Interdisciplinary project by artist Gabo Guzzo formed in collaboration with atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, artist Rasheed Araeen, professor TJ Demos and geologist Jan Zalasiewicz. The Geological Turn is the first artist-led project to address the concept of the Anthropocene.
Other contributors from a broad range of disciplines include, among others: Alessandro Rabottini, Ami Clarke, Astrid Korporaal, Emily Candela, Francesco Scasciamacchia, Gitanjali Dang, Guido Santandrea, Jeremy Shaw, Jonathan Cole, Josh Baum, Laura McLean-Ferris, Libby Scarlett, Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela, Michele Robecchi, Nicholas De Genova, Roland Shaw, Samuel Pimentel, Shiva Feshareki, super/collider.
Banner Repeater, London, UK, 2012.
A talk organised by artist Gabo Guzzo at Banner Repeater, London on the occasion of his residency and exhibition The Geological Turn.
T.J. Demos (chair)
Contribution by Paul Crutzen read on his behalf by J. Zalasiewicz
Introduction to the project by Gabo Guzzo
Gabo Guzzo: Welcome everybody. This project began with a diagram that I created with the intention of exploring the contemporary meaning of human nature; a journey in search of the contemporary characteristics of the individual and its relationship with the social environment, also exploring the idea of social capital. This initial investigation brought me into contact with the ideas of the Dutch atmospheric chemist Dr Paul Crutzen and his work on the Anthropocene which forms the proposal for a new geological epoch. These thoughts, among others, have impacted significantly on the form and content of the diagram and on this project as a whole.
We have had a great response to the request for interaction with the diagram. Artists, writers, theorists, musicians and many other people have contributed in situ, here atBanner Repeater, and others have contributed remotely. The aim was to open up the project and the discussion around the subject of human nature to as wide and varied a group as possible. The project is, after all, intended to be exploratory, participatory and multidisciplinary.
The talk this evening provides an additional platform to discuss, and perhaps challenge the ideas behind the concept of the Anthropocene, in addition to bringing another element to this ongoing research. Dr Cruzen who has devoted much of his time in the preparation phase, unfortunately, will not be with us tonight. However, Paul has sent us two documents. One will be kindly read by Jan Zalasiewicz tonight and a second one will be available for you after the talk. I am very grateful to Paul Crutzen, Rasheed Araeen, TJ Demos, and Jan Zalasiewicz for their support throughout the project.
TJ Demos: Thanks very much Gabo. My name is TJ Demos and I’ll be chairing this evening’s discussion. I will give a brief introduction to the content of the subject of our conversation and then you’ll hear contributions by Jan, who will read a statement by Paul Crutzen, and then Rasheed Araeen will present some of his thoughts on the question of the Geological Turn – Art and The Anthropocene - then Jan will give his own presentation. We’ll then move on to discussion and also integrate some questions from the audience and hopefully, we will have time for a good discussion about this really pressing, urgent and complex issue.
I’ll start with just a few words about the topic. We are here to address the conjunction of contemporary art and the politics of climate change and the ecology and geology of climate change which, as I’m sure you all are aware, is an increasingly urgent concern, leading to what some people think of as an impending emergency that demands the attention of all disciplines, especially the sciences. This has been taken up increasingly within the context of art over the last ten years or more, increasingly in many art exhibitions, journals and conferences where there’s been a lot of discussion that has been interdisciplinary and collaborative, which is very interesting to see. Still, the correlation or collaboration between art history, art theory and the sciences hasn’t happened enough, so that makes this a particularly interesting event. Thanks to Gabo for bringing us all together. I think it’s really very important to have these kind of interdisciplinary, collaborative discussions, which don’t often take place, at least within the academy.
Some of the multiple challenges of climate change, the prospects of climate change, include the fact that the science is undoubtedly incredibly complex - but there has been an increasing consensus about the impacts of climate change. We are facing the catastrophic effects that will result from climate change if nothing is done to stop the continuation of the emissions of greenhouse gases into the environment. Some of these effects include sea level rises, drought, warming of the atmosphere and massive species extinction, with negative impacts largely focused in the global south. Some argue that we are in the midst of a mass species extinction event right now, so this is a big question about the differential aspects of climate change impacts. But the real challenge is whether there is a political solution; while the sciences may be clear in terms of the consensus - defining the urgency with which we need to address climate change - the global political system isn’t really at the point where we can engage or deal with it. This has led to the incredible frustration of scientists and environmental activists in regards to recent UN events that have been charged with addressing this problem, as we come away from each new meeting, from Copenhagen to Jordan, to Cancun, with frustrations at completely failed solutions or lack of creative thinking about the issue.
The Kyoto framework and the so-called ‘Cap in Trade’ is only the most recent non-starter that has been largely criticised by people like the NASA scientist James Hansen, as being largely ineffective, privileging the accumulation of further profits and wealth rather than actually working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So for many activists, climate change demands a wholesale shift in our basic philosophies of living. When you start to think about this problem, the complexity of a solution is just staggering, from shifting the way we think about economics (stopping the worshipping of growth and development), to our relationship to free trade, privatization, and deregulation. All the tenets of neo-liberal capitalism which has reached such a hegemonic state today are now seen to be driving factors in the growth model that is so destructive to the environment.
I would like to read a few sentences by the activist Naomi Klein who has written very provocatively about all of this. She summarizes what needs to be done in a recent essay that was published in The Nation, called “Capitalism vs. the Climate”; ‘We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, re-localize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South'.
