Open Conversations

Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been groping my way towards a body of work that now has the collective title Quiet Conversations. There are currently seventeen A3-sized works in this series, either provisionally finished or still under way. As is often the case, this body of work is in part a response to my reading over the same period, in particular to my reading of work by Irish and Scottish poets. However, there is another aspect to the project that has to do with my sense of what art can attempt more generally. It’s something of this aspect of the project that I want to touch on here.

I am not sure when I first read the papers published in Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, an anthology edited by Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick  published by Routledge in 1992. Probably towards the end of that decade. What I do know is that I marked seven of those papers as having made an impression on me, two of which I remember in particular. Of those two the most significant was Geraldine Finn’s ‘The politics of spirituality: the spirituality of politics’, which led me to her Why Althusser Killed His Wife. Essays on Discourse and Violence, which includes a version of ‘The politics of spirituality: the spirituality of politics’, and so to my extending the invitation to Finn to speak at a LAND2 event. That in turn resulted in her performance paper ‘One Time Alone – Improvisation Takes Place’, which LAND2 published on its web site in the winter of 2006. The second paper was Mark C. Taylor’s ‘Reframing postmodernisms’. This considers “three examples of the painter/critic relationship: Barnett Newman and Clement Greenberg, Andy Warhol and Jean Baudrillard and, finally, Anselm Kiefer and Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrrida” and proposes that: 

“the contrasting aesthetic positions established by these painters and critics suggest alternative theological and religious perspectives. I am convinced that recent developments in the visual arts create new possibilities for the religious imagination”.    

 It was this linking of “aesthetic positions” and “the religious imagination” that caught and held my interest. It served as a powerful reminder that art can provide the means by which we reflect on issues that touch us all and that are concerned with cultural and experiential questions at large, aspects of our lives that fall far beyond the narrow domain of professional art production and commentary. However, as fascinating and, to a degree, compelling as I continue to find Taylor’s argument (the theological niceties of which are, I must admit, pretty much beyond me) is not my concern here. Not least because I can’t finally accept what I take to be the reduction of these artists’ work to a single programatic position.

However, what Taylor’s piece so forcibly reminds me is that it is both possible and productive to “read” the reception of visual works of art in terms that have little to do with the exclusive preoccupations of the art world and it critical commentators. This reinforces a train of thought that’s been with me since reading the essays by Lynne Cooke, Darby English and Suzanne Hudson in the catalogue for Cooke’s Outliers and American Vanguard Art (2018). One that circles around my need, in relation to my own visual image making, to struggle against what Cooke describes, in her ‘Boundary Trouble: Navigating Margin and Mainstream’ as the “categorical distinctions and formalist teleological art histories” that continue to colour my sense of what is and is not proper to the activity of making visual art. 

What has prompted these thoughts is firstly my reading the catalogue essays in the Tate’s catalogue for its current Paula Rego exhibition (7th July- 24th Oct., 2021). Of these, only Laura Stamps essay ‘Transforming the Myth’ seemed to me to avoid the reductive tendency I’ve attributed to Taylor. That is to say, she does not follow the general tendency to read Rego’s work as articulating this or that feminist position. Instead she focuses on her relationship to the less ‘woke’ concerns of reworking stories and myth and, in the process, her ability to engage with what is other. Secondly, an article on John Craxton by Rosemary Hill in the London Review of Books (21sth Oct. 2021) that reminded me just how much I dislike the work of Lucian Freud, and why.

My initial thought had been that, in the spirit of Taylor, it might be possible to take three artists – Lucian Freud, Paula Rego, and Ken Kiff – and view their work as a way to triangulate three positions or tendencies in contemporary life: respectively ‘possessive individualism’ and those associated with what are collectively known as ‘feminism’ and ‘environmentalism’. In starting to think through how that might be attempted, I quickly came to realise the futility of any such attempt.

All conversation is ultimately open, unfinished, inconclusive. And perhaps all works of art worthy of that title are conversations in just that sense ….

Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them

I owe a great debt of gratitude to the Irish painter Eamon Colman. When we were discussing my writing a commissioned essay around his works for Thaw, at the Oriel Queen’s Hall Gallery in Wales in 2018, he encouraged me to read the poems in Paula Meehan’s Geomantic. That encouragement was the beginning of an erratic but compelling journey into the writing of women who are contemporary Irish essayists and/or poets, starting with Meehan and Leland Bardwell (the subject of Colman’s elegiac painting The Poet’s House), and moving on through Evan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill to Grace Wells and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. (I am not indifferent to the work of male poets. John Burnside’s poem about towns in the Scottish Borders region, Out of Exile, with its ‘Shadow foxes running in the stars’, always deeply moves me). All this poetry has, however, returned me to the important relationship between Ken Kiff’s work, that of the many poets he admired, and the folk tales he read and illustrated, and so to a whole tradition of work that connects with what animated my concern with deep mapping. 

Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them is the title of a collection of three essays by Paula Meehan, given when she was the Ireland Chair of Poetry at University College, Dublin. I am now reading it for the third time and it has become a great source of encouragement to ‘dance [I am quoting Meehan quoting Camus] “beyond hopelessness and beyond hope”’. What else can we do now, in this time without compassion, of chronic and still deepening incivility?  In short, Meehan provides me with a necessary counterweight to what I think of as my “professional” reading. (The gap between my “personal” and “professional” selves and their reading is, however, still bridgeable by books like Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s Thin Places).

My “professional” self finds it difficult to avoid despire, reading as he does books such as Bella Bathurst’s Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land, Jennie Hayes’ Focus on Farmers: Art and Hill FarmingCorinne Fowler’s Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections, Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass, and David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel. Books that have ensured that I now cannot but see the uplands of the North Pennines or the Cheviots differently. Like all the rural space of the United Kingdom, they now appear to my “professional” eye primarily as the sites of bitter contestation on which a workable environmental future for the countries of the British Isles will depend.    

If I am honest, my “professional” self would have to say that all the signs suggest to me that Jem Bendell is correct when he claims, in his paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, that we are in all likelihood facing societal collapse as the result of the long-standing and chronic abuses of our environment. Abuses inseparable from our current psychic and social situation, housed as we are within a culture of possessive individualism. That view can only be reinforced by the recent confirmation of what many of us have long suspected: namely that Exxon, like so many big corporations, while publicly claiming to support action to address these abuses is, in actuality, doing everything in its power to hinder an such action.     

