Lost in the Maelstrom? Reclaiming the Narrative as an Engaged Citizen

If the headlines appear to us as a maelstrom of disparate troubles, then we are missing the broader narrative: our efforts to control the present are distractions from the need to work with the future. As we complain about others, we are failing to acknowledge a powerful protagonist: we as a engaged citizens.

We complain angrily (as we should) when President Trump targets another nation’s cultural sites, and we grieve (as we should) over the devastation of fires in Australia, but we are howling over present losses while doing so little to prevent future ones. We are shouting at disappointing leaders without empowering better ones to do more.

Those horrific Australian fires are driven by the changing climate we have done so little to mitigate or adapt to. We should be calling for the protection of anyone’s cultural sites, in all ways, and yet we are willing to accept the sure loss of World Heritage sites to rising seas, gnawing storm erosion, and unquenchable fires. By the way, I don’t believe those fires are dodging Australia’s cultural sites, whether Aboriginal or Settler….

Let’s examine that broader narrative: every issue humans now face has a connection to our shared planetary climate – either what we are doing to it or what it is doing to us. Every. Single. Issue. If you are outraged by any of this, then we need you in this story. We need you to create meaningful change rather than contribute to the cacophony.

  • Oil contributes to an expanding carbon footprint, and is an economic and political underpinning of armed conflict.
  • Fire and floods are triggered by warming air and water, and by disrupted hydro-cycles; and exacerbated by interference with traditional ecological management, and by over-grazing and over-development.
  • Drought and extreme heat lead to agricultural failure and productivity loss, human displacement and immigration conflicts, loss of heritage and cultural sites, famine, poverty, documented suicides in Africa and Australia and India, and to other deaths.
  • Injustice appears in the form of fence line and pipeline exposure to fossil fuel-related pollution affecting primarily disadvantaged and disempowered people, and where individuals in the Global South suffer the impacts of climate change while the nations of polluters continue business as usual.
  • Biodiversity loss threatens ecosystems on every continent, including those that provide human-oriented food stocks and medicines.
  • Economies suffer, too. They weaken under climate impacts whether we lose a home to a flood or stock prices to devaluation of sunk costs, when local businesses and industries are destroyed by fire or flood, and when companies go out of business after a supply chain is permanently disrupted.
  • The ripple effects of sectoral and national impacts in a global financial system will bring climate change into each of our lives at varying scales and increasing measure even if some of us manage to avoid the physical impacts.

Again, if you are outraged by any of this, then we need you in this story. When we look at the stories beyond the individual impacts and actions, and around the edges of the news screen, each of us can find a way to help address the larger problems which the current grieving and shouting do not. But, please recognize that our individual actions truly matter only when each of us contributes to the collective capability and capacity to solve these problems. When we match our individual actions with community ones, we transform our impact from momentarily practical to exponentially enabling.

Let’s look at individuals as protagonists. For example, my energy use reduction matters only when I’ve permanently limited my consumption and purchased or helped implement or publicize the renewable alternatives that produce no carbon and reduce localize environmental impacts. My water use reduction matters only when I regularly limit my shower use and support the water authority’s work to improve processing and delivery systems without disrupting associated ecosystems. My vote matters only when I use it and I’ve publicly given local, regional, and national leaders the support creating the courage to exercise political will to address natural resource management holistically, refuse fossil fuel expansion, and support environmental reparations on regional, national and global scales.

Is one of your present priorities simply getting to classes or work and back? Then green your commute where you can while supporting local efforts to expand bus routes, provide bike parking lanes, and offer free access to weekly commuters. Maybe your concern is maintaining a steady income but you’re in a climate-unfriendly industry. Then become the engaged citizen and ask your local leaders to bring in green jobs, prioritize tax benefits for green industry, and tell them they can count on you to take the re-training they offer. Or is an important concern finding healthy food for your family but money is tight? Then learn from the local Extension service or trusted websites where to best spend your organic dollars, take a class on selecting and preparing fresh food in season, and be the engaged citizen who tells your local store that food which is more-local and less-packaged is what you require – and ask your neighbors to, also.

