Friday 30 April 2010

rooting for ants

As we blogged two years ago, the great biologist E. O. Wilson has written his first novel. This week's Economist reviews Anthill and the reviewer says, 'in Mr Wilson ants have found not only their Darwin but also their Homer'.

The Economist is particularly impressed by one section of Anthill that describes the rise and fall of four ant colonies in southern Alabama. (It was excerpted in the New Yorker and blogged by us here ).

The Economist's reviewer says: 'The tale within a tale is an astonishing literary achievement; nobody but Mr Wilson could have written it.'

The review concludes, 'One can't help rooting for the ants.' more ...

Thursday 29 April 2010

blog roles

One welcome change on this blog over the last year, and increasingly in the last month, has been the introduction of guest bloggers.

You can read Satinder Chohan on Alain de Botton's week at Terminal 5, Kellie Gutman joining the school that's tracking the speed of spring in the US, Kellie Payne on climate change and zombie concepts and Wallace Heim on how we judge the beauty of wind turbines.

Very briefly, Satinder also writes for us here about Zameen, her play about the farming crisis in the Punjab. Kellie G's books include The Summer Camp Memory Book and John Wilkes Booth Himself, one copy of which is available (used) on Amazon for a mere £322.93.

Kellie P is a PhD student in the Geography department at the Open University researching culture and climate change and tweets here. And Wallace co-edited Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance and discusses theatre and climate change here. more ...

Wednesday 28 April 2010

zombie correction

Ian Garrett, who runs the excellent Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, based in Los Angeles, points out that the illustration for is climate change a zombie concept? is inaccurate. 

Mike Meyers in Halloween isn't a zombie, he says. 'He's a living person of pure evil ...' Thanks, Ian. more ...

Tuesday 27 April 2010

wicked, rubik-like, or zombie-ish?

In his book Why We Disagree about Climate Change,  the scientist Mike Hulme discusses climate change as a 'wicked' problem, by which he means that it's complex, unique and some solutions can make it worse.

Later Hulme was on the radio comparing climate change to a rubik cube, by which he meant it would be a much easier problem to solve if the interlocking issues were unpicked and dealt with separately.

And then earlier this month, as Kellie Payne reports in her blog yesterday, Hulme described climate change as a 'zombie concept'. What exactly is that? Would you recognise a zombie concept if it rose up from the dead? My guess is that it would look like:


a) an idea that's over, that's exhausted, and is therefore useless
b) an idea that keeps renewing itself, taking on new shapes, acquiring new identities, and is therefore useless
c)  an idea that gathers up too many other ideas within it, and is
therefore useless.

Have I missed anything out?

more ...

Monday 26 April 2010

is climate change a zombie concept?

Kellie Payne reports on the Tipping Point event, held earlier this month, where Mike Hulme suggested climate change was a zombie concept:

as a metaphor it has done its work. As a concept, it connects a large swathe of issues combined through the scientific narrative and perhaps there are other ways to make progress.

Much less the as-billed scientific update, the Tipping Point event held on Wednesday 13th April at Kings College, London was a philosophical exploration of the status of our current conceptualisation of climate change.

Hosted by Tipping Point, the arts organisation that seeks to build bridges between artists and climate scientists, the afternoon featured Mike Hulme, UEA climate scientist and author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change, climate change adaptation specialist Emma Tompkins and Greenpeace’s Senior Climate Advisor Charlie Kronick . In attendance were past Tipping Point conference attendees, a mix of artists, academics and a few scientists.

Hulme is a veteran climate scientist whose career has included serving as the founder-director of the Tyndall centre and contributing scientist to UK climate change scenarios and reports for the IPCC. However, writing his recent book led Hulme to take a more philosophical perspective: his interest being more in the positioning of our larger conceptualisations of climate change and interrogating different epistemological constructions of climate change. Moving beyond the merely scientific understanding of climate change, he investigates how climate change is understood in disciplines varying from economics, ethics, politics and humanities. In particular, he argues that climate change is a value laden concept that reflects our views of the world, nature, the economy and ethical frameworks.

