I’m willing to bet that those in the “sustainability field” (for lack of a better label…) will not be the primary force that makes the change. But we will hopefully be among those who create the enabling conditions.
The term “eco-mutuality” has merit and I really appreciate the set up you offer here.
My sense is the term itself matters — of course words matter! — but without the right mindset, or operating system to reference your point, even the right words can still be misconstrued.
For example, while even the term coiner himself, John Elkington, has revisited “Triple Bottom Line” with a critical eye, I would argue it still works if we don’t interpret it as a set of trade-offs to be balanced, but rather a conceptual awareness that multiple types of accounting are in play for any business whether they choose to measure and manage them or not.
You point out that the term “Sustainability” has been insufficient and I completely agree, although in part I believe this is because people have chosen to interpret it in multiple ways, not necessarily because the word itself is broken. We could take this interpretation challenge in many directions well outside of this field. For example, what does it mean to be a “deeply religious person” or even to be “happy”? We could have a field day (or some very uncomfortable conversations!) if we tried to create consistent and exact interpretations of these terms.
What to do? I see two parallel and complementary approaches to this challenge. The first is we keep doing what you and others are doing (including John Elkington and many collaborators and colleagues) which is to nonetheless try to reinterpret, relabel, and redefine. In doing so we increase and upgrade our own understanding, and in sharing this new understanding we hopefully share new perspectives on existing concepts and raise the bar of understanding more broadly — not to set vocabulary trends but to bring about deeper awareness of complex ideas.
The second, and I believe the more fundamental challenge, is to continue seeking out new ways to change the operating system. Whether this is labeled “business model innovation”, “creative destruction”, “rewiring the global industrial complex”, or just “evolving” — I’m not too fussed. And I’m keenly aware that I’m writing this in English while the majority of my fellow and sister humans around the world may be arriving at related thoughts in different languages and so my labeling efforts are not the primary force that will make the change. In fact, I’m willing to bet that those in the “sustainability field” (for lack of a better label…) — regardless of mother tongue — will not be the primary force that makes the change. But we will hopefully be among those who create the enabling conditions.
Having said all that, my term of choice that I largely keep to myself because people’s eyes cross and they wonder what on earth it has to do with them, their business or their future, is ‘biomimicry”, as it strikes at the core of creating the conditions that enable life to thrive.
Macfarlane describes the Anthropocene as the ‘proposed new epoch of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment that it is going to leave a long-term signature on the strata record’.
– And it is going to be an extraordinary signature, he says, and lists a number of reasons why:
– We have bored fifty million kilometers of holes in our search for oil; we remove mountain tops to get to the coal; our oceans are full of plastic, and weaponry tests have dispersed radionuclides globally providing a distinctive stratigraphic mark that will endure billions of years in some cases.
– We have become geomorphic agents of titanic and unprecedented force, and our earth legacy is legible for thousands of years to come, he says.
However, this new epoch is characterized by what Macfarlane describes as Thick Speech:
– The Anthropocene poses substantial problems to our ability to articulate it. Words become sticky, and it is as if having an ‘ox on the tongue’.
An archive of climate data washed away
In his talk, Macfarlane shares his experiences from Greenland in the summer 2016. People he interviewed talked about the speed of the glaciers melting. At one place the glaciers moved thirty-five meters a day.
– It was astonishing and frightening to be there, he says.
He struggled to articulate what he observed.
– This ancient ice carrying an archive of climate data that was washed away. I didn’t know what to do with myself. My speech felt both thin (pointless) and thick (inarticulate) at the same time.
The Kantian sublime doesn’t work for the Anthropocene, and there is a need for a new word, he argues. The ‘stuplime’ was coined by Sianne Ngai in her book Ugly Feelings.
– She doesn’t make reference to the Anthropocene, but I think these ugly feelings are part of this ugly epoch.
We experience the Anthropocene often as a stun, which immobilizes us, he continues.
– The stuplime rather than the sublime has the sub-partitioning of encounter into smaller and smaller divisions of meeting. That is what makes for both boredom and helplessness. In the sublime, we are overpowered, but then we respond by trying to compensate for it. The sublime is a much more active effort.
The stuplime leaves us flat, which is not what the world needs right now, he says:
– The need to change seems to greatly exceed our capacity to exert it, I think.
Ngai goes on to suggest that stuplimity linguistically produces what she calls a thickening of speech, Macfarlane explains.
– She says that when we are stunned into stuplimity, we can only speak of the experience using a kind of thick language. She has fascinating things to say about the formal properties of this: it’s about stuttering, and an odd combination of hyperactivity with a lack of causal grip.
