating metaphor, like the 'iron curtain' or the 'glass ceiling'. The metaphors have not been about a concept imposed from the outside, but about a relation between the idea and something from one's life that makes sense.

We'll be presenting more metaphors in the next two weeks. 
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Monday, 28 November 2011

New on our news page

In Nottingham, there's a three-day celebration of the apple.

In Edinburgh, David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous, and Being Animal: An Earthy Cosmology,  gives a public talk.

In London, Arcola's Green Sundays return with a focus on recycling and upcycling.

In the bookshops, David Rothenberg's Survival of the Beautiful investigates why nature is beautiful and how it has influenced science, Brendon Larson explores how metaphors entangle scientific facts with social values and Mojisola Adebayo's Plays One includes 'Moj of the Antarctic: An African Odyssey'.

There's a new funding stream for public art by Creative Scotland, and a call for runners to participate in NVA's Speed of Light at the Edinburgh Festival.

On the international scene, Conversation between Trees  uses sensors and mobile phones in the forest canopies in Brazil and the UK to communicate the light and colour of the trees and the changing climate around them.

Closer to home, Culture and Climate Change: Recordings is available as an online pdf and publication.
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Thursday, 17 November 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the Fetch (of a wavelength; to collect)


Our series of new metaphors for sustainability continues with Annie Cattrell's two meanings for 'Fetch'. A visual artist, born in Glasgow, living and working in London, Annie is a tutor at the Royal College of Art and a senior research fellow in Fine Art at DeMontfort University. She was on the 2011 Cape Farewell Scottish Islands Expedition.

I was first introduced to the oceanographic term the ‘Fetch’ while visiting I.C.I.T (International Centre for Island Technology) on Orkney during a residency I undertook hosted by the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness during 2010.

The Fetch (length) of a wave can be incredibly long. For example, it could stretch from the east coast of the United States, where it might originate, and travel uninterrupted by land mass across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving on the shores of the west coast of Scotland, in particular the Orkneys, where it would then be forced to break against the coastline.

The simple equation relating to this phenomena is that the length of a wave determines the power and energy of it.

As a consequence scientists and technologists based in Orkney are trying to harness the waves to create renewable energies for the future.

The uninterrupted ‘Fetch’ length of a wave seems like a strong natural metaphor for cause and effect. The behaviour of oceans, seas and weather generally would appear to override any political or territorial boundaries and constraints, reminding us of the larger rhythms of earth systems that can so easily be damaged and altered by different types of human made pollutants.

'Fetch' can also mean to go and collect and is to some extent predictive and about a future intention. Collecting and harnessing ideas and ways of living more sustainably would seem to be navigating in the right direction!

If not now, when?, Primo Levi
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Monday, 14 November 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the soil in my family's garden in Yorkshire


David Harradine is an artist working across performance, installation, publication and film, and is Artistic Director of Fevered Sleep. His metaphor for sustainability conveys his love for the transformations of soil.

We don’t even know what to call it, whether it’s soil or earth or dirt. 'Earthy' seems nourishing, homely, but we generally don’t like things that are dirty or soiled. Dirty implies sex, which is getting to the heart of the matter: productiveness, creation, fecundity.

I keep an allotment in Hackney, inner London. For seven years I’ve been digging kitchen waste into the ground, applying horse shit gathered on Leyton Marsh, and bagging up leaves from the London Plane trees by the children’s playground, waiting for them to break down into humus (brown nectar, nourishment, life). This soil, heavy London clay, grey brown, full of pebbles: this is sustainability. It’s what sustains me.

Everything I know about gardening – a knowledge that resides in my fingernails, the callouses on my palms, the ache in the small of my back, the blunt edge of my spade, and the dirty Tupperware box in which I keep my seeds – I learned in a garden in Yorkshire when I was a child. My grandfather was a market gardener. We grew gladioli, tomatoes, chrysanthemums, dahlia, potatoes and the spring onions for the market in Leeds. I remember one afternoon, my fingers stinking of tomato plants, when I asked him if one day the garden would be mine. I could not imagine how the life could continue without it. The very idea of family took root in that garden, with our hands and spades in that dark, scented, sensual soil; knowledge sown like seeds from generation to generation.

Soil: mineral structure fleshed out with the detritus of life and death. Wondrous recycler. Transformer of things into other things. As a child, it was unfathomable and miraculous to see the yellow-white flower of a double-headed chrysanthemum be created from heavy black soil.

Working my allotment in Hackney, I pull on the rake I brought from my grandfather’s garden. I have started to plan what I will do when my parents die, when that garden may no longer be ours. I think I will sack up some soil and bring it to London, because it carries time in it, and memory in it, and it carries my family in it, and I was grown in it. And I am sustained, here in the city, by the memory of the texture of it and the smell of it. And by the life, the life, the life that turns on an infinite cycle in the hidden dark depths of it.

photo: David's hands, his grandfather's rake, Hackney soil
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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: why we started

Wallace Heim writes:

We began thinking about metaphor and sustainability when we noticed that there weren't any strong or imaginative metaphors for the concept, or ones that we could easily use in conversation. Metaphors are pervasive in human thought and communication. 'Sustainability' stood out as an anomaly, a common concept with many definitions, but no metaphors.

So in April, we asked four people to suggest a metaphor and we filmed their responses. We weren't looking for 'the' metaphor. We were experimenting to see whether it was possible to think metaphorically about sustainability, in all its promise, its limitations and paradoxes.