What I want to howl and shout about is the failure of governments to lead well. At the recent UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Madrid (COP25), World leaders failed to agree on carbon accounting mechanisms and provide commitments to keep the climate on a track to only 1.5°F warming, chief among them was the United States. They showed us that they lack the political will to lead their countries to ambitious commitments to save us all. We must give them that will.

So, instead of shouting, I do climate work, personally and professionally. To scale my impacts, past DIY laundry detergent and a “clean” clothing commitment, I lead the United States cultural sector – made up of threatened cultural sites, and museums and zoos and gardens and aquariums – as it scales its work toward meaningful climate action. The sector supports the Paris Agreement through We Are Still In, the largest coalition of the Accord’s supporters anywhere in the World. And I cheer on all who lead their institutions, tribes, cities, states, colleges and universities to sign the We Are Still In declaration, helping the courageous and driven members of my sector to take action themselves and partner with others to scale that action.

We cultural professionals and volunteers and supporters cherish the sites, objects, plants and animals that we care for and which are at great risk in this climate. We revel in the ways that individuals and communities can build, create, learn from and care for these tangible beings and things — and the intangibles surrounding them. And, increasingly, we help those individuals and communities take climate action so that what they value can last. We are telling our current and future leaders that we support them when they, too, take bold and confident action to care for this planet and us all. Everyone can.

Book Review: Curating the Future

Editors: Jennifer Newell, Libby Robin and Kirsten Wehner, Routledge: 2019. Environmental Humanities Series

Such an exciting, encouraging book!

What we all see and read as climate watchers is overwhelming, yet we frequently find positive work that defends us against the frightening aspects. I am seriously concerned and extremely hopeful on climate climate. This was reinforced by Curating the Future which generated more hope and bolstered my confidence – even with the conundrum in the final essay.

Curating the Future is as important to cultural museums’ work on heritage conservation – tangible and intangible – in a changing climate as is The Ark and Beyond: The evolution of zoo conservation on biodiversity and the future of conservation. I’d include Curating the Future in an environmental humanities class at the college or graduate level for sure, and certainly will in mine. Here I’ll mention four of the essays here, one from each section, that particularly added to my thinking about how museums approach public engagement for the purpose of building understanding of and action on climate.  Each emphasizes the value and challenge of cultural approaches to climate engagement.  

Part I: Welcoming new voices: opening museums

Editor Jenny Newell, previously at the American Museum of Natural History as the Curator of Pacific Ethnography and now Manager, Pacific International and Collections at the Australian Museum, introduces the importance of artifacts as story-bearers for communities facing displacement and loss due to climate change. “Artefacts that have been placed within museums…. Although they lack some of their former connections, they can still be lodestones for communities, and carry important learning for new-generation communities in new places.” She then presents three moving “object stories,” summarizing them this way “…these stories showcase the ways that museums are beginning to enable people to engage with climate change. Moving beyond presenting the science of climate change in an abstract and scientific way, museums are finding a role in creating spaces for people to develop their own culturally sensitive, local ways to live with our global predicament.”

Part II:  Reinventing nature and culture

Kirstie Ross’ piece “Fours Season In One Day: Weather, culture and the museum” is changing my thinking on weather and our description of its relationship with climate. I regularly repeat the statement “’weather’ is what’s outside your window” and “’climate’ is the long cycle of weather data over time.” Though true, that separation is a brutal contributor to feelings of powerlessness of all who must feel empowered to reduce their impacts on climate.  Ross brings together some approaches that connect climate and culture, making it a connection to personal experience rather than an observation of a planetary system too large and complex for an individual to affect. Ross cites climate scientist Heidi Cullen (US) who “insists that weather and climate must not be separated” and emphasize “how crucial it is for people to ‘understand that their weather is their climate…If climate is impersonal statistics, weather is the personal experience.’” Ross adds “One way to unite the weather with climate is to consider both as culture” referring to Geographer Mike Hulme’s theory (UK). Ross’ approach is not yet evident in museums and should be.