– We compensate for the agitation that comes from not being able to action things with a sort of hectic manner.
When Macfarlane read Ngai’s book, he recognized what had happened to him in Greenland:
– This thickening, this muddying and hesitant speech.
How can we become better at speaking the Anthropocene?
What do we need to do in order to be better at speaking the Anthropocene, to get ‘the ox off our tongue’, Macfarlane asks.
– We need new media and new data forms. Visualizations by especially climate scientists brought the Anthropocene into our view in the first place, he says.
These visualizations have become even more important with the arrival of an American president who tries to muzzle scientific utterances and control data, he says.
– This is a four year term with a possibly 4000 year legacy.
Human societies have become a ‘great force of nature’. Among the many massive environmental changes we are causing are the widespread conversion of habitats to agricultural fields and settlements, species extinctions, global climate change, and the pollution of air, land and sea. So profound are these global transformations that geologists may soon recognise them as the start of a new epoch of geologic time, the Anthropocene.
As an ecologist, I have spent most of my time studying the consequences of human activities. But more recently, I have begun to focus on a bigger question. How and why did humans gain such exceptional capacities to reshape planet Earth? The most compelling answers I have found exist largely beyond the boundaries of biological science, in the evolutionary sciences explaining social and cultural change. In the Anthropocene, it is no longer possible to understand, predict or manage the ecological changes produced by humans without going deeper into their social and cultural causes.
The key to understanding the Anthropocene is to recognize that humans have an extraordinary capacity to construct their ecological niche, at social and spatial scales that are steadily increasing: from the use of fire in small hunter-gatherer communities, to the global supply chains of the industrial world today. The human niche should not be viewed as merely a set of biophysical limits or biological capacities, but as a diverse and evolving sociocultural construct.
Organisms interact with their environments in a bidirectional manner: they adapt to their environment though natural selection but they can also modify their environment in a process known as niche construction. Examples of niche construction range from birds’ nests, termite mounds and beavers’ dams to the release of minerals in the soil by fungi or the creation of shade by plants. In order to explain the extraordinary ability of humans to transform their ecological niche, I extended niche construction theory1 to develop a sociocultural niche construction framework2. The traditional use of the term niche by ecologists refers to an organism’s environmental requirements, tolerances and abilities to use resources, such as the capacity to bore through tree bark to obtain the nutritious grubs underneath. Given such requirements and capacities, the success of organisms would then be largely determined by the constraints and opportunities of their environments. Niche construction theory challenges this unidirectional understanding of the ecological niche by emphasizing that organisms can also actively transform their environments in ways that can determine their success.
The human ecological niche is constructed largely based on socially learned behaviors. To farm, live in a city, or find the right mushrooms to eat, it is necessary to learn how to do this from others. Moreover, in many societies, some or even most individuals need never interact directly with environments to gather foodstuffs or through farming. Instead, food might be delivered in return for a ritual act or even purchased online with a credit card. Combining niche construction with a theoretical understanding of humans’ exceptional social and cultural capacities and their evolution, gives the basis for sociocultural niche construction. This process explains how and why the diverse and evolving societies of our ancestors have sustained themselves for thousands of years by transforming and managing Earth’s ecology. It also shifts the simplistic view of humans as environment destroyers, to that of humans as shapers and stewards of ecology on an increasingly used planet.
Humans are unique in their level of sociality, with an unrivalled ability to learn from each other and transmit this learning within and between generations. This social learning produces cultural inheritance that evolves over time at the levels of individuals, groups and societies, explaining the diversity in social organization, language, religion and resource use and exchange between human populations. This is where humans’ unparalleled environmental impacts stem from. Cultural traits can evolve extremely fast, especially in comparison to biologically-derived traits, driven by ‘runaway’ sociocultural niche construction and other processes. A primary example of this is the rise of agriculture. Cultivation of crops leads to a suite of environmental and cultural inheritances which in turn lead to environmental and social changes that themselves require ever more transformative cultural and ecological inheritances to adapt to them. For example, cultivation of crops depletes nutrients in the soil, which requires the cultural adaptation of harvesting and use of manure to replenish these nutrients for further cultivation.
As human societies have developed, from small hunter-gather bands to agricultural communities, to the technological societies of today, social roles have become more diverse and specialized. More powerful and complex tools and technologies have enabled greater productivity and greater changes to environments. For example, the potential productivity of a single square kilometre of land to sustain human populations has increased from sustaining less than 10 individuals to sustaining thousands. Furthermore, the use of non-biomass energy, typically fossil fuels, has enabled energy used per person to increase by a factor of more than 20-fold. Through sociocultural niche construction, humans have produced unprecedented global changes. Ultimately, the cause of these impacts is natural selection, which acts on human cultural and ecological inheritances to shape how humans interact socially and ecologically.