Since then, we've added 14 more metaphors, (18 if you count everyone in the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home), and will add another 6 through November and December, here on Ashdenizen and collected on the Directory.

Too, we'll be posting comments on the project itself, which for some contributors was challenging; for others, playful; and for others, a delicate expression of meaning taken from their everyday life.
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Thursday, 3 November 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the yew tree


Our series of new metaphors for sustainability will continue through November. Today, Peter Harrison, writer, artist and co-founder of Propeller Arts Collective finds solace in the shade of the yew tree.

A simple definition of sustainability is the capacity to sustain. For me, this immediately poses a problem. I’m aware that everything comes to an end, nothing can go on forever. There’s something not quite real about the word, implying the possibility of being liberated from death. But also there are nurturing, practical, organic aspects to the word, implying maintenance and growth.

Trees are living processes. Yew trees live for centuries. Although it is difficult to accurately date yew trees, it is estimated that the Llangernyw Yew, in Conwy, Wales, is over four thousand years old. Yews are associated with immortality, renewal and transformation. Yews are living entities that sustain while the world around them changes. The yew in Conwy sheltered people from the early Bronze age. It is tempting to think that one of those people stood under the tree imagining life four thousand years in the future. As generations came and went, the tree continued. Yews represent the passage from life to death, and beyond, into the land of shadows.

The timeless quality of yew trees can also be personally experienced. Stepping into the low-hanging canopy of a yew, there is a marked change in temperature and volume. The air is cool and still. The world is quieter. A space under branches. Natural sanctuaries in which to reflect, to slow down and contemplate life beyond the moment.

This is an uncertain world. In past centuries, when death was a more present, daily occurrence than it is now, maybe yews gave people hope that the world will continue. Hope that although one day we will die, part of the world we knew and loved will sustain.

photo: the Llangernyw Yew, Conwy, Wales
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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: song


Sue Palmer, an artist making live and digital work with people and place, and author of inquiline, a blog on botany and art, suggests song as a metaphor for sustainability.

the extraordinary song:
often straightforward, yet infinitely complex
the diversity (how many millions have been created)
the particularity (each one individual)
a structure enabling brilliant inventiveness
often a voice and an instrument
two kinds of sounds, working

my musician friend John talks about chords as metaphors
about how two ‘discordant’ tones are shifted
through the addition of a third note, bringing resolve

songs are free, and they can make someone a living
they help people make it through the day, and night
songs have changed peoples’ minds

a song can contain a lot of information, honed,
ideas packed in language,
rhythm, rhyme
there’s craft in it, and anyone can do it
there’s multiple ways to begin, and a sense when it’s complete

verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus,
bridge
and key change, ‘ad lib to fade’
the pleasure of the repetition, letting the song free up, go

When I think of sustainability, I usually think of losing things, resources, capacity, and I find my materially-centred thought frustrating.

'If anything, I wanted to understand things and then be free of them. I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once, like all the books in the library - everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph or into one verse of a song if you could get it right', Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One, 2004.

photo: by Orelie Grimaldi of John Cartwright playing C#m7
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Friday, 28 October 2011

Margaret Atwood is with the bears

Margaret Atwood and Helen Simpson discuss I'm With The Bears, a new collection of short stories about climate change, with Mariella Frostrup on BBC Radio 4's Open Book.

Helen Simpson says one problem of writing about climate change is the moralizing:

"That's about as popular as telling someone they need to lose weight. It's the nagging and being preached at element that is very hard to avoid around this subject”. more ...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: 'A matter of time'


Nick Robins’ metaphor suggests a profound shift in our perceptions of time. Nick works in the policy, operational and financial dimensions of corporate accountability and sustainability. He is author of The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational (2006) and in 2011 was rated as the leading analyst for climate change research in the ThomsonExtel survey.

In the end, sustainability is all about the allocation of the scarcest resource: time. How much time do we devote to what in the present, and how do we balance the imperatives of time past, time present and time future?

The task, then, is to defeat the ravages of geological time and transfer those things of value from one civilisation to the next, particularly now that we have passed during our lifetimes from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.

Nearly all of what we consider to be valuable in human society occupies a tiny fraction of our existence as a species (some 2 million years).

For me, Homer's Iliad is the archetype of human value across time. As the poet Christopher Logue discusses in the introduction to his recent interpretation, War Music, the Iliad is already a work that has survived the collapse of a number of civilisations through luck, persistence and care. But will it survive ours?

The Iliad was written perhaps in the 8th century BCE, some 2,800 years ago. For me, sustainability means enabling those in the future to have an equivalent chance to benefit from this fundamental text, constructing an arc into the future 2,800 years long. This means that my time horizon is (or should be) 4811 AD, far further out that the 2050 timelines of the climate negotiations or the 'seventh generation' thinking of the counter-culture.

The consequences of this shift in perspective are profound: we need to conceive sustainability as beyond culture and indeed language, as the transmission of value beyond time.

All the metaphors in our series so far are collected here.
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Monday, 17 October 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the Kelo


We resume our series finding new metaphors for sustainability with the Kelo suggested by artist and researcher Amanda Thomson

For a few years now I have been spending a lot of time in some of the remnant Caledonia pine forests of Scotland, learning about their ecology, and making an ongoing piece of work called Dead Amongst the Living, which is ostensibly about the dead trees of these woodlands. Scots pines can live to be up to 300 years old, and even after they die, can stand for years before falling. In the middle of these woods, they sometimes stand pale like spectres amongst the greens, reds and browns of the living forest, and sometimes on the hills and moorlands of the north an occasional single tree reminds us of forests now long gone or the tenaciousness it has often taken to have survived.  