There are so many reasons for me to relish Meehan’s Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them. Here is just oneThe poet Glyn Maxwell insists on making an absolute distinction between poetry and popular song lyrics. And in his own professional terms he’s no doubt right. But I’m always more curious about where things overlap, or can’t be contained by the academic habit of insisting on categorical differences. So I’m with Paula Meehan, who started out writing both poems and song lyrics; who learned some of her craft from listening to Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell, John Mayall, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison. Paula Meehan who tells us she sang Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes? after the musician and poet John Borrowman’s funeral, and added two lines of her own. Maybe my refusal to accept any categorical separation of poem from song lyric is intellectually naive, but it seems to me that the Meehan who had just left childhood and refused to make Maxwell’s distinction, would become mother to the poet and essayist who helps sustain me today.   

After Disciplinarity? Mutual Accompaniment, ensemble practices, and the climate emergency.

[This is the slightly amended text of a presentation given for a postgraduate conference organised by doctoral students at Cardiff University – Breaking Boundaries – given on May 11th, 2021.]

I’ll start with an observation by Stephen Sterling, Emeritus Professor of Sustainable Learning at the University of Plymouth. He points out that our education system can’t address the Climate Emergency because it’s based on, and helps maintain, the mentality that created that Emergency. This morning I want to look at elements of this situation. As the anthropologist and archaeologist Barbara Bender indicates, the landscapes I study make no sense from a single disciplinary perspective. To explore them I need to draw on many different areas of knowledge. I also needed to walk, listen, read parish records, study old field maps, notice weather patterns, and pay attention to a whole lot of other stuff too odd or ordinary for most academics to consider. So Barbara Bender is right, but her observation also has another, more significant, implication.

If landscapes refuse to be disciplined, if they make a mockery of  oppositions between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology], then this must apply even more acutely to the psychosocial and more-than-human ecologies of which landscapes are just one part. Which suggests that the Climate Emergency requires us to think carefully about the limits of the disciplinarity education system. Not because there’s a problem with disciplinary knowledge as such, but because of the social effects of an education system that creates separate, specialist groups that competefor intellectual prestige and economic advantage. My concern is with those negative social effects, and how we might minimize them. 

Many of us are angry because the authorities don’t act on the Climate Emergency. But recent research says that what particularly angers young people is that they also dismiss, criminalise, pathologize and patronisetheir feelings and voices. This Mexican retablo – it’s text reads: The girl Rocenda talks with the forest animals. Cure her, Virgin – suggests that’s always happened. But the situation’s gets worse when members of the current Government try to classify Climate Extinction as a terrorist group and propose a ban on teachers talking about climate change in class. 

Late last year a friend asked me whether I thought she should discuss Jem Bendell’s paper – Deep Adaptation: A Map For Navigating Climate Tragedy – with students on this course. A course she set up because she feels Irish art education leaves students eco-illiterate. She accepted Bendell’s analysis that we face (I quote): “the potential, probable, or inevitable collapse of industrial consumer societies due to the direct and indirect impacts of human-caused climate change and environmental degradation”. But, as a tutor to a virtual course, she also knew she couldn’t provide the pastoral support that discussing those possibilities might require. Arguably, we all share something of her dilemma. We can ignore Jem Bendell’s analysis, along with the 500 plus scholars and scientists globally who agree with it. That’s the approach of Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, and those who Bruno Latour calls “out-of-this-world” fantasists. Or we can collectively discuss Bendell’s analysis. But that would require those who would need to initiate that conversation to show care and respect for others, something they all-too-often lack. Even the first step, to genuinely listen to the concerns of others seems too much for them. But, odd as it may seem, our education system actually encourages them not to listen.

It assumes that those with power and authority are entitled to speak, and that those without it should listen. As Gemma Corradi Fiumara points out, it’s a system that binds us into a particular hierarchy. One based on the assumption that those who speak authoritatively do so because they already possess all the necessary knowledge. And, for that reason, they have no obligation to listen to others. It’s a hierarchy that avoids genuine dialogue and, instead, tends to create competing monologues. It doesn’t help that educators have been given less and less time to listen by those who manage them. There’s a bitter irony in the fact that this erosion of time to listen in education has coincided with an ethical turn in the philosophy of science; a shift from focusing on “matters of fact”, to “matters of concern” and, more recently, to “matters of care.

A second bitter irony is the contrast between society’s fetishization of consumption, marketed through notions of unlimited choice, and it’s education system’s limiting of choice by insisting on specialization.Specialisation that denies individuals a broad education and, as a result, limits their understanding by reducing their ability to connect and discriminate across many different types of ideas and practices. No wonder we find it so hard to understand psycho-social and socio-environmental processes and relationships. In short, our education system is structured by the same fractured, exclusionary mentality that has helped create the Climate Emergency. One way we can counter this is by cultivating mutual accompaniment and ensemble practices. But before I talk about them, I need to ground what I’ve just said in particular examples. 

These people are climbing a protective dyke in the province of Groningen in the Netherlands. It protects the province from the sea, but is itself threatened by the increasing number of earthquakes there, caused by years of natural gas extraction. These people had come from three continents to share their experience at a workshop called Resilience, Just Do It, organised by six doctoral students who’d been listening very carefully to people in the regionI was there to talk about artists working with local communities but, because of our different experiences and practices, I started by talking about language. 

I showed this photograph to illustrate how the meaning of words shifts. A photograph of the Bullingdon Clubevokes perhaps the most resilient element in British society – that is, a wealthy elite that does all it can to resist any change that might threaten it’s power. If I use resilience in the context of human society, it quite properly suggests resistance to fundamental political change; a resistance that may not coincide with the wellbeing of our civil society as a whole. But this meaning can be disguised because ‘resilience’ as a term in the ecological sciences is value neutral. It simply refers to an single eco-system’s ability to fend off ormanage threats that might otherwise undermine it. Our society is not, of course, a single eco-system.  

Groningen university is unusual in acting rather more like an eco-system. All its Faculties must contribute to one or more areas of collective concern – Healthy Ageing, Energy, and Sustainable Society. This limits the power and autonomy of those academics whose approach to disciplinarity is in terms of territories that allow them to gain personal power and influence, rather than to contribute knowledge to the collective understanding. It also encourages staff to remember that their research must take account of those people who will bear the consequences of the researchers’ decisions. All this contrasts with a criticism of UK universities made by a former Principal and Vice-chancellor of Aberdeen University. He argues that the UK’s universities are perhaps the most conservative of its major institutions. A situation created and maintained by a realpolitik – that is, the way power and influence actually operates in and through persons and institutions – that’s deeply embedded in the hierarchies that mange the production of disciplinary knowledge. In his view, this makes British universities increasingly unfit for purpose. 

