Blog

Personal Reflections on Decolonisation of the Earth Sciences: Am I creating space? Or occupying space?

This commentary is an expansion on my presentation at the 2022 session on Scientific Neocolonialism.

 

Thank you to EGU for creating the space for this vital conversation, to the organisers and to my fellow speakers, and to all of you for coming.

I would like to start with a statement on positionality.  I have white privilege.  Male privilege.  Cishet privilege. I did grow up in rural poverty; we were farmers and we were poor, and I was a first generation University student. But I did have access to education, and I certainly am no longer working class, no matter how deep the roots may be.  Perhaps of equal importance is my institutional privilege.  I work in a discipline – the geosciences generally and organic geochemistry specifically – that has been built on a legacy of exploitation and extraction; and I work for a relatively stable and secure University that inherited and built – and arguably still builds – its wealth on the back of colonial practices.

As such, I was invited by the organisers to use that privileged position to speak honestly and forthrightly about the historical and ongoing failings of our discipline.  And to acknowledge my own failings.

I do, however, have some ambivalence about participating.  I think it is the obligation of those with privilege – especially those like myself – to do the labour, especially the risky and emotionally taxing labour in talking about difficult topics.  However, I also recognise that in doing so, I am occupying a seat that might have been better filled by someone who lacks my privilege and would benefit from this platform.

Am I creating space? Or occupying space?

I’ll return to this.  And it is an important theme that has pre-occupied me in every role I have taken – from accepting or declining conference invitations to joining NERC’s Science Committee to becoming Head of School . But for now let me say to my colleagues who share my privilege ‘get use to this feeling of discomfort and learn to live with it.’ This discomfort is essential to the decolonial efforts, as is taking any criticism with dignity.

**********************************************************

I am not an expert; I am a geochemist.  Like many of us who are struggling with the colonial aspects of the Earth Sciences, I am here as one who has not done as well as I should, wants to do better, and expects all of us – especially the senior leaders of the field – to do the same. However, I have been fortunate enough to learn from colleagues across disciplines. Due to the dearth of expertise in STEM subjects I have often been invited to serve on panels such as these, including the NERC/AHRC Hidden Histories Advisory Group and Bristol’s Decolonising the Curriculum Working Group.  I have also learned from more grass roots radical movements at the University of Bristol, from staff who demand our institution more actively confront its colonial legacies. In all of these, I have tried to be honest about the limitations of my expertise, my genuine desire to learn and my commitment to sharing what I learn from the actual experts.

And the one thing that I have learned is that the legacy of colonialism is pervasive, and that our decolonisation journey will be long and challenging.  And necessary.  @Jairo_I_Funez is a powerful scholar in this space and I hope he does not mind me borrowing a quote of his from Twitter: ‘In practice, the world isn’t divided in silos: colonial, racist, capitalist, & patriarchal silos. These are entangled & distinctly expressed according to geography. Analytically we can try to separate them but in reality they are entangled systems of domination and exploitation.  People seem to really want straightforward manuals for this stuff but that in itself is part of the problem. It isn’t simple or fair because reality isn’t simple or fair.”

So let us talk about the entangled systems of domination and exploitation, in my own career and in our discipline.

**********************************************************

I owe a lot to my supervisors and colleagues who helped set me on a strong path during my PhD training.  They taught me to respect other disciplines and expertise, in particular warning me away from scientific hubris and thinking that my new fancy analytical toy can solve the problems that others have struggled with for decades.  Or if we do solve them, to acknowledge that we could not have done so without that previous labour.  Building from that, it is inescapable that we recognise that science is a community, with the vast majority of successes achieved not by a single genius but by a community of scholars who sometimes argue but always centre a constructive and collaborative approach to building knowledge. This is particularly true of the Earth Sciences, where we must collaborate to drill a core through an ice sheet, send a seismometer to Mars, or build a decades long field campaign.

But this inevitably demands that we ask “who is that community?”  Our discipline has been profoundly guilty of helicopter or parasitic science, sometimes cynically so and sometimes with good intentions.  But regardless of the motivations, it excludes scholars from the global south, marginalised groups and indigenous peoples.  Robyn Pickering spoke powerfully about this in her presentation.  So here I want to share that I have made these same mistakes.

You can look through my publication record and find many examples of these: collaborations with New Zealand colleagues that failed to acknowledge the Māori peoples on whose occupied land we worked; collections of samples from exotic locations with which I calibrated palaeoclimate proxies but failed to include local collaborators.  Perhaps the most striking example is my work on arsenic contamination in Cambodian aquifers; this is work that I am very proud of as it helped resolve the biogeochemical mechanisms underpinning As mobilisation.  But our earliest work included no local collaborators, to the detriment of the science, to the detriment of the uptake of our findings, to the detriment of colleagues in Cambodia working on these issues.  [I no longer work in this area, having ‘passed the baton’ to my postdoc who is now at Manchester, but I am glad to see that this group now works in thriving collaboration with Cambodian colleagues.]

There have been times that I have engaged more appropriate practice in terms of collaboration and co-production.  Our palaeoclimate work in Tanzania featured strong collaborations with Tanzanian geoscientists, especially the wonderful Joyce Singano.  In doing so, funding was passed from the UK to Tanzania and prestige was shared, benefitting their careers and their institutions.  This is not theoretical – these decisions have real and immediate consequences and impacts.   So why do we not do it all the time? I have been as guilty as anyone of using the argument that ‘there are no scholars in that area in this country’, but surely that should prompt a number of questions: i) how hard have we really looked; ii) if not, then should we not have a long-term vision of collaboratively building that community; iii) should we not work in an area or a topic if we cannot do it equitably and inclusively?

But I suspect that much of our current neocolonial practices arise from naivety.  We just do not think about these issues.  But naivety is not an excuse for those of who work in institutions of wealth and privilege, are funded by intuitions of wealth and privilege, and work in countries made wealthy by colonial exploitation.  We cannot afford the luxury of being ignorant of our power and influence.

I think that helicopter or parasitic science is the most obvious manifestation of neocolonial practices that persist in our discipline. However, decolonisation is an act of continual reflection, self-critique and learning and that means understanding the complexities in even some superficially strong local collaborations.  I increasingly work with scholars in Panama and Colombia, but often those scholars are part of their own nations’ colonial legacies with their own problematic relationships with indigenous peoples.  Complex legacies of colonialism persist in Africa. Geopolitical complications haunt my collaborations with China, especially in places such as Tibet.

Having said that, I am drifting dangerously close to whataboutery, and I refuse to allow that; I raise these issues not for deflection but to set myself on a path towards ever deeper reflection. The complexity of these issues must not stop action today, and there is nothing preventing us from engaging directly with the colonial sins in our own house.  (For these reasons, Hidden Histories chose to focus solely on British colonialism.)

**********************************************************

Decolonisation is about more than diversity and inclusivity, although there is certainly a strong connection between our decolonial and EDI efforts and I do not think one can be legitimate without the other.  Decolonisation is ultimately about agency and power, and addressing that entails challenging the assumptions deeply embedded in our practice and that of our discipline. Our discipline is based on extraction and exploitation.  We pillaged fossils from all over the world, a practice that continues to this day, often in direct violation of the laws of that country.  Our discipline can display an appallingly arrogant and patriarchal view towards the Earth and land, often in direct conflict with those who live on it.   Mary Anning was funded by the enslavement of people – Henry de la Beche, her sponsor and first President of the Palaeontological Association, was an apalling person who acquired great wealth through his slavery inheritance.

