Monthly Archives: July 2013

Thinking ecological contingencies – the river as metaphor


In my ongoing exchange with Antony Lyons (which is partly reflected on his web blog at, I find myself coming back again and again to the problem of our culture’s lack of flexibility and adaptability, particularly in the face of the ecological and social implications of climate change.

The ‘why’ of this complex attitudinal situation is, at one level, very much tied up with our obsessive belief that things will soon go back to ‘how they were’ as long as everyone except the super-rich tighten their belts so that the country as a whole can return to that persistent oxymoron: ‘sustainable economic growth’. In reality, of course, we know that those who benefit most from capitalism (and that includes a very significant percentage of those in the so-called ‘first world’), now have a problem. The exploitation upon which capitalism depends has run up against increasingly intractable limits in terms of the natural world. As a result those who manage it are now hell-bent on cannibalising human society itself in order to keep the profits flowing in. In ecological contexts this belief in the continuity of the status quo is mirrored by a related belief in technological or legislative ‘silver bullets’ as a solution to all our problems- anything, that is, that doesn’t require ‘us’ personally to adapt ourselves to changing circumstances. (I find it particularly worrying when artists, academics and others in positions of cultural or educational authority – who after all might be said to be paid, however badly, to think ‘outside the box’ – simply parrot this kind of nonsense). But all this is also a product of a particular cultural mentality that is reinforced by, among other things, a blindness to the centrality of contingency, flux, and complexity. A blindness into which we are actively inducted by many aspects of our current, disciplinary-based, education system, with its singular inability to grasp the need for a thinking that draws on multiple perspectives and the experience of multiple constituencies (rather than simply the ‘professional’ viewpoint). The lack of flexibility inherent in this mentality is likely, unless addressed at every level, to be quite literally the death of us as a society, if not as a species.

I have to come clean and admit that my current levels of irritation with the narrowness, the inflexibility of academic institutions, administrative officialdom, and the status quo more generally, has been rather aggravated recently. For example, I was asked by the university for which I worked full-time for over thirty years to produce my passport in order to prove that I have the right to work in the UK. This is apparently an official requirement now I have a part-time contract in order to carry out ongoing doctoral supervision. I am told this check is a mandatory requirement predicated on government regulation. Failure to comply will mean that I will not be paid. However, I find it odd that I have regularly carried out similar occasional work for other institutions and, presumably because I am well known to them, have not been subjected to this small, but nevertheless indicative, indignity.

In pondering this example of a certain type of inflexibility (one might also call it petty-spiritedness), I come back again and again to something I experience regularly: the particular qualities, nature and power of water, both very literally in terms of flow, erosion and flooding but also, and perhaps as importantly, as metaphor. In this context I’ve recently visited, and have subsequently been thinking about (or maybe, more accurately, with?), a short stretch of river – known affectionately as Old Man’s Bottom – near Allenhead. (It’s much frequented by fishermen, which may account for the name). On a couple of occasions recently I’ve walked there with my wife Natalie and been reminded that each time we return it is not quite the same river as before. Yet its constantly changing nature and the various shifts and traces that mark this are precisely what gives me some sense of its essence as the river that it is.

river 2

river 1




Activating The Gap


The artist and water scientist Antony Lyons has just copied me into an email to our mutual friend Simon Read – one of the instigators of the recent Activating The Gap event at Middlesex – an event I’ve written about previously here – that aimed to promote multi-disciplinary and multi-constituency work that includes the arts in environmental contexts. Antony wants, as I would imagine anyone who attended that event would do, to encourage Simon and his partners to build on what they have begun. In particular he urges Simon to make the concept “into something substantial, and enduring”. This is in part animated by an acute sense of how difficult it can be to use the impetus of such events to move things forward. As Antony rightly adds, he and I missed the opportunity to build on the evident energy of the Catchment workshop we put together out of initiatives we were trying to develop with Steven Sodek in Bristol before his resignation from the Council there, and suggests that the Activating The the Gap event “could develop into a London – Bristol – Falmouth nexus”. But, as he also notes, “there are of course lots of ‘players’”. I’m not sure whether this isn’t part of the problem. Although I have an encouraging sense of networks being extended and alliances forged, I worry about where the funding to turn these into a substantial initiative is going to come from.