I’m going to give you an example of the relationship between disciplinary realpolitik and political control. While I’m doing that, please keep in mind the UK Government’s recent dismissal – as “barely believable” and “a political stunt” – of the UN’s report on poverty in Britain. A report that finds that (I quote): “much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”. 

Some years ago, a research team from a major UK university received over five million pounds for a project. This included, for the first time ever, money provided directly by the Department of Work and Pensions. In time the researchers submitted their findings to a leading medical journal. These were peer reviewed, accepted, and published. The most senior British academic in the researchers’ field described the research as “a thing of beauty”. The DWP prepared to use them to help justify cuts to disability spending. Insurance companies prepared to use them to justify paying out less money to claimants with certain disabilities. Then a problem occurred. The research findings directly contradicted the experience of many of the patients suffering the illness the study claimed to research. They alerted other researchers, who asked for access to the team’s data and methodology – access that’s a condition of publication in that journal. The researchers and journal refused. The case eventually went to court and, despite the university spending over two hundred and forty-five thousand pounds, its researchers were ordered to release their data and methodology. External scrutiny then showed conclusively that their findings had been fundamentally distorted by a methodological slight-of-hand. As a result, some universities now use the project to show how not to do such research.      

So why didn’t the peer reviewers spot the problem and why, when asked, wouldn’t the editor and researchers share the data and methodology? Why did a very senior academic publicly praise such flawed work? Why has the journal still not retracted this discredited article? And why did a university go to court, at very considerable expense, to try to hide scientific research from legitimate external scrutiny? Perhaps because of undeclared conflicts of interest, since it later came to light that members of the research team had close links with both the DWP and the insurance companies. Another answer would be: “that’s disciplinary realpolitik for you”. 

Many academics would describe the workshop illustrated here as interdisciplinarity. I see it as an example of mutual accompaniment. What’s the difference? Interdisciplinary thinking still tacitly privileges disciplinarity as the way of structuring knowledge. But at Groningen the organisers made sure that disciplinary knowledge was not privileged over that of farmers, parents, the elderly, community workers, children, local political representatives, or the voluntary maintenance team at the local auxiliary pumping station. They took a non-hierarchical approach to different types of knowledge and understanding. One  that’s central to exploring, through genuine and respectful dialogue, the possibilities for practical, situated, and mutually enacted socio-environmental care. I stress this because we need to question the assumption that disciplinary knowledge – including its ‘inter-‘, ‘trans-‘, and other variations – is the only authoritative basis for understanding and action. If we don’t question that we risk contributing to the devaluingtrivialisingdismissing, or excluding of other forms of knowing and understandingAnd that, in turn, leads to the dismissal, criminalising, pathologizing and patronising of the feelings and thoughts that animate dissident voices, including those of people who want action on the Climate Emergency. 

In case there’s any doubt in your minds, I’ll repeat what I said earlier. I am not questioning the value of disciplinary thinking. What I’m questioning is the mentality that isolates specialist knowledge so as to create exclusive institutional domains; groups more concerned to concentrate their own power than to serve collective needs –  a mentality that has very real social consequences. In a recent report, a senior neuroscientist makes it clear that it’s that mentality that has set Alzheimer’s research back by 10 to 15 years; while another says that millions of people may have died needlessly as a result.

Mary Watkins begins her book Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons with a quote from an Aboriginal Activist Group that explicitly challenges the exclusionary, hierarchical and patronising assumptions built into the disciplinary system. It goes: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”.It’s a request for mutual respect across boundaries that’s central to decolonising knowledge. It’s necessary because of the long-standing entanglement of the effects of colonialization, environmental abuse, social othering, and the disciplinary education systemI’d need a very much more complex diagram than this to visualise that legacy which is, in any case, far too complex a topic to deal with here. Instead I’m going to flip that entanglement over. I want to share, instead, an example of mutual accompaniment that shows how the legacy of that entanglement can be acknowledged and some of its effects healed, if only at an individual level.

Back in March a young South African artist emailed me, part of an ongoing exchange we’d been having about a possible PhD project. I’ll share part of it with you in an edited form.

“Recently I gave a talk to some local Motswana artists. I also discussed my struggle to belong in Africa with them. And they shared their struggles to find their traditions in the shards left after colonialism. Not that Botswana was ever colonized, but their indigenous culture suffered tremendous loss because of European influence. The artist-in-residence here is looking to de-colonize and re-claim, as a Tswana, the practice that European anthropologists categorised as ‘rain making’. That’s a miss-translation – ‘rain asking‘ would be more accurate. Our shared interests mean we’ve continued our conversation on-line, along with a few other Motswana writers and artists. It’s been very enlightening. Being accepted by this group has been very moving for me as an Afrikaner – an undesirable because associated with apartheid. This is the start of a very interesting, unofficial, PhD for me!”

That email suggests why mutual accompaniment in the process of decolonialising thinking helps confront a situation that sociologists of knowledge describe as follows: 

“To the extent that a particular way of producing knowledge is dominant, all other claims will be judged with reference to it. In the extreme case, nothing recognisable as knowledge can be produced outside of the socially dominant form”.

That socially dominant form of producing knowledge currently allows the appropriation and ghettoization of knowledge – for example about Alzheimer’s disease – by disciplinary power groups that claim to speak authoritatively but don’t listen. As Amitav Ghosh so clearly demonstrates in his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, our education system makes it extraordinarily difficult for us to grasp the extent and impact of climate change. It teaches us to assume that only the socially dominant form of knowledge production delivers the “right” views and answers. So our education suggests that alternative views and answers are, almost literally, unthinkable.

Our education system rarely refers to the limits and bias built into our categorically-based knowledge system. But, as the feminist philosopher Geraldine Finn wrote back in 1990:

“…the contingent and changing concrete world always exceeds the ideal categories of thought within which we attempt to express and contain it. And the same is true of people. We are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”.

The system’s emphasis on fixed categories and division-through-naming has reinforced a mentality with terrible consequences. It’s naturalised the process of “categorical othering”. The year before Finn’s paper, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman published a book called Modernity and the Holocaust. In it he argues that the lethal “othering” of Holocaust victims as less than human was not a unique expression of Nazi ideology, but an extreme expression of a foundational presupposition within modernity itself. In particular, of the negative social consequences of modernity’s over-emphasis on an attitude of mind – on the ethically neutral or “objective” detachment which has also made modern techno-industrial progress possible. The ethical neutrality and detachment that erodes what Hannah Arendt calls: “the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering”, and that has fatally distanced the modern world from its relationship to, and dependency on, all other-than-human life. 