Our entire discipline has been instrumental in the exploitation of fossil fuel and mineral resources and the people who live on that land, and we still are.

We must constantly explore and engage with that.  And we certainly must not try to create artificial silos that we pretend can exonerate us from those obligations. I am an organic geochemist, with colleagues, friends and former students who work in the oil and gas sector. I ended my own research collaborations with those industries about 15 years ago – but that was driven by environmental and climate change concerns rather than decolonial ones.  This was a dangerously narrow view that elevated some forms of harm over others.  If we do not include decolonial aspects in our thinking and our science and our practice, we are going to replicate past harms and perpetuate new inequalities under the banner of biodiversity preservation and renewable energy.

It has become quite trendy in our discipline to talk about the necessity of geology – especially economic and resource geology – to a post-fossil fuel future dependent not on oil but copper, cobalt and lithium.  This is true.  But we cannot build a green future on green colonialism (and arguably such an effort, in discarding indigenous knowledge, would be doomed to failure).

Moreover, I cannot simply ignore the deep entanglement of my research practice with colonial and neocolonial histories. My techniques were built by my academic predecessors with industry support.  I can do what I do because of the investment in organic geochemistry fueled by the global exploitation of oil resources (Chevron built first GC-IRMS) . That extends to so may of us, from biostratigraphy to palaeogeographic reconstructions to palaeontology, all built on global extractivism.

I am not saying that we should not work with industry or you have to be anti-capitalist (but many experts do convincingly argue that view).  But I do not see how decolonisation can be compatible with unbridled free marketeering.  It certainly is not compatible with uncritical engagement with any industrial partner.  I leave that to each of you to discuss where those boundaries lie.

And in doing so, we must be quite open-eyed about the fact that most Western Universities, regardless of their taxation status, operate in a pretty damned capitalist and colonial manner themselves. My own University’s logo contains four symbols – a sun, a ship, a horse and a dolphin – each one of those the symbol of a great family in Bristol that built their wealth entirely or in part by the enslavement of people.  That dolphin is the symbol of Edward Colston. But let us not pretend that colonialism is an artefact of the past, ‘Hidden Histories’ alone.  My University, like all UK Universities and many across the West, remains financially dependent on exorbitant fees paid by international students; my salary and my lab and my career are funded by the ongoing extraction of wealth from across the world to the University of Bristol.

We must be awake to these issues and engaged with the harms they have caused – and our complicity with them and continued dependence on them.

‘They are entangled systems of domination and exploitation.’

**********************************************************

What can we do?  As with many challenges we face, we must recognise the need for structural change.  In doing so, we must learn, share and act with a certain degree of kindness for ourselves – all of us are somewhat trapped in these colonial structures.  I have colleagues who are seeking research funding from new, less problematic sources who also feel severe institutional pressure to win grants; they feel trapped.  As Head of School, I often feel complicit in enabling their entrapment. Collectively, we must demand structural change.

However, just like tackling racism or climate change, the need for structural change does not exempt us from individual responsibility.  And of course, our individual actions can collectively and joyfully become a movement that drives that structural change.  So here are some suggestions.

Read, listen and learn.  Most of us will not become experts in this topic, but we can all devote time to learning.  I recognise that we are all overworked, but this is an obligation for our discipline.

Have humility for those who do the work, whether they be geoscientists who choose to focus on this area of those outside the discipline.  And then celebrate and reward this work.  Liberate time for our colleagues who do devote time to become experts, and recognise this work in their promotions.  Pay external experts.  Pay marginalised scholars to speak or advise. Pay for their time as we would pay any other consultant.

Accept discomfort and learn from it.  Be thoughtful, continuously thoughtful and with intellectual commitment comparable to how we do the rest of our job.  Be honest with ourselves. So treat yourselves with kindness. But that is no excuse to not challenge and continuously interrogate ourselves and one another.

Most importantly, collaborate and co-produce knowledge. Work with brilliant and inspiring scholars from all over the world. And although this is an important path to reparation, it is also wonderful and joyous.

Finally, build on your learning and experiences to make that structural change.  Demand institutional support – and when you have the privilege to do so, challenge institutional behaviour. Advocate for new policies, from EGU Awards to staff promotions processes to criteria for grants and publications.

**********************************************************

Ultimately, however, we must never forget that this is not an academic exercise.  It is part of a wider process of reparation of harm and reconciliation.  It must be a dialogue and it must be tangible. Frantz Fanon wrote: “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”    These conversations are important for our field, but they do not stop colonised people from being exploited, robbed or killed.  Our work must ultimately commit to an agenda that restores wealth, respect and dignity.  And by extension, it must restore stolen agency and power, because these reparations of harm cannot happen using our current structures: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Given that end goal, was I right person to contribute? Did I make space or occupy space? On reflection, I think it was it a mistake for me to agree to speak at this session rather than advocating for a speaker from a non-Western nation or from a marginalised group. I hope that I’ve moved our conversation forward, but I am not convinced that I was best suited to use this forum to also achieve reparation.

Instead a speaker from the global south or an  indigenous speaker could have used this opportunity not only to speak honestly and forthrightly about the challenges they face but also use this as a platform to reclaim some of their scientific agency. They could have come to this EGU session, spoken about decolonization but also talked about their science – their ambitions, their findings and the types of collaborations that would strengthen their careers.

I apologise for occupying that space.

This is not white liberal guilt, an emotional response that is often passive and used as an excuse to withdraw. Nor is it performative emoting that continues to centre us at the expense of those who have been harmed. It is a demand that we – I – reflect, listen, learn and improve and to accept that many of us who hold privilege will now have to live in a degree of emotional and intellectual discomfort that will never be resolved.  That is a small price to pay for our many other privileges.

So then, looking towards the next conference or next year, can we all agree that we must do this work and that we do not need someone like me to create this space?

Instead, we should pack this panel with the voices of minoritized and indigenous voices, while also giving them a chance to prominently showcase their science throughout the wider EGU program.

While the rest of us pack this hall to listen to what they have to say.

Some resources:

There are many emerging articles and resources in our discipline; see the following as an example:
Recently, I have been inspired by the writing of @Prof_FSultana, including her fantastic article ‘The Unbearable Heaviness of Climate Coloniality‘.  Here is an example of her writing: “To decolonize thinking/approaches/solutions, we need to address the fertile grounds where colonial & imperial wounds are not minimized but recognized as part of the necessary driving forces of collective liberation. This is particularly true for decolonizing climate justice.  Given the significant insights of feminist, anti-colonial, decolonial & post-colonial scholarships, there is much to be incorporated into empirical & policy-oriented work. Purely technocratic, economistic, or financial solutions will not address the root causes of problems.” And read: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S096262982200052X?dgcid=author

And for a life-enriching immersion in the topic, please consider Kathryn Yusoff’s  ‘A Million Black Anthropocenes or None.’

 

 

 

 

Is the future of manufacturing local?

I co-authored this with Chris McMahon, Professor of Engineering Design, inspired by his work on how highly adaptable manufacturing processes, capable of operating at small scales (re-distributed manufacturing), can contribute to a sustainable and resilient future.  I find so many aspects of his work fascinating, from the connections to the Industrial Revolution to the argument that many of our societal challenges arise from the disconnection between what we consume and how it is made.  The latter is a theme that resonates across so much of the environmental movement, from the food we consume to our deeper connection to nature. In a world that has become utterly dependent on global supply chains, acutely illustrated by the far-reaching and often unanticipated consequences of Covid, I am not sure if we can restore strictly local manufacturing or even if that is the most efficient way to produce what we need.  But it is a vital question and I have always been inspired by Chris’ knowledge and his wisdom.