How do we even begin to think about doing that? You can see the overwhelming complexity and difficulty of this challenge. As Naomi Klein points out, how to do so when governments, largely in the developing world, are operating at the behest of corporate power and special interests and have shown themselves quite capable of ignoring the scientific consensus that exists? In terms of this challenge of having to change our fundamental cultural world view, what role might art have, however modest, in terms of offering a creative modeling of different sorts of possibility, proposing alternate ways of life, of thinking critically and analytically about the economy? These are all crucial contributions and we’re seeing these questions addressed more and more within a critical and creative art context. I think this material resonates very much with what we are doing here, the conversation that we are having here tonight, and with Gabo’s work as well. So thanks again for coming and thanks to Banner Repeater for the invitation to speak. Now we move on to the statement by Paul Crutzen.
Jan Zalasiewicz: Paul Crutzen did want to be with us tonight, it’s a shame he’s not here. He is, in modest terms, a great scientist. He won a Nobel Prize fifteen years ago for his work on the Ozone Layer and he is the most highly cited scientist of this millennium so far. He is also, I hesitate to say, that rare thing, a great scientist with a conscience who thinks clearly and sometimes uncomfortably. This is the statement that he’s produced to start this off;
It’s a pity we’re still officially living in an age called the Holocene. The Anthropocene — human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth — is already an undeniable reality. Evidence is mounting that the name change suggested by one of us more than ten years ago is overdue. It may still take some time for the scientific body in charge of naming big stretches of time in Earth’s history, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, to make up its mind about this name change. But that shouldn’t stop us from seeing and learning what it means to live in this new Anthropocene epoch, on a planet that is being anthroposized at high speed.
For millennia, humans have behaved as rebels against a superpower we call “Nature.” In the 20th century, however, new technologies, fossil fuels, and a fast-growing population resulted in a “Great Acceleration” of our own powers. Albeit clumsily, we are taking control of Nature’s realm, from climate to DNA. We humans are becoming the dominant force for change on Earth. A long-held religious and philosophical idea — humans as the masters of planet Earth — has turned into a stark reality. What we do now already affects the planet of the year 3000 or even 50,000.
Changing the climate for millennia to come is just one aspect. By cutting down rainforests, moving mountains to access coal deposits and acidifying coral reefs, we fundamentally change the biology and the geology of the planet. While driving uncountable numbers of species to extinction, we create new life forms through gene technology, and, soon, through synthetic biology.
Human population will approach ten billion within the century. We spread our man-made ecosystems, including “mega-regions” with more than 100 million inhabitants, as landscapes characterized by heavy human use — degraded agricultural lands, industrial wastelands, and recreational landscapes — become characteristic of Earth’s terrestrial surface. We infuse huge quantities of synthetic chemicals and persistent waste into Earth’s metabolism. Where wilderness remains, it’s often only because exploitation is still unprofitable. Conservation management turns wild animals into a new form of pets.
Geographers Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty argue we are no longer disturbing natural ecosystems. Instead, we now live in “human systems with natural ecosystems embedded within them.” The long-held barriers between nature and culture are breaking down. It’s no longer us against “Nature.” Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be. To master this huge shift, we must change the way we perceive ourselves and our role in the world. Students in school are still taught that we are living in the Holocence, an era that began roughly 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. But teaching students that we are living in the Anthropocene, the Age of Men, could be of great help. Rather than representing yet another sign of human hubris, this name change would stress the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth. It would highlight the immense power of our intellect and our creativity, and the opportunities they offer for shaping the future.
If one looks at how technology and cultures have changed since 1911, it seems that almost anything is possible by the year 2111. We are confident that the young generation of today holds the key to transforming our energy and production systems from wasteful to renewable and to valuing life in its diverse forms. The awareness of living in the Age of Men could inject some desperately needed eco-optimism into our societies.
What then does it mean to live up to the challenges of the Anthropocene? We’d like to suggest three avenues for consideration: First, we must learn to grow in different ways than with our current hyper-consumption. What we now call economic “growth” amounts too often to a Great Recession for the web of life we depend on. Gandhi pointed out that “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” To accommodate the current Western lifestyle for 9 billion people, we’d need several more planets. With countries worldwide striving to attain the “American Way of Life,” citizens of the West should redefine it — and pioneer a modest, renewable, mindful, and less material lifestyle. That includes, first and foremost, cutting the consumption of industrially produced meat and changing from private vehicles to public transport.
Second, we must far surpass our current investments in science and technology. Our troubles will deepen exponentially if we fail to replace the wasteful fossil-fueled infrastructure of today with a system fueled by solar energy in its many forms, from artificial photosynthesis to fusion energy. We need bio-adaptive technologies to render “waste” a thing of the past, among them compostable cars and gadgets. We need innovations tailored to the needs of the poorest, for example new plant varieties that can withstand climate change and robust iPads packed with practical agricultural advice and market information for small-scale farmers. Global agriculture must become high-tech and organic at the same time, allowing farms to benefit from the health of natural habitats. We also need to develop technologies to recycle substances like phosphorus, a key element for fertilizers and therefore for food security. To prevent conflicts over resources and to progress towards a durable “bio-economy” will require a collaborative mission that dwarfs the Apollo program. Global military expenditure reached 1,531 billion U.S. dollars in 2009, an increase of 49 percent compared to 2000. We must invest at least as much in understanding, managing, and restoring our “green security system” — the intricate network of climate, soil, and biodiversity. We must build a culture that grows with Earth’s biological wealth instead of depleting it. To reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to safe levels, we need to move towards “negative emissions,” e.g. by using plant residues in power plants with carbon capture and storage technology. We also need to develop geo-engineering capabilities in order to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. In addition to cutting industrial CO2 emissions and protecting forests, large investments will be needed to maintain the huge carbon stocks in fertile soils, currently depleted by exploitative agricultural practices. For biodiversity, green remnants in a sea of destruction will not be enough — we need to build a “green infrastructure,” where organisms and genes can flow freely over vast areas and maintain biological functions.