I now want to bring all this closer to your immediate context as post-graduate students. Here’s an account sent me by a recently graduated doctoral student. I’ll call her X. In early 2019, X took part in a major international conference where she showed one of her films and talked about how she activates communities towards climate change engagement. She was subsequently invited to submit a paper to a special issue of an environmental science journal. However, following peer review and three rounds of major amendments, her paper was rejected. X knew this is not uncommon and actually got a lot out of the process. What frustrates her is that the peer reviewers and editor acknowledged that her approach to community activation is exactly what their field needs. They also admitted that it can only be done by arts practitioners like herself. Despite moving her manuscript much nearer to the structured format they required, it was still rejected as insufficiently scientific. When X explained to the editor that this was because she’s an artist, she received a very illuminating reply.

Firstly, the editor expressed sincere disappointment at not being able to include X’s work in the journal, conceding that sustainability scientists like to think they work with artists, but instead convert their work into something more acceptably scientific. X was then congratulated for sticking to her position as an artist, and thanked for prompting the editor to consider how the refereeing process undermines what artists can contribute to environmental science’s approach to the climate debate. 

X felt the editor could have shifted just a little, but choose not to – despite recognising the seriousness of the Climate Emergency and X’s contribution to addressing it. I share her frustration but, as a former journal editor, I’m also know something of the pressures editors work under. So I’ll simply remind you that Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy was also rejected by a major environmental journal as ‘insufficiently scientific’. The question in both cases is simple enough. What is more important, maintaining the boundaries of disciplinary exclusivity or addressing the Climate Emergency? Unfortunately, the academic answer seems to be the first. 

Increasingly, people are finding alternative forms of knowledge, understanding and ways to act that bypassthe socially dominant forms. Some do so through adopting ensemble practices and mutual accompaniment. That’s to say, they’re finding more inclusive, less hierarchical, ways of connecting to their own identity, to each other, and to the contingent and changing concrete world. The immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub points out that specialist disciplinary work is actually located in small, largely confined – if at times pervasive – domains in relation to society as a whole. So that, despite having been educated to identify with a specialism, most of us are engaged in all sorts of other roles and activities. He writes: 

“… for myself, I would say that I spend 95% of my time and energy in fighting my way through the wild vegetation of circumstances, looking for the tiny spots, for the little clearing where I eventually could really work, write or do research …  Why, then, should it make so much difference, being the poet and being the scientist, when 95% of our time we are really secretaries, telephonists, passers-by, carpenters, plumbers, privileged and underprivileged citizens, waiting patients, applicants, household maids, clerks, commuters, offenders, listeners, drivers, runners, patients, losers, subjects and shadows”.

Given this situation, we could choose to accept our multiple identities for what they are – a fluid and changing ensemble of different roles and practices. Not to do so, Holub implies, is to risk indulging in unrealistic, exclusive, even cultish, attitudes. Our lives are now dominated by vast meta-systems of management and manipulation, by an increasingly autonomous merging of corporate and political power. But at least part of their power over us depends on us passively accepting fixed identities.  

One way to challenge this situation is to recognise the link between Holub’s description of our multiple life roles and Bruno Latour’s discussion of the importance of moving beyond binary positions for the emergent Terrestrial politics. He writes that: 

…what counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world’.

This inclusive approach – both to identity and our encounters in the world – is my cue to introduce you to some ensemble practices. That’s to say to the practices of people productively entangled in both mutual accompaniment and a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world.

Ffion Jones earns a living as a hill farmer and a lecturer in Theatre and Theatre Practices at Aberystwyth University. She both embodies and questions the roles of daughter, mother, and partner in a Welsh-speaking hill farming community. Miroslav Holub saw himself as fighting his way through “the wild vegetation of circumstances” to get to the small space where he could work as a poet and scientist. Ffion, by contrast, has embraced that “wild vegetation of circumstances” as intrinsic to her ensemble practice. One that meets her economic and domestic needs and her desire to actively engage with, and articulate, the pressures on, and changes in, her community. Pressures she spoke about in a recent podcast on issues around re-wilding and re-forestation, as seen from the perspective of a Welsh hill farming community. 

Ffion’s practice-based doctoral research combined performance and rural studies to explore the particular way of life of Welsh hill farmers, specifically their relationship with their livestock. In academic terms, it involved ethnographic fieldwork conducted through conversations with members of her immediate family and the local farming community, mediated through film-making and performance. But to categorise it as an inter-disciplinary project would be to seriously misrepresent it. It’s an ongoing act of mutual accompaniment, a life lived alongsidea particular hill-farming community from within. A giving voice to all the richness and contradictions of acontingent and changing concrete rural world. A lived process that perhaps only an ensemble practice can make possible. 

Liz Hingley, who took these photographs, trained as both a documentary photographer and a visual anthropology. The largest image here is of a shelter on Hampstead Heath, built by a front-line nurse during the COVID-19  pandemic straight after finishing a fourteen-hour night shift. if you look carefully you can see her hands. Because the nurse finds her vision and spatial orientation limited for a period after the long hours of strong lighting and engagement with machines, Liz chose to photograph her in black and white. 

Previously, Liz has explored the systems of belonging and belief that help shape cities around the world, working collaboratively to create connections between disciplines, cultures, audiences, eyes and minds. After projects in Birmingham, Shanghai, London and Austin, Texas, she developed a keen interest in the relationship between art and science, and became an Honorary Research Fellow at the departments of Philosophy and Physics at The University of Birmingham. More recently, she’s modified that interest so as to link her growing environmental concerns with the therapeutic function of woodlands during the pandemic. She’s currently developing a therapeutically-based photographic project with the staff of a London hospital, working alongside an ecologist responsible for Hampstead Heath; a project she hopes to fund through a bursary for a PHD in medical anthropology. 

Ffion and Liz, and the others whose work I’ll briefly refer to, might be loosely identified as artists. A label they accept for pragmatic reasons and, incidentally, the reason I know them. But their work exceeds, and would for many art critics fall short of, the ideal category ART. Their concerns have mutated and, what were once simply matters of intellectual or aesthetic enquiry, are now equally heartfelt concerns requiring commitment and collective caring. Some years ago, Simon Read observed that our eco-social problems require (I quote): “a particular kind of strategy that our culture has yet to develop and promote”. What I’m suggesting this morning is that ensemble practices oriented by mutual accompaniment may provide just such a strategy. 