Humans are actively and continuously changing Earth with profound and permanent consequences. We must inhabit this changed Earth, shaped by generations of our ancestors, and so must all its other species. For both humans and nonhumans to thrive on this planet, there is no past ‘balance of nature’ that might be restored. Instead, it is necessary to understand, appreciate, and continue reshaping the social, cultural, and ecological constructs of today towards better outcomes in the future. Along with the negative changes, contemporary societies are also changing environments for the better: endangered species and their habitats are being protected and restored, pollutants are being reduced or even eliminated, and the massive shifts in energy systems required to prevent catastrophic global climate change may still be implemented. As a consequence of sociocultural niche construction, humans have become a global force of nature – for better and for worse. It is only by embracing these sociocultural realities that we might shape better futures for both humans and non-human species alike.
Through different stories about ways of living in the Arctic, Professor Marianne Lien and her research group at CAS (Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters) challenge what they see as the dominant understanding of relations among humans, animals, and landscapes. What is culture in the Arctic, if it is understood as cut off from nature?
Marianne Lien welcomes me to her CAS office in Oslo, far away from icy landscapes and migratory animals, and far away from her usual work at the University of Oslo. For twelve years, Professor Lien has studied salmon farming, which after a booming start in the 1980s is now Norway’s second largest export commodity. Currently, she is enjoying a year of research at CAS, and has gathered together scholars from different countries and research fields in the research group Arctic domestication in the era of the Anthropocene.
Enthusiastically, Lien opens with the declaration,
– Every day I get to work with my favourite colleagues.
Lien twists, turns, and challenges not only the concept of domestication, but also what social anthropology is about, and the boundaries between disciplines:
– This project has had many beginnings—one of them being the domestication of salmon—one of the trademarks of Norway.
Salmon aquaculture has been Lien’s key interest since she studied it as part of globalisation in Tasmania in 2002. She found the links back to Norway an interesting trajectory, but soon began to ask different questions:
– I realised that this is actually a historical moment. A moment where we take an animal, a fish, and make it into a domesticated animal like any livestock. It has happened before, as we know, in the Neolithic revolution, thousands of years ago in the Middle East, but now it’s happening again. I thought: how do humans actually domesticate animals?
Since then, Lien has worked on the Newcomers to the farm project, together with Gro Ween, John Law, and Kristin Asdal, who explored what the intensive production of formerly wild salmon means for nature politics and domestication. Between 2009 and 2012 Lien and Law spent long periods at salmon farms in western Norway conducting fieldwork on how farmed salmon are made into husbandry animals. In autumn 2015, Lien published Becoming salmon, the first ethnographic account of salmon aquaculture. The project sparked an interest in domestication more generally, Lien explains, as she stresses the importance of interdisciplinary research:
– Our current project is anthropological in the sense that it is thought about and indeed invented in the realm of anthropology, but it does not police disciplinary boundaries very much. We really do not care much about those.
Domestication: An ongoing process of becoming
Lien’s group challenges the hegemonic perception of domestication, which they describe as deriving from a Western view of human civilization—a narrative in which human societies must develop in a certain way. She adds:
– Domestication has been thought of as an irreversible historical line towards civilization. A linear development towards something higher and better, which is rather arrogant and outdated.
The dominant story of domestication tells us that 6,000–10,000 years ago in the Middle East, the Neolithic revolution led to an irreversible transformation of societies, landscapes, animals, and plants. In many societies, ways of living changed from nomadism, hunting, and gathering to farming in a geographically bounded space. Humans gained control over animals and landscapes.
– The story told about the Neolithic revolution works really well in some parts of the world, but not in others.
A perception of nature and culture as distinct from each other has grown out of this story of the Neolithic revolution.
The distinctions between nature and culture are artificial and not as sharp as they might seem, the research group argues. In many places in the world, such as in the Arctic, some people live in a form of symbiosis with the animals, the landscapes, and the changing weather. What is culture in the Arctic, if it is understood as cut off from nature? Lien explains,– In our popular language, we implicitly evoke the idea of domestication a lot. Because if I say ‘nature’, you would think of something untouched by humans, right? The vague idea of domestication underpins the idea of nature as opposed to culture.
The story of domestication echoes other conceptions that reduce the world’s complexities to stereotypes and dichotomies, such as the ‘civilized and the savage’, the ‘tame and the wild’, and ‘nature and culture’. It echoes colonisation.