Hulme’s presentation was largely an explanation of the four myths he explores in his book: lamenting Eden which draws on a sense of nostalgia, presaging apocalypse based on a sense of fear, constructing Babel (hubris) and celebrating jubilee which builds upon our sense of justice. In essence, what Hulme argues is that every individual brings their own agenda, applying the challenge of climate change to their own problems, that is, climate change is the raw material that is used to work on our individual projects. Hulme suggested we ask ourselves whether stabilising the climate was indeed our ultimate goal or whether stabilising climate was instead a means to an end, and we were using climate change to achieve our other goals.

Emma Tomkins on the other hand bases her work on a belief that climate change is happening and asserts that the government is leading the way on adaptation. Based at Leeds and the Government’s Department for International Development, Tomkins outlined types of adaptation currently being implemented including risk management policies and attempts to build resilience. When Tomkins asked the audience how many were currently taking adaptive measures, it became clear that the line between what constitutes mitigation activities and adaption is often blurred in the minds of many. The government makes a clear distinction between mitigation measures (limiting ones emissions) and adaption (preparing for the impacts of climate change). For instance when asked about what types of adaptation individuals were taking, some audience members mentioned the work of the Transition Town movements, but from the government perspective Transition Town activities would constitute mitigation measures as their main focus is reducing emissions.

Tomkins conducted an exercise to see how we as an audience would allocate adaptation funds, whether we would base our decisions on: equitable distribution of resources, reward mitigators, help those facing the most exposure, help the most vulnerable, or offer developmental assistance. At the moment, current government policy (Adaptation Policy Framework) is based on risk mapping and awareness and therefore has its focus on those who face the most exposure to risk. Tomkins stressed the need to be aware that in any adaptation policy there are a number of decisions to be made about the type of losses we are willing to take and warned that there is a potential to make serious mistakes unless we seriously consider the issues.

Charlie Kronick weighed in with the activist viewpoint, reminding the audience that in the past adaptation wasn’t even considered because to do so would be to accept defeat. Further, he didn’t see the need to separate out adaptation and mitigation as he sees them as one and the same. For Charlie, climate change isn’t about science, or art, but about power politics, ‘the deal makers and takers’ and inequality is a major driver.

Hulme agreed that it’s about politics and our ambitions about what type of society we want to inherit. Hulme suggested that perhaps climate change was indeed a zombie concept, and as a metaphor it has done its work. As a concept, it connects a large swathe of issues combined through the scientific narrative and perhaps there are other ways to make progress.

Kellie Payne is a PhD student in the Geography department at the Open University researching culture and climate change
more ...

Friday 23 April 2010

can the national theatre reduce and expand?

The National Theatre set itself a target: over three years, it would reduce its consumption of gas and electricity by 20%. At the same time, it would continue to expand its activities.

Like other institutions, the National made quick progress with ‘low-hanging fruit’: the deal with Philips, who provided the Vidiwall and the LED lighting, almost single-handedly slashed the electricity consumption. But there’s a moment when the light bulbs have been changed and the staff are recycling when most of the ‘easy wins’ have been made. It’s hard then not to hit some barriers

What steps did the National take next? My piece on 'A Greener National Theatre' appears here. more ...

Thursday 22 April 2010

and then my heart with .. er .. hatred fills

Just heard about a website called I Hate Daffodils. Daffodils made Wordsworth's heart fill with joy, but they didn't have that impact on this blogger:

The problems are caused by people planting daffodils in the wrong places: in each case they damage the natural environment, providing no benefit to wildlife but making the countryside look like a garden. It's like painting lipstick on the Mona Lisa ... more ...

Wednesday 21 April 2010

his grass is greener

The American author Robert Wright (The Evolution of God) likes to see dandelions on his front lawn. He'd also rather not douse his grass with 'pre-emergent' herbicides.

But his neighbours think it'll affect property prices. more ...

Monday 19 April 2010

the new new thing

A few months ago, I wrote a column saying that geography is the new history. I take that back. Geography is the new current affairs.

Yesterday I tweeted: 'A volcano grounds a continent'. Today's Herald Tribune goes even further. It's frontpage headline reads: 'Volcano keeps world grounded'. more ...

Saturday 17 April 2010

are they reading the same book?

Ian McEwan's new novel Solar is splitting the critics in unexpected ways. In the Daily Telegraph last month, Tibor Fischer wrote:

McEwan has always displayed an Orwellian economy in his prose and Solar is no exception

In the New York Times yesterday, Walter Kirn describes McEwan's prose in Solar as:

a buttery, rich sauce ladled onto overcooked, dry meat to help readers swallow an otherwise indigestible meal

It can't be both. more ...