She created the example of New Zealanders who feel as if they experience “four seasons in a day.” Life on their Pacific island, present and past, is identified with changeable weather. It is part of the culture, part of the identity, so much so that it is the perfect opportunity to build powerful connection between people and climate.  She writes “People talk a lot about the weather but rarely about the issue of climate change or how they will mitigate or cope with its impact…Where can we get authoritative information about climate change that helps us live in the present and do something about the future?” Museums, of course. As climate scientist (CA & US) Katharine Hayhoe says, “the most important thing any of us can do is talk about climate,” so let’s help them do that by engaging them around weather to build a conversation about climate in museums.

Part III: Focusing on the future

Author George Main writes in “Food Stories for the Future” about two projects at the National Museum of Australia that use the skills of museum practitioners to encourage and illustrate “constructive responses to climate change and its varied challenges.” Both make direct connections to visitors on issues critical to them but just enough removed that they may overlook the important dependency. I’ll describe one here for its uniqueness and importance. The Paddock Report, is an annual observation of what I would call the ‘experience’ at the Paddock: physical changes to the plants and soil, and the presence and experience of the animals living and producing there and of the family that owns the property – and how they all interact.

Main records and reports his close observation of the experience of a place that feeds and clothes thousands of people locally and far away whether or not they observe what takes place there. His annual report is an historical record of agricultural practices, of the effects of a changing climate, and social relationships. It is also an example of how humans are all now, and will continue to be, dependent and interdependent upon practices and conditions outside our reach. Main knows museums can make those connections more obvious. This is what I believe is the field’s greatest public value: making the invisible visible. This visibility, whether in images, words, sounds or other formats, helps us each develop a personal connection to some thing, and begin to see its role, its value, its importance and our responsibility for its continuation or not. Museums’ continuous manifestation of these unseen ecosystems is critical for engaging the public in any degree of care.

Part IV:  Representing change and uncertainty

“Rising Seas: Facts, fiction and aquaria” by Susanna Lidström and Anna Åberg is an important discussion of how we must not leave the climate case to be made only by scientists. Here is my too-short, too-simple summarization of their concerns: The old approaches of the-ocean-as-science-as-told-by-a-scientist-through-a-cold-camera or of climate-as-statistics: factual-and-alarming-and-likely-to-cause-deer-in-headlights-effect are giving way to, and must give way to, a new ones.

Unfortunately, we’re struggling to identify them. The authors describe what I call Challenging Approach #1: Visualizing slow-moving disasters, ones extending into the future is fraught with perils of accuracy in prediction, the ambiguity of choosing which disaster and degree of it to depict. After all, which sea level rise model does one choose?  And Challenging Approach #2: Contemporary art installations are often dramatic and evocative. What do viewers do with the emotions and responses evoked? Is there meaningful follow-through? Do we know?

The authors draw a conclusion that we museum practitioners must keep searching for the new approaches our publics require. “To strengthen connections between science, culture and policy to understand changing climate and oceans, cultural narratives beyond scientific ones need to be part of the picture, from the beginning and everywhere, to show that these are social and cultural challenges, not only problems ‘in nature,’ not even in the farthest corner of the deep sea.”

I believe this work is also challenging because of what we don’t say, the “but they didn’t” conundrum. We practitioners deride each other in this way, as does the media and do climate-deniers. No matter what is presented, no matter what action is taken, there is always a further level that could have been included, and someone is criticized for not including it. This is short-sighted and unproductive. Such a critic is myopic. This is the nature of ecosystems – there are always adjacencies. If there were fewer, this would be simpler to solve. They are unending. We can never search, or say or share enough to describe the entirety of our impacts or our potential. Someone will always focus on what we “didn’t.”

So, perhaps a Challenging Approach #3 could be: Socio-cultural Contributions. This is a human-stories-pathways-merging-with-science-evidence-pathways-and-other-new-pathways-all-directed-toward-climate-understanding-and-response. How can we tell enough stories, and share enough science to reach all who must hear and heed the climate warnings? Curating the Future is excellent encouragement on how to find a path forward with your museum’s exhibits.

Part of the Solutions, Not of the Crowd

There’s a lot of fossilized money.

It comes to museums from companies and from individual owners and investors.

