WRITING FOR THE EARTH CONFERENCE (2/12/23) Conference Report
‘Invoking Action and Empathy for the Planet’
‘In today’s world, the ways that our species works the land, exploits natural resources and treats sustainability are topics of vehement discussion – not least since many believe human activities to be so extensive and so damaging that they are changing the climate’. (Peter Frankopan, The Earth Transformed: An Untold Story, 2023).
This interdisciplinary conference focus is on how to communicate a range of ecocritical
research to a non-academic audience and will draw on the arts and humanities, social
sciences, and marine sciences to explore environmental degradation, from both ecocritical and scientific angles.
On a wintry December morning in the impressive surroundings of Ulster University’s new building a group of early-career and experienced researchers gathered for the second Writing For the Earth Symposium.
The event, expertly organised by Amanda Mironova-Stronge and Conor James, offered a range of papers, discussions and experiences around the theme of “Invoking Action and Empathy for the Planet.” The timing was particularly resonant on a day where, thousands of miles away the ACTUAL chair of COP28 was claiming that “there is ‘no science’ behind demands for phase-out of fossil fuels,”
while closer to home the ACTUAL labour leader of the opposition was praising the woman whose libertarian instincts had precipitated the rush into a world dominated by a kind of corporate colonialism before which mere national governments were cowed and bowed.
The symposium covered issues of language and culture, of speculative fantasy and gritty documentary, of ancient myths and contemporary politics, of computer games and traditional novels in a programme positively buzzing with intersectionality. The event was not only livestreamed via Twitter, but also recorded so will be available in a week or so (editing 8 hours of video does take a bit of time!)
After opening remarks and welcomes from Dr Frank Ferguson and the organisers along with other staff at the University of Ulster who had supported and assisted in developing the event, we went into the first panel of presentations.
Dr Adeline Henry’s opening paper on ‘Landscapes of trouble, landscapes of healing’ shared insights from her creative writing PhD. This looked at how fiction writing in Northern Ireland could work to build empathy with the land through examining rural perspectives on The Troubles. Dr Henry talked about how Jan Carson’s The Firestarters dismantled binaries and non-binaries in a way which is essential to understanding the intricate complexities of our current climate and environmental crises. Dr Henry also discussed the rural setting of her creative practice novel A Quiet Hill, set on a border farm which the protagonist is drawn back to. My takeaways were around how focussing only on the problem can promote an unhelpful paralysis and that empathy is not the only emotion.
Dr Frank Ferguson explored issues of the preservation of language as an artefact in ‘A Love of aul things: Ecological Trauma and Memory in the Ulster-Scots Tradition.’ As with so many nuances of language aul or auld has a subtly different meaning from the mere old – the word carries a sense of respect or love even. After a wonderful evocative reading of an ulster-scots poem about an Aul Teapot (worth seeing the symposium recording just for that) Dr Ferguson posed questions about how far actively engaging with a language was a matter of linguistic practice or colonialist culture war and to what extent the loss of individual words with linguistic culture was analogous to the loss of species within ecosystems. I once did a school assembly on language, comparing words to Lego bricks, and the availability of more complex and intricate bricks/words allows the creation/expression of more detailed/complex models/thoughts. It is fascinating to reflect on how we shape and are shaped by our language. Benedict Andersen in Imagined Communities saw the formalisation of language as part of the architecture of creating separate nations, and thus of labelling us and them – which emphasises the dilemma I find in how the preservation of individual and indigenous linguistic cultures can risk being weaponised in emphasising difference as a means of promoting division.