Recent studies in archaeology and anthropology show that domestication can be a reversible process that human societies, animals, and plants go in and out of, she says. To clarify, Lien explains the group’s criticism of the dominant way of understanding domestication—and splits it into three dimensions: time, space, and agency. The first is the story about the Neolithic revolution. She argues:
– The shift from hunting to husbandry and from gathering to harvesting did not happen at one moment, but it happened over a long period, maybe thousands of years. Domestication is an open-ended process. Unfortunately, the focus on domestication as a particular event ‘back then’ has made us scholars less interested in what happened afterwards.
Instead, Lien and her colleagues see domestication as an ongoing process of becoming that takes place among humans, animals, and plants. In terms of space, the group asks whether domestication is confined within particular boundaries, or whether we can think about domesticating entire landscapes?
– We challenge the idea of confinement—the idea that you can actually draw a line around what is domesticated and not. Often you cannot.
For a thousand years people have practiced ærfuglerøkt at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Vega Islands, on the coast of Helgeland, a district in northern Norway. Ærfuglerøkt involves people gathering down feathers and eggs from common eider ducks, locally called éa.
In order to gather what they need, they make small hiding places—a sort of shelter for common eiders, furnished with dried seaweed and covered with a ‘roof’ protecting them from storms and from carnivores. Anthropologist Bente Sundsvold has studied ærfuglerøkt and claims the common eiders are not tame. But they are not wild either, Lien argues, because they return year after year, seeking human protection:
– Whether they are domesticated or not depends on how you define the term. Regardless, this exemplifies that the terms we have to describe nature are inadequate.
The third dimension of domestication outlined by the group and explored in this project is that of agency. Usually, humans are at the centre, Lien says—an assumption it is difficult to argue against.
Lien goes on to explore this further:
– There are unintended effects of our actions, such as the climate change we currently face, which is a reminder that human activities and plans can have unintended outcomes. Secondly, animals or plants are not passive recipients of our actions. They are active co-producers of our shared habitat, and can play an active role in processes of domestication.
She says that most archaeologists now believe that wolves initiated dog domestication when they began to specialize in feeding on the remains of leftover human meals. These wolves eventually evolved to have less fear of humans, allowing people to interact more closely with them:
– Such insights remind us that domestication is also co-evolution and that humans are not the only change-makers in our history. Co-species’ histories are made together.
Nature and culture: blurred boundaries
These unintended effects of our actions suggest that humans might not possess as much control over animals, plants, and landscapes as we might think; Lien adds:
– When we look at the present relations of domestication we anthropologists find that control doesn’t really describe anything. People try to control their animals, but my goodness they struggle!
Isn’t salmon farming a practice where humans exercise control over fish?
– In some ways, but control is an ideal that is never fully achieved. If humans were in control, we would not have the problem of sea lice. That is just one example.
A proliferation of sea lice is one of the unintended consequences of salmon farming, and illustrates what she perceives as a mistaken distinction between nature and culture:
– Take sea lice. Is it natural? Yes, I guess it is. Are they in the salmon farm? Absolutely. Is it something that is going to be affected by human practices? Of course. Where does nature start and where does culture begin? That is a very difficult line to draw.
– Nature and culture are not the best concepts, because what is going on in front of our eyes cannot be cut along these lines. It is so intertwined.
Lien describes the Arctic as one such part of the world that does not fit into the dominant domestication scheme.
We share the same attitude towards difference
This project was organized to bring together scholars who already had material they were going to analyse and who would benefit from working together. Lien herself has worked together with John Law and Gro Ween on the salmon project, Ween has recently conducted fieldwork in Alaska, and Britt Kramvig has been working on whaling, oil, and tourism in northern Norway. Heather Swanson came into the group after working on salmon on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, while Rob Losey has archaeological material on human–animal relations in Siberia. Additionally, there are other researchers, from professors to postdoctoral fellows, connected to the project in various ways. It is important to Lien that the research project is interdisciplinary:
– We see difference as interesting in itself. A difference in approach is not necessarily an obstacle to overcome, but rather a source of further insight and fruitful cooperation.
The diverse range of researchers working on this project share this ‘attitude towards productive differences’, as Lien puts it. They are particularly interested in ways of life that differ from the sedentary story of rootedness, private property, and fixed addresses:
– Mobile people who do not take up this particular way of living—in a house with a garden, a field, or land where you can plant and harvest—have been marginalized all over the world for centuries. This is why the comparative approach is important.