Much of it was earned by those who had a full understanding of the devastating climate changes being created by the use of fossil fuels. Think Exxon and British Petroleum but also individuals.

Many of those individuals and companies still continue to fund disinformation, fossil fuel expansion, and museums.

With that appalling record in mind, does a cultural institution decide to take the fossilized money or not? (At first I felt you could read ‘fossilized money’ as you wish – money from practices your institutions recognizes as harmful: weapons, chemicals, inhuman treatment of anything, but feel that each is so complex that I will restrict my concerns to fossil fuels.)

Possible responses:

A:  use fossilized money and investments because someone else will if you don’t; then let the company influence how you use it

B:   use fossilized money and investments because someone else will if you don’t; and use transparency to prevent influence made on the project or leveraged at the opening party

C:   use fossilized money for positive action such as education – reopening the NMNH David H. Koch Hall of Fossils with Deep Time – $3.5M

D:   use fossilized money for climate-positive action such as educating about human-caused climate change – NMNH David H. Koch Hall of Fossils reopening – $3.5M – when you have taken steps to prevent collusion and can confidently document its absence

E:   take the fossilized money if it’s in the form of court-ordered reparations

F: take the fossilized money from arbitration or court-ordered reparations and use it to help right some of the wrongs of the donor

G:    take fossilized money if the source organization or individual documents their responsible shift away from fossil fuels in a manner consistent with Paris Agreement

H: shift from protesting about sponsorships to calling for reparations, joining and leading lawsuits to stop this assault and to right wrongs

I:   don’t touch the stuff: don’t accept it, don’t benefit from it, and don’t let those associated with it touch us

We know that:

The US economy, and that of much of the World, is based on consumption of resources that consume energy land and water, and produce greenhouse gases (GHGs) as a result including Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrous Oxide and Hydrofluorocarbon (FCs), Perfluorocarbon (PFCs) and Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF).  

It’s a complex combination of activities and impacts but Energy use (in all its forms) is the greatest contributor.

We must reverse the rate of consumption. This requires changing our behavior, every one of us: the fossil fuel companies and leaders, investors, policymakers, individuals, and nonprofits — including each of us personally and professionally.

Ultimatums rarely work. A cold-turkey end to fossil fuel use is unjust and unfairly burdensome on those in society least prepared and least protected. It’s also impossible to effect internally. And a blanket approach to cutting back and cutting off fossil fuel production and use (such as a this-way-only mandate) will be dangerous for those most vulnerable while still being incredibly inefficient; influencing systems effectively requires very adaptive solutions – local applications are critical for success.

There is little, if any, pure money. Every business has impacts. So choose which companies you want as partners and know why you chose them. Patagonia is one of my favorites and here is a substantial and significant selection of other very responsible ones.

Meanwhile, you may be wondering if:

Refusal by cultural institutions to accept fossilized money has changed the companies’ behavior for net positive impact? Unknown. Clearly not yet obvious.

Attempts at new approaches have created improvements that are leading an energy transition? Yes:  North Carolina’s are and so are Minnesota’s.

Any super-major consumers’ own climate policies have changed behavior for positive impact? Yes: Google operations and  McDonald’s operations and supply chain.

So, here is where I am on this:

Lots of fossil fuel companies have lots of money. I require that it must be spent on solving the problems they’ve created and to not create any more. Many companies and individuals are going to be making reparations. And some are going to change. But they are terrible at changing themselves. The indigenous groups, environmental nonprofits and we cultural institutions can and must help. No, it doesn’t feel just or fair, but the alternative, of not contributing to a solution, is worse, much worse.

So, can cultural institutions engage without being tainted? Yes.

Do all of this:

Solution 1: Call loudly and clearly for reparations and turn reparations into solutions directly related to the impacts. This means helping the process of returning governance of and repairing Indigenous lands and access to resources; protecting more land; and using money from fossil fuel and pollution impacts to advance cleanup of the land- and seascapes, advance the science of remediation, rebuild ecosystems, educate the public, and build the infrastructure for a clean transition.