******

The next few years have the potential to be transformative in the history of our society and our planet.  We are faced with numerous choices in how we live our lives, and our decisions could either embed the practices of the last two centuries or empower new paradigms for the production of our food and energy, our buildings and transport systems, our medicine, furniture and appliance, all of those things on which we have grown to depend. It could be a transformation in what we own or borrow, how we use it…. And how we make it.

Bristol is one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Global Resilient Cities.  Unlike many of the other cities (and somewhat unconventionally), Bristol, the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute have adopted a holistic definition of resiliency that includes not just adaption to future change but also the contemporary behaviour that minimises the chances of future shocks.  Recognising that, the launch of the Bristol 2015 European Green Capital year focused on the need to bridge the gap between our resource intensive and environmentally harmful current behaviour and a more sustainable – and resilient – future.

This combination is key.  We know that our non-sustainable behaviour will bring about dangerous climate change and resource stress. But we are also obtaining a sharper understanding of the limits of our knowledge. Unfortunately, our behaviour is not just threatening the security of our food, water and energy but is inducing a profound uncertainty in our ability to forecast and adapt to future change.  Not only does such radical uncertainty demand mitigative rather than adaptive action but, where we fall short or the damage has already been done, it will require an equally radical emphasis on resiliency.

Part of Bristol’s path to achieving these goals of sustainability and resiliency is localism, including local production of food and energy, exemplified by the recent launch of a municipally-owned energy company but also community-owned energy and food cooperatives.   Localism can only go so far in our highly interconnected and interdependent world, but it is undeniably one of Bristol’s strongest tools in empowering local communities and driving its own sustainability agenda while making us more resilient to external factors.  But why stop at food and energy?

Manufacturing has undergone a suite of radical transformations over the past decade, the potential of which are only now being harnessed across a range of manufacturing scales from high-value (such as Bristol’s aerospace industry) to SMEs and community groups.  Crudely put, the options for the manufacturer have traditionally been limited to moulding things, bashing things into shape, cutting things and sticking things together.  New technologies now allow those methods to be downscaled and locally owned. Other technologies, enabled by the exponential growth of computer power, are changing the manufacturing framework for example by allowing complex shapes to be made layer-by-layer through additive manufacturing.

Crucially, these new technologies represent highly adaptable manufacturing processes capable of operating at small scales.  This offers new possibilities with respect to where and how design, manufacture and services can and should be carried out to achieve the most appropriate mix of capability and employment but also to minimise environmental costs and to ensure resilience of provision.  In short, manufacturing may now be able to be re-distributed away from massive factories and global supply chains back into local networks, small workshops or even homes. This has brought about local empowerment across the globe as exemplified by the Maker movement and locally in initiatives such as Bristol Hackspace.  These technologies and social movements are synergistic as localised manufacturing not only brings about local empowerment but fosters sustainable behaviour by enabling the remanufacturing and upcycling that are characteristic of the circular economy.

There are limits, however, to the reach of these new approaches if they remain dependent on traditional manufacturing organisations and systems into which we are locked by the technological choices made in two centuries of fossil-fuel abundance.  As well as the technologies and processes that we use, a better understanding of how to organise and manage manufacturing systems and of their relationship with our infrastructure and business processes is central to the concept of re-distributed manufacturing and its proliferation.  It requires not only local production but a fundamental rethinking of the entire manufacturing system.

Looking forward, we must explore a whole range of issues from diverse disciplinary perspectives, bringing together experts in manufacturing, design, logistics, operations management, infrastructure, engineering systems, economics, geographical sciences, mathematical modelling and beyond.  In particular, we must examine the potential impact of such re-distributed manufacturing at the scale of the city and its hinterland, centering not just resilience and sustainability but equity and inclusion.

*****

It seems entirely appropriate that Bristol and the SW of England assume a prominent leadership role in this endeavour.  In many ways, it is the intellectual and spiritual home of the industrial use of fossil fuels, responsible for unprecedented growth and prosperity but also setting us on a path of unsustainable resource exploitation.  Thomas Newcomen from South Devon produced arguably the first practical steam engine, leading to the use of fossil fuels in mining and eventually industry; in the late 1700s, coal-powered steam energy was probably more extensively used in SW England than anywhere in the world.  Continuing this legacy, Richard Trevithick from Cornwall developed high pressure steam engines which allowed the use of steam (and thus fossil fuels) for transportation, and of course Brunel’s SS Great Western, built in Bristol, was the first vehicle explicitly designed to use fossil fuel for intercontinental travel.

But that legacy is not limited to energy production.  Abraham Darby, who pioneered the use of coke for smelting iron in Coalbrookdale, i.e. the use of fossil fuels for material production, had worked at a foundry in Bristol and was funded by the Goldney Family, among others.  He married fossil fuels to the production of materials and manufactured goods.

These are reasons for optimism not guilt.  This part of the world played a crucial role in establishing the energy economy that has powered our world.  On the back of that innovation and economic growth have come medical advances, the exploration of our solar system and an interconnected society.  That same creative and innovative spirit can be harnessed again.  And these approaches need not be limited to energy and materials but also healthcare and the digital economy. The movement is already in place, exemplified by the more than 800 organisations in the Bristol Green Capital Partnership.  It is receiving unprecedented support from both Universities of this city.  This new project is only one small part of that trend but it illustrates a new enthusiasm for partnership and transformative change and to study the next generation of solutions rather than be mired in incremental gains to existing technology.

We Must Bridge the Gap

I wrote the following on behalf of the Bristol European Green Capital at the start of 2015 and to contextualise our city’s ambitions.  Since then, we represented Cities at COP21 and delivered the Green Capital through 2015, learning from it and critiquing it; in particular, learning from the year’s greatest shortcoming – the lack of a strong strategy for inclusion to overcome structural barriers – helped diversify Bristol’s environmental movement. A multitude of new initiatives have been launched and Bristol was one of the first (if not the first) cities to declare a Climate Emergency and an Ecological Emergency.

Much of the climate change of the past century has been caused by our burning of fossil fuels. And without a change in that fossil fuel use, continued climate change in the next century could have devastating impacts on our society. It is likely to bring increased risk and hazards associated with extreme weather events. Refugee crises could be caused by rising sea levels or droughts that make some nations uninhabitable. Climate change will also make our world a more uncertain place to live, whether that be uncertainty in future rainfall patterns, the magnitude of sea level rise or the response of global fisheries to ocean acidification.  This uncertainty is particularly problematic because it makes it so much harder for industry or nations to plan and thrive.  Or to grapple with the other great challenge facing humanity – securing food, water and energy for 7 billion people (and growing).  Because of this, most nations have agreed that global warming should be held below 2°C.

These climatic and environmental impacts will be felt in the SW of England.  We live in an interconnected world, such that drought in North America will raise the price of our food. The effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and UK fisheries remain worryingly uncertain. The floods of last winter could have been a warning of life in a hotter and wetter world; moreover, it will only become harder to protect our lowlands from not only flooding but also salt water incursions as sea level rises.  The proposed Hinkley Point nuclear power station will have an installation, operating and decommissioning lifetime of over 100 years; what added risks will it face from the combination of more severe weather, storm surges and rising sea level?  Climate change affects us all – globally, nationally and locally in the 2015 European Green Capital.

