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.

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?

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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Tuesday 12 July 2011

Cape Farewell and the Scottish "bellwether" islands

Standing Stone, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides. Photo: Ruth Little
Kellie Gutman reports on Cape Farewell's latest voyage.

Cape Farewell known for its seafaring expeditions to the Arctic to study climate change, with scientists and artists aboard, is taking a journey closer to home.

For four weeks starting July 15, a rotating crew of thirty-two artists and nine scientists will sail around Scotland's coastal islands to investigate the effects of climate change on the island cultures and ecologies.  A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns about the 'severe impact' rising sea levels are likely to have on the coastline of the UK, and the Outer and Inner Hebrides are the 'bellwethers' for the coast. Each week will have a theme: Gaelic language; island musical tradition and story-telling; marine and environmental science; local resources and the built environment.

Cape Farewell associate director Ruth Little comments:

'One of the aims of the project is to challenge the widespread assumption that climate change impacts are only relevant to coastal communities in the global south.  The environmental, social and economic situation in Scotland's island communities resonates strongly with that of other island and coastal cultures worldwide... [We] will seek to develop new forms of communication for the human experience of climate change, and new forums for collaboration and bold imaginative response to the profound changes we all face.'

The islands have a wide range of sustainability projects ongoing, and Cape Farewell will use these as a starting point for a four-year plan of artist residencies to document, disseminate and bring together
islanders around the issues of sustainability.

The expedition blog can be followed on the Ashdenizen blogroll in our left-hand column. more ...

Monday 11 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: water on a fire - helping turn the page - a child asleep - the family - failing better

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home is two adults and three children living in Everton, Liverpool. They talked together about sustainability, and here are their metaphors for our series. 

Neal (aged 10): The world is big plank of wood and it's on fire. The only thing to save it is water. Sustainability is water - that's what it is.

Gabriel (aged 8): It's a big round book, the world is a big circular book, but it needs help to turn the next page, it can't do it by itself so we all have to help the big book turn its next page. That's sustainability – helping to turn the page.

Sid (aged 3): (Sid was asleep on the couch when we asked him. That struck a chord with us. Sustainability is Sid asleep, rapid eye movements, visceral dreaming, thoughts shooting round his brain, wiring and rewiring the connectors in his head, trying to sort out what happened today ready for some sort of tomorrow. But his body mass seems to rest, refuel. It digests its food, slowly, carefully, puts things in place biologically, mentally, spiritually even so that when he wakes up he'll have a good chance at getting what he needs and be in a good enough mood to share what he has with his mates at the nursery.)

Gary (aged 39): A family is the best metaphor I can think of for sustainability. Not the family that the Pope, in Croatia in June, said was in the midst of ruin under the new atheism of secularisation, but the queer family, the radical family, the family that depends - indirectly - upon the reproduction of itself with difference. That's what having kids has been for us. They are us, with difference. You don't need to be a biological parent for this to happen, though. It happens through friendships, encounters and love affairs.

It's the indirectness that is crucial. Indirectness is at the heart of all family-making, and sustainability has an element of indirectness about it. I won't actually suffer climate chaos in Bangladesh or the terrible local effects of the Alberta Tar Sands extraction, except indirectly. That's partly what makes it so tricky to get hold of. How can everyone act in all-powerful acts of solidarity with massive numbers of people? The indirectness is what stops us.

But we have to embrace the indirectness, like we embrace the difference that is produced in our own kids every day as they grow into and away from us. Embracing indirectness is the only way to be happy in the long-run.

The relationship between me and my kids is the best metaphor I have for sustainability. Maybe because it's not even a metaphor but a living, loving struggle.

Lena (aged 36): sustainability is allowing difference, allowing impossible encounters to take place and surprise you. sustainability is being naughty. sustainability is getting out of the box you are in, getting out of networks you belong to, seeing beyond your own group. sustainability is travelling the world, learning a new language, but a really new language, a new method, a new skill. sustainability is beyond the local. sustainability is the provocation that stops you being righteous.

fail. fail again. fail better. go for the impossible.
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Friday 8 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the shopping divider at the check-out

Monik Gupta, environmental blogger and researcher has guest blogged for Ashdenizen. Here he suggests a metaphor in our series New metaphors for sustainability: the shopping divider at the check-out.

For me, thinking about sustainability, the object in the picture comes to mind. We come across it so regularly, however there is no word readily available to us to describe it (google suggests it to be termed 'cashier divider' by retail experts). Evidently, just like with 'sustainability', it is something very well known but much less engaged with.

What's more important, both the shopping divider and sustainability mark the necessity for confinement of our own consumption and draw attention to others' needs.