Cathy Fitzgerald trained and worked as a micro-biologist in her native New Zealand before moving to Ireland. There she studied art, worked on sci-art projects, and for environmental organizations and the Irish Ecology Party. Inspired by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, she started looking for ways to interweave her artistic, scientific, political, and locally situated knowledge and concerns. In 2008 she and her partner moved into a small commercial Sitka Spruce plantation. She began to transform it into a sustainable, mixed species native woodland, something she estimates will take at least forty years. Working with international experts and using innovative methods, she set up exchanges between foresters, policy-makers, artists, environmental writers, philosophers, politicians, cultural geographers, and her local community in County Carlow. Those exchanges were then shared through regular blog posts and part-time teaching. In 2019, needing a steady income, she applied for, and won, funding to develop the on-line Haumea Eco-literacy courses she now co-teaches.

For fourteen years Luci Gorell Barnes was artist-in-residence at Speedwell Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Bristol, and still earns a living as an educator and researcher. Simultaneously, she’s been occupied as a collaborator with her musician partner, as a mother and, more recently, grandmother, and as a writer, illustrator and studio artist. She views all these activities as mutually intra-dependent. Her underlying concern is to develop (I quote) “flexible and responsive processes that enable us to think imaginatively with ourselves and each other”. This concern is particularly clear in her work with socially vulnerable individuals – disadvantaged children and refugee and migrant mothers. She helps transform their sometimes grudging institutional acceptance by a combination of place-making and situated learning, both grounded in forms of mutual accompaniment that embrace her whole immediate neighbourhood. Recently Luci worked on a nation-wide Hydrocitizenship initiative, drawing on her long involvement with water and food security issues. 

Originally a successful London-based studio artist, Simon Read moved with his partner to rural Suffolk, where they and their son lived on a boat. There Simon equipped himself to join environmental planning debates around river and coastal salt marsh management by using his drawing skills to make maps that synthesize data so as to visualize likely future environmental change. This led to him working on a tidal attenuation barrier for the River Debden Association, co-designing it with local engineers and building it with the help of volunteers from a local prison. Simon, who is also an Associate Professor of Fine Art at Middlesex University, has initiated several other projects concerned with coastal salt marsh stabilization, using “soft engineering” that degrades over time. As a result of his environmental experience, he repeatedly stresses the need to reframe the relationship between land, ownership, responsibility, and belonging.

I’d originally planned to take my examples from the UK and Ireland, but realised that misrepresented the ways mutual accompaniment can link people across continents. Mona E. Smith is the founder of Allies media/art. She’s a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, grew up in Redwing, Minnesota, and became a college teacher. After re-discovering her Dakota heritage, she started researching and making documentary videos about problems facing native people in Minneapolis St Paul. She became a media producer and made work on health and other topics related to Dakota lives. She studied with Dakota elders, brought up her children, kept an eye on her elderly mother, and worked on a variety of arts and media projects. We shared work through a network focused on issues around place, and she then adapted a form of deep mapping to create the Bdote Memory Map. It’s a virtual, explorative web site for Dakota people to study their history, language, and traditional knowledge. It also includes guided walks to their sacred sites in and around Minneapolis St. Paul. But it’s also an act of recuperation that invites mutual accompaniment, using Dakota knowledge and experience to invite a change of heart in the descendants of those colonists who first appropriated, and then violated, the land and rivers that the Dakota people had always regarded as their sacred relatives

Lindsey Colbourne lives in North Wales but has travelled and worked internationally. She has twenty five years’ experience as a professional facilitator, trainer, advisor, and designer of participatory processes  particularly conflict resolution and dialogue. She’s also worked for the UK Sustainable Development Commission and as a surveyor for the British Trust for Ornithology. All of which now informs an ensemble practice with art as its catalyst. She uses collaborative and participative inquiry to forge new connections and to work with and through different ways of knowing the world. Her aim in these investigations is to involve as many different people – and perspectives – as possible, an approach that echoes Bruno Latour’s statement quoted earlier. She tries to begin each project from a point of ‘un-knowing’, avoiding disciplinary presuppositions and without anticipating the outcome. She then uses whatever approach – from conversation to photography, gardening, or performance – that seems appropriate and simply “follows her nose”. She writes (I quote): “sometimes the work stays in the process, living in the dialogue and the relationships it creates, with no formal art ‘outcome’ at all”. Hers is a genuinely open-ended approach, a letting go of conditioned expectations, that informs the mutual accompaniment I’m proposing here as onealternative to the disciplinary mentality.

I’ll end, however, by bring this back inside the academy, since that’s were you find yourselves. 

Lindsey’s concern – to live in the dialogue and the relationships it creates – links directly with an account of the real value of Arts and Humanities research from two anthropologists, James Leach and Lee Watson. They show that the institutional criteria used to evaluate Arts and Humanities research bear no relation to how innovation and creativity actually occur. Instead, the real value of such research lies in its being carried by and in persons – as expertise, as confidence, as understanding and orientation to issues, problems, concerns and opportunities, as tools and abilities. All qualities they suggest are best seen as responsivenessor, if you like, as the animation of acts of mutual accompaniment. Leach and Watson also point out that these qualities are probably best understood as aspects of citizenship; as emphasising spaces and opportunities for discussion, argument, critique, and reflection. The spaces in which active collaboration becomes a basis for evaluation

In short, they suggest that Arts and Humanities research needs to be seen as having value as a dialogic process in its own right. That it should be understood, first and foremost, not as an instrumental system for producing disciplinarily-defined “research outcomes”, but as an important, perhaps central, contribution to a proper discussion of what a sustainable education should be.  

Marina Warner and Paul Ricoeur on the mystery of identity.

I am still trying to digest the impact of the virtual gathering, of almost 100 people from some 13 countries, that took place at 5 pm on April 29th., the occasion of the book launch for Mary Modeen and my Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics,Deep Mapping and Slow Residency (Routledge 2020).

In a review of Sally Bayley’s No Boys Play Here: A Story of Shakespeare and My Family’s Missing Men for the London Review of Books (6th May, 2021, p. 41), Marina Warner identifies the issue of “personality as contingent, mutable and dispersed, a kind of quantum field psyche that is both here and there at the same time”. She goes on to suggest, via a quotation from Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, that the difference between a living person and an AI robot is that: “a person’s uniqueness “ is “distributed among those who love her, and secured by their consciousness of her”. An observation that reminds me of Paul Ricoeur’s discussion of narrative identity in Oneself As Another (1994), where – having identified identity in terms of “the dialectic of self and the other than self (p. 3),  he later asks: “do we not consider human lives to be more readable when they have been interpreted in terms of the stories that people tell about them”? (p.114, note 1).  