Pushing farming on the north
Lien shares her observations from working on the north coast of the Varanger peninsula in Finnmark. All one can do with a farm there is grow some grass, and perhaps feed some sheep, she explains. However, this is hardly enough to sustain a living:
– So, in this region, people have always engaged in other food procuring practices, such as gathering, fishing, and hunting, and they still do. The agriculture/animal nexus is very fruitful in some parts of the world. In the Middle East, you can sow and harvest wheat, vegetables, and fruits. It was a workable concept for most places, a model that could be transported and exported and taken on by others, but it met some northern limits where it really did not work so well. Such sites are interesting to look at.
Lien argues that the possibilities offered by the seascape/landscape of Norway and in many Arctic regions have been ignored in the discourse of domestication. Winters are dark, and the short, intense summers are blessed with the midnight sun:
– We ignore the fact that we live at a crossroads with a model that comes from a more temperate climate and a seascape/landscape that offers other possibilities. Of course, people living in the Arctic have always known this, so they have never relied on farming as a single strategy. But farming was really pushed in Finnmark.
The Norwegian government did this?
– Yes, through various measures, including something called bureising, through which they tried to promote farming, even on the Varanger Peninsula. Obviously, it didn’t work that well.
When Lien conducted her first fieldwork project in Finnmark in the 1980s, the focus was food habits, not domestication. As part of a broader study, she began looking into people’s freezers to understand more about food, and was surprised to see that nearly everything was local: frozen fish filets, such as cod and haddock, capelin, shrimp, fish cakes, homemade bread, smoked salmon, reindeer meat, moose meat, and many large containers of cloudberries, cowberries, and blueberries. Food was given a gift from someone people knew, or was something they traded or bartered:
– People have always used these rich affordances of the landscapes, the seascapes, and other waterscapes, in spite of all the attempts to make them do otherwise. This resistance is still going on, and has partly gone under the radar.
People in Varanger rely on migratory animals and fish, such as salmon, Lien explains:
– When species are not fenced in, they have to be found or followed, so movement is key to how you sustain yourself. Knowing the seasons and climate variations is also an important part of this.
The light touch of meacchi
Lien tells me that people in the Arctic have left an almost invisible footprint on the landscape:
– Most people who are not familiar with the Arctic landscape see it as completely untouched. From our Saami collaborators, however, we have learned about meacchi.
Meacchi fills a gap in the Norwegian vocabulary for ‘life in the Arctic’. Language is power, many say, and according to Lien, the domestication scheme is not an exception.
In Norwegian, innmark and utmark are statutory and distinguish between cultivated and not cultivated land (direct translation: infield and outfield). In Finnmark these words are used as well, but are not sufficient to describe the life in the Arctic. Lien explains:
– Meahcci is often translated as utmark, but it does not fit into the distinctions between innmark and utmark.
With their collaborators at Sámi University College in Kautokeino the group seeks to explore Meahcci as a word for particular sites of affordances in the landscape. People who know this landscape predict when it is best to encounter key species. This requires them to know the landscape, animals, and plants very well, and it requires respect:
– Meahcci is a landscape defined for the purpose of humans using it for something in particular, but absolutely not ‘innmark’, or a farm. It is an active landscape involved in people’s use. Meahcci completely cuts across our distinction between nature and culture because human activity and human need is implemented in the word. That is kind of cool.
Lien says that because the model of domestication does not work that well, scholars need to look for alternative ways of understanding relations among nature, animals, human societies, and plants:
– What would happen, for instance, if we started to think of Meahcci instead of nature? What if Meahcci was made into an analytical and legal term, or a common way of conceptualizing land? How would that change everything? These are some of the questions we hope to pursue.
The Anthropocene is a profound shape shifter
Is the dominant understanding of domestication, which is under scrutiny in your project, changing with today’s increased awareness of climate change?
– I think so, and this is a third topic in our project.
Some refer to our current geological age as the Anthropocene. The term is a description of our age as being one in which human actions have severe impacts on the planet. Some regard the Industrial Revolution as the onset of the Anthropocene. Others trace its inception to the Neolithic revolution and farming. Lien observes:
– We have always messed with the earth, but we have probably never messed with it with such significant consequences as today.
The Arctic domestication research group uses the idea of the Anthropocene and the current climate debate as a context for what they do:
– This calls for other kinds of research questions to be asked. It calls for humility, it calls for relevance, and it calls for trying to assemble thinking in ways that make the world a better place. Such questions are more compelling now than ever.
To Lien, the discourse about the Anthropocene is a profound shape shifter in terms of the way we see ourselves in the world. She believes that we humans have allowed ourselves to think about nature as passive and culture as active. We have thought of ourselves as the agent that could change things, and that could utilize and create the landscape we wanted for our own good. Animals, plants, and landscapes have not been thought of as having agency of their own. That mind set has developed out of ignorance, she believes:
– Our actions have effects way beyond our planned control or intentions, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. It is just that we have ignored these things before. There are smaller, unintended effects of our actions too, and not all of them are bad. The point is that we need to change our perception of who’s in charge. We are not in control.