There’s a Finnish word a ranger told me, Kelo, which describes a standing tree which has died, dried out in the wind and yet remains standing, often for decades, only quietly and imperceptibly decaying. Like the shells of old croft houses in the far north west and on the islands, such trees stand to remind us of a different past, and are testament to earlier times.

Dead wood supports a huge amount of biodiversity when still standing, and once they have fallen they continue to form a crucial part of the living ecosystems of a pinewood; indeed, it is said they support more species when dead than they do when alive. These dead trees contain microhabitats for species which are not found elsewhere but which are vital to the ongoing health of the forest. They are havens for invertebrates, hold rare mosses, provide nutrients for lichens, fungi and liverworts. At each stage of their decay, they give something back to their surroundings and support different species at different stages of decomposition. When standing, they provide viewpoints for raptors and their holes and cavities provide nest sites for a range of woodland birds, including crested tits. Their rot holes are used by the larvae of rare hoverflies, green shield-moss grows on old stumps and capercaillie use the upturned root plates of the fallen for cover and for dust baths. Eventually, over a period of years, and by being broken down in a variety of ways, all of the nutrients which have been stored in the tree will make their way back in to the earth and replenish it.

For me, these dead trees contain an essential reminder about how in both physical and in psychic terms, things that seem no longer with us, things that might appear to be useless and redundant, and things that becomes invisible can continue to influence, support and nourish the present, and the living, in ways that we might not yet know, but will perhaps, in time, come to realise.
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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

New fables for the woods

Why does the ash tree have black buds? Why does the yew tree live so long? Why does the chestnut tree have white candles? In a series of new fables about woods, 19 writers started with a question of this sort and found their way to an answer by writing a short story.

The collection, Why Willows Weep is published by the Woodland Trust. According to the editors, some fables are like fairy tales, others like Greek myths, and some are completely off-the-wall.

The writers are William Fiennes, James Robertson, Richard Mabey, Tracy Chevalier (who edits the collection), Susan Elderkin, Rachel Billington, Blake Morrison, Maria McCann, Terence Blacker, Joanne Harris, Philippa Gregory, Catherine O'Flynn, Tahmima Anam, Maggie O'Farrell, Amanda Craig, Ali Smith, Philip Hensher, Salley Vickers and Kate Mosse.
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Thursday, 6 October 2011

My Last Car - final showings


My Last Car, commissioned by Tipping Point, I Move, and the Warwick Arts Centre, has its final performances today through Saturday at the Warwick Arts Centre.  Everyone remembers their first car; what if their present car were their last car?  The show looks at the influences the motor car has had on people's lives, and issues of sustainability.

The star is a soft-top Rover 216 broken down to its component parts.  My Last Car is both a gallery installation and a performance.  Information and tickets here.


My Last Car - Alan Dix, the man behind the wheel from imove on Vimeo.



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Friday, 30 September 2011

Ecocide's day in court


Wallace Heim writes:

Today, the theatre of a mock trial plays out in the UK Supreme Court, live online (download the software at the top left of the panel).

The Ecocide Trial has Michael Mansfield QC as prosecuting barrister and Nigel Lickley QC as defence barrister leading a case for and against two fictional CEO’s, and is complete with expert witnesses, jury and judge.

The crimes chosen by the court this morning are the extraction of oil from Canada’s Tar Sands and the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

There is no script. It is up to a jury to decide whether the case for Ecocide crime is made.

Follow the case on twitter and on Sky News/home/supreme-court.


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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Culture and Climate Change: Recordings


A pdf of Culture and Climate Change: Recordings is now available.

See four podcasts on culture and climate change
Download the podcasts
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Monday, 5 September 2011

A final posting from Cape Farewell expedition

Shiants - watercolor by John Cumming
Kellie Gutman writes:

The artist, sculptor and writer John Cumming took part in the fourth and final week of Cape Farewell's expedition to the Shetland Islands this summer.  John was born and raised in Burra Isle, Shetland. He writes:

What draws me to these places is hard to define.  The journey is part of the magic.  The sea is endlessly, and wonderfully alive; unlike concrete, unlike tarmacadam.  No two sea journeys are ever the same.  On the trip to North Rona, we met families of dolphin, Risso’s, basking sharks and minke whales.  The sea was calm, the swell long and leaden.  The night-time journey back was before a north-easterly gale, sailing only on the jib.   Driving southwards at eight to ten knots, we listened to the clicking of a school of pilot whales some three miles away.

Next day the sheer sculptural magnificence of the Shiants was a revelation.  I have a personal lexicography of island profiles; the Kame of Hoy; the Kame of Foula; the Drongs of Eshaness; each place uniquely powerful and awe inspiring, yet even now, weeks later the basalt columns and screes of the shiants are etched on the back of my eyelids.

For his complete posting, including additional sketches, as well as postings of others on the expedition, see the Cape Farewell blog here.
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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Sustainable production award: Allotment

Kellie Gutman writes:

The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts has awarded their 2011 Sustainable Production Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  The prize goes to Allotment, by Jules Horne and directed by Kate Nelson.  The show is set in an actual allotment and follows two sisters, Dora and Maddy, who work out their rivalries among the plants.  The show was chosen for successfully integrating its location into the drama.  See here for the full story.
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Saturday, 20 August 2011

New version of 3rd Ring Out opens in Edinburgh


One of the winners of the 2010 Tipping Point commissions, 3rd Ring Out (which we blogged here and here) has now opened at the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. Its director Zoë Svendsen says:

We've now got a 'strategy' cell as well as a 'simulation' cell - we've split the use of the two containers into (1) short term crisis in a climate-changed future, under a business -as-usual scenario (which is the same format as last year but now about the Suffolk coastline); and (2) long term alternative futures about the city we are in, generated by ideas gathered from the public and others.