Amanda Mironova-Stronge then delivered a paper on ‘National Sacrifice Zones: Language Changing Perspectives of Landscapes.’ Mironova-Stronge brought a poet’s perspective to the destruction of native American landscapes through industrial exploitation. It wasn’t simply a matter of the contaminated wasteland created by the Los Alamos project, but the frantic mining across multiple sites of Uranium ore – particularly the precious yellow Uranium Oxide that had poisoned the land. Mironova-Stronge highlighted how poets Ortiz, Alexie and Harjo had written eloquently on this ecocide – the destruction of landscape that is in many ways analogous to the genocide destruction of a people. I was particularly struck by the quote “These lands aren’t our lands, these lands aren’t your lands” because, much as I enjoyed Pete Seeger’s joyful collaborative rendition of his famous song at Barrak Obama’s inauguration, I have found the appropriative aspect of the lyrics somewhat at odds with a progressive mindset. Another line that resonates so much with the paternalism of western/European perspectives on almost any political/environmental/refugee situation was the phrase describing indigenous populations as being “the wrong complexion for protection.” In particular there is a theme recurring through history of supposedly ‘advanced’ exploitative/extractive practices overwhelming allegedly more ‘primitive’ approaches of stewardship of land and resources. Echoing what Goodbody identified as a key challenge for Climate Change Fiction, the poets Mironova-Stronge examined had a strong sense of giving the non-human its due prominence and respect. We humans are not apart from our environment, we are a part of our environment.
The first panel concluded with a recorded paper presented by Chepkemboi Labatt on ‘How religion and/or culture shapes human relationships to landscapes’ Labatt’s paper looked at cultural traditions in East Africa and how an old traditional belief in and care for mizimu as a form of spirits helped in the protection of habitats. Where such beliefs held, people either refrained from removing objects or resources from the habitats or asked for permission. There is then an explicit sense of the environment as an agent in people’s lives, rather than a mere resource to be exploited, a sense too of the respect and concomitant restraint in exploiting those resources. Labatt’s presentation included a telling graphic which showed that, although indigenous peoples amounted to a small proportion of the world’s population (and a far higher proportion of the people living in poverty) such peoples accounted for stewardship of 80% of the world’s ecological diversity.
After a well-catered coffee break which allowed us to enjoy more of the remarkable airy architecture of the forum beside lecture theatre one, we returned for the second quarter of panels.
Svetozar Manev opened the panel with a paper on ‘Reclaiming the Garden: Female power of reshaping landscape of fantasy settings in Anne Bishop’s Sebastian (2006).’ Sebastian is the first in Bishop’s Ephemera series in which Bishop challenges the notion of an imagined fixed secondary world which the reader enters and enjoys through a willing suspension of disbelief. Instead, the interconnected landscapes of Ephemera are mutable and creatable in the hands of world forming magicians like Glorianna Belladonna. She creates the landscape of the Den of Iniquity where the half-incubus Sebastian and other incubi can have a place to live that doesn’t demonise them. Manev considered how Bishop developed the idea of a secondary world described by Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories” mixing notions of Lovelock’s Gaia as an active agent and mythic fairy figures like Melusine and Morgan le Fay to show us fantastic worlds that are malleable and both vulnerable and redeemable through human intervention.
Samuel Poots’ lively paper on ‘Upgrading the Owl House: Fantasy’s Problem with Technology’ took as his subject the Young Adult Disney TV series The Owl House. Poots started by highlighting how fantasy has traditionally eulogised pastoral rural settings and demonised technology, for example in Tolkien’s bucolic imagery of the Shire with Treebeard and Sam as guardians of nature while Saruman with his machines of iron and steel is the epitome of evil. Magic is then perceived as the ‘good’ alternative to technology. The Owl House is a portal fantasy setting where humans are transported to a world built on the body of a titan. In this world pure heroes manipulate magic by themselves where the evil characters require some element of artificiality or machinery to harness that power, thus creating an apparent conflict between magic/nature and technology. However, the means by which the unmagical protagonist becomes able to harness magic through glyphs rather than machinery implies a sustainable form of technology and the potential to engage in hopeful activism as warriors of peace rather than allegedly luddite cave dwellers.