Obviously I’m very pleased to hear from the eco-artist Cathy Fitzgerald that she has recently met Liz Adamson and Graeme Todd from Polarcap[1] in Ireland, and that she is going to meet Tim Collins and Reiko Goto during a stop-off in Edinburgh on her way to the Invisible Scotland event in Dundee at the beginning of August.. [2] As someone who combines being a doctoral student, a Green Party activist and eco-artist focusing on forests – she manages a small one of her own – she obviously needs to be making these kinds of contacts. We also clearly need more such committed and energetic people. But how is that commitment and energy to be directed so that it has the best possible effect?

I’m aware of just how hard it is for people like Simon, Liz and Graeme to take up the demands of pushing forward in practical ways to develop multi-disciplinary and multi-constituency ecological work that includes the arts in addition to teaching, research, their creative practices and the innumerable demands of everyday life. Artists prepared to work to provide an acceptable face for the shadowy world of the medical techno-science industry have the economic clout of bodies like the Welcome Trust and all the tacit support of various lobbying organizations/”press agencies” behind them. But where is the equivalent support for the multi-disciplinary, multi-constituency thinking that animates the best eco-art?

It’s almost certainly not going to come from the universities themselves, no matter what individual academics are managing to achieve (often despite, rather than with the support of, their institutional managers). As Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, has indicated that while universities are supposed to be the prime generators of ‘new knowledge’ in our culture, they are currently among its most reactionary and conservative institutions.[3] This is a situation that he also very properly links to the fact that both their pedagogy and realpolitik (as opposed to their public rhetoric) are almost entirely determined by a professional and academic status quo that is dependent for its power and influence on the perpetuation of disciplinary thinking.[4] Add to that the profoundly reactionary and reductive government interventions provided by the likes of Michael Gove and the struggle to build a serious consensus on the basis of such initiatives as have been begun looks like being very long and hard indeed.

The next gap we need to activate then is that between the potential identified and action initiated by the people mentioned her and others like them and those with the ability to link them to the funds necessary to help develop that potential – an equivalent to the Welcome Trust for the arts and ecological sciences if you like.

[3] von Prondzynski, F (accessed 10/11/2012)

[4] von Prondzynski, F (2010) A post-disciplinary academy? (accessed 10/11/2012)

Leonard Jason’s ‘Principles of Social Change’


I’m currently briefly in County Durham on holiday – this is ‘our’ river – and am just finishing reading an extraordinary book – Leonard Jason’s “Principles of Social Change” (published 2013 by Oxford University Press). This examines how a five point approach – very briefly: focusing on second-order change, identifying and weakening the power holders, creating coalitions with communities and other activist groups, persistence and long-term engagement, and constantly evaluating and refining strategies and tactics – has served him in a life-time’s engagement in community activism. I’m particularly interested in what he has to say because in many ways it relates to current debates about ‘participatory’ and ‘socially engaged’ art and, additionally, supports and extends what I’ve been saying about the need for externally facing interdisciplinary/multi-constituency arts-led research work, ‘ecosophical’ collaboration, communities of transverse action, and so on.

I met Prof Jason – who directs the Centre for Community Research at DePaul University in Chicago – through helping my wife Natalie and son Josh on their film Voices from the Shadows. I collected them all and drove them across London so they could interview him on his way to a conference. In the book he references Natalie’s book Lost Voices in his discussion of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. He’s an extraordinary man and it’s a very impressive book. It is very simply and directly written, is measured while pulling no punches, and I would highly recommend it.

I have now added a summary/review of this book on a separate page.