18-28 August, Edinburgh Fringe Festival
In the bright orange shipping containers. Grassmarket
Pleasance Courtyard
60 Pleasance
Phone 0131 556 6560

Other shows of interest at the Edinburgh Fringe blogged here
Zoë Svendsen's metaphor for sustainability on this blog and the Ashden DIrectory
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Friday, 5 August 2011

Cape Farewell expedition reaches half-way point

Sheep pens, St. Kilda.  Photo: Ruth Little
Kellie Gutman writes: Cape Farewell's journey to the Outer Hebrides has reached its half-way point. The crews have changed each week, but the Associate Director, Ruth Little is onboard for the duration.  Her latest post, filled with wonderful pictures and observations can be seen here.

For all of the expedition posts go here or follow it on our blogroll. 
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Thursday, 4 August 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: coral reef


Caspar Henderson, writer and journalist, suggests coral reef, its efficiency, vulnerability and beauty, as a metaphor for sustainability. Caspar's Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A Bestiary for the Anthropocene will be published by Granta in 2012.

As many people know, healthy tropical coral reef are among the the richest, most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet, rivaled perhaps only by rainforests. It’s less widely appreciated, however, that this astonishing exuberance thrives in water that is very low in nutrients. The secret of the reef is that nutrients and materials are reused and recycled with great efficiency and rapidity in an almost closed loop.

Driving the cycle is sunlight, which is of course abundant in the tropics. Corals polyps, which are tiny animals, are able to build their layering and branching and skeletons (and thus over time the entire reef on which so much else depends) thanks to a partnership with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, which harness energy from the sun and ‘feed’ their coral hosts in return for lodging.  Whether or not you believe in the claims made for next generation nuclear power (and, like Amory Lovins and others, I have doubts), an economy that is able to run on energy directly harvested from the sun, store it where necessary and turn almost 100% of its wastes into assets looks like a good way to go.

Another familiar fact about coral reefs is that they are among the ecosystems in the world most vulnerable to human meddling. Our assaults come in various forms including direct ones such as destructive fishing practices and nutrient overload from sewage and agricultural runoff, and indirect ones such as rising global temperatures and ocean acidification caused by a rate of change in greenhouse gas concentrations not seen in millions of years. 

Coral reefs can, we now know, thrive within certain boundaries, and be remarkably resilient to some shocks so long as the boundaries are not crossed. Once they are, however, the whole system can very quickly tip over into a degraded state. The reef becomes choked with slime and the food web disintegrates into a rotting boneyard that supports a dwindling band of scavengers. Previous perturbations to the Earth system comparable to current human activity have resulted in mass extinction events from which it has taken reefs millions of years to recover. We’re not talking about a metaphor here so much as a 400lb gorilla already standing on our toes.

The good news, in a far as there is any, is that we have a pretty good feel for what must be done if the threats to reefs are to be sharply reduced. Some of the most important measures such as stabilization and then reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations may look unachievable in the near term, but while we continue to struggle with those there are many other things that will also be necessary and on which progress can (and is) being made now. One such is the creation, with local community involvement, of networks of Marine Protected Areas.

A final, and for me the most important point about coral reefs is that they are places of stupendous beauty and wonder. Chances are these are not qualities that spring to mind when you think of sustainability. A more likely association might be something like ‘sensible shoes.‘

But sustainability does not have to be boring. It can and must be highly dynamic, just as a coral reef is: an arena for competition and struggle, yes, but an arena with  limits and where new kinds of flourishing and cooperation are forever unfolding. Cruelty, suffering and death are not eliminated, but the scope for doing your own thing or doing something new - whether it be to bake cakes with five year olds, develop greener energy technology, or dance flamenco while dressed as a flamboyant cuttlefish - is greatly increased.

photo:  Gray Hardel/Corbis
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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: Le Tour

Le Mans to Chateauroux, crossing the Montrichard Bridge

Le Tour de France is the metaphor Bradon Smith offers in our series of New metaphors for sustainability. Bradon is  a research associate in the Geography department at the Open University, and is also the AHRC research fellow on climate change for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 


The bicycle is a wonderfully efficient and ecological mode of transport; and the dynamics of professional cycling are a model for the cooperation that real sustainability will require.

This week saw the climax of the Tour de France. Four hundred thousand people gathered on the mountain roads leading up to Alpe d'Huez to watch that one stage alone. Cycling works as a spectator sport partly because of the intense physical effort, but also because of the layers of tactics and teamwork: strength and stamina aren't enough to win the Tour.

No rider could win the Tour without their team. Teamwork, co-operation and the team's different skills are required to win even a stage. Many of the members of a team (the domestiques) ride not for their own chances of glory, but for the benefit of another member of their team: setting the pace for their leading rider, carrying water for them, sheltering them from headwinds, and so on. These sacrifices are central to a team's success.

Nor can any rider win any stage - some are more suited to mountains, others to flat stages. The rider who can achieve the fastest speeds (a sprinter) is unlikely to win the Tour, which requires a better all-round rider. Some teams are dedicated to the success of a single rider, others spread their efforts more widely. A team has to play to the strengths of its members.