Where Poots had taken us from the written word to the TV screen, Nicole Hamilton’s paper ‘”All of this has happened before, and it will happen again”: The Eternal Return in the Legend of Zelda” brought the world of computer gaming into the mix. I found that a most welcome excursion. Over the course of human existence the media through which we consume story has shifted from oral traditions, to the written word, to cinematic representations and now to the world of games. With games’ combination of story, visual and interactive elements – not to mention the reach of this multi-billion dollar industry – this is a medium through which environmental messages can be delivered and interrogated. Hamilton highlighted the cyclical nature of the story and also the breathtaking quality of the graphics giving a real sense of awe and wonder to players as they experience the world of Hyrule for the first time. Hamilton’s study focussed on a sequential pair of games Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. The first game’s much-loved settings had suffered environmental degradation in the second, with the character Link as the personified everyman delivering an activist narrative. One questioner did ask how far there had been any study of the impact of playing the game on player attitudes. I know that Matthew Schneider-Mayerson has done research into the uncertain impact of cli-fi novels on reader attitudes to climate change. However, video games as another vehicle to potentially shift attitudes are ripe for a study of impact – though to be fair, maybe the video game playing generation is not the one activism most needs to reach!
The second panel concluded with a recorded presentation by Wambua Muindi on “Intersectionality and Climate Justice in (East) Africa: insights from reading Wangari Maathai’s Autobiography.” Wangari Maathai was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace prize, being awarded it in 2004 for her contribution to “sustainable, development democracy and peace” in her native Kenya. The title of the autobiography “unbowed” reflects the tumultuous opposition that Maathai faced throughout her life of activism, emerging unbowed from political persecution, physical assault and unjust imprisonment. Muindi’s presentation highlighted how Maathai recognised the entanglement of issues of democracy, environmental degradation, women’s rights in underpinning Kenya’s problems. He also pointed to her legacy in the work being perpetuated by Elizabeth Wathuti as chair of the Africa Youth Council and Vanessa Nakate as a climate justice activist. Of the conclusions Muindi drew from Maatha’s work three in particular resonated with me: Tying the concept of justice to the climate cause; collectivising our approach to climate action; and staying the course. And certainly Maathai’s resilience epitomised staying the course!
After a generous and tasty lunch we reconvened in the afternoon for something rather different. An introduction to, partial viewing of, and discussion about the award-winning environmental film Ophir.
Before the excerpt from the film was played, Professor Kristian Lasslett, one of its producers, filled us in on the context of the island nation of Bougainville – known to its indigenous people as Ophir, a modest 190km long by 60km wide with a population of a few hundred thousand which had been in the grip of imperial and then corporate colonialism from 1884 up to its recent independence referendum.
Lying North of Australia at the Western edge of the Solomon islands, Bougainville had been named for the first European to make contact with the island, the French Explorer Louise de Bougainville in 1768. In the scramble for empire it was first annexed by Germany on 1884 and then ceded to Australia in the aftermath of the First World War. Professor Lasslett frankly admitted that – despite being a ‘victim’ of British Colonialism, Australia’s poor treatment of its own first nations is reflected in its attitude towards the indigenous people of its own colonial empire.
While Bougainville secured independence from Australia in 1975, this was as part of the nation of Papua New Guinea, and the Australian industry had already positioned itself to exploit the newly independent nation’s considerable mineral resources with a massive Copper and Gold mine deep in the country’s central mountain range. While the indigenous people of Ophir/Bougainville had seen themselves as custodians of nature, this massive mine destroyed ecosystems, cultures and communities.
Ultimately that triggered a rebellion with acts of sabotage to shut down the mine and then heavy handed intervention from the Papua New Guinea government with considerable support from Australia and the mine’s parent company Rio Tinto Zinc to blockade the island, supress the rebellion and provide necessary materiel to reimpose the profitable corporate exploitation of the island’s resources. The Rebellion became a war that lasted nearly a decade and claimed the lives of 20,000 of the Bougainville’s population of 200,000.
The Truce of 1997 turned into a peace treaty in 2001 with a proviso that Bougainville could have a referendum on independence, but the vote wasn’t held until 2019 when 98.1% voted for full independence to be achieved by 2027 – alarmingly the referendum is not binding on the Papua New Guinea government.