Friday 16 April 2010

when you attack yourself

In his new book Requiem for a Species (extract here), Clive Hamilton  reminds us how problematic it is for neo-conservatives to find themselves attacking the science of climate change because science is 'the very basis' of the Western civilisation that the neo-cons set out to defend.

But what were they going to do? In the modern world, science and technology had come to be associated strongly with ideas of progress, economic growth and freedom. So when science started to reveal the damaging side-effects of certain types of progress, what set in among the neo-cons was 'cognitive dissonance'. This is nicely revealed in the words of one senior Bush official before Rio:

'We did not fight and win the wars of the twentieth century to make
the world safe for green vegetables.'

more ...

artist's impression

The Guardian suggests the character of Stella Polkinghorne, the celebrated female artist in Ian McEwan's new novel Solar, is based on Rachel Whiteread. more ...

Wednesday 14 April 2010

the professor's view

It's clear from the reviews of Treme, the new TV series from the makers of The Wire, that it makes a big difference whether you call Hurricane Katrina a 'natural' disaster or a 'manmade' one. For the latter, of course, there are two charges. One is that the levees were never strong enough, and that was known. The other is that the response following the breaching of the levees was totally inadequate. From the first episode, this appears to be a major theme. The Telegraph reports:

It is the job of Creighton Bernette, a novelist and Tulane University professor, played by John Goodman, to place blame and voice the outrage of neglect that many New Orleans residents and others have expressed about the port city’s slow recovery. more ...

Tuesday 13 April 2010

excess and earthquakes

The National Theatre has just announced its summer programme, including a new play by Mike Barrett called Earthquakes in London.

The press release says the play's action is driven by 'an all-pervasive fear of the future and a guilty pleasure in the excesses of the present'. more ...

Monday 12 April 2010

take it from chekhov, nature doesn't weep

In his article on the American novelist and short story writer John Cheever, Edmund White makes a number of illuminating references to Chekhov.

White decribes Chekhov as an ecologist avant la lettre (see our Chekhov as proto-environmentalist) and goes on to quote a letter Chekhov wrote to the young Maxim Gorky in which Chekhov takes issue with Gorky's descriptions of nature. Chekhov characterises Gorky's anthropomophic approach as:

The sea breathes, the sky looks on, the steppe basks in the sun, nature whispers, speaks, weeps, and so on.

Chekhov explains to the younger writer:

In descriptions of nature, vibrancy and expressivity are best produced by simple techniques, for example: using simple phrases such as 'the sun set', 'it got dark', 'it started to rain', and so on. more ...

Sunday 11 April 2010

combined forces

A new drama series by David Simon, creator of The Wire (blogged here and here), premieres tonight on American TV.

A sprawling tale about musicians in New Orleans, Treme follows the
rebuilding of the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and - says this preview - the series shows:

how a city survives despite erosion at the hands of the combined
forces of nature, ignorance and economics. more ...

Saturday 10 April 2010

top tens

An email from Franny Armstrong, director of The Age of Stupid, to
10:10-ers informs us that today is exactly six months from the 10:10
day on 10th October (10.10.10).

That's the day, a Sunday, when 10:10 joins with to organise
the biggest ever day of local climate action.

The date is also 10 weeks before world leaders meet in Mexico for
climate change talks.
more ...

this subject will not go away

Kellie Gutman writes:

In an interview on the National Public Radio program "Living on Earth" (see transcript or download audio link), novelist Ian McEwan talks about his new comic novel, Solar. He compared the situation in the 'boot room' (blogged here) on board the Noorderlicht, during the 2005 Cape Farewell expedition, with the problems of climate change worldwide. This was the room where the artists took off their gear when returning to the ship, in order to keep ice and water out of their quarters:

... that boot room throughout the week was becoming more and more chaotic. I thought there's a huge discrepancy between the size of the boot room and the size of the earth, and the earth we want to organize when we can't even keep this boot room straight!