For whatever reason, both Warner’s observation and my connecting it back to Ricoeur’s concerns, seem relevant to the impact that the virtual gathering of such a varied and scattered group of people on April 29th. has had on me. Perhaps a recognition of my own contingency, mutability and dispersion, not as something to regret but something to embrace and celebrate?

Here we go again?

 I have been trying quite hard to avoid adding angry posts to this blog. However, the slides from a recent talk to employees of an insurance company by Michael Sharpe MA MD FRCP FRCPsych., a Professor of Psychological Medicine at the University of Oxford & Oxford University Hospitals (given in February this year), are so preposterous in some of their insinuations that I can’t resist commenting. (Those who have read past posts relating to the appalling treatment of ME patients on the say-so of psychologists may forgive my indulgence in this instance).

It may be quibbling to object that, despite his warning to his audience to “beware of poor quality research with unclear denominators”, Sharpe claims (without any qualification) that post-COVID-19 syndrome primarily effects older patients, females, and those with pre-morbid vulnerability. Current research shows, however, that one in every ten sufferers is aged between 18 to 49. However, for a Professor (of the “science” of psychology) to imply that an article by George Mombiot is a possible cause of Long COVID suggests that Sharpe subscribes to a view of the world that anthropologists refer to as “magic thinking”. (Fortunately, there is no slide recommending that Monbiot be burned at the stake). Others, however, are horribly predictable. For example, the one where the Professor promotes the idea that: “at present the best treatment” for COVID-19 “is psychologically informed rehabilitation”. Given that the clique within his profession to which he is affiliated has, to date, been frustrated in its attempt to impose “psychologically informed rehabilitation” on patients suffering from the medical condition of ME  – where it’s application has had very seriously damaging results – it must be that Sharpe and his friends now need to corner the market in a new set of unsuspecting patients.


I’ve been rather neglecting this blog, having been busy with other things.

The singer Johnny Flynn has said that his song Raising the Dead is semi-autobiographical, being about how his daughter reminds him of his father in some ways:

“My Dad died when I was 18, and that was quite a galvanising experience […] and there’s often an element of that in anything I’m writing; every big loss that you suffer in life, I think everything comes through the conduit of that. I had a really strong sense of my daughter having elements of my Dad when she came along, and it made me kind of laugh—that cyclical sense, of thinking of my daughter as my Dad”.

He sees his daughter as somehow “raising the dead” by raising the memory of his father, but he as a father is also “raising the dead” in a way, by raising this daughter who reminds him so much of his father.

It’s the kind of pondering of the strangeness of stuff that Julie Upmeyer and I have been circling in our Succession collaborative exchange. (One reason why this blog has been neglected).

Another is that I’ve been preparing for two talks – a keynote for a post-graduate conference run by Cardiff University and another as a visiting artist at the Burren College of Art’s Summer Academy. Sadly, due to COVID I won’t get back to the Burren, which is an extraordinary landscape and one that fascinates me. I’m sure that it will be a great three week experience for those who can. You can find out more at: p

About Cop26

(Based on the official report of a debate in the House of Commons, March 10th, 2021).

I have just spent the best part of an afternoon reading through the transcript of this debate, picked up on because Darren Jones, the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (BEISC), is the Member of Parliament for the constituency I and my family live in.

Like anybody even aware of how the Government of Boris “Da Piffle” Johnson (as he’s known in our household) conducts itself, I’m concerned about its approach to Cop26. Sadly, the situation is even worse than I had anticipated. While the UK has legislated for carbon net zero by 2050, allowing the Government to claim to be a world leader, there’s still no credible Government plan for how this will be delivered. Simultaneously, they appear to be planning to reduce air passenger duty on short flights within the UK,  and have already done a U-turned on the vital green homes grant initiative by withdrawing a billion pounds of funding. It’s also indicative that last week’s Budget strongly suggests that their much trumpeted “green industrial revolution” has been abandoned. Unsurprisingly, the BEISC has expressed concern about the Government’s lack of proper forward planning for COP26, doubting that the Prime Minister and his Government are fully behind the COP team and fearing its failure.

In short, it is absolutely clear that the Government has no co-ordinated plan and no cross-departmental agenda to achieve decarbonisation. Typically, while it expresses pious hopes that local authorities will play a major role in this, it ignores  the fact that it has already reduced more than two dozen councils nationally to the verge of bankruptcy. By stripped them of the funding needed to provide the necessary statutory services to their communities, it has effectively made it impossible for them to tackle climate change issues.

The weakness and incoherence of the Government’s domestic climate policy includes its £27 billion road building programme; its freezing of fuel duty for the 10th year; the probability that air passenger duty will be reduced; and the lack of a guarantee that measures such as the super deduction tax break will not be available for high-carbon investments. It is no wonder, then that the UK is way off course to meet both its fourth and fifth carbon budgets – even given that those budgets are based on an 80% emission reduction target by 2050, not net zero. Furthermore, the Government has failed on 17 of their 21 progress indicators and has met only two out of its thirty seven key policy milestones.

Cop26 is likely to fail because of the chaos and infighting in Whitehall that had bedevilled past attempts to get anything done, despite assurances that everything is now hunky-dory with work proceeding day and night to deliver. While the team responsible includes some people from environmental think-tanks and pressure groups among the career civil servants, it also includes the usual Tory apparatchiks; namely a former head of press at Tory HQ as policy adviser to the COP26 President and a former Tory special adviser as strategy director, along with a couple of bankers and a businessman with experience of emerging markets. Conspicuous by their absence are a strong body of environmental and climate change experts. Equally problematic is the absence of political leadership. Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee has said, in response to a question about whether sufficient progress was being made towards the net zero target, that: “We are clearly not. In almost every sector, we are failing… The Government are not on track to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budget”. He added that measures were “not taken quickly enough” and that the Government “have simply not done the radical things that need to be done.” 

The situation can be summarised by saying that the UK Government simply does not care enough about environmental issues to want to address them. It is so blinkered to the dire probable effects of changing climate that it stumbles blindly on, hoping that all goes well in the end; so tone-deaf to the arguments of climate activists that they cannot see the benefit of putting in the effort to get results. COP26 is on course to be a terrible wasted opportunity, and wasted simply because the Government is not willing to put in the effort. Anyone familiar with “da piffle” Johnson’s record as, say, Foreign Secretary, may recognise this as a recurring characteristic. 