An earlier 2001 film The Coconut Revolution had praised the success of the blockaded islanders in finding and using their own resources to fight back, including coconut derived diesel. Although the 2001 film had a triumphant hopeful depiction of victory progress since had been less certain. Victory is never the end in any war! In particular Bougainville itself had had no opportunity, resource or support to memorialise the struggle. With the impending loss through old age of those eye-witness memories of the original struggles of the late 60s as the mine was established, or even of the war itself, Professor Lasslett and his team were keen to record in documentary form the experience of a nation victimised by commercial capitalism.
Professor Lasslett spoke about how his original concept of documentary making was upended by the experienced counsel of his fellow film makers. Rather than going out to find the evidence to tell the story that he thought he already knew, the reality he discovered was “the story finds you.” It was interesting how that western paternalist instinct to dictate the story, echoed the colonialist instinct to ‘civilise’ indigenous peoples and develop(exploit) their resources. With the documentary as with the stewardship of the land, the proper response was to let the people tell their own story, to help reveal their narrative, rather than impose ours.
The outcome, even from seeing just the first 12 minutes or so, was a remarkable film that mixed present day testimony with old footage from newsreel and corporate promotional propaganda.
Professor Lasslett pointed out how, in his own experience, decolonisation enriches us by allowing us to hear indigenous voices. He picked up three of his own takeaways from the film making process.
- The indigenous speaker who asserted “The war started in 1884 not 1988” – colonialism was always an invasion and a suppression of what lay there before.
- Cultural destruction is real violence, beyond violence against the body. Where westerners dismissed the Bougainville rebellions and resistance as fuelled by a demand for more money Professor Lasslett pointed out that people do not willingly sacrifice their lives for money, they do so for something more permanent that their own life, for their culture, their way of life – that which came before them and endures after them and which exploitative and extractive colonialism threatens with violent destruction.
- The observation from one interviewee that the “white man” asserts our revolutions are for the benefit of all humanity, for ideals like liberty and equality, while the “black man’s” revolutions are portrayed as being born out of greed. Yet the Bougainville revolution was one for the benefit of all humanity, for a universal principle of safeguarding nature – it was an eco-revolution.
Within the clip, there was one quote that caught the attention of many in the audience as one speaker described the issue with “the foreigner” being that “the problem was created in his own land” but he brought it to Bougainville. That seems to sum the fundamental issues with colonialism and capitalism, the exporting of problems through the extraction of resources and labour.
Dr Stephen Butler chaired a panel discussion with Professor Lasslett, Dr Radhika Borde, Dr James Ward and Dr Chris McGonigle. There was much to talk about and the discussion could have gone on way beyond the available time.
There were interesting insights into the patronising attitudes of western industrialists and politicians assuming their experts knew better than the astute indigenous people. In the ways our cultures “advance” we assume that they are reaching some pinnacle that sets them above other cultures, rather than accepting that they are diverging, more than advancing, in ways which set them apart from rather than superior to other cultures. For example while we might think our computer age personas infinitely superior to that of medieval times, those people had context specific knowledge and understanding that enabled him to survive and thrive in their environments in ways we no longer could.
The panel considered the question “Why are more films like Ophir not made, funded or shown on mainstream media?” Professor Lasslett explained that despite its success at film festivals Ophir had yet to break out into say Netflix or other companies. One might detect the cold dead hand of commercialism’s pursuit of low-risk profit – I mean how many cloned Hallmark Christmas movie plots will we all be subjected to this month! Media today seems designed for a mix of outrage (controversy generates click bait) and safety (give them what we tell them we know they want). Its potential as an educator (outside some sterling work by local news) seems to have been lost through amalgamation into commercial media monoliths. (Just as our agriculture and industry have lost that diversity and fragmentation that protects it and us from environmental or economic shocks.)