Maybe those two points, shallow engagement despite omnipresence and a focus on limitations of our consumption, are related. We are reluctant to make explicit the distinction between our needs and those of others, even though we are acutely aware of its necessity.

However, this is exactly where the beauty of both the 'shopping divider' and 'sustainability' could lie: in marking the confines of our needs, they enable us to direct attention to our fellow human beings. We begin to acknowledge that we are 'in this together', urgently needing to demonstrate our 'ability to sUStain'.
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Wednesday 6 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the sailboat

We continue our series of New metaphors for sustainability with the sailboat, suggested by James Marriott, artist, activist, member of PLATFORM. 

The boat for me is a very powerful metaphor. Sustainability is a rather grey and unclear term, but if it means anything, it means that we have to live with the finite resources of the earth. We have to deal with this in our generation and pass it on to future generations.

It is this sense of the finite capacity that I find interesting and comes to me through the experience of boats. I mean boats which are driven by sail and by oar – that use the motive power of the wind and the tide captured through wood and flax and hemp and use that to move from ‘a’ to ‘b’.

I’ve been learning to sail, and it’s been a wonderful experience. It makes you extremely aware of the forces of nature – it makes it very intimate. You’re at the mercy of the winds. You have to work with the tides – the skill comes from using whatever is there, that finite amount of power.

The finiteness, too, comes from the space of the boat itself. You have to pack everything in it that you might need or want. The boat frames my needs and desires about where I can go and how long it’s going to take me.

It concentrates the mind about the nature of the space in which I’m in, and about the wind and the water and the movement of the tide and the flow of the river.
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Tuesday 5 July 2011

The Southbank re-designed with the tides in mind

Ella-Marie Fowler got in touch about her BA project on sustainability, and here she describes it.

I'm a graduating student from Design for Performance (BA Hons) at Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts London. For my final project, I chose to focus on sustainability within theatre and how the arts can affect climate change awareness.

I designed a proposal for a Sustainable Arts Centre on the Southbank, London (pictured). The centre would provide space for visiting artists, performers and theatre companies to respond to climate change awareness. The building would be constructed from reclaimed materials and use green energy sources. Visitors to the centre would encounter different experiences throughout the day due to the changing tide of the Thames.

Last year, I visited the Jellyfish Theatre and researched art organisations such as TippingPoint through the Ashden Directory. This sparked ideas about my final year project. As a graduating student in theatre design, I wanted my work to reflect contemporary issues and consider how to develop a sustainable approach to my future work.
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Monday 4 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the Spiderweb Tapestry

Continuing in our series on New metaphors for sustainability, the dramaturg, writer and Associate Director of Cape Farewell, Ruth Little, chooses the Spiderweb Tapestry.

The interweaving

This is a tapestry woven from the webs of a million Golden Orb spiders in Madagascar. I read about it in Nature, and went to see it in the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Made by local weavers over five years, it's an astonishingly beautiful - perhaps miraculous - work of art. Delicately held in tiny 'stalls', the spiders were milked by hand each day and released. Whose art, though, is responsible for the tapestry? Unsigned by either the spiders or the craftspeople who wove its intricate traditional patterns from a natural substance stronger than steel, it's my metaphor for integralism, resilience, and the cooperative values underlying sustainable living.

Universal nature/human nature: The woven web

The Spiderweb Tapestry begins with the web itself - that global symbol of complexity and interconnection - and adds to it the specifically human dimensions of culture, tradition, stewardship and imagination. Produced with a combination of curiosity, great care, local knowledge and local resources, it is at once organic and mysterious; fabricated and wild, particular and universally evocative. It literally glows: it contains the 'vital materialism' described by Jane Bennett in her account of the active participation of non-human forces in events. Like Bennett, my metaphor seeks to develop and transform our sense of care in relation to both the human and the non-human world, 'to encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things.'

Virtually all of earth's natural systems have now been influenced and to some extent deranged by human modes of production and consumption. We have begun to cross the threshold of catastrophic loss, compelled by an appetite that has its origins in the relatively recent intellectual separation of human nature from the matter-energy continuum of which we have always been part.

We may have been expelled from Eden for mismanagement, but the whole earth is now our home, and we have nowhere else to go. Only active, attentive and responsible stewardship of earth's living systems and the natural capital on which we rely entirely for survival will make the fabric we're woven into resilient enough to survive the shocks it's now subject to.

The Madagascan tapestry is a work of ethical ingenuity: drawing on the self-organising tendencies of the non-human world, it combines the exceptional capacities of human hands and human minds to create something much more valuable - in cultural and ecological terms - than the sum of its parts.

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