All of which needs to be understood in the context of the fact that the world is currently on course to achieve only an emissions reduction of 1% by the end of this critical decade, not the 45% reduction required to keep alive the hope of limiting heating to 1.5°C.

I read all this in the context of recent observations by Jolyon Maugham, the Director of Good Law Project, who points out  that there is a clear move by Government under way to prevent people from expressing their dissatisfaction with it. For example, the Home Secretary has branded legitimate protesters as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and accused them of “hooliganism and thuggery”She and the government are now proposing legislation that will strictly limit the right to protest by giving the police new powers to restrict it. Little wonder, given the likely response to the Government’s failure to even begin to take the most important of our time seriously. 

Deep Adaptation: notes from an exchange with Cathy Fitzgerald

On the 28th of December,  2020, my friend the eco-artist, researcher and educator Cathy Fitzgerald emailed me to ask if I’d  come across the work of Professor Jem Bendell. He’d been on her radar for some time because of his argument about imminent societal collapse – Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.  Cathy felt, in my view probably rightly, that this was not something she should teach to course participants on the seven week Haumea Ecoliteracy courses she runs, since such online teaching is not an appropriate space for discussing this without psychosocial support. However, she also felt that it was an important paper that could not simply be ignored and asked me what I thought. I’d read Bendell’s first deep adaptation paper but not its follow-up, written with Katie Carr: Facilitation for Deep Adaptation: enabling loving conversations about our predicament, so I said I’d read both and get back to her.

What follows here is based on my various responses to Cathy’s request since then, intercut with some of her own reflections. 

The first thing to say is that, on the basis of what I know, I accept Bendell’s claim that climate-influenced “societal collapse” in most parts of the world in the coming decades is either “likely, inevitable or already unfolding”. (Since his original paper, he’s qualified this by adding that ‘near-term collapse’ is not inevitable). My personal view, however, is that this ‘collapse’ has indeed been unfolding, in different ways and for many years, in different parts of the world. What needs to be acknowledged is that better-off people in the Global North have not yet, or only recently, begun to acknowledge that this is already unfolding. (I’ll return to this later). 

In what follows I’ll take up Carr and Bendell’s concern: “to help reduce harm, save what we can, and create possibilities for the future while experiencing meaning and joy in the process” by suggesting that what they propose needs to be inflected differently. What follows are, however, very much my provisional thoughts. I stress this because I have sent Bendell some questions, which he’s kindly forwarded to Carr as being best placed to answer them. At the time of writing this I’ve not heard back from her, so I may very well need to qualify what I write here when (if) I do.

I think it may help if we start by seeing Bendell’s prediction about societal collapse as being “likely, inevitable or already unfolding” from a historical perspective. I suggest this because I think we need to generate a more nuanced understanding of what deep adaptation is likely to require if it’s to be helpful to different individuals and communities. Consequently I think it’s important to remember that wide-scale climate-related societal collapse has happened before, even in the West. Our culture has simply chosen to ignore this in favour of adopting the modernist belief in gradual but inevitable progress. (See, on this, Amitav Ghosh’s excellent book The Great Derangement)

Cathy is not sure about this thinking, given that previous examples have not involved mass ecocide. (This is debateable of course. Some might argue that the wholesale destruction of British wildlife that accompanied the enclosure of the Commons exactly anticipates, albeit on a smaller scale, our current situation of interwoven ecocide and social injustice). Be that as it may, I think it’s useful to remember that the Seventeenth Century was a catastrophic period of global crisis and social breakdown, one clearly linked to ‘climate change’ (see Geoffrey Parker Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century). It took place during what’s often referred to as ‘The Little Ice Age’, extended over a period of more than one hundred years, and had world-wide consequences. (It’s estimated that it killed as much as one-third of the global human population). It’s important, I think, both to remember that humanity as a whole has faced this type of apocalyptic situation before, but equally to acknowledge that our current situation is very probably considerably more serious. Cathy’s view is, I think, that “looking to past ‘climate’ breakdown situations is too narrow”, since the crisis we face is the consequence of “an ecocidal misperception” that, as Bateson and Guattari realised, “has led to gross alienation of the dominant society’s place in the wider community of life. It is a spiritual crisis of misunderstanding life / consciousness / reality as an interwoven experience”. 

I don’t necessarily disagree. However, the aspect of Carr and Bendell’s approach that most troubles me, as someone who has spent a working lifetime in arts and humanities education, is their particular ‘therapeutic’ approach, one based on an amalgamation of Critical Theory and Buddhism, has the appearance of a single ‘silver bullet’ that overlooks the need for other, alternative, possibilities. I should add that I have no quarrel with their approach in itself. However, I do wonder whether it isn’t oriented by its authors’ underlying intellectual ‘centre of gravity’. One that, in my view, means that their approach will be of help primarily to people who share that ‘centre of gravity’. People in different circumstances, from different backgrounds, and with different ‘centres of gravity’ (that is, who are primarily animated by a physical or emotional orientation), will need to come to deep adaptation via other routes.

Cathy’s own reflections on this are particularly helpful. She tells me that she and many of her network see Joanna Macy’s work, also influenced by Buddhism, as hugely important for deep adaptation: “because she so skillfully connects her early Calvinist worldview – and all the trouble that Christianity entails – with her review that Buddhist philosophy and practices for everyday living are more aligned with an ecological worldview of grounded, impermanent, interconnectedness and compassion”. However, I think what is important here is that Cathy, like me, understands that there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to deep adaptation if it is to be genuinely inclusive.

Significantly, alongside Macy she references Julian of Norwich, Matthew Fox, and Pope, Francis, alongside Sister Chan Khong’s simple but moving book Learning True Love,  an account of her deep innate desire to help the poor in Vietnam and development of more social focussed practices for Buddhists today – ‘engaged Buddhism’. In short, the clear implication for me is that deep adaptation requires acknowledgement of our living in a pluriverse, one in which there will always need to be multiple approaches to deep adaptation that speak in different ways to different people and communities.

It may also be helpful to look at recent periods of trauma in our own ‘backyard’ if we want to start to identify something of these other routes. I’ve just read Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s book Thin Places, an account of how she discovered a sense of self after being traumatised by growing up in Derry as the child of a Protestant father and Catholic mother, during what are euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’. For myself, that book suggests an alternative, more heart-felt route into deep adaptation to that advocated by Bendell and Carr. I would describe her process of adaptation as made possible by something closer to a (secular or ‘pagan’?)  equivalent to the Hindu concept of bhakti, or to the nature mysticism of St. Francis of Assisi, than to Carr and Bendell’s amalgamation of Critical Theory and Buddhism.