Dr Borde spoke interestingly about a successful environmental movement in her native India where a group of activists had effectively resisted the development of a steel mine through espousing the language and imagery of the film Avatar. This extended even as far as going garbed in blue cos-play to protest outside the business’s London offices and ultimately forced a Supreme Court decision to hold a Green Referendum on the steel plant proposal. This mix of fiction, fact and theatre in making protest effective was interesting to me having just read Martha Wells’ System Collapse where again an exploitative commercial entity is poised to annex in body and spirit a group of stranded colonists.
[Spoiler alert] The System Collapse plot twist depends on the good guys generating a film mixing extracts from fiction and hard evidence to make a persuasive case for the colonists that shows what harm the antagonist corporation will bring to them. [End Spoiler] The idea of fiction as activism, the lie that tells a truth is a powerful one – and one that can cut through the emotive manipulation of corporate messaging with a different kind of hopeful emotion laden imagery.
After a short comfort break, we then regrouped for the final panel of papers
Anjuli Grantham opened the session with her paper on ‘Seeking Regenerative Heritage Practice’ Grantham opened by bluntly summarising the crisis facing Northern Ireland’s own freshwater resource Lough Neagh in four C’s, Crap, Climate Change, Colonisation and Capitalism. She went on to highlight the difference between regeneration and sustainability. Where the latter is a zero-sum objective of extraction matching replenishment, the former is a matter of replenishing our depleted environment and is not just about sustainability for humans, but also for non-humans. In discussing heritage Grantham emphasised that old things by themselves do not constitute heritage but that it is our ways of interacting with those old things that fashions knowing. In particular effective heritage practice is about perpetuation rather than preservation. We are not sealing our histories and artefacts in amber to be eternally unchanged, but allowing them to continue to develop. This struck a chord with me given so much right-wing rhetoric is about appealing to an eternal nostalgia for a past that never was, while religion is constantly confounded by its claims to perfect and immutable knowledge in a world and culture that remorselessly continues to change and develop. In Grantham’s eye, regenerative heritage is an alternative to neoliberalism and capitalism with the potential for the creative capacity of humans to be harnessed across an intergenerational stewardship role. Certainly, as Kim Stanley Robinson highlighted in Ministry of Truth one of the main constraints on climate action is the economic discounting of the future. The depreciation in accounting value attributed to uncertain future lives means measures to protect them will lose out to contemporary urgencies in any cost-benefit analysis. In the notion of Regenerative Heritage Practice we may have a path to weight the future just as significantly as we weight the present.
It was then my turn as Matthew (aka T.O.) Munro to deliver my paper on “Preaching to the Unconverted: The Chance and the challenge for cli-fi.” I looked at how cli-fi has evolved and needs to evolve from presenting inchoate warning of dystopic futures to more nuanced narratives. Stories that interrogate the full spectrum of culpabilities for the climate crisis, that model action and offer hope for the future, that acknowledge the grief that people naturally feel for the passing of the fossil fuel age. Some fiction (eg Ross Clark’s The Denial) pushes the emotive messaging of the climate change denialist/inactivist lobby suggesting that it is the ‘unnecessary’ response to climate change that will make us colder and poorer, rather than the crisis itself. However, with much reading already siloed – climate change deniers unlikely to pick up or engage with a work of cli-fi – we need trojan horse narratives that approach the theme through other genres. In particular though, cli-fi needs to depict and address the mix of malicious misinformation, toxic inequality and human emotive susceptibilities that have been so powerful in stimulating apathy (?!) towards the climate crisis.
Dr Peter Doran then spoke on ‘Art of the Wellbeing Economy – Towards a Community of Practice.’ This was by way of a [public service announcement ahead of the call for an All Ireland Wellbeing economy hub that would foreground the role of story, of cultural creatives in raising visibility and understanding of this ‘beyond growth’ vision for the economy. While I was struck by the mnemonic Wellbeing Economy ALLiance – capturing how we are all in this together, I also enjoyed Dr Doran’s reference to ‘more than human.’ So much of the symposium had addressed issues of intersectionality and interdependence between humanity and nature, but this idea of ‘more than human’ seemed to capture the relationship with nature more respectfully and appropriately than ‘non-human.’ Besides outline the principles that inform the Well Being Alliance’s work, Dr Doran discussed how a social movement needs to develop into a community of practice if it is to become a system of influence. It put me in mind of a quote about hope from Matthew@CrowsFault on Twitter.