That requires reductions in emissions over the next decade.  And it then requires cessation of all fossil fuel emissions in the subsequent decades.  The former has been the subject of most negotiations, including the recent discussions in Lima and likely those in Paris at the end of this year. The latter has yet to be addressed by any international treaty. And that is of deep concern because it is the cessation of all fossil fuel emissions that is most difficult but most necessary to achieve.  Carbon dioxide has a lifetime in the atmosphere of 1000s of years, such that slower emissions will only delay climate change.  That can be useful – if we must adapt to a changing world, having more time to do so will be beneficial. However, it is absolutely clear that emissions must stop if we are to meet our target of 2°C.  In fact, according to most climate models as well as the geological history of climate, emissions must stop if we are to keep total warming below 5°C.

In short, we cannot use the majority of our coal, gas and petroleum assets for energy.  They must stay buried.

Can we ‘geoengineer’ our way to alternative solution?  Not according to recent research. Last November, a Royal Society Meeting showcased the results of three UK Research Council Funded investigations of geoengineering feasibility and consequences. They collectively illustrated that geoengineering a response to climate change was at best complicated and at worst a recipe for disaster and widespread global conflict.  The most prominent geoengineering solution is to offset the greenhouse gas induced rise in global temperatures via the injection of stratospheric particles that reflect some of the solar energy arriving at Earth.  However, on the most basic level, a world with elevated CO2 levels and reflective particles in the atmosphere is not the same as a world with 280 ppm of CO2 and a pristine atmosphere. To achieve the same average global temperature, some regions will be cooler and others warmer.  Rainfall patterns will differ: regional patterns of flood and drought will differ. Even if it could be done, who are the arbitrators of a geoengineered world?  The potential for conflict is profound.

In short, the deus ex machina of geoengineering our climate is neither a feasible nor a just option.  And again, the conclusion is that we cannot use most of our fossil fuels.

One might argue that we can adapt to climate change: why risk our economy now when we can adapt to the consequences of climate change later? Many assessments suggest that this is not the best economic approach, but I understand the gamble: be cautious with a fragile economy now and deal with consequences later.  This argument, however, ignores the vast inequity associated with climate change.  It is the future generations that will bear the cost of our inaction.  Moreover, it appears that the most vulnerable to climate change are the poorest – and those who consume the least fossil fuels.  Those of us who burn are not those who will pay.  Arguably then, we in the UK have a particular obligation to the poor of the world and of our own country, as well as to our children and grandchildren, to soon cease the use of our fossil fuels.

Energy is at the foundation of modern society and it has been the basis for magnificent human achievement over the past 150 years, but it is clear that obtaining energy by burning fossil fuels is warming our planet and acidifying our oceans.  The consequences for our climate, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels, is profound; even more worrying are the catastrophic risks that climate change poses for the food and water resources on which society depends.  It is now time for us to mature beyond the 19th and 20th century fossil-fuel derived energy to a renewable energy system of the 21st century that is sustainable for us and our planet.

We must bridge the gap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Measuring the world – the joys of analytical geochemistry

‘Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.’ – Galileo Galilee

Science is measuring.

Of course, it is about much more than measuring.  The scientific approach includes deduction, induction, lateral thinking and all of the other creative and logistical mechanisms by which we arrive at ideas. But what distinguishes the ideas of science from those of religion, philosophy or art is that they are expressed as testable hypotheses – and by testable hypotheses, scientists mean ideas that can be examined by observations or experiments that yield outcomes that can be measured.

Earth scientists use astonishingly diverse approaches to measure our world, from the submolecular to the planetary, from bacterial syntrophic interactions to the movement of continental plates. A particularly important aspect of observing the Earth system involves chemical reactions – the underlying processes that form rocks, fill the oceans and sustain life. The Goldschmidt Conference, held this year in Firenze*, is the annual highlight of innovations in geochemical methodologies and the new knowledge emerging from them.

Geochemists reported advances in measuring the movement of electrons across nanowires, laid down by bacteria in soil like electricians lay down cables; the transitory release of toxic metals by microorganisms, daily emissions of methane from bogs, and annual emissions of carbon dioxide from the whole of the Earth; the history of life on Earth as recorded by the isotopes of rare metals archived in marine sediments; the chemical signatures in meteorites and the wavelengths of light emitted from distant solar nebulae, both helping us infer the building blocks from which our own planet was formed.

******

The Goldschmidt Conference is often held in cities with profound cultural legacies, like that of Florence.  And although Florence’s legacy that is perhaps dominated by Michelangelo and Botticelli, Tuscany was also home to Galileo Galilee, and he and the Scientific Revolution are similarly linked to the Renaissance and Florence. Wandering through the Galileo Museum is a stunning reminder of how challenging it is to measure the world around us, how casually we take for granted many of these measurements and the ingenuity of those who first cracked the challenges of quantifying time or temperature or pressure.

And it is also exhilarating to imagine the thrill of those scientists as they developed new tools and turned them to the stars above us or the Earth beneath us.  Galileo’s own words tell  us how he felt when he pointed his telescope at Jupiter and discovered the satellites orbiting around it; and how those observations unlocked other insights and emboldened new hypotheses:

‘But what exceeds all wonders, I have discovered four new planets and observed their proper and particular motions, different among themselves and from the motions of all the other stars; and these new planets move about [Jupiter] like Venus and Mercury… move about the sun.’

The discoveries of the 21st century are no less exciting, if perhaps somewhat more nuanced.

******

I could give so many examples!  But allow me to just draw on some of the contributions from my University of Bristol colleagues from that conference in 2014.  Laura Robinson presented a new approach to estimating water discharge from rivers, based on the ratio of uranium isotopes in coral; the technique has great potential for studying flood and drought events over the past 100,000 years, helping us to better understand, for example, the behaviour of monsoon systems on which the lives of nearly one billion people depend.  Heather Buss presented research quantifying the nature and consequences of reactions occurring at the bedrock-soil interface – and by extension, the processes by which rock becomes soil and nutrients are liberated, utilised by plants or flushed to the oceans. Kate Hendry presented her latest work employing the distribution of zinc in sponges (trapped in their opal hard parts) to examine how organic matter is formed in surface oceans, then transported to the deep ocean and ultimately buried in sediments; this is a key aspect to understanding how carbon dioxide is ultimately removed from the atmosphere.  The Conference is not entirely about measuring these processes – it is also about how those measurements are interpreted; Andy Ridgwell evaluated the evidence for how and when oceans become more acidic or devoid of oxygen using an intermediate complexity Earth System Model.

What next?  Every few years, a major innovation opens up new insights.  Until about 20 years ago, organic carbon isotope measurements (carbon occurs as two stable isotopes – ~99% as the isotope with 12 nuclear particles and ~1% as the isotope with 13) were conducted almost exclusively on whole rock samples. These values were useful in studying ancient life and the global carbon cycle, but somewhat limited because the organic matter in a rock derives from numerous organisms including plants, algae and bacteria. But in the late 1980s, new methods allowed us to measure carbon isotope values on individual compounds within those rocks, including compounds derived from specific biological sources.  In the past decade, John Eiler and his team at Caltech developed new methods for measuring the values in specific parts or even at a single position in those individual compounds within those rocks (work that builds on ideas of John Hayes 20 years prior).  Now being explored by many colleagues, this isotope mapping of molecules could open up new avenues for determining the temperatures at which ancient animals grew or elide what microorganisms are doing deep in the Earth’s subsurface.

Scientists are going to continue to measure the world around us.  And while that might sound cold and calculating, it is not!  We do this out of our fascination and wonder for nature and our planet.  Just like Galileo’s discovery of Jovian satellites excited our imagination of the cosmos, these new tools are helping us unravel the astonishingly beautiful interactions between our world and the life upon it.