Finally, we should adapt our culture to sustaining what can be called the “world organism.” This phrase was not coined by an esoteric Gaia guru, but by eminent German scientist Alexander von Humboldt some 200 years ago. Humboldt wanted us to see how deeply interlinked our lives are with the richness of nature, hoping that we would grow our capacities as a part of this world organism, not at its cost. His message suggests we should shift our mission from crusade to management, so we can steer nature’s course symbiotically instead of enslaving the formerly natural world.
Until now, our behaviors have defied the goals of a functioning and fruitful Anthropocene. But at the end of 2010, two United Nations environmental summits offered some hope for progress. In October, in Nagoya, Japan, 193 governments agreed on a strategic plan for global conservation that includes protecting an unprecedented proportion of Earth’s ecosystems and removing ecologically harmful subsidies by 2020. And in December, in Cancún, countries agreed that the Earth must not warm more than 2 degrees Celsius above the average temperature level before industrialization. This level is already very risky — it implies higher temperature increases in Polar regions and therefore greater chance of thawing in permafrost regions, which could release huge amounts of CO2 and methane. But at least, Cancún and Nagoya turned out not to be cul-de-sacs for environmental policy. After years of stalemate and the infamous Copenhagen collapse, there is now at least a glimmer of hope that humanity can act together. Between now and 2020, however, the commitments on paper must be turned into real action.
Imagine our descendants in the year 2200 or 2500. They might liken us to aliens who have treated the Earth as if it were a mere stopover for refueling, or even worse, characterize us as barbarians who would ransack their own home. Living up to the Anthropocene means building a culture that grows with Earth’s biological wealth instead of depleting it. Remember, in this new era, nature is us.
TJ Demos: Thank you Jan, thank you Paul Crutzen. It’s really unfortunate he couldn’t be here with us tonight. We move on now to the presentation of Rasheed Araeen. He’s a London based artist and writer and art critic, and also the founder of the very important journal Third Text and he is also the author of the recent book Art Beyond Art (Ecoaesthetics: a Manifesto for the 21st Century).
ART & SCIENCE IN THE AGE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
It was more than forty years ago, in 1969, that I first became aware of the ugliness of urban pollution. I had then my studio in one of the buildings of St Katherine’s Docks, London, where the throwaway rubbish floated and moved around freely on water. However, I had then no awareness of what we now face as the effects of climate change, nor I had the intention of getting rid of what I saw then as pollution. What fascinated me was the way things moved from place to place with the movement of water and wind, constantly creating new configurations so that the whole environment was in a state of flux. My aim now is not to explain what I then did as an artist and its significance as art, but merely to assert that its underlying concept is fundamental to what I propose here as a solution to the problem of climate change: what emerged from my intervention was not an art object but what constantly transformed and changed the whole environment.
What is more important now is the scientific work of the Anthropocene, which is not only contributing to our understanding of the nature of the problem, but also warning us of the impending catastrophe if nothing is done to change the situation. But it is also important to recognise that science alone cannot solve the problem. The attempts, such as to replace fossil fuels with biofuels, or to produce machines or set up projects that can absorb greenhouse gases, for example, cannot alone affect the totality of what the world is facing now and will face in the near future. In fact, the production of bio-fuels is exacerbating the problem. This is not to blame scientists, but there seems to be yet no realisation among most of them which also recognises the socio-economic and political aspects of the problem which is global, requiring a global solution, as has in fact been recognised by Dr Paul Crutzen to which I will come back later.
Some artists are now also involved in what they think could contribute to what should be done in this respect, producing objects or devices, as well as concepts whose usefulness cannot be denied. But when such works seek legitimation from the institution of art and become recognised as works of art by being promoted by the museum shows and international biennales, and written about in art magazines, they end up trapped in their own accomplishments as significant art; which then prevents them from entering what they claim to be aiming at.
However, works of both science and art can become effective in an overall framework where they are integrated. This can happen within what Paul Crutzen has suggested: “a daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers [I would include here artists as well] to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management…[which] will require appropriate human behaviour at all scales, and may well involve internationally accepted, large-scale geo-engineering projects… to ‘optimize’ climate…”
What is most significant here is the interconnectedness between “environmentally sustainable management” and “appropriate human behaviour”, as well as the fact that the proposed projects are prefixed with the word “geo-“, that is Earth. Climate change creates not just pollution in the cities of the world, but it affects the whole ecosystem of the earth in which everything is interconnected. If we take the phenomenon of the rise in the sea level, without going into its most catastrophic effects which will destroy most of the life of the earth, we can say with some certainty that beside many parts of the earth going under water there will be a shortage of fresh water and basic food, causing not only large scale famines and migration of people but also brutal wars. So, what is required is not only to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, but also to pursue what can provide fresh water and food for the growing population of the world. The private ownership of land and its specific use remain the main obstacle. But it can be overcome by acquiring land which is then used collectively on ecological and egalitarian bases, creating a global network of organic farmlands. Fresh water for these farmlands should come from the combination of scientifically managed river systems and desalination plants run on solar energy.