When asked if he thought climate change was a good field to explore in future novels, he said:

Well, I think so. I mean the problem is too extensive and I think the human ramifications are so extensive. This is one of those literally global issues that penetrates private lives. So I mean either it will come from me or it'll come from—there are plenty of us novelists around. But one way or another it will force its way into the novel. This subject will not go away, it will shape human destinies and novels are bound to reflect that. more ...

Saturday 3 April 2010

the power of the turbine

In this guest post, Wallace Heim, co-editor of the Ashden Directory, examines our assumptions about beauty and how they shape our attitudes to wind turbines.

The Guardian’s series of photographs of wind turbines, The Beauty of Wind Power, purports to show the aesthetic value of turbines in their beauty and awe-inspiring visual qualities. To back this up with use-value, the paper gives the numbers of households provided with electricity, ranging from 80,000 at Burbo Bank at the mouth of the Mersey to 145,000 in Manawatu, Tararua in New Zealand.

The photographs do show striking silhouettes, the sensuous and almost animate curves of the blades and landscapes that seem to fold around the pristine and elegant machinery. The photographs are well composed, like picture post cards, and it’s this conventional representation that makes me wonder whether the wind turbines are beautiful, or whether it is more the case that it is the photographs as images that are most pleasing.

It is these conventional, or unchallenged assumptions about beauty that are of interest, rather than an argument about photographic representation, because they seem to be operating on both sides of the wind farm debates.

To generalise, when the opponents of wind farms extol the beauty of a landscape which will be destroyed by ugly or intrusive turbines, the counter-argument is often that those views of a landscape are historically contingent or do not take into account the industrialised character of the British landscape. That very sense of what is beautiful is reacted to as being simplistic, unchanging, too readily accepting of the bucolic as ‘right’, and needing to be preserved.

Images like the Guardian’s photographs are open to a similar criticism. They are readily, too-easily, seen as pleasing if not beautiful. Their aesthetic, as well, reflects views of composition, lighting and the relation of viewer to landscape which can be critiqued as historically contingent, over-simplified, so familiar from popular media that it appears as a ‘normal’ or an unquestioned image of beauty. This may be a strategy in trying to persuade the public of the aesthetic value of turbines, but it doesn’t go far enough into questioning what is or can be seen as the beauty of these machines.

Rather than settling on pleasing images or familiar vistas as justifications for or against wind farms, it can be the unsettling disjunction between the conventionally beautiful representation and the landscape as experienced that may open up debate about what is beautiful, what causes beauty and what is intolerable. The inclusion of wind turbines on land and seascapes could be changing what is considered beautiful or awe-inspiring, in ways that aren’t yet articulated, and in ways that the previous notions of beauty can’t configure.

Another way to make an argument that wind power has aesthetic value is to take it into the gallery, and let that space do its work of turning industry into art.

Alec Finlay’s installation sky-wheels, at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, was part of the AV10 Festival. On the walls are the words: ‘all art is, is rhythm’; ‘every form heals’. Sixteen small wooden turbines painted in variations of blue sit on a blue plinth. The blades don’t turn, but on each is printed words, metaphorically conveying the motion of wind: ‘turning – toward – living’; ‘turn – still – sails’; ‘what - changes – change’. It is as if the turbines camouflaged by the blue can express a deeper poetic to their function.

A series of recordings of whooshes, swishes, motor hums, and sharper, cricket-like metallic sounds is at first soothing and intriguing. But it begins to feel quickly as if the rich irregularities of waves or winds had been stripped down to a too regular noise. The manipulation into a sound work makes the sound too small, too easy to dissect. Although it was working with a different aesthetic to the photographs, it also was not doing the work of turning these structures into appreciable art. Something of the scale, the awe, the experience was missing. Even so, the installation is an appreciation of wind power, and possibly too-literal in that for some.

Driving back from Newcastle, I stopped at the turbines by Junction 37 on the M6, the crossroads with the road between Sedbergh and Kendal. The five monumental structures sit on high ground between the Howgills, and the undulating slopes down to the River Kent valley and the high fells to the west. It’s a favourite picnic spot for locals during the day, and a place for lovers in the evenings. The light was fading, and the wind was low, westerly, giving the blades a gentle, breath-like cadence. The presence of those structures and their enveloping sound kept a half dozen people there, just being there, until the sun set.

Photo: wind turbines on Fehmarn Island in north Germany.
Photo by Karl-Heinz Haenel/Corbis

more ...