*I originally wrote this in 2014, after the Goldschmidt Conference in 2014 and a visit to Firenze’s Galileo Museum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living with Environmental Uncertainty

This was my first ever blog, inspired by Amanda W00dman-Hardy upon my appointment as Director of the Cabot Institute. It foreshadows a lot of themes to come, including how my life on a farm and research on climate change across multiple timescales informed my views on uncertainty.  Many of these ideas would be refined during the Bristol Green Capital, as we co-created Bristol’s Resilience Strategy and One City Plan and collaborated with colleagues at the University of Bristol and across the city.

Improved decision making in the face of environmental uncertainty is at the heart of the Cabot Institute. Although individuals, businesses and society aspire to make logical decisions, informed by evidence and wisdom, we are also influenced by a complex mixture of emotions, ethics, political opportunism and personal beliefs.  These murky waters become even more challenging to navigate when dealing with the inherent uncertainty in the basic evidence.  And it becomes almost impossible when pre-conceived beliefs and opinions replace evidence.  In such scenarios, uncertainty can be manipulated as a tool to undermine evidence and justify flawed decisions.  This is the particular challenge of decision making in the context of complex environmental, economic and ecological issues.

To a scientist confronted with evidence that human activity is changing our environment at unprecedented rates, it is apparent that environmental uncertainty is rarely appropriately deployed in policy making.  Most perniciously, it is commonly argued that the risk of an action (i.e. loss of biodiversity or increasing CO2 emissions) could be at the low end of the probability distribution – ‘the temperature might not warm that much’, ‘we might not get more hurricanes’.  That is not proper governance; that is hiding behind uncertainty and hoping for the best.  Nor is it appropriate to govern based on the worst-case scenario.  But nor can we govern by solely considering the most likely outcome.  We must recognise the range of possibilities and plan within it – strategically, flexibly, resiliently.  In other words, the uncertainty brought about by ongoing environmental change is itself a profound cause for concern and a challenge for governance.

However, environmental uncertainty is not an opaque label for things ‘we do not understand’ and by an extension it is not a cause for inaction.

I grew up on a farm in the US Midwest and so environmental uncertainty to me mainly concerns our food and the people who provide it.   Anyone who has ever been involved in farming understands how uncertain our environment can be. And they understand how undermining and economically challenging that uncertainty is, especially with respect to the weather (weather is not the same as climate, but it makes for a useful environmental analogy).

We had about 30 head of cattle on our small Ohio dairy farm, and my brother, parents and I needed to put aside 4000 bales of hay every summer. I loved that job – I remember the smell of drying hay and the fat bumble bees buzzing in the clover. I remember being with my family, the satisfaction of completed work and the closeness that came from achieving things together. But it was hard and uncertain work, my father cutting the grass, raking it and baling it, quickly over successive hot days so that it would dry before a summer rain shower could strip away the nutrients. Or worse: before an extended few days of rain saturated the mowed hay on the ground, causing it to become fungus-ridden and rotting it away in the field.  We could work with a prediction of rain and we could work with a prediction of no rain or even drought.  But we could not work with an overly uncertain prediction.  Even worse were wrong (i.e. overly certain) predictions.  We navigated the probabilistic terrain of the daily weather forecasts somewhat by instinct, but the stakes were high, and just three or four bad decisions in a summer would have been financially catastrophic.  The farm is long gone but my Mom is still addicted to the weather reports.

But uncertainty does not mean paralysis; it means risk management.  We mitigated the risk of wasted crop by renting and working fields that could yield 4500 bales rather than 4000.  And those 4000 bales of hay were themselves, risk management, exceeding our likely needs.  Gathering the bales and storing them in our barn’s loft was hard, sticky, hot and gritty work.  The hay was delivered to the loft by a metal elevator – metal plates carried by metal chains up a metal chute, all powered by our forty-year old International Harvester tractor’s power take-off shaft.  I loved doing this work on the farm – its physicality and the stimulus of all of your senses – but I do not miss that tremendous rattling, clanging noise!  The loft itself could reach temperatures of 110°F and was filled with clouds of dust and darting, irritated wasps.  Our necks would burn and our forearms would be filled with tiny splinters of hay.

We worked hard and put away 4000 bales each summer even though we would probably only need 3500, because we had to err on the side of caution in case there was an early winter. Or a long winter.

That is environmental uncertainty – and risk management – to me.  Cutting the hay when the forecast predicts a 35% chance of rain and watching 400 bales of alfalfa rot in the field.  Renting more land than we would likely need. Working 20% harder than necessary – just in case.

All of us understand this, whether it be maintaining the garden, managing the allotment or planning a holiday. This is part of human history: sound, profitable, secure decision-making has always required a confrontation with environmental uncertainty; consequently, almost all societies have strived to mitigate risks by understanding the environment, managing essential resources, and building up our own resilience.

What is disturbing and unique about the 21st century is that we are no longing mitigating environmental uncertainty but instead, we are very rapidly increasing it. We are changing our planet and where and how we live upon it.  Increasing carbon dioxide emissions might warm the planet by 1.5°C.  Or 3°C.  Or 5°C.  Such warming will probably cause the Southwest of England to have wetter summers and the great food-supplying regions of the American Midwest to become drier.  But there is a probability that the opposite will happen.  How does the small farmer plan?  For that matter, how does the huge international agritech firm plan? I would argue that the greatest challenge posed by our changing environment is not how much the Earth warms but the uncertainty in how much it will warm and the uncertainty associated with the consequences of that warming. Planning for our future – perhaps for the first time in human history – is actually becoming more uncertain every year.

But we are also learning much more about ourselves and our environment, and this perhaps makes the future a bit more certain than it might otherwise be.  Currently the MET Office is improving our prediction tools and tailoring specific advice to farmers; engineers are learning how we might mitigate or even adapt to this uncertainty; and we are developing methods to limit our dependence on fossil fuel and thus the associated climate change.  And we are learning how to make sound decisions in the face of it. To achieve these objectives, the Cabot Institute and similar entities are bringing together a wide variety of scientists, social scientists, managers and engineers, all of whom share expertise with the community and industry.  That expertise includes those who deal specifically with quantifying uncertainty, the underlying psychology and sociology of decision making, and the clash of ethical and pragmatic ideas that inform policy making.  The world’s population is growing and with it our basic food, water and energy needs; to provide for those needs, we must make our future more certain but also more resilient and adaptable.

 

 

 

 

The Invisibility of the Sea

In 2017, the Cabot Institute and the Brigstow Institute hosted a variety of workshops on ‘Perspectives from the Sea’, bringing together scientists, engineers and humanities scholars to share personal reflections, their experiences and methods, and their understanding of the sea.  This was so inspiring that we commissioned artist Rodney Harris to further explore these topics, The Invisibility of the Sea, displayed in the Earth Sciences Gallery.  He produced a fantastic variety of pieces, including the one below.

As part of this, we assembled a working paper of perspectives.  The following are two of my contributions.

I find Rod’s artwork to be profoundly moving, perhaps arising from my own complicated journey from the landlocked US state of Ohio to living on an island and devoting my life to understanding the nature and history of our mysterious oceans.  I grew up on a dairy farm, about as far from the sea as you can get, physically and culturally. In particular, the daily and inflexible demands of dairy farming meant that vacations were rare, and I only saw the sea once or twice growing up. In those early days, Lake Erie was my analogue for the Invisibility of the Sea.  I grew up with its history, from famous Revolutionary War battles to battles with pollution; I fished on Lake Erie with my Aunt and Uncle, even though we were cautioned not to eat too much of the perch and walleye that we caught; to pay my way through University, I studied invasive zebra mussels; and my family and friends went to ‘North Coast’ beaches for picnics and parties. But it was not the Sea. There was no vastness; there was no depth.