The Horn of Africa is actually the place which now urgently needs such a thing, a pilot project which will provide an overall framework or context in which individual scientific and artistic works can be integrated synthetically, so that what results from this is a transformation of an arid land into what would produce not only food to prevent the regularly reoccurring famine there, but also, at the same time, create an example of what is needed as the ecologically self-sustaining environment.
But how are we going to establish such a large and difficult project? Where would the resources come from? And what would be the nature of the organisation to carry out the project? Can such a project initiated by the affluent urban society with its resources, be realised without the understanding, consent and participation by the rural people who live and work on the land? The first two questions may not be so difficult, as there is now enough public awareness that can produce resources. But the difficulty of the last question cannot be easily resolved. Its difficulty may lie not only in persuading the rural people to come together or what may be their unwillingness to work collectively on an egalitarian basis, but also in the nature of their role within such a project. But there was once an African tradition of communal work and living together, which also protected the mutually nourishing organic relationship between the earth and all its animate and inanimate life. This can be reclaimed and reintroduced through the dialectics of mutually accepted processes of consultation and exchange, which then would not only liberate the rural inhabitants of the earth from their subservience to the needs of the city but also place them at the centre of what is required to deal with the problems of climate change. In other words, the primacy of the rural agency is fundamental to creating an environmentally sustainable world culture.
My final point is about what is the most difficult and troublesome obstacle. There is now little doubt that what we face today is the result of the escalated human activity of the last three centuries, thanks to the scientists of the Anthropocene. But shouldn’t we also ask what motivated this activity? Was this activity not encouraged, promoted and legally sanctioned by the ideology or worldview of urbanised culture which still rules the world and controls its economy; and is in fact still involved in the brutal exploitation of nature and its resources? The power of this culture is so great that there may not be much we can do to confront it; except perhaps to make it realise that it has been leading the world on to the path of self-destruction, and that without a radical shift in its worldview that recognises the central role of the rural earth and all its life in creating, to quote Paul Ehrlich and Donald Kennedy, “transition to an ecologically sustainable, peaceful, and equitable global society”, the humanity as a whole is doomed. Thank you.
TJ Demos: Thank you Rasheed. We will turn now to the presentation of Jan Zalasiewicz. Jan is a lecturer in geology at the University of Leicester and was formerly with the British Geological Survey. He has published many papers in scientific journals and is the author of the book ‘The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks’.
Jan Zalasiewicz: Thanks TJ and thanks Rasheed. I’m going to give a few jumping-off points for understanding what the Anthropocene is, and I’m a geologist so I guess that damns me straight away in this. We take the whole earth as our terrain, as well as other planets, and we also take a lot of time; we start 4 and a half billion years ago and then work up to the present and into the future – it’s not quite as much time as a cosmologist but none the less an awful lot. This is the context in which we try, through science, to understand the Anthropocene. I have three points; firstly as a geologist, I think of course of rocks, minerals and fossils, sandstone, limestone and the like. So we can ask - what is an Anthropocene rock and what is an Anthropocene fossil? For instance, let us take Hackney Downs Railway station here as an example; it is made up of wonderfully geological materials. It is made up of sand, gravel, gypsum, quartz – all of it essentially re-made, re-constituted rocks and we have taken those in large amounts. Hackney Downs is also part of a larger stratum, what we might call the urban stratum, which is also fossil – it is, if you like, our manufactured footprint on the earth which extends in London over hundreds of square miles to a thickness (if we take the tube system as well) going down tens of meters - it is a substantial bit of rock and it is replicated of course in Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and New Orleans, Shanghai, San Francisco – everywhere. These rock strata are perfectly preservable, they are much less delicate than your average bit of shale or sandstone for instance and are capable of surviving as a memento of us, millions and billions of years into the future – far more delicate things have survived from the past.
So that is the rock of the Anthropocene – but what of the chemistry? Paul Crutzen is a chemist so we must talk of chemistry and how we have changed the chemistry of the planet. Well carbon of course – we have taken half a trillion tonnes of carbon out of the ground within somewhat less than three centuries, and put it into the air essentially, therefore we have raised levels of CO2 to a level not seen since the Pliocene epoch – that is, for more than three million years. That is geologically big – and by the end of the century, with business as usual, that will be one trillion tons at least. Therefore that will take the atmosphere someway to the levels of the time of the dinosaurs, when the sea level was somewhere in the order of 100 meters higher, the whole earth was much hotter. It was fine for the dinosaurs - it might not be for us.
Nitrogen is more of a shock. We have doubled the amount of reactive nitrogen on the earth’s surface in less than a century because we need nitrogen to feed ourselves. So, right now, in lakes far away from civilization in the far north of Spitzberg in arctic Canada, one can probe those lakes and find the chemical imprint of our nitrogen which has drifted across – again, that is an imprint that can be left for hundreds of millions of years.
Biology is of course the most important – and again one symptom of the biology is ‘us’ for instance. If we want to convert ourselves and we want to shock a little – and art and science have to shock sometimes – let us think of ourselves not as human beings with emotions and feelings but as biomass; amounts of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium in our flesh and our bones and convert that into either wet weight or dry weight. If you take all of terrestrial vertebrate biomass, that is all of the mammals that live on land on the earth, we now make up roughly 1/3 of all of that, as biomass. Most of the other 2/3rds are the creatures that we eat, the cows, sheep, goats. The wildlife – if you like, the elephants, cheetahs, gazelles, lions, tigers and such like, are now nearer 5% than 10% and are dropping to somewhere in the order of 3%. Paul Crutzen is quite right, they are becoming pets, rather than part of a backcloth of wildlife that we go to.