Despite the intense competition, and personal rivalries, there is a fundamental trust within the peloton. Hurtling along the road at 40mph, wheels within inches of one another, each rider must trust that the others will hold their line.

And this trust has built a unique ethic: the peloton follows a set of unwritten rules. It is not done, for example, to profit from other riders' crashes - the peloton will wait instead. And the team of the leading rider is expected to do the most work, setting the pace for the whole peloton.

Technological developments have dramatically affected cycling: bikes are lighter and more aerodynamic, and the riders are all equipped with radios for constant communication with their teams. Fans are divided over whether these changes are detrimental. But these developments have not drastically altered the basic ethic of the peloton.

But there is another side to cycling. Teams are reliant on their corporate sponsors, and team tactics are also built around giving the most TV exposure to their sponsors' logos. Deals are done between riders of competing teams: 'you can have this win, if you help me tomorrow'. And - the big ones - doping blights the sport and fans speculate about deals and corruption at a high level. It isn't really clear how these problems will be eradicated; but in a sport shot through with the ethos of teamwork and cooperation, they strike right at its heart.

There is a temptation to 'cheat' with sustainability too: to greenwash and make tokenistic changes, but never integrate it fully into our lives and societies. But the cooperation that is central to professional cycling is also central to sustainability; as in a cycling team, one specialism will not be enough; and like in the peloton, we need to trust that others will also make the effort.


Photo: Denis Balibouse / Reuters
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Monday, 1 August 2011

What is it that art could do for the environment?

Photo: Green Alliance
Kellie Payne reports on the Green Alliance's summer debate about the arts and the environment.

For their summer reception, the environmental think tank Green Alliance hosted an evening of opera and debate at the Royal Opera House. In conjunction with The Opera Group, the evening began with a fifteen minute excerpt of Luke Bedford‘s new opera Seven Angels, is inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and has environmental degradation as its theme.

Following the opera taster, there was a panel discussion entitled ‘What have the arts ever done for the environment? The panel included a mix of representatives from the worlds of policy, the arts and academia. It was chaired by Julie’s Bicycle’s Alison Tickell, and panellists included: The Southbank Centre artistic director, Jude Kelly, RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor, Arcola Theatre executive director Ben Todd, the sculptor Peter Randall-Page and David Frame, fellow of Oxford University. In her introduction, Tickell indicated that the Seven Angels was one among a crop of new work being made by British artists that addressed nature or the environment among those artists she listed were Antony Gormley, Ian McEwan, Jay Griffiths.

One of the main themes of the evening was an attempt in the discussion to answer the general question of what it is that art can do for the environment. It was generally agreed that one of the strengths of art was that it was well equipped to deal with the complexities that many environmental issues such as climate change raise. Matthew Taylor saying that art should be one of the many interventions required to tackle climate change.

One of the most eloquent responses came from the scholar, David Frame, who highlighted art’s ability to deal with complexity and tension. He felt that as climate change and environmental problems are so complex in nature, with for instance climate change knowledge dispersed amongst many specialists without a graspable whole. He said that the arts community has ‘a unique ability to convey complexity, delicacy, and beauty and among the things you can do is you don’t need to simplify...’

He pointed to the deficits in mediums such as Twitter or the 1,000 word Op Ed piece and contrasted this with the length of a novel or a film where he said ‘the possibilities for the ideas you can upload to people is phenomenal.’ This type of medium he said was also more able to cope with uncertainties. ‘You leave interpretation open which isn’t considered acceptable in other forms and I think that in doing so you can bring out tensions between these parallel values’.

Changing values seemed to be one of the key roles identified for art that emerged from the discussion. Alison said she has observed what she describes as a ‘palpable’ shift in values taking place rapidly and for her ‘the arts do have a role to play in reflecting and shaping and engaging with those values.’ While Matthew didn’t agree with Alison the extent to which values have already changed in the positive direction Alison described. In fact, he warned that during this current time of disturbance there is a clear dissatisfaction with current values but which way public opinion would turn was not decided. He said the dissatisfaction could lead in two ways, and not necessarily in a progressive direction he lamented that ‘it can go in a dangerous direction as well.’

The question of how politics should be addressed raised differing opinions. Jude Kelly began by announcing she ‘didn’t mind a bit of bad art’ provided that art had some sort of message. She went on to say, ‘I don’t think it’s a hanging offence to produce a message’ However if it’s not particularly interesting it might ‘bore me after awhile’. Further, ‘I don’t mind artists having a go. I really dislike the idea that artists shouldn’t be allowed to take centre stage to comment on things.

While Peter conceded that there was ‘nothing wrong with political art’, for him it was less the politics which art was best equipped to address. He was more of the mind that art’s quality was that it didn’t have a direct ‘purpose’ that it was its intrinsic values alone that made art great. He believes that ‘arts are not well placed to (do) issue based lobbying’ contrasting what he finds often to be the pragmatism of the environmental movement with the arts ability to nourish imagination and the spirit in the way the natural world does. ‘I think the role that I feel for the arts in environmentalism is that it... reminds us that we’re not all bad. If we only feel negative it’s impossible for us to move forward and remove this exclusively pragmatic approach to looking after the world.’