Good, productive noise
Walking past Lien’s office one can often see her discussing such matters with her American colleague Heather Swanson or with Icelander Gísli Pálsson. Every afternoon the research group go out for coffee at a local coffee shop.
Sounds like a good life …
– It is a good life, yes. The seclusion from the hustle and bustle of teaching and administration is a gift for all of us, and the environment is extremely quiet and allows the engagement and excitement to happen around research.
In discussions at weekly seminars, not to mention the informal discussions—the ‘magic that happens in the corridors’—the researchers consider new themes. For instance, shortly after the start of the 2015/2016 CAS year, two researchers in the group decided to write an article together, which was not part of the initial plan, Lien says:
– CAS is not filled with noise: you know, the noise that distracts you. The noise that is going on here is good, productive noise. That is amazing. As a project leader at CAS, I get to do something I have never done before and probably will never do again.
The research group Arctic domestication in the era of the Anthropocene will be working at CAS until the end of June 2016.
What happens after this year?
– It is a bit difficult to answer that question at this point, but speaking for myself, this project did not begin with CAS and it will not end with CAS. I am quite confident that some of these constellations established in the group are going to continue in various ways.
So what are we going to do about it? This is the only question worth asking. But the answers appear elusive. Faced with a multifaceted crisis – the capture of governments by billionaires and their lobbyists, extreme inequality, the rise of demagogues, above all the collapse of the living world – those to whom we look for leadership appear stunned, voiceless, clueless. Even if they had the courage to act, they have no idea what to do.
The most they tend to offer is more economic growth: the fairy dust supposed to make all the bad stuff disappear. Never mind that it drives ecological destruction; that it has failed to relieve structural unemployment or soaring inequality; that, in some recent years, almost all the increment in incomes has been harvested by the top 1%. As values, principles and moral purpose are lost, the promise of growth is all that’s left.
You can see the effects in a leaked memo from the UK’s Foreign Office: “Trade and growth are now priorities for all posts … work like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be scaled down.” All that counts is the rate at which we turn natural wealth into cash. If this destroys our prosperity and the wonders that surround us, who cares?
We cannot hope to address our predicament without a new worldview. We cannot use the models that caused our crises to solve them. We need to reframe the problem. This is what the most inspiring book published so far this year has done.
In Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, Kate Raworth of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute reminds us that economic growth was not, at first, intended to signify wellbeing. Simon Kuznets, who standardised the measurement of growth, warned: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.” Economic growth, he pointed out, measured only annual flow, rather than stocks of wealth and their distribution.
Raworth points out that economics in the 20th century “lost the desire to articulate its goals”. It aspired to be a science of human behaviour: a science based on a deeply flawed portrait of humanity. The dominant model – “rational economic man”, self-interested, isolated, calculating – says more about the nature of economists than it does about other humans. The loss of an explicit objective allowed the discipline to be captured by a proxy goal: endless growth.
The aim of economic activity, she argues, should be “meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet”. Instead of economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, we need economies that “make us thrive, whether or not they grow”. This means changing our picture of what the economy is and how it works.
The central image in mainstream economics is the circular flow diagram. It depicts a closed flow of income cycling between households, businesses, banks, government and trade, operating in a social and ecological vacuum. Energy, materials, the natural world, human society, power, the wealth we hold in common … all are missing from the model. The unpaid work of carers – principally women – is ignored, though no economy could function without them. Like rational economic man, this representation of economic activity bears little relationship to reality.
So Raworth begins by redrawing the economy. She embeds it in the Earth’s systems and in society, showing how it depends on the flow of materials and energy, and reminding us that we are more than just workers, consumers and owners of capital.
This recognition of inconvenient realities then leads to her breakthrough: a graphic representation of the world we want to create. Like all the best ideas, her doughnut model seems so simple and obvious that you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. But achieving this clarity and concision requires years of thought: a great decluttering of the myths and misrepresentations in which we have been schooled.
The diagram consists of two rings. The inner ring of the doughnut represents a sufficiency of the resources we need to lead a good life: food, clean water, housing, sanitation, energy, education, healthcare, democracy. Anyone living within that ring, in the hole in the middle of the doughnut, is in a state of deprivation. The outer ring of the doughnut consists of the Earth’s environmental limits, beyond which we inflict dangerous levels of climate change, ozone depletion, water pollution, loss of species and other assaults on the living world.