So the earth really is changing remarkably fast, it is a geological phenomenon that we are talking about and of course one that we have to live through and one that we have to try and manage somehow. Finally, we are not just talking about something that is a geological phenomenon; it is also a cosmic phenomenon because what is becoming clear, as we now have the capacity to look at planets that are far away from us, is that there isn’t another planet in our solar system, like ours, that can support life. Mars might have the odd microbe but that’s it. Europa might have something similar but that is it. And we now know that there are exo-planets – other solar systems – we have found hundreds of these, almost thousands by now, but we now know that none of those are suitable for life as we know it, for long term periods that can develop and stay over hundreds, thousands and millions of years. So we really are something of a cosmic singularity, something very special that is going through probably something that has not been seen since the death of the dinosaurs – a similar perturbation that is on its way. And in some ways it is more remarkable than anything the earth has yet seen.
So that if you like, is a perspective that geologists can give. Geologists are of course constrained; we have to speak in measured scientific language, whereas artists are much freer to actually get the bones of this idea across. This, as has been made quite clear, is something that we all have to live through, we all have to try and manage.
TJ Demos – Thank you Jan. Perhaps we can now address some of the points that Rasheed and Jan have made as a way to open up a discussion. One question I have for Jan is from a geology point of view - I’m curious about the way scientists think within geology in terms of millions and billions of years - what kind of challenges do you see this kind of temporality presenting in terms of the political urgency of shifting behaviour or addressing what the impact will be in the future? We are not living with all the geological impacts now– but we are told by scientists that we are reaching a tipping point, and that if we don’t change our behaviour, things are going to be disastrous for our grandchildren. With that deferred temporality, there are problems for us who have difficulty organising the next day – let alone thinking in terms of generations down the line. I am reminded of an essay by Malcolm Bull that was published recently in the London Review of Books about the ethics of climate change when we are dealing with this kind of geological temporality. It proposes an ethics related to unborn generations – how can we look after the lives of future generations when we have trouble looking after ourselves politically now? How does a geologist deal with these kinds of questions?
Jan Zalasiewicz – It’s a great question and I would say with great difficulty. We also have to manage day to day and are living day to day as everyone does. That is always number one priority for everyone and that is simply the way we are programmed, we are animals, we are primates, for most of our species’ existence we have been hunter-gatherers and that is really what our ancestors have been designed for. Having manufactured, as a result of our own cleverness, this new world and been made aware of this huge timescale, I think we are in very new territory here. It’s not completely new territory in terms of science, even 200 years ago, before the French Revolution, there was a guy called the Count de Bouffon, he was a workaholic scientist of the day, and he wrote of a final epoch in a book called Les Epoques de la Nature, which was the epoch of mankind. He was optimistic; he thought the earth was cooling down quickly and that we would warm it up and keep it going longer. We now know that the earth has a huge timescale, we are warming it up – I think that is now scientifically beyond doubt. What isn’t clear, there are uncertainties here, is how quickly it will warm up, we don’t know when the tipping points will arrive or when we will cross them. So there are huge uncertainties there within an overall certainly. The names James Hansen has been mentioned, an admirable scientist and like most he is prepared to go beyond the normal scientific caution and say bluntly that we are making life very difficult. He has a very simple answer or a partial answer, which is to stick an enormous global tax on carbon, so that we stop using it so quickly. But he has a sweetener for that, and that is that the proceeds of that tax would go to everybody equally, not to government, it goes to us – it’s a lovely idea and I think we need big, simple ideas like that that we can get behind, explain, debate and discuss to try and take new steps in this new territory of ours.
Rasheed Araeen – My response would be to begin with that we have not enough information through scientists, through media to understand what is happening to our planet. There is an amount of pessimism around it – maybe we are doomed? If you listen to Lovelock he said, it is too late to do something. That may be true, I don’t know, but I don’t think humans should give up. There is still room for action. There are two basic actions we have to take – Number One, we can’t stop the emission of poisonous gases but we can do something to reduce it. Number Two we should stop looking to politicians to find these solutions, they will never do it. I think there is enough awareness among the public, and they can organise themselves if there is a direction given to them - we can do something together, to establish some kind of model for change, and present this as a way to solve the problem, then there may be a hope.
Audience Member – The creation of models to make it possible to think of another system than the one we are in?
Rasheed Araeen – We can’t change the whole world but we can make a small model – once human beings recognise that this is the model of our future as a whole, people being to copy it. We haven’t got that model yet, that is the problem.
TJ Demos –I’d like to also address the location of art and its potential to propose a model. In your presentation, Rasheed, you mentioned a couple of things that struck me as quite important. One was that, whereas scientists might be essential for proposing a solution to the ecological problems that we are facing, it’s not ultimately sufficient: we also need artists. In another point, you stressed that artists operating within the institutional context were really handicapped and their effectiveness dubious in that setting. Can you say a little more about how you see art’s effectiveness or art’s role in terms of proposing a useful model for addressing environmental concerns?
Rasheed Araeen - Well, what is being produced as art in terms of ecology is nothing new. Some artists have now suddenly realised that there is a new subject for them to take up, and what they thus in the end produce are the art objects or concepts which end up in art galleries or museums. There is nothing wrong with that; but as art objects they have limitations; and these limitations do not allow art to intervene in the actuality of real life. Art is still considered to be a symbolic practice. That is the problem. When art leaves this symbolic practice and becomes part of life, it is no longer considered to be art. These artists are thus trapped in the idea of art only as a symbolic practice; because once they go beyond the symbolic practice they lose their status as artists. We haven’t yet got enough theory with which we can bring creativity and productivity together. There have been many attempts in the 20th century to bring them together, and they were good attempts, but in the end, they all failed because art itself ended up in the institution of art – recognised as art. When it is institutionally recognised as art, it is the end of it.