 

Ironically, my first profound relationship with the Sea came from going further inland, during my geology degree and PhD training and research. It was not the Sea of our modern world.  It was the sea explored and imagined via the sedimentary rocks deposited in ancient oceans tens of millions of years ago. I studied and still study times of mass extinction, dramatic climate change or periods of profound chemical transformation, all manifested through the fossils – especially molecular fossils – produced in those ancient seas, buried in sediments and preserved in magnificent sequences of sedimentary rocks. Sometimes it seems that my work borders on the mythical as I study these ancient, secret seas that no longer exist. I study ammonites, belemnites and pleisiosaurs, cyanobacteria and thaumarchaeota, in ancient oceans such as the Western Interior Seaway, the Permian Basin, the Tethyan and Panthalassa Oceans, at locations such as Tarfaya, Zumaia and Lomonosov Ridge, at Kheu River and Waipara and Meishan.

 

This sense of mystery arises from time and space – the vastness of the ocean, its mercurial nature and its inscrutable depths, but also the billions of years of Earth history it records. It is why it is home to so many myths.  Rod’s work captures the mystery and superstition with which ancient seafarers regarded the ocean – a place of ritual and norms, of sea serpents, mermaids and mythical beasts, of Odysseys. All of his ‘Balmoral Barometers’, especially but not only the Barometer of the Superstition of the Sea, capture our fraught relationships with this vast and seemingly unknowable body. And the vastness of the oceans and their invisible depths allow such myths to persist. We no longer believe that dinosaurs will be found in an isolated corner of the Amazon, but some still cling to beliefs that we will discover a buried Atlantis or prehistoric mega-sharks, 20-m long Miocene Megaladons still preying on giant squid or baleen whales in the great dark deep of the ocean.

 

This is the Invisibility that has always fascinated me.  I have now been on research expeditions across our Seas and dived via submersible to the bottom of the Mediterranean. I am fascinated by both the surface and deep ocean and the different relationships we have with each. When we think of the ‘Sea’, I think we emotionally connect differently to its volatile surface and its infinite, mysterious depths. The surface is what we experience in trade, slavery, migration, travel, holiday snorkelling and exploration; this is what provides escape from persecution, threatens us with sea level rise, is the source of most of our fish, where sailors lose their lives; it is the network of ocean roads that support our global economy and sustained a global slave trade. In contrast, the deep ocean is vast, mysterious and constant – a home to krakens, hidden prehistoric sharks and lost cities but also limitless resources and room for waste.

 

More recently, however, it has become clear to me that for most of us all of the ocean remains invisible.  We do not see the plastic or toxins in the ocean – plastics that now form islands of trash and can be found in every part of the ocean.  We do not see the incremental but biologically devastating increases in temperature and decrease in pH due to increasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  We can measure those.  But as a society we do not see them. The sea is invisible. Perhaps even more invisible now, despite our many scientific advances, than in the past when it was so intimately connected to our daily lives. This is where mystery meets apathy. Our assumptions, our view of the sea, are informed from earliest history, when only tens of millions of humans lived on the planet and our impact was small and could be absorbed, when a deep ocean could be a home to sea serpents and krakens and be a repository for our rubbish. On my first research expedition we discovered, half-buried in 2-km deep mud just north of Crete, a magnificent 2-m tall amphora but also plastic bottles: similar waste from separate millennia. Ingrained in us is the belief that the ocean is a great constant, impervious to human action.

 

It is not.  Those sedimentary records tell us otherwise. Its circulation can change; its chemistry can change; its biology can change.  It is evident in Rod’s Brent Knoll, each colour made from a different bit of the sea’s sedimentary history and each representing a profound change in those ancient oceans. Although the oceans have been a constant during humanity’s brief domination of the planet, they can change. And now they are changing at a pace perhaps unprecedented in the history of our planet. Because of us.

 

We have allowed that to happen not because the sea is ‘invisible’ but because we have chosen not to see. But we are no longer allowed the privilege of blindness. Ocean warming is devastating our coral reefs, plummeting fish stocks are causing us to raid the ocean depths to feed our growing population, toxic blooms of algae kill fish and blight our beaches, and plastic… is everywhere. Much of the sea was invisible to our ancestors.  We do not have that excuse.

 

The Invisible and Inconstant Deep Sea

Today, the deep sea is a dark and empty world. It is a world of animals and Bacteria and Archaea – and relatively few of those. Unlike almost every other ecosystem on our planet, it is bereft of light and therefore bereft of plants.  The animals of the deep sea are still almost entirely dependent on photosynthetic energy, but it is energy generated kilometres above in the thin photic zone. Beneath this, both animals and bacteria largely live off the scraps of organic matter energy that somehow escape the vibrant recycling of the surface world and sink to the twilight realm below. In this energy-starved world, the animals live solitary lives in emptiness, darkness and mystery. Exploring the deep sea via submersible is a humbling and quiet experience.  The seafloor rolls on and on and on, with only the occasional shell or amphipod or small fish providing any evidence for life.

And yet life is there.  Vast communities of krill thrive on the slowly sinking marine snow.  Sperm whales dive deep into the ocean and emerge with the scars of fierce battles with giant squid on which they feed.  And when one of those great creatures dies and its carcass plummets to the seafloor, within hours it is set upon by sharks and fish, ravenous and emerging from the darkness for the unexpected feast. Within days the carcass is stripped to the bones but even then new colonizing animals arrive and thrive. Relying on bacteria that slowly tap the more recalcitrant organic matter that is locked away in the whale’s bones, massive colonies of worms spring to life, spawn and eventually die.

But all of these animals, the fish, whales, worms and amphipods, depend on oxygen. And the oceans have been like this for almost all of Earth history, since the advent of multicellular life nearly a billion years ago.  This oxygen-replete ocean is an incredible contrast to a handful of events in Earth history when the deep oceans became anoxic. Then, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs, feeding on magnificent ammonites, would have been confined to the sunlit realm, their maximum depth of descent marked by a layer of bright pink and then green water, pigmented by sulfide consuming bacteria.  And below it, not a realm of animals but a realm only of Bacteria and Archaea, single-celled organisms that can live in the absence of oxygen, a transient revival of the primeval marine ecosystems that existed for billions of years before complex life evolved.

 

Fog Bridge (and the Coming Storm)

As part of its contribution to Bristol 2015, European Green Capital, the In Between Time Festival commissioned the Fog Bridge by internationally renowned artist Fujiko Nakaya. I was invited to co-curate the exhibit, due to a shared vision of environmental uncertainty in the face of climate change and climate action. In particular, those conversations contributed to the themes explored during the Festival: Enter the Storm, including a focus on living with uncertainty. I also joined the Festival’s Uncertainty Cafes, where I was asked to throw out ideas – some well informed and some more adventurous – and then partake in the fascinating conversations this artwork had stimulated.  Here, I share the unabridged transcript of what I spoke about at the Uncertainty Café on 13 Feb 2015.

Although it was an honour to participate and an experience from which I learned much, I read this several years later and realise I would write something quite different today. I regret nothing that has been included but there are some striking omissions.  Most significantly, I would have specifically explored the racial dimensions of uncertainty.  That seems particularly remiss given that the Fog Bridge was Pero’s Bridge, named after Pero Jones, enslaved in Nevis and brought to Bristol in 1783. Nonetheless, I still enjoy reading this provocation about what it does have to say about art and slow contemplation during times of crisis.

