by Stan Hirst
Have just watched the excellent film Metamorphosis.
In its prologue the film seeks to bear witness to a moment of profound change – the loss of one world, and the birth of another. The film exposes us to scenes of forest fires consuming communities, species vanishing, and entire ecosystems collapsing. It is a graphic portrayal of economic growth being tightly bound to an increased speed of resource extraction, in turn creating a system with the potential to destroy most of Earth’s biological systems. Humanity is being transformed by the very environmental crises humanity has created. But, as filmmakers and narrators Velcrow Ripper and Nova Ami tell us, the crisis also presents a huge set of opportunities for transformation.
We humans cannot afford to ignore the ecological curses that we have released in our search for warmth and comfort. Through engineering, exploitation and transformation we have opened tens of thousands of Pandora’s boxes. Environmental disasters and threats have expanded beyond regional boundaries to a global extent and are multiplying at a dizzying rate. On a regular basis, we are reminded that we are running out of time. Year after year, faster and faster, consumption outpaces the biological capacity of our planet. Stories of accelerated catastrophe and impending apocalypse and collapse come thick and fast.
Christof Mauch, Director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany, points out that the most prominent characteristic of our Anthropocene epoch is acceleration. For thousands of years, and well into early modern times, populations and economies saw little or no growth. Anthropologists have estimated that Middle Age households in Europe owned fewer than 30 objects in average; by 1900 this number had increased to 400, and by 2020 to 15,000.
The acceleration of human production, consumption and travel has completely altered world ecosystems. Species extinction, deforestation, damming of rivers, occurrence of floods, ecological degradation of ocean systems – all are accelerating. If represented graphically, the curve for all these changes looks rather like that well-known hockey stick: with little change over millennia and a dramatic upswing over the past decades.
The unavoidable question arises as to what we can do about this “race to the bottom”.
We can now both envisage and actually view our planet as a whole. So far that has not lead to setting Earth on a safer trajectory to the future. Clearly it will require a lot more than a few great strokes of global genius and technological brilliance. A truly sustainable future is much more likely to come from many small acts rather than a few overarching masterstrokes.
Global climate change and environmental degradation are not actually technological problems. They are really political issues that are informed by powerful political and economic interests. Moreover, if history is any sort of useful guide, we can safely assume that any major transformations on the same scale as before will once again be followed by another huge set of unintended consequences.
To counter the growing fears of disaster we need to identify stories, visions and actions that actually work quietly towards a more hopeful future. Instead of one big narrative, a blockbuster story of unexpected rescue by some or other larger-than-life heroes, we need multiple stories of efforts, successes, innovations, and the like.
Princeton University Rob Nixon has developed the term “slow violence” to characterize the violence wrought by climate change, deforestation, oil spills, the environmental aftermath of war, and other typical forms of environmental degradation which take place gradually and often unnoticed. He contrasts our blasé attitude to these impacts with the sensational, spectacle-driven messaging that impels most public activism. Slow violence is largely ignored by profit-driven capitalism but is key in exacerbating the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people dependent on natural resources but who are too poor and/or disempowered to counter the environmental and social consequences.
To counter the concept and degrading effects of slow violence Christof Mauch has coined the countervailing term slow hope. This is largely an identifier of visions and paths that will help imagine a different, more just, and more ecological world.
A prime example of the power of small, grassroots movements to make changes that resonate beyond their place of origin is the can be seen with the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in the 1980s. There, as in most parts of the world, the rise of fast-food restaurants had produced a society of cheap, sterile, industrially-made foodstuffs. Under the leadership of Carlo Petrini, the Slow Food movement began in Piedmont, a region of Italy with a long history of poverty and violence. The Slow Food movement engendered a transformation to traditional food cultures based on native plants and breeds of animals. Slow Food today operates in more than 160 countries and has given rise to thousands of projects around the globe typified by egalitarian politics, food sovereignty, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.
Economic interests were at the core of this understanding of trees and forests. It would take more than three centuries before scientists began to understand that timber production is not the only, and possibly not the most important, function of forests. The late 19th and early 20th century saw an increasing recognition that forests serve as habitats for countless animal and plant species that all rely on each other. They take over protective functions against soil erosion and landslides; they make a significant contribution to the water balance as they prevent surface runoff; they filter dirt particles, greenhouse gases and radioactive substances from the air; they produce oxygen; they provide spaces for recreation and they preserve historic and prehistoric remains. As a result, forests around the world have been set aside as parks or wilderness areas.
The rise of the idea of the environment and a scholarly understanding of ecological processes has influenced new technologies and also politics. We have come to ask questions about vulnerability and risk, and the relationship between nature and power. The search for an adequate response to climate change occupies centre stage in international diplomacy.
According to Christof Mauch we need stories and histories of change and transformation. We need ecological stories that make us confront the fact that human power is potentially destructive, and that the survival of our species on this planet depends on the preservation of soil and water, and the habitats and ecological systems. It is time to show successes and accelerations in ecological awareness, action and restoration.