9 January 2020
2020. Surprising sunshine. Rain when you don’t expect it (and when you do). Climate marches. Flooded burns, burst banks. Grey summers. Protests. Greta. Typhoons. Pop songs. Emaciated polar bears. The pure, silent blue of an icecap slipping into the sea. Avocado toast. Cycling. Second-hand shops. Rich, dark oil. Greed. Science. Acronyms. Summits. Guilt? Optimism?
Sometimes, at meetings or conferences, when I share what I do with people who work in the Sustainability sector, they’re surprised.
Engineers, scientists, civic representatives – and an orchestral manager? The connection is, I admit, perhaps not as clear.
When I explain, I try to say something like this:
I believe that creative responses to the climate crisis can occupy a unique space in the model of individual, systemic and societal change that will need to occur in the next ten years.
Formed of individual observations, perceptions and feelings, but shared with audiences at a local, national and international level – physically and digitally – creative responses to the climate crisis can act as lightning rods to transmit ideas and feelings farther, faster, and more powerfully.
Art, and especially performances, are about communication. A message, a medium, and an audience. An exchange. The process of creating something is the process of considering how to frame an idea so that it can create a personal experience for, and an emotional response in, your audience – be it an audience of one, a hundred, or a thousand.
Artworks and performances can translate as they transmit: humanising, incentivising and collectivising difficult and complex facts, transmuting these, perhaps, into feeling, into understanding, into ‘getting it’.
The climate crisis is complex. Fascinatingly, painfully, singularly complex. It’s linked to every aspect of our global society and this year, perhaps more than any other, it’s seemed to be felt across it.
Politicians met; school children struck; activists protested; Blue Planet 2 probably made you cry. Australia, Africa and the Amazon burned. Plastic straws disappeared. So did glaciers.
Societies across the world are, all at once, realising the need for action. This is because individuals like you and I are realising the need for change. Though difficult and, yes, complex, I see it as an opportunity. Optimism over pessimism; excitement over fear; our feelings about change bobbing like an iceberg somewhere between the poles of each dichotomy.
Change lies at the heart of the matter. If we can change sufficiently, quickly enough (11 years and counting), we will be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – the aim of the 2015 Paris Agreement, unanimously signed by 196 states around the world. Doing so will limit the irreparable damage we are doing to the world, and to the trillions of plants, animals and humans that inhabit it.
Change is something that humanity as a whole has historically excelled at (welcome to the Anthropocene). But it is also something that humans as individuals often struggle with. Diets. Moving flat. Losing a loved one. This tension interests me.
Another thing that interests me about climate change is the relationship between the differing scales of change that are necessary: large-scale societal change, intermediary systems change, and individual changes to mindsets and lifestyles. The three scales are inextricably linked and each influences the others. If one doesn’t change, the others can’t.
To take a basic example: if recycling bins are not provided by the local authority, no one can recycle. But even if they are provided, no one will meaningfully recycle, unless they individually separate their plastic and paper, rinse their glass bottles and tins, and believe in why they are doing so.
Change at each level is required – simultaneously. And that’s what makes it so challenging.
This model of moving parts is one that is complex in a truly vast sense. I think that a fundamental part of the Anthropocene experience is to live amidst human systems and processes that no one individual can fully understand or control. Think of the global economy, or an international airport, even.
The solution to this, I believe, is to work together. To collaborate. To listen with the goal of understanding something new. The contribution of the individual to a larger whole; sharing personal experiences to contribute a piece to the larger puzzle.
Now I would like to think of a poem.
I would like us to step for a moment into the landscape of Edwin Morgan’s 1984 ‘Slate’.
Join me. The air is fresh on your face. There is a distant rumbling sound. You can feel rock move under your feet:
There is no beginning. We saw Lewis
laid down, when there was not much but thunder
and volcanic fires; watched long seas plunder
faults; laughed as Staffa cooled. Drumlins blue as
bruises were grated off like nutmegs; bens,
and a great glen, gave a rough back we like
to think the ages must streak, surely strike,
seldom stroke, but raised and shaken, with tens
of thousands of rains, blizzards, sea-poundings
shouldered off into night and memory.