I want to stress that in writing this I am not about arguing for or against any particular route into deep adaptation. I simply want to suggest that people oriented differently will need to develop particular forms of deep adaptation via a variety of different approaches. Also that, importantly, this relates to a need to avoid forms of tacit exclusion that relate to, but cannot simply be reduced to, issues of class, race, gender, etc., as well as to the issue of ‘deconstructing’ power on which Carr and Bendell focus. 

Cathy and I may have a different sense of emphasis here, in that she thinks very firmly that: “we have to move toward understanding the ecological catastrophe as a systemic breakdown and that it will need systemic restoration”. A situation that will require the development of “a real fluency” or “ecoliteracy” that enables us all to understand that “environmental and social challenges are always entangled” Her concern is that we must move out of a mindset that can only “focus on just one symptom of our alienation from life, like that its ‘about’ climate change’, or ‘the pandemic’, or the ‘6th great mass species extinction’ event or ‘mass social injustices’.” She adds: “intersectionality here is so important. But this is hard, especially when ecoliteracy and the fact of thinking this way is new… even our Green politics is riven with camps ‘for social’ or ‘for environmental’ progress but not often working together”. The implication being, of course, that there may need to be an agreed, overarching understanding – a common level of ecoliteracy – if we are to grasp what needs to change. While I understand and respect this view, I also wonder whether the best way to achieve the necessary fundamental change of heart is to undertake it incrementally, by enabling the following of the different routes most appropriate to different individuals and communities?  

The issue of what is practical seems central here. Having discussed the practical, group-based elements of Carr and Bendell’s approach with someone better placed to assess their therapeutic value than me, I’m very happy to accept that these are a practical and effective way forward for the constituencies they address. But it also seems to me that there may be an unacknowledged bias (for want of a better word) towards certain types of individual and community here that, as someone involved in education, I want to keep in mind. The historian David Gange, in his The Frayed Atlantic Edge, draws attention to the means by which remote rural ways of life have survived, despite the increasingly absolute dominance of the urban mentalité. Survived in places that have already experienced, within recent historical times, societal collapse and loss of their previous way of life. (And for reasons intimately bound up with the causes of our current socio-environment crisis). As Gange’s account of the activities of Annie MacSween and others show, “enabling loving conversations about our predicament” might equally take place in more social, that’s to say more collectively-oriented, contexts than those implicit in Carr and Bendell’s professionally-oriented therapeutic concern of “safe and confidential settings” to enable people to talk about, for example, death and dying.    

I wrote earlier that, in my view, the “societal collapse’ that Bendell identifies has indeed been unfolding over many years, even in the Global North. This brings me to what I feel is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of beginning the process of deep adaptation.

If by ‘society’ we mean the complex, now global systems that ensure that there is food, shelter, education, energy, etc. to be had by the beneficiaries of the dominant ethos, along with the continued production of techno-scientific ‘advances’ to facilitate those systems, then the ‘society’ promulgated by the ethos often referred to as ‘the Global North’ has yet to collapse. If, however, we mean a civil society, a community of citizens linked by shared (if constantly and democratically debated) values and interests, and by collective, mutually sustaining, collective activity, then arguably that civil society has been collapsing for many years. Or, more accurately, it has been steadily eroded from within. By 1987, for example, Margaret Thatcher could announce to the British public that: “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”. That view is, of course, as operationally absurd, as fundamentally opposed to any form of deep adaptation, as it is inseparable from the mentalité of possessive individualism that has been a principle driver in generating our current eco-social crisis. However, it was and is an understanding that suits those who gain most from the ‘global society’ of consumer capitalism that thrives on the extractive ethos responsible for ever-increasing levels of ecocide and social injustice. We cannot and should not ignore this socio-political reality.

Why does acknowledging these different understandings matter? Because how we each respond, both intellectually and emotionally, to Bendell’s notion of ‘societal collapse’ will inflect, if not wholly determine, how we approach deep adaptation. Unless we keep this in mind, the phrase itself  risks becoming an increasingly empty catch-all, one that masks fundamental differences that can and are being experienced in different ways in different places. This needs to be understood and acknowledged if we are to have any hope of achieving the inclusivity vital to what Cathy refers to as an effective level of ecoliteracy. 

I cannot, and indeed should not, attempt any single, ‘conclusive’, statement that tries to summarise all this. That’s neither possible nor what is needed.  What’s necessary now, surely, is for us to be participants in an ongoing, heart-felt conversation that builds mutual understanding, respect for differences, and trust. One that’s based on a willingness to genuinely listen, learn and acknowledge that, as Ursula Le Guin reminds us, a sense of commonality – with both the human and the more-than-human in the polyverse – begins in a shared acknowledgement of pain. Building that sense of commonality is, I believe, the greatest task we face and, for myself, I take as both comfort and challenge Bruno Latour’s insistence, in Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime that, today, ‘what counts is not knowing whether you are for or against globalisation, for or against the local; all that counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world’ (Italics mine).

‘Creative Engagements with Ecologies of Place: Geopoetics, Deep Mapping and Slow Residencies’ – available now for pre-order from Routledge.

This is the book that professor Mary Modeen and I have been working on for many years and which is due out the end of this year. It is now available for pre-order at a discount on both the paper edition (down to £84.00) and the ebook (down to £25.89) from:

The book explores a varied range of creative engagements with ecologies of place, using geopoetics, deep mapping and slow residency to propose broadly-based collaborations predicated on ‘disciplinary agnosticism’ as an alternative to ‘inter-‘ or ‘trans-‘ disciplinarily.  The book demonstrates the breadth of new creative approaches and attitudes that now challenge assumptions of the solitary genius and a culture of ‘possessive individualism’. Drawing upon a multiplicity of perspectives, the book builds on a variety of differing creative approaches, contrasting ways in which both visual art and the concept of the artist are shifting through engagement with ecologies of place. Through examples of specific established practices in the UK, Australia and USA, and other emergent practices from across the world, it provides the reader with a rich illustration of the ways in which ensemble creative undertakings are reactivating art’s relationship with place and transforming the role of the artist.

We think the book will be of interest to artists, art educators, environmental activists, cultural geographers, place-based philosophers, postgraduate students and to all those concerned with the revival of place as a locus of a new ecosophy through creative work in the twenty-first century.