Matthew wanted to introduce a third way of thinking about the issue agreeing that art shouldn’t attempt to kick us around the head. However, he felt art could ‘challenge people to live differently and value things in slightly different ways.’ Providing a vision of how ‘a different, deeper kind of understanding about what makes life worth living and what it is society wants to be.’ This task he felt art was ‘incredibly well suited’. That is, ‘art is there to explicitly to get you to think about what the good life is.’ He concluded this thought saying ‘art shouldn’t be ashamed to say that art is here to help you rethink what our values are and I don’t think that requires you to revert to a kind of crude placard waving.’

In addition to the discussion about art and politics, the panel also touched on the controversial issue of artists lifestyles and the high carbon footprint of the arts. The general attitude on the panel was that this shouldn’t be paid as much attention as it has been. Jude Kelly saying that this arts requires face-to-face interactions and not allowing artists to fly amounts to a cultural boycott. But Matthew Taylor thought artists should be accountable, and if they want to have influence on others they have to take account of their own actions.
Increased collaboration amongst artists was encouraged, suggesting that the problem of the environment is one that artists should attempt to do together. Arts organisations such as Cape Farewell and Tipping Point were highlighted as doing exceptional work, helping to inform artists of climate change and bringing the topic to their consciousness.

It was edifying to see an organisation such as the Green Alliance, who normally deals with more policy related issues such as building a sustainable economy, investigating climate and energy futures, designing out waste and political leadership to host a conversation with the arts community. A cursory glance over badges of audience members saw representatives from business and policy, including the Department for Energy and Climate Change and The Environment Agency, so the wider these issues can be encountered and discussed the better. It’s time the arts community made it’s voice heard in the conversation about climate change. Peter concluded well, stating that it is artists who need to create metaphors and narratives which make it possible to go into the future.

Pic: The speakers (l-r): Jude Kelly, Matthew Taylor, Dr David Frame, Ben Todd, Peter Randall-Page and Alison Tickell (photo: Paul West) more ...

Thursday, 28 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the timeless meal


Carolyn Steel calls herself a 'food urbanist', and she brings a notion of the 'good life' to our series of New metaphors for sustainability

What is it we’re trying to sustain? For me, the meal is the emblematic, wonderful situation that sums up the whole point of sustainability.

I think in metaphor all the time and food has become this way of seeing the world not just in terms of 'how are we going to feed ourselves in future?' - this kind of doom and gloom thing - but also in terms of asking 'what kind of society is it that we are trying to create as well as sustain?'.

When you talk about food, there’s a tendency to talk about ‘how much grain can you produce on that much land with that much water’. That’s very important, but you have to relate every conversation you have about food with the kind of life that you are talking about. It’s about a vision of society, an idea of the good life.

The table is a place where you don't just share food, but you share ideas, you share love, you share conversation.

It’s a beautiful metaphor of the kinds of things that we’re trying to sustain. It’s society. It’s ‘good life’ in every possible sense - not just good in terms of wonderful food - but also good in terms of the ethics of what you eat. If I am hungry I have a practical problem. If you are hungry, I have an ethical problem.

This business of sitting around a table with other people, the decorum of the table, and the sharing food - it brings the social relevance of sustainability into the conversation.

A timeless meal, a meal that is enjoyed through time that has a past that we all intuitively understand, but a future as well, sums up for me the idea that food is life on earth.

Carolyn is included in our film.

Photo: Feast on the Bridge, 2009, curated by Clare Patey. Photo by Tim Mitchell.

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Tuesday, 26 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: an indigenous tribe of the Amazon


Francesca Galeazzi is a sustainability engineer and artist, currently working for the design studio of Arup Associates in Shanghai, in pursuit of a greener and more sustainable model of urban development in China. Her art work focuses on issues of climate change, urbanisation and sustainable development. Here, she continues our series on New metaphors for sustainability.

I underestimated the amount of time and thinking that it would take me to come up with something that I am happy with. Sustainability not only is something that I care about, but it is also extremely difficult to pin down to something specific. It holds many facets and most are often equally important!

Having said this, I still believe that diversity is key to sustainability.

Ecosystems rely on a complex set of relationships and interdependence of diverse species and creatures to sustain themselves. This is the basis of all life on our planet and applies to flora and fauna, as well as society and culture. However, the current aggressive approach to global development that we have experienced in the last century is threatening diversity at all levels.

Visualising diversity is a difficult task. The first images that sprung to my mind were not too dissimilar to the United People of Benetton campaign in the 90’s, highlighting the beauty of multiculturalism. But how obvious it is! I also thought about cities, food, gardens, oceans, the coral reef - but none seemed really appropriate.

The metaphor that to me best evokes the idea of both ecological and social diversity is the Amazon, probably the most important biodiverse and rich ecosystem of our planet, under so much threat of irreversible change. But the image of that magnificent tropical rainforest is not sufficient to me to evoke the notion of sustainability; as a general metaphor I think it is too obvious and worn out.

I am instead choosing the image of an indigenous tribe of the Amazon. To me this conveys not only the ecological issues that rainforests around the world face today (deforestation, illegal logging, land exploitation, mining, etc) but also talks about that fundamental element that is societal diversity. Indigenous tribes, ethnic minorities and rural communities around the world represent a huge treasure of culture and unique heritage that is under increasing threat of disappearance.

The indigenous tribe of the Amazon is a metaphor for all those ethnicities in the world under physical and cultural threat, and indirectly for their endangered environment, too. It is also a metaphor for knowledge and strength, for cultural richness and social resilience, for strong community cohesion, for respect and adaptability to the natural environment, all of which to me are the pillars of sustainability.

