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 ...