Solution 2: Divest. Create a 1-to-3-year plan to extract your personal and institutional investments from fossil fuels and any other socially-irresponsible businesses you identify. In addition to reducing your contribution to fossil fuel continuation and expansion, this will protect your investments from the increasing risk to fossil fuel companies that will suffer financially from the business shift to clean energy, financial impacts of likely carbon taxes, financial risks of a changing climate and the hazards that presents to facilities and resources, and the financial exposures from court cases and reparations.

Solution 3: Put a price on sponsorship for them. Sponsorship must cost them money plus climate commitments and demonstrated performance. We make commitments and demonstrate performance, why not they – and on our terms?

Solution 4: Put a price on leadership roles at your institution: appropriate behavior and full transparency. The partnership must be based on negotiated values – ones you share. The traditional board expectations of time, talent and treasure must expand to include transparency on all issues including healthy and just futures for all.

Solution 5: Be fair. Yes. Even if they are not. If divestment is a multi-year process for you then agree to an appropriately-phased in process for getting off fossil fuels for providers and consumers. If you have zero-tolerance for fossil fuel connections externally, then apply that expectation internally.

Solution 6: Be unrelenting on climate ambition. Continuously expect better from fossil fuel companies and all partners, and from yourself and your institution.

Solution 7: Most of all, welcome the protests, demonstrations, die-ins, and public campaigns. Heed their warnings. Create space for them. Create dialogue. Amplify their well-documented research. And create partnerships that use all that marvelous creativity, energy, passion, knowledge and commitment to build lasting change. As Beka Economopolous says, “be an ally” for the issues important to your community, your mission, your world.

Be part of the solutions, not a source only of noise.

Book Review

Reinventing Sustainability: How Archaeology Can Save The Planet

By Erika Guttmann-Bond. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019.

This is precisely the positive, creative approach we all need to using the understanding of the past to optimize the resources of the present for a future where species – including humans – can thrive. We humanists cannot let the scientists carry alone the burden of saving the planet from our mistakes. Guttman-Bond makes an excellent case for our work.

The particular value of Reinventing Sustainability is in the examples of archaeological discoveries that illustrate important potential solutions to present day environmental and climate issues. Through her own archaeological discoveries and others’, she highlights traditional knowledge and practices lost or barely hanging-on that can offer the populations of industrial and “developing” nations more reliable food sources, safer and more-resilient housing, and a chance to remain in places now abandoned or about to be. The floating gardens of Mexico, the compost middens of the Shetlands, Middle Eastern qanat wells, and check dams in the Negev desert were exciting examples of stories in our landscape showing us how people in the past wrangled challenging climates while thriving.

I appreciated the author’s explanations of how she, as an archaeologist found and interpreted this material, and her careful descriptions of the deduction process. A strength of this book is her commitment to going beyond telling us what she found to how she understands what it means.

She introduced two concepts I understand but didn’t have names for previously: maslin and intermediary technology.  Intermediary technology means tools and practices appropriate for local conditions and for optimizing lives; ones quite different from widespread adoption of the newest technology to maximize short-term profits. These traditional practices include clay pot irrigation, wetland cultivation using water channels and terraces (in previously unexamined places), the nuances of terracing, and the discovery of sequenced dams and vegetated “islands” for managing water when there was too much or too little.

The description of “maslin” is also an important one – this agricultural approach means planting different but related crops in a field as a hedge against weather or climate changes that would destroy a food source if the field had had only one strain of wheat, for example. In other words, it’s the antithesis of monocropping.

The later portions of the book shift to traditional architectural solutions to heating and cooling, and lighting. These are important as climate solutions – for mitigation and response – and some are used around the globe today in limited ways. These are interesting and valuable, but her archaeological examples are her most distinctive contributions to the field.

Guttman-Bond has a comfortable yet informative writing style. She correctly summarizes climate change in a very accessible manner (not easy to do), and gives the reader a marvelous glimpse of being in the trenches at a dig site.

I recommend this book for courses in humanities and climate change in general, or specifically for archaeology and architecture. It is also useful for land planners and architects looking for historical approaches, and for museum and history professionals making the case for traditional knowledge in climate action.