“People speak of hope as if it is this delicate, ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It’s not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of the cobblestones in her hair, and just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.”
The final panel concluded with a prerecorded paper by Ishmael Bernard Nimrod on ‘Echoes of the Kayas: Guardians of Collective Wisdom and Nature.” Nimrod’s work was linked to Labatt’s earlier presentation in looking at the role of mizimu in how communities in East Africa interacted with and respected landscapes. This had developed under Dr Chris McGonigle’s supervision as the researchers interrogated how far older belief systems aided stewardship of the land. The kayas are forested enclosures where people leave offerings to the mizimu as a sign of respect and gratitude for the resources that they are able to access. The existence of a Kaya within a forest gives that forest a cultural protection enforced by a council of elders. However, Nimrod’s work and highlighted how with the arrival of more formal religion and the economic pressures pulling young people away, the tradition of a hereditary councils of elders was no longer being passed on and with the loss of the kayas, came a loss of forest. Nimrod suggested a need for kayas to be restored and community education to re-energise that stewardship role.
We then moved on to the final session of the symposium, the keynote address from Dr Radhika Borde on ‘Seeing the Demons we will become: Forecasting human-induced climate change and catastrophe in an Indigenous Indian Myth.’
The myth Dr Borde wanted to tell us about involved the indigenous Asur people deemed a vulnerable group within Dr Borde’s home state of Jharkhand. The Asur share a similar name with the Sanskrit term Asura used for the demons of Indian myth in conflict with the gods or Divas, and this association is something of a stigma for the Asur. During the Hindu festival of Dusserha to celebrate the goddess Durga’s victory against the demon Mahishasura the asur go through a period of mourning that emphasises their apartness and potential demonic associations.
The asur as a people were great technocrats with prowess ins melting iron that wouldn’t rust, a practice that was outlawed and driven underground by the British who feared the asur’s ability to make formidable weapons.
Dr Borde discovered the myth of the Asur in a British University library in an accident of serendipity that changed the subject of her master’s dissertation and steered her back to the asur people. In the myth the night and day forging activities of the asur cause conflict with the locval populace. Negotiations fail when the asur refuse even to suspend operations during night time and their exasperated neighbours call for divine intervention. The asur are tricked, their menfolk entering a furnace in a promise of great power if the womenfolk will pump the bellows. Inevitably the menfolk are incinerated as punishment for their hubris while the womenfolk are scattered into rivers and forests to become spirits charged with protecting and preserving these places.
The modern asur view the myth with a mix of guilt and nostalgia, a sense of pride in the skills and power of their mythic antecedents, and yet an acceptance of culpability for the hybris and environmental abuse that went with non-stop iron working. My takeaway was to ask – are we the modern asurs? Do we need that mix of guilt for the past and commitment to a future of environmental stewardship. This resonated with my reading of Sarah Dimick’s writing about the continuum of guilt for the climate crisis, a spectrum on which we all stand at a point of at least partial guilt. We need a sophisticated and textured sense of our culpability that avoids dividing us into binaries of good/bad, that avoids forcing us to look on our past as an unmitigated crime, that avoids paralysing us with resentment as Barbara Kingsolver’s protagonist in Flight Behaviour puts it “If I’m the redneck in the pickup, fine, let me just go burn up some gas.”
With the symposium rounded of by Dr Borde’s speech and multiple thanks given to supporting agencies, academics and especially the organisers Conor and Amanda, we decanted to the adjoiming forum. There we enjoyed some wine and nibbles fuelled conviviality, setting the world to rights, exchanging contact details and accompanied by the excellent singing of Grainne Milner-Mcloone who regaled us with a range of soulful songs, including a number of her own composition.
All in all it was an outstanding event that gave me so much food for thought.