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Monday, 25 July 2011

A metaphor from politics: 'Be a part of better'

In response to our New metaphors for sustainability series, Chris Ballance wrote to us and agreed we could post his email. As a playwright, Chris was one of our earliest listings on the Directory. He was Green Party Member and Member of the Scottish Parliament from 2003 - 2007, and now works for Moffat CAN, (Carbon Approaching Neutral), a community-owned company and charity. 

One of the ideas that's concerning some of us here is 'how do we tell the cultural story of how good it could be to go green'? It's inspired by the recent success of the SNP who - helped admittedly by dreadful campaigns by their opponents - based their huge election victory by selling independence as 'Be a part of better'; a direct reference to a literary quotation from the author Alasdair Grey 'Live each day as if you were in the first day of a better nation.' 

A quotation doubtless unknown in London, but well enough known here in Scotland to be inscribed into the stone walls around the Scottish Parliament. The phrase has passed into commonplace so much that I've even seen 'Be a part of better' used to advertise merchandise in a shop. The SNP are using a cultural story and cultural references to achieve independence. (That's to say nothing about planning to hold their referendum shortly after the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.)

How do we create a cultural story which can then be used to make sustainability attractive? So often it is seen as 'sacrifice', doing without, enforced change. (I often remember being on an election hustings with a UKIP candidate who told me "Look, we all know your green world is coming. It's just that we don't want it, and we're going to do everything we can to put it off for as long as possible.") How do we conjure up images of something that people will actually want?

Your exploration of metaphors is definitely a step towards this. It's not just sustainability - the whole concept of environmentalism lacks it: the only metaphors to have attached themselves to environmentalism are those framed by our opponents; 'yoghurt knitters', etc. Thank you.

(And I love the Madagascan-based tapestry.)
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Thursday, 21 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: ten so far

From the 'iron curtain' to the 'glass ceiling', metaphors are one of the most powerful ways in which we frame the way we think.

Yet one of the key concepts in environmentalism - sustainability - seems to be remarkably short of vivid metaphors.

So we asked some artists, writers, architects, cultural commentators, environmentalists, activists and scientists to come up with their own metaphors for sustainability.

We've published ten new metaphors so far. More to follow.

New metaphors for sustainability: mercury
New metaphors for sustainability: symbiosis
New metaphors for sustainability: "Come into my house" (DVD)
New metaphors for sustainability: 'art & grace'
New metaphors for sustainability: my sweet pea
New metaphors for sustainability: water on a fire - helping turn the page - a child asleep - the family - failing better
New metaphors for sustainability: the shopping divider at the check-out
New metaphors for sustainability: the act of breathing


Please suggest metaphors of your own. As @TheMuseDaily tweeted yesterday, "The drive toward the formation of metaphor is the fundamental human drive. - Nietzsche"
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New metaphors for sustainability: mercury


Mario Petrucci, poet, ecologist, physicist, essayist, continues our series of New metaphors for sustainability with shape-shifting mercury.  

My chief reservation about sustainability is that it can mean so many things to different interest groups. For one protagonist, sustainability may demand a massive redistribution of resources and wealth, coupled with radical reassessments of consumer values and economic practice; for another, it involves no more than modest adjustments to what we already do in order to accommodate a few of the most urgent ecological imperatives.

As with Climate Change, then, there’s no overall consensus concerning the precise shape sustainability will take. ‘Sustainable forest’ can mean a rich and ancient woodland drawn upon occasionally but left mostly to its own devices, or it can be a perpetual pine plantation supplying wood pulp and with practically zero biodiversity in it.

That’s why I’ve chosen mercury as a metaphor for sustainability. It challenges any assumption we might have that sustainability takes a uniform or consistent form among those considering it.

The image of mercury scurrying across a surface is familiar to most people, and is apt here because it allows us to better grasp the current ungraspability of sustainability. Sustainability is a fraught and fugitive issue, beset by political and personal evasions and manoeuvrings.

What’s more, the way in which sustainability can be made to adapt shape is both weakness and strength. On the negative side, if mercury is mishandled it becomes a toxic nuisance; likewise, sustainability can be distorted, misrepresented or misapplied, either through ignorance or cynically, to allow damaging practices to continue beneath a veneer of acceptability.

On the positive side, if put to proper use in a careful and structured way, and if its complex nature is understood and worked with, sustainability also provides an extremely valuable, if not life-saving, tool.

Mercury can communicate what the weather’s doing outside, or signal the degree of fever in the human body; sustainability, too, could be harnessed to monitor and sustain the wellness of our species in relation to its environment. Either that, or we can let the concept mess with our brains and slip through our fingers.


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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: symbiosis

Zoë Svendsen, theatre director and researcher, continues our series New metaphors for sustainability by turning to 'symbiosis' as a better term.

When I was given the challenge of thinking about a metaphor for sustainability, I realized I didn’t really know what it was, other than the idea that maybe you shouldn’t do quite so much of something so that you could do things again in the future. But then I got to thinking about the underlying questions. What do we need to sustain? What’s the idea of sustainability? It’s linked to current discourses against consumption and to ideas about austerity and about doing less.

What could you replace sustainability with as a metaphor that would allow you to do something as opposed to just not doing something? I was thinking about things like conversation and reciprocity and some kind of interaction with your environment that didn’t deny the pleasures of exchange and of use. I eventually arrived at the term ‘symbiosis’ and symbiotic thinking.