Let me explain this further. The symbolic is necessary in life. You cannot deprive human imagination to produce symbols, but the symbolic must enter life’s productive processes and transform itself as an organic part of it. If I have understood Lacan correctly, the symbolic is the stepping stone to enter life, to enter the real, to grasp reality. But when the symbolic practice of art is institutionally recognised as art and remains trapped in the symbolic, it cannot act as a stepping stone that will lead you into life.
TJ Demos – What you are saying resonates for me with some recent thinking by certain people within the art world. I am reminded of recent essays by the American artist Andrea Fraser who has been quite critical of the art institutional world and the economy that supports the funding mechanisms of art institutions, and she has identified a very interesting paradox whereby you have this situation where art operates on a critical symbolic level, producing critical relations to whatever problematic area you could think of in the world, and then presenting that symbolic and critical work in a gallery and market context which is supported by people with antithetical political agendas. The funders of critical art, in other words, support the very political systems against which those artistic works are posed. For Fraser this results in the untenable situation that we are in right now.
In addition, I recently wrote an essay that deals with the politics of ecology and looks at artists who are exiting the conventional sites within the art world and the institutional context in order to engage with other kinds of practices and publics that are collaborative and interdisciplinary, that take on, for example, relations to ecology, urban gardening or different models of setting up social networking and grass-roots activist orientated sites (one of the artists I’m writing about is Nils Norman who deals with these questions in his work).
Rasheed Araeen – But again there are still limitations. I do know many such projects, like that of Rachid Kureshi in Algeria or Tunisia, another one by a Danish artist in the Maldives which comprised a vegetable farm, which was subsequently taken over by someone to continue producing vegetables, which is a good thing despite the fact that it wasn’t conceived as an ecological project. There is also an artist who breeds fireflies, but shows them in galleries and museums as art. All these projects suffer from the limitations I have talked about, due to their becoming art shown in the galleries or museums. Let me take up the problem of fireflies. The problem is that fireflies are disappearing due to the chemicals in the earth. So the solution is not to produce fireflies, which though make us aware of the problem when they are exhibited in a gallery or museum, but to remove the chemicals from the earth. If people who live and work on the land and have the power to maintain the earth free from harmful chemicals, sustaining its organic energy, there would be no problem of the disappearance of the fireflies. Then there would naturally be fireflies, and would be no need for artists to make fireflies. However, the awareness created by the art project comprising fireflies can empower people on the land. But it won’t, because we do not have a process by which the creativity underlying this project can be transferred to the productivity of the people.
TJ Demos – In his presentation Paul mentioned the necessity of developing geoengineering projects. Jan, what do you think of this type of proposal?
Jan Zalasiewicz – That is a most incandescent of potatoes at the moment in science. The idea basically is that if the earth is warming, as it is, by .7 or .8 degrees centigrade per century, almost certainly a greater part of that is due to our actions, therefore one can engineer the earth in various ways. One of these is simply by producing more pollution, sulphur dioxide particles in the atmosphere going through hundreds of chimneys everywhere to create thicker clouds that will shade us from sunlight and will keep the earth cooler. Now, these kinds of ideas have got lots of knock-on effects, one of course is the pollution itself, the other is that might help with climate and surface temperature, though we are not certain that it will and we don’t know how it will affect the earth as a whole. Also, it will do nothing at all against ocean acidification which again, by the end of this century may have removed most of the earth’s coral reefs.
So not only is it a controversial idea, it is so controversial in itself that it is hard even for scientists to set up small experiments to research this. To fertilize the oceans with iron, to grow more plankton to pull down more carbon dioxide and so on. So we first have to think this through properly institutionally between different communities and countries, before we can begin to do the research to see whether it works or not, even while the problem is growing.
Rasheed Araeen – Those projects that you mention are necessary, but who will sponsor the project? Masses of people can’t do it, there will need to be political consensus worldwide - some big organisation like the UN has to come in. Government has to come in and recognise that this is the way that we can move forward. That’s one way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere as well as in the sea, but at the same time we need a productive model in which people are involved themselves – there is no one solution. There are many things we have to do at the same time.
Jan Zalasiewicz – I think the problem is that collectively, as people, institutions, countries etc, we’re not very good at working with each other. We have been competitive as opposed to cooperative throughout most of our history and that has served individual countries well and other countries not so well, so to move from that to a system where we are broadly more cooperative as opposed to conflictual, as it were, is one of the great challenges that we need to move to. For example, geo-engineering, if it works, will probably serve some countries more than others, and some may well lose out of it. For example, global warming is generally a bad thing but Greenland will probably do quite well out of it and will become more habitable – but Sub Saharan Africa will do very badly and, let’s say, Scandinavia might not do too badly but Italy, Spain and Portugal might become partly uninhabitable. So it’s these sorts of problems that we have to put together. And that probably does need the human side, expressed through the arts as well as the scientific side, trying to work out what will happen – what might help and what might not.
Rasheed Araeen – I think there is only one point with which I would disagree. I don’t think people don’t want to work together or collaborate. We haven’t got the ideas that can give them a framework – why should they be together? But the whole culture tells us that the best thing for you is to be individual, pursue your own individual career - you find this everywhere in the media. So people don’t see any benefit to struggle together, to be together, to produce something together. There are some small things happening here and there collectively but they remain within that collective, they don’t use a model that we can spread globally.