The area between the two rings – the doughnut itself – is the “ecologically safe and socially just space” in which humanity should strive to live. The purpose of economics should be to help us enter that space and stay there.
As well as describing a better world, this model allows us to see, in immediate and comprehensible terms, the state in which we now find ourselves. At the moment we transgress both lines. Billions of people still live in the hole in the middle. We have breached the outer boundary in several places.
An economics that helps us to live within the doughnut would seek to reduce inequalities in wealth and income. Wealth arising from the gifts of nature would be widely shared. Money, markets, taxation and public investment would be designed to conserve and regenerate resources rather than squander them. State-owned banks would invest in projects that transform our relationship with the living world, such as zero-carbon public transport and community energy schemes. New metrics would measure genuine prosperity, rather than the speed with which we degrade our long-term prospects.
Such proposals are familiar; but without a new framework of thought, piecemeal solutions are unlikely to succeed. By rethinking economics from first principles, Raworth allows us to integrate our specific propositions into a coherent programme, and then to measure the extent to which it is realised.
I see her as the John Maynard Keynes of the 21st century: by reframing the economy, she allows us to change our view of who we are, where we stand, and what we want to be.
Now we need to turn her ideas into policy. Read her book, then demand that those who wield power start working towards its objectives: human prosperity within a thriving living world.
This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? Dramaturg Walter Bilderback reflects on the production of When the Rain Stops Falling at the Wilma Theater in 2016, and on the difficulties in engaging audiences with an issue that manifests itself so slowly and incrementally. —Chantal Bilodeau
What does it mean to make theatre for the Anthropocene? (Leaving aside the question of when the Anthropocene started, or whether there’s a better name for it.) Outside of Republicans in Congress and the current administration, there’s wide consensus that changes in the earth’s climate and many of its chemical processes are now driven primarily by human activity.
There’s a growing body of writing about fiction for the Anthropocene: there’s even a catchphrase, “cli-fi,” although it’s possible that “all fiction is Anthropocene fiction now, some of it just hasn’t realized it yet,” to paraphrase a Facebook quip by McKenzie Wark. I’m not sure if the same thing can be said for playwriting and theatremaking. For playwriting, a challenge may be that our traditional, Aristotelian narrative structure doesn’t allow us to deal with the problem. Climate change reveals itself over long time scales, often longer than an individual’s lifespan. Its impact is sometimes dramatic and catastrophic, but often incremental, and it is ultimately a collective, rather than individual, problem.
The family becomes a collective protagonist, and the impact of slow violence on the family and on the climate is made physically present for the audience.
At the Wilma Theater, we spent several years looking for a play dealing with the Anthropocene that addressed these challenges and still found a way to deeply engage an audience iemotionally. To open our 2016-17 season, Artistic Director Blanka Zizka chose Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling. Rain is a sprawling epic of a play, a sleek, stark, emotionally raw meditation on the Anthropocene and extinction disguised as a family saga stretching from 1959 in London to 2039 in Alice Springs, Australia. The story unfolds in non-chronological order, and begins with a scene of magic realism: a crowd of people on the street in relentless rain. A man stops and screams, a woman falls to her feet, and a fish lands at the man’s feet. We later learn that the man and woman are in different eras, and that fish in 2039 are thought to be extinct. This layering of time characterizes the play: a scene from one era will bleed into another scene; two characters are portrayed by a younger and an older actress, who are sometimes onstage together. The play ends with a father trying to reconcile with a son he abandoned as a child, sharing family relics whose meaning is a mystery to him but not to the audience. Between them is a line of dead ancestors who bequeathed the relics to him.
We had looked at Rain a few times since I first read it in the summer of 2009. The main reason we had passed on the play in the past was that its emotional rawness and fatalism scared us: a readthrough ended with the entire cast in tears. Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene gave us a new insight on the play. Scranton is convinced that it’s too late to avoid breaking the two degree Celsius rise in global temperature. He writes:
The greatest challenge we face is…understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
Scranton’s notion of mourning our losses allowed us to see the sadness in When the Rain Stops Falling in a different light. It was only after this that we became aware that When the Rain Stops Falling had originated in a workshop called “The Extinction Project” and that Andrew Bovell’s attendance at a Paris museum exhibit on Melancholia had given him the key to putting his story together; he believes we are in a melancholic age. Bovell found the motif of Saturn that repeats in the play, including the metaphor of “eating the future,” in the same exhibit. Mourning and melancholy are not the same thing, psychoanalytically, but were close enough to allow us to start working.