Memory of men! That was to come. Great
in their empty hunger these surroundings
threw walls to the sky, the sorry glory
of a rainbow. Their heels kicked flint, chalk, slate.
Originally written as a response to the unsuccessful 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, the poem, in the words of fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke, reads, in 2019, like ‘a love poem to the earth’ – a view that framed he and Kit Downes’ new composition There is no beginning, commissioned and premiered by Scottish Ensemble in November 2019.
Morgan’s text sets us down, startlingly, in the middle of a most un-Anthropogenic narrative (into the Eocene period, 60 million years ago, if we’d like to be precise).
Here, the fabric of the earth is friable, pliable. Mountains, rocks, the very elements of the earth are being created by forces bigger than humanity – and we can watch. It’s a space of almost unfathomable change (the thought of Staffa ‘cooling’, fresh, like bread or molten metal).Even with the most advanced industrial techniques today, we can’t ‘grate’ mountains like nutmeg (here again I have visions of avocado toast and cinnamon in coffee shops and the feeling of realising I know nothing whatsoever about the hills they were grown on or the farmers who grew them).
Ultimately, entering into the poem is so remarkable because it is a space of unfettered formation, of ungentle generation. Today, any image of nature is instantly met with thoughts of threat, loss and destruction. But not here. Here, natural resources are not being consumed, depleted, destroyed – the ipso facto of contemporary life – they are forming, coagulating, crystallising. It is a space of prismatic plenty – coalescing chords of matter, unstopped by humans. ‘Memory of men! That was to come’.
And yet, in the face of this unpeopled vastness, there is a humanity at the heart of the poem – the gorgeous tactility of the words. You can feel on your tongue the different contours and surfaces of imagined stones beneath your feet: ‘Slate, chalk, flint.’ And there is tenderness in this tactility: ‘stroke’, ‘shouldered’, ‘bruises’ – we meet skin just below the surface of each image.
Despite the scale of its setting, there is undoubtedly a human figure at the heart of the poem. But during the span of the short text, the order of things seems to have been formed anew – the globe, for a moment, is anthropocentric no longer. We are part of a larger ecosystem: of language, of history, of time and the environment.
If we share the laugh in the poem, it is not a laugh of power or dominion. It is one of equal parts astonishment and liberation – we are amazed and invigorated.
Why do people usually struggle with change? I think about this a lot.
I think there is a world of difference between the feeling that external change is happening to us (being imposed upon us), and that we are making change (choosing it).
In many ways, however, this difference is merely a shift in mindset, in attitude.
Change, like music, exists in time. It would be imperceptible without memory. And this is perhaps the hinge at its heart: the relationship between past and future. If we hold onto the past too tightly, change will feel like loss. If we can think of the future, it will feel like opportunity.
It moves from something that is done to us, to something we are doing.
It becomes, essentially, creative.
Here are some ideas of how you can reduce your carbon footprint.
Firstly, I would recommend gaining as accurate a picture of it as you can. From data can come informed action.
You can change your diet. There are many benefits to doing so.
You can drive less. There are many benefits to doing so.
You can fly less. There are many benefits to doing so.
You’re probably already recycling. But are you re-using or swapping? Repairing? Have you thought about a circular economy?
Have you spoken to other people? Your colleagues, or employer? Have you learned from them? Or taught them something?
Write to elected officials. Attend a march or protest. Change your bank. Find something you care about, and use that as a way in.
Be creative. (There are many benefits to doing so.)
Change is essential. It’s also inevitable.
We all need to alter our behaviours and expectations in quite fundamental ways – starting now.
Our systems need to shift. Society, fundamentally, needs to change. But think of this as an opportunity. Think about your spheres of influence, and how you can interact on these different levels: individual, systemic and societal.
It is complex, but that doesn’t mean it always needs to feel complicated. It can be simple. It can be creative.
For example – if you walk rather than drive, it will feel like fresh air on your face.
Scott Crawford Morrison is a writer, musician and arts manager interested in the role culture can play in society’s response to the climate crisis.