Jan Zalasiewicz – I agree, we don’t, and it would be great to hear from people here as to how we might go about this.
Audience Member – I think there is a thing called “The Will of the People” and there is Capitalism and we can’t disassociate what’s happening from 500 years of capitalist economic development and the control of the world’s political system by capitalism etc….I don’t need to say any more than that but I’d be interested to hear how you are factoring in capitalism in your thoughts…
Jan Zalasiewicz - Well, speaking as a geologist, looking at the change, it is clear that all of the phenomena that we might describe under geology that is ecosystems and so on, are primarily as a result of human action, and the particularities of human action, that is different sorts of political systems, are key to this. To understand the earth’s geology we have to understand the human social, political and economic systems – I think it is clear that those are intertwined. The understanding is, if you like, head and heart, the science and the various types of art. But I agree and I think Rasheed is quite right, the people that make the decisions are not what we might regard as the great mass of people, the decisions go where the money goes and the money goes where the capital is and those programs the great investment decisions of the day. For instance, whether to extract the tar sands of Canada to provide yet more energy for a few more decades – how you turn that round is the 64 trillion dollar question and I have no idea how to go about that. Partly because for the time being it makes us comfortable here, we are all reasonably well fed, we travel, we have no immediate security problems, and as humans we are only used to thinking of the immediate, that is this week, this month, next year perhaps until retirement – but to think on a larger scale, let alone a geological scale, I think we are all open to ideas on how that might be.
TJ Demos – Rasheed, the significance of capitalism?
Rasheed Araeen – No I won’t mention that name.. it’s not necessary because that has become a cliché, it can easily be thrown in. I would say something different which implies capitalism, but although the Anthropocene is right in saying what has happened is the result of 300 years of escalated human activity – but what motivated this activity didn’t begin 300 years ago, it began 6 or 700 thousand years ago when humans began to organise themselves as collectives and one of the guys said: “I am that king and I want everything, and you, the masses, will get what I give you.” That was the beginning of the trouble – he got everything from the people to build a city and said that the city was the centre of civilisation, the rest is primitive and backward. This problem emerged about six thousand years ago – unless we go back and look at the whole history of how we have organised ourselves then there is no solution. You can call it capitalism, I don’t mind.
Gabo Guzzo – Rasheed, you mentioned James Lovelock, he also said that in order to fix the climate change problem it might be necessary to put our democracy on hold for a while.
Rasheed Araeen – If we are talking about putting democracy on hold then there is something good that Hitler did. In 1932 there were 5 million unemployed in Germany. Within 5 years there was nobody unemployed in Germany.
Gabo Guzzo – My concern regarding a supranational model or organisation which could in a way, direct what we need to do to fix the problems of the planet, is that it could limit democracy and individual rights.
Rasheed Araeen – We need more democracy, we need to transport democracy to the rural people, but they can’t use this democracy because they only meagre means of survival.
Gabo Guzzo – So we probably need to promote a paradigm shift in awareness…
Rasheed Araeen – A shift in our worldview. We have to stop thinking of the city as the centre of everything, because that is in conflict with the nature that is outside the city, because the city thinks we can use nature. Africa at the moment is full of NGOs supported by hedge funds, what are they doing? They are buying the land from people with the help of corrupt officials, why? To produce bio fuel so that you can run your car in the city.
TJ Demos – The recent challenging of the status quo of politics has been part of the significance of the Occupy movement. But then people have raised the quandary that while the movement may represent a massing of social energy, it still faces an opposition funded by millions of dollars and pounds of lobbyists working for corporate special interests and the fossil-fuel industry’s pressure that is being placed on governments. How can we expect any kind of change when we are up against the power of multinational corporations, which can easily overwhelm the weakness of social movements?
Rasheed Araeen – I don’t want to give a negative impression, I think it is possible to bring capitalism into the solution to the problem. If we can make capitalism realise, and some people do realise, like Bill Gates, he’s doing a very good job in Africa, but he doesn’t go at the level structurally. You can save people by providing medicine, but when they go hungry they haven’t got the means to live on. If you can persuade Bill Gates that the basic problem is economic, in Africa people should be empowered economically so that they can recognise their own power, so that they know that they can do things themselves and for themselves. If we can persuade people like Bill Gates and there are many – on the basis that it is for the benefit of the planet, it’s not to help some poor people. I think this is a possibility but nobody has yet done it.
Audience Member – There are many topics here – one is that I would like to know the connection between capitalism and population explosion – but I would also like to ask another thing which is about the role of art. I thought that there are two dimensions to discuss, one is of art as a way of life, could it be that this is the highest way of living, to be able to express yourself through art? Could this be something for the future, that we are expressing for example through poetry, and that we are less consumers? We will have to find a way of life where we don’t consume so much but we can discuss what kind of art is not polluting. That’s one part …. the other is what shall be the message of the artists? I think that is important, what kind of message do we want artists to express.