***************************************************

Fujiko Nakaya has shrouded Pero’s Bridge in fog, eliciting a combination of delight and introspection – as well as befuddling the occasional commuter.  The Fog Bridge stimulated debate, criticism, celebration and interest. The most interesting of those debates, that I hope are only starting, revolve around its impact. Like all great art, Fog Bridge should be and is a bit dangerous, in that it causes us to consider – if even for a while – some alternatives to our perspectives.  But who saw it and engaged with it?  Has it affected belief systems and values?  Has it changed behaviour and, if so, of whom?  And is that all a bit too much of a burden to put onto a single piece?

Fog bridge
Fog Bridge in Bristol from BBC

Our world has always changed.  I have spent over 25 years studying the history of our planet’s climate and environment, and one of the most recurring themes is that on long enough timescales, change rather than stasis is the norm. But the coming changes to our climate, arising from our lifestyles and consumption, are distinct in their speed.  They are nearly unprecedented in Earth history and they are certainly unprecedented in human experience.  The Earth is warming, the oceans are acidifying, sea level is rising, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent – and we as a people are being challenged to adapt to these changes.  One of the most profound challenges is not the higher temperature of more frequent flood but the uncertainty associated with those.  Change, almost by definition, imposes uncertainty and we must discover how to live in this increasingly Uncertain World.

We live our lives informed by the power of experience: the collective experience of ourselves, our families, our communities and our wider society.  Our weather projections and crop harvesting, our water management and hazard planning are also based on experience: tens to hundreds of years of observation that inform our predictions of future floods, drought, hurricanes and heat waves. Now, however, we are changing our environment and our climate, such that the lessons of the past have less relevance to the planning of our future. As we change our climate, the great wealth of knowledge generated from human experience is losing value every day.

This is how I am provoked by all of Fujiko Nakaya’s art and especially her wonderful Fog Bridge.   Yes it makes me think about our changing weather. Yes, it serves as an enigmatic warning of the Coming Storm. But more, the image of fog, the obstruction of our vision, the demand for a more careful navigation over a bridge that is normally one of our most reliable paths, makes me think of an Uncertain World.

Uncertainty is a challenge.  Uncertainty makes it harder for us to live with our planet and with each other. But there is something gentle about the uncertainty evoked by the Fog Bridge that invites alternative perspectives. Is an environmental disaster the only possible outcome of the path on which we walk?

Fifty years ago, between 1962 and 1966, J. G. Ballard wrote a trio of seminal environmental disaster novels: The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World.  That is why one of the Cabot Institute’s themes this year is The Uncertain World. But there is a more nuanced lesson from Ballard when it comes to change: ‘I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring.’  In many ways, that statement, like the Fog Bridge, challenges the idea of uncertainty being solely negative. I think much of what is embedded in that statement is reflected in Ballard’s post-disaster novels – from Crash to High Rise to Cocaine Nights, all dealing with the tedium of late 20th century, bored lives, gated retirement villages on the Costa del Sol, manicured lawns, 99 channels with nothing on.

And what a tragedy that is for our species. Our most unique and exceptional characteristics are adaptability, imagination and creativity.  Most of our achievements and many of our sins are a direct consequence of our incredible ability to adapt and create.  We can live in the desert, in Antarctica, in space.

If we return to Ballard’s environmental disaster novels with this perspective, they take on new shapes.  The protagonists in those novels – and especially the Drowned World – are not destroyed. Nor do they overcome.  They are awakened and they are transformed.  And in the end, they embrace those transformations:

“By day fantastic birds flew through petrified forests, and jewelled crocodiles glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline river. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown.”   – The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard

Catastrophic change can be beautiful and it can startle us out of complacency, it can challenge us, it can demand of us that we embrace the entirety of human potential.

But there are limits to this train of thought.

Taking that perspective towards global environmental disaster is the rather unique luxury of the upper middle class, privileged western European.  Those who might die in floods or famines or whose way of life is not changed but obliterated by rising sea levels will have a different perspective.  Let us never forget that those bringing about climate change and those likely to suffer most from it are not the same.  That is true globally and it is true in Bristol: if the price of food doubles, I will grumble; others will be unable to feed their families.

And in that is a deep and unsettling irony.  Those of us who perhaps would benefit most from embracing the challenges we face are profoundly reluctant to accept any change, whether that be to our sources of energy or food, to our way of lives or to our growth-based economy. And our inability to envision societal change is imposing potentially catastrophic environmental and climatic change on others – those who are most poor and most vulnerable.

That is why the Green Capital conversations must focus on issues of inclusion, empowerment and social justice. We must avoid unfair, unequal, unethical change. But if we can do that, then maybe change can be a catalyst for something fresh and exciting.  Fujiko’s Fog Bridge is beautiful. Fog is beautiful.  A storm is beautiful.  This does not have to be a Disaster Story.  We can change how we live, thereby mitigating the most dangerous aspects of climate change.  And when we fall short and change does come… we can fight it a bit…. But we can also embrace it.

And what might that look like?

We must be radically resilient. If radical uncertainty is on the way then our response must be radically flexible. Our buildings and roads must be able to change.  Our railroads and our health service. Our laws. Our jobs.  Our economy.  Our businesses.  Ourselves.

Our response must be fair and equitable. Those who can barely afford the rent or who work two jobs to put food on the table have less capacity to be flexible. Some of us will have to bear more of the burden of change than others.  Ultimately, I believe we will have to achieve a more fair and balanced society: It is difficult to imagine how grand challenges of resource and planetary sustainability can be achieved if billions are held back by poverty*.

And we need political inclusion.  If difficult choices are to be made – if our sacred cows are to be sacrificed or compromises are to be made – then we must rebuild a universally owned political system.  We will not weather any storm by hectoring and lecturing nor if mired in apathy and cynicism. I sincerely hope a new platform for more inclusive decision making is a major outcome of Bristol 2015.  It is certainly the ambition of the Green Capital Partnership.

If we share these risks and the costs, then perhaps we can collaborate with our changing planet to achieve something exciting and new – lifestyles that embrace rather than stifle the very best of our creative, dynamic and resilient nature. Maybe we walk across the Bridge a bit more slowly, maybe we don’t cross it at all, maybe we just stop and stare. I don’t know.  Nor do I know if we will make such dramatic changes. But I know that we can.

* The above paragraph was the most difficult to express in only a few words during the Uncertainty Café and I want to expand on this here. Everyone in society has great assets of imagination and creativity.  All communities and all individuals can make a positive difference and should be encouraged to do so – and supported in doing so.  And in the future, as throughout history, some of the most exciting ideas will come from some of the poorest on our planet.  At the same time, however, we must understand that poverty steals time and lost time means lost ideas. And that is a tragedy at a time when we need a proliferation of new ideas, and especially those that run counter to ‘conventional wisdom’.  Inclusion must be more than simply welcoming alternative perspectives; we must actively seek, fund and support a more diverse community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Withdrawn – Contemplating Environmental Histories and Futures in Leigh Woods

Withdrawn was one of Bristol Green Capital’s flagship Arts Projects by Luke Jerram.  Among other inspiring Art, Luke is perhaps best known for his Earth, Moon and Mars exhibits, including in the Great Hall of the building my School resides in.  Withdrawn was a similarly contemplative piece and the following are the reflections I brought to the project via my co-curation and collaboration.