Another concept that proved useful for Blanka and the design team in conceptualizing the production was “slow violence,” a term coined by Rob Nixon. Nixon defines “slow violence” as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all,” and sees it as a challenge for literature in depicting climate change in emotionally resonant fashion. Bovell doesn’t use the term, but his layering of scene upon scene creates a presence of deep time onstage. The family becomes a collective protagonist, and the impact of slow violence on the family and on the climate is made physically present for the audience.
Understanding the play’s melancholy also allowed us to see a ray of hope. In an email exchange with me, Bovell wrote: “In the final scene of the play there is hope that the damage of the past can be undone or at least understood and there is a suggestion that we have the capacity with this understanding to move on in a different way.” The final moments of Blanka Zizka’s production, with a line of ancestors seated on simple chairs and passing the relics from father to son, radiated a quiet beauty that was simultaneously heart-breaking and hopeful, reminiscent of a Donna Haraway remark on a resilient, post-Anthropocene community, whose members “knew they could not deceive themselves that they could start from scratch. Precisely the opposite insight moved them; they asked and responded to the question of how to live in the ruins that were still inhabited, with ghosts and with the living too.”
The Wilma attempts, as often as possible, to surround our productions with ancillary material. In this case, we had a lobby installation and two panels.
For the lobby display, Austin Arrington, from the local company Plant Group, and I coordinated with several local organizations to create an installation that incorporated both small things individuals can do now to address problems of contemporary Philadelphia (e.g., rain barrels to reduce run-off problems) and a vision for a sustainable Philadelphia in 2039, the year in which Rain begins and ends. Blanka came up with the idea for a local focus that was more optimistic on the future than the play. I found a wealth of reports by local agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in Philadelphia, examining a range of local climate futures for the 21st century and suggesting strategies for meeting them. Incorporating some of these ideas, and extrapolating on existing projects, I sketched a future that is far from paradise but a step toward Scranton’s idea of “adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.” George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It proved useful here: I particularly tried to heed his recommendations to “build a narrative of cooperation, relate solutions to climate change to the sources of happiness, and frame climate change as an informed choice.”
We held two panels following Saturday matinees. The first, “Art in the Anthropocene,” featured E. Ann Kaplan, author of Climate Trauma; Philadelphia poet and Pew Fellow Brian Teare; and playwright/translator Chantal Bilodeau. The second, “What’s Next?” focused on “what we can do as individuals and as citizens to meet the challenges of a changing climate.” This panel featured Ashley Dawson, author of the forthcoming Extreme Cities: Climate Change and the Urban Future; Christine Knapp, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability; Ron Whyte, founder of the Deep Green Philly blog; and Judy Wicks, a Philadelphia activist and sustainability entrepreneur.
Did the panels make a difference? I find myself a little pessimistic. The discussions onstage were stimulating and provocative. But they were attended by a handful of audience members, less than our usual turnout, despite publicizing them in print and through social media, which may reflect a continuing head-in-the-sand attitude of many Americans toward global warming.
When the Rain Stops Falling closed on November 6. Two days later, most of us found our sense of what this country was shaken. In the play, Andrew Bovell has the 2039 character Gabriel York refer to the current book he’s reading: The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1975-2015. When Bovell wrote the play in 2007, the end date lay in the future. 1975 aligns easily the US defeat in Vietnam; for the actor glossary, I created a description of the book’s thesis (I attributed authorship to my Australian friend Van Badham, a playwright and Guardian columnist). I wrote, “According to Badham, Donald Trump’s candidacy, announced June 20, 2015, provides a useful endpoint for American power and prestige.” We’ll see.
Walter Bilderback has been the Dramaturg and Literary Manager at the Wilma Theater since 2004, during which time they’ve helped select seasons and worked on the vast majority of the plays produced in that time, and been involved in the development and formation of the Wilma HotHouse company. Particular recent favorites include Scorched, In the Next Room, Our Class, Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq, Hamlet and When the Rain Stops Falling. Walter has also been fortunate to participate in much of the work that has led to the creation of the Wilma HotHouse, an emerging model to challenge the regional theater factory system.
HowlRound is a place for artists to provide feedback, learning, expertise, frustration, and vision—in an effort to enliven the fields of theatre and performance to the aspiring and established artist alike. http://howlround.com/about
Dr. Costanza’s transdisciplinary research integrates the study of humans and the rest of nature to address research, policy and management issues at multiple time and space scales, from small watersheds to the global system. He is co-founder and past-president of the International Society for Ecological Economics, and was chief editor of the society’s journal, Ecological Economics from its inception in 1989 until 2002. He is also founding editor in chief of Solutions (www.thesolutionsjournal.org) a unique hybrid academic/popular journal now housed at the Crawford School. He has been named as one of ISI’s Highly Cited Researchers since 2004.