Jan Zalasiewicz – Population is at the heart of all of this; Paul Crutzen’s idea of the Anthropocene started around 1800 because that is when we climbed above a billion for the first time. We are now at 7 billion and when I was born it was 3 billion so it has doubled and more in my lifetime – if I manage to stagger on for a few more decades then it will have tripled in my lifetime. That of course is from our success, I’m not sure whether it can be attributed to any particular political system, socialist or capitalist, but we have got very good at keeping ourselves alive and we have got very good at using energy, and that energy grows food for us and keeps us healthy and comfortable. Because we have always been used to thinking of life in our political communities, we have done that in some parts of the world and in some the world’s population has therefore grown. It’s a new situation, and as to how art can help I would say significantly. I think we need to understand what drives us, and a lot of what drives us is not just need, not quite greed, it’s our need to be entertained, stimulated, enjoyed – the entertainment industry is probably the biggest in the world – it may be bigger than the military – more people are interested in whether Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid will win their particular leagues, than whether certain species of frogs will still be around next year. What we probably need are low carbon pleasures to keep us going in life and art can fulfil at least part of that because you don’t need to jet across the world to gain satisfaction in life, as well as having the basic essentials. I think that is probably not realised enough, that we can be happy sitting in our back garden with poetry or art or whatever rather than transplanting yourself for a month on the other side of the world. It’s a case not of reducing our expectations but of modifying them so that we can simply use fewer resources. We can’t go back to the Holocene, it’s too late, it’s gone but we can slow down the rate of progress of the Anthropocene through the kinds of things you have suggested.
TJ Demos – I think the problem is that while a low carbon aesthetic might be most appropriate and what we most need, resources are going into other kinds of aesthetics, like diamond-encrusted skulls, which is hardly what we need. Yet such are the publicity mechanisms of the culture industry, guiding us toward this kind of aesthetic, which is precisely in the wrong direction ecologically, socially, politically. But I don’t think it is up to us to say what artists should do, Rasheed, would you say that?
Rasheed Araeen – No, because you used the word artists, if you said the word art then I would say yes. Because artistic imagination can go beyond just producing objects for the medium of the art market. In some respect I think artists imagination is much freer than the imagination of scientists, this is where artistic imagination not ‘art’ can lead in this respect.
Audience Member – I think one major issue that we haven’t really discussed, it’s something that is really affected by all of these problems, financial barriers, economic, social, scientific discoveries and so on – and it will also continue to affect them in the future – is Education. We’ve talked about how this whole affair is a long term deal but is also very immediate and I think, as you’ve said, that it is unrealistic to assume that we’ll just get it sorted in one generation. It’s going to take a long time and so part of our efforts should really be focused on education, so that future generations, such as myself, can help solve this issue, slowly but steadily. In my school at the minute, we’re taught very little about any of this, it’s not really suggested as an issue. All we are really taught is to study for your next exam, pass that – a very immediate issue and nothing else really. In all of the subjects that I do the only one where we’ve really discussed anything is in Chemistry but then only in very little detail. Good friends of mine do art but from what I’ve seen, none of the art is related to any of this, it’s completely different. What I want to know really is what we can do to solve this – to make future generations more likely to be able to solve these issues.
Jan Zalasiewicz – I can say again that awareness is part of education. For awareness you also need to have the basic grasp of how the earth is put together, part of which is Biology, Chemistry, Art and so on. There is a question of balance in this because education at school can be, and correct me if I’m wrong, rather dull, whereas the world is really exciting and interesting and intricate. Probably we have to square a circle there somewhere. One of the good things about education, as you move up into it, is that it tends to become better and more interesting – it is much more interesting when you start doing the research yourself and finding out just how much we don’t know, then people get drawn into it and will do it without being paid. So it’s a case of trying to drag that lower, even earlier into the system so that even at school you can do proper research doing stuff that we’ve never done before and don’t yet know the answers to. I think if we can begin to catch people’s imaginations like that, then you can do something. There is a problem with education throughout and I think the word for it is ‘assessment driven’ – it is to learn and pass exams so that schools go higher into league tables, and that is in general quite damaging. It probably affects the arts as well as the sciences.
TJ Demos – I would extend Jan’s answer by saying that education doesn’t just happen in school or in university. This event here is also an educational context, happening in the cultural realm. I think it’s important to note the contribution of educational experimentation in independent cultural institutions, and to be aware that this is a place where we can have optimism about creative thinking, aesthetic and political experimentation, and so on. We can participate in these discussions and talk with art theorists and geologists and that for me represents a kind of alternative pedagogy that can continue throughout life, offering hope for changing direction for the betterment of future generations.
Audience Member – I slightly disagree that education gets better the farther you go up after experiencing the fact that critical theory courses were abolished in Design because they were thought to stand in the way of employability. This is one of many examples that I have recently come across where critical thinking has been written out of the curriculum for employability and I think schools and universities have the same problem with this – you have to be employable and not criticise the job you are going in to.
Rasheed Araeen - In India the educated class is the most exploitative part of its society. We see in India the enormous development taking place and we celebrate it in the West. But eight hundred million people there live under the poverty line. They are poorer than the poor in Africa, according to the famous Indian writer Arundhati Roy. They live not on one dollar per day, as we often keep on saying in relation to the poor of the world, but survive on 20 cents per day. What are the educated people in India doing about this? They are grabbing whatever they can, there is something wrong with the education they get. It’s not the education, it’s the kind of education, it’s the same education you get here in Britain, it’s to make a career out of you, not to make you think about the world. Not to think about the future of mankind, but how you can make yourself bigger than other people. Our education systems are brainwashing people, they are creating mediocrity … that is the problem. Because it is serving the interests of capital – but I can’t talk about capital. That is what the capitalist education system does, it produces idiots.
TJ Demos – Let’s make the discussion more informal now. Thank you to all the speakers, to all of you for coming and participating in the conversation, and to Banner Repeater for hosting the event.