What’s interesting about the term 'symbiosis', is that as a metaphor it takes us away from the 'nature versus culture' idea or ‘human benefit versus benefit for nature or the environment', and rather asks us to think about how there might be certain kinds of human symbiotic interactions and at the same time benefits for the environment.

The symbol for this kind of activity are bees, and bee-keeping. There can be a human relationship to these kinds of symbiotic practices that happen in the environment already – such as the spreading of pollen and the creating of honey.

And around that word 'symbiosis', there’s a whole series of other underlying terms or thoughts that could be replaced. Instead of thinking about 'austerity' – which is a negative thinking towards the future - that we can always only do less and life isn’t going to be as good – you might replace that with 'ingenuity'. This celebrates invention and entrepreneurialism and thinks about what’s at hand and what possible in what may be limited circumstance but treats those circumstances as a pleasureable challenge.

Part of the problem with austerity is that it makes you want to rebel. I have occasional bouts of recycling rebellion – I go 'fuck it' and throw it away. 'I want to waste, I don’t want to be sensible'.

This is something to do with the moral imperative around the idea of austerity – it’s just not fun. Part of the idea about  ‘symbiosis’, is that you don’t have that same kind of moral anxiety around all of your actions. You’re directed to a positive action instead of endlessly thinking about the negative – which just makes you want to be naughty and not do it.

Zoë is included in our film
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Monday, 18 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: "Come into my house" (DVD)



When we asked Hester Reeve, artist and lecturer, to suggest a metaphor for our series New metaphors for sustainability, she offered to make this DVD, "Come into my house."

The term 'sustainability' is rightly used first and foremost in the contexts of both local and global policy changes. Whilst acknowledging the crucial role played by activist pressure in ensuring sustainability is on the agenda in the first place, I see its implementation chiefly as the responsibility of politicians (shame on them).

I made my metaphor in my house. The camera is out on the street and I open each door/window in turn and call out for various thinkers to "Come into my house."

As an artist, I am more interested in restoring richness to the 'cult' of everyday life and in incorporating the force of poetic imagination than in reflecting/interacting with culture at large. My metaphor therefore reflects this sensibility.

I suppose the only thing someone like me at this point in the environmental direness of 2011 can do is to come back to the doorstep, where the agency of the single being starts and to call for that paradigm shift in our thinking that might finally allow us to dwell as an act of loving the world.
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Friday, 15 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: 'art & grace'

Continuing our series of New metaphors for sustainability, the ecological artist David Haley looks to the etymologies of two words.

art
The Sanskrit origin of the word ‘art’ is 'rta'. Originally appearing in the Rig Vedas, rta is still used in contemporary Hindi to mean the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously.

This noun/adjective also means the right-handedness, righteousness, and the right way of doing things. Here we find remnants of that meaning in modern English in terms like 'the art of gardening', 'the art of football, 'the art of archery' and 'the art of war'.

Rta conjugates into the verb 'ritu' (ritual) that refers to the correct order or sequence of rta (i.e. the cyclical pattern of the seasons, or the progression from seed to leaf and root to tree to blossom to seed). ‘Art’ may have lost much of its etymological meaning, but maybe it retains the potential to re-emerge as a metaphor for sustainability, like a flower waiting for rain in some future desert?

grace
This metaphor comes from my work with the artists The Harrisons, and is taken from their work 'The Lagoon Cycle': 'As the waters rise gracefully, how will we withdraw with equal grace?'

The difference between the Environment Agency's policy of 'managed retreat' in response to sea level rise and our proposals in the work 'Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground Gaining Wisdom' was the EA’s use of engineering and war metaphors to confront a problem, compared with an ethical and aesthetic repositioning of the situation.

‘Tide Turns, Waters Dance’ was one of my own ‘Writing on the Wall’ pieces, this one exhibited in Taiwan. The last of the 27 Haiku-style poems ended with the line, 'water, time and grace'. When a Taiwanese professor quizzed me over the use of the word, 'grace' to end the work, I explained that a meaning of grace was 'becomingness'. 'Aha', he replied, 'so you hope to evolve beyond climate change?'
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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: my sweet pea


In a recent series of seminars on site-based performance and environmental change, our Ashden Directory co-editor Wallace Heim met Alison Parfitt, of the Wildland Research Institute, and writer on conservation. Here, Alison considers her sweet pea as a metaphor in our series New metaphors for sustainability. 

Sustainability. After the Rio Earth Summit 1992, I was impassioned about this challenging aspiration, with head and heart. Many of us struggled over complicated diagrams, wanting to encompass everything. We talked about ecological systems and the need for the sacred and spiritual, the connectedness of all. We explored social and environmental justice and quality and equality – with diversity. Models and metaphors came and went, bees in a beehive.

Now I see this challenge of understanding the potential and power of sustainability in a more intimate way. And I suspect that the full and inspiring notion of sustainability (sometimes understood but often not) is showing a way, a direction for the human species to evolve, if we can.

As I write this there is a sweet pea, picked this morning, beside me. A soft fresh fragrance. This flower is creamy pale with a purple, or even nearing indigo, fine edging on the petals. It looks and feels precise, very clear yet fragile. It moves in the air coming through the door. The flower is here today but gone tomorrow, the plant goes on and I shall gather seed. It is everyday and uniquely precious.

I accept that my sweet pea is not really a helpful metaphor for sustainability but for today, now, it enlightens me and reminds me of my relationship within all else. And how I could be more human. And that’s where my quest to understand has got to. I suspect it will move on again, soon.
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