Image

 

******************************************

On the 23rd of August, and as part of Bristol 2015 European Green Capital, I have the privilege of participating in a conversation about the future of our coastal seas that has been inspired by Luke Jerram’s ethereal and evocative Withdrawn Project in Leigh Woods.  The conversation will include Luke, but also the esteemed chef, Josh Eggleton who has championed sustainable food provision and is providing a sustainable fish supper for the event, and my University of Bristol Cabot Institute colleague, Dani Schmidt, who is an expert on the past and current impacts of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems.

My engagement with Withdrawn has been inspired on multiple levels, primarily the enthusiasm of Luke but also arising from my role as Cabot Director and my own research on the oceans. Withdrawn inspires reflection on our dependence on the sea and how we have polluted and depleted it, but also on how we obtain our food and the people at the heart of that industry.

All of these issues are particularly acute for our island nation, ringed by nearly 20,000 kilometres of coastline and culturally and economically dependent on the sea. Beyond our own nation, over 2.6 billion people need the oceans for their dietary protein, a point driven home to Cabot in conversations with Sir David Attenborough . He passionately referred to the oceans as one of our most vital natural resources. And of course, as Withdrawn reminds us, the oceans have vast cultural and spiritual value. It also reminds us that those oceans and those resources are at profound risk.

I’ve spent over 25 years studying our planet and its oceans. However, my first ocean research expedition did not occur until 1999, and it was a transformative experience. We were exploring the deep sea communities fuelled by methane extruded from the Mediterranean seafloor.  Isolated from light, the ocean floor is a largely barren world, but in parts of the Mediterranean it is interrupted by explosions of colourful life, including tubeworms, bacterial colonies, fields of molluscs and strange and lonely fish, all thriving in exotic mountains of carbonate crusts cut by saline rivers. These are vibrant ecosystems but so far removed from the surface world and light that they instead depend on chemical energy sourced from deep below the bottom of the ocean. And even here we found human detritus, plastic and cans and bottles.

Those were powerful observations, in large part because of their symbolism: our influence on the oceans is pervasive and quite often in ways that are challenging to fully comprehend and often invisible to the eye. These include, for example:

  • The potentially devastating impact of plastic on marine ecosystems, including plastic nanoparticles that are now, for all intents and purposes, ubiquitous. Of course, pollutants are not limited to plastic – our lab now identifies petroleum-derived hydrocarbons in nearly every ocean sediment we analyse.
  • The decreasing pH of the oceans, due to rising CO2 levels, an acid when dissolved in water. We acidifying the oceans, apparently at a rate faster than at any other time in Earth history, a deeply alarming observation. We are already seeing some consequences of ocean acidification on organisms that make calcium carbonate shells. However, what concerns most scientists is how little we know about the impacts of rapid ocean acidification on marine ecosystems.
  • Ocean warming. A vast amount of the energy that has been trapped in the Earth system by higher greenhouse gas concentrations has been absorbed by the oceans. Its impact on marine life is only beginning to be documented, but it has been invoked, for example, as an explanation for declines in North Sea fisheries.

And these represent only a few of the chemical and environmental changes we are making to the marine realm. They do not even begin to address the numerous issues associated with our over-exploitation and poor management of our marine resources.

Compounded, these factors pose great risk to the oceans but also to all of us dependent on them. As Cabot Institute Director, I engage with an inspiringly diverse range of environmental scientists, social scientist, engineers, doctors and vets.   And in those conversations, of all the human needs at threat due to environmental change, it is water and food that concern me the most.  And of these, our food provision seems the most wildly unpredictable. The synergistic impact of warmer temperatures, more acidic waters, and more silt-choked coastal waters on a single shellfish species, let alone complex ecosystems such as coral reefs or North Sea food webs, is very difficult to predict. This uncertainty becomes even more pronounced if we factor in nutrient runoff from poorly managed land, eutrophication and ocean anoxia leading to more widespread ‘dead zones’. Or the impact of plastic, hydrocarbon, and anti-biofouling pollutants. The ghost ships of Withdrawn quietly tell the story of how our increased demand and poor management have led to overexploitation of fish stocks, causing an industry to face increasing uncertainty. But they also invoke deeper anxieties about how environmental change and pollution of our seas could devastate our food supply.

But Withdrawn, like other Green Capital Arts projects and like all inspiring art, does not telegraph a simple message.  It does not shout to ‘bring back local fisherman’ or ‘save our oceans’.  These messages are present but subtly so, and for that both Luke and the National Trust should be celebrated. The boats themselves are captivating and draw you into the fisherman’s efforts; they acknowledge our dependence on the ocean and that we must continue to exploit it. To others they are suggestive of some past catastrophe, a tsunami that has somehow deposited fishing boats in a wildly unanticipated place. And yet to others, they suggest the changing character of seas, seas that once stood 100 m higher than they do today and which almost certainly will do so again if all of our coal and oil is burned into carbon dioxide.

Withdrawn is about all of those things. And consequently, at its deepest level, I think Withdrawn is about change.

Geologists have a rather philosophical engagement with the concept of change – on long enough timescales, change is not the exception but the defining character of our planet and life. I should clarify that the aforementioned Mediterranean expedition was my first proper research excursion to the modern seas, but it came long after numerous visits to ancient ones.  In 1993, my PhD co-supervisor Mike Arthur took a group of us to Colorado where we collected samples from sedimentary rocks that had been deposited in the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway 90 million year ago, a Seaway from a hotter, ice-free world, in which higher oceans had invaded a downflexed central North American basin. That might not seem like a proper marine experience but to a geologist you can reconstruct an ocean in startling clarity from the bold clues preserved in the rock: current flows that tell you the shape of the coastline; fossils that reveal the ecosystem, from cyanobacterial mats on the seafloor to inoceramids and ammonites to great marine reptiles in the waters above; and the rocks themselves that reveal a shallow sea in which limestone was deposited across a great platform.

But it was only like this at some times.  The fascinating aspect of these rocks is the complex pattern of sedimentation – from limestones to shales and back again – limestones that were much like the lime cliffs of Lyme Regis, switching in a geological blink of the eye to oil shales similar to those in Kimmeridge Bay, from which, further North and at greater depths and pressures, North Sea oils derive. Limestone. Shale. Limestone. Shale. A pattern repeated hundreds of times.  In the Western Interior Seaway.  Along the Jurassic Coast. Across the globe, from the Tarfaya, Vocontian and Maracaibo basins to the Hatteras Abyss, from Cape Verde to the Levant Platform. Cycles and cycles of astonishingly different rock types – all bundled up in patterns suggesting they were modulated by the ever changing character of Earth’s orbit.  These cycles are change, from a sea with clear waters, little algal growth and ringed with reefs to one fed with nutrients and gorged with algal blooms and stripped of oxygen.

Change is a necessary and inevitable feature of our planet.  And of the human condition.

But we seem incapable of resisting the urge to impose a value judgment for or against change. It is either viewed as a technocratic marvel to be celebrated or a violation against the natural state of the world and to be resisted.  But often, change is conflated with loss.  And there is something of loss in Withdrawn. These are the ‘Ghost Ships’ of Leigh Woods.  Ghosts of a way of life that no longer exists. Ghosts of the animals these boats once hunted.  Ghosts of some past and inexplicable event.

Of course, change will always be about progress vs loss, its value neither solely good nor bad but nonetheless inevitable.  But just because a geologist recognises the inevitability of change does not mean he thinks we should be passive to it. Change will come but should be managed, a significant challenge given its rapid pace over the past 150 years. In fact, one of the main observations of Dani Schmidt’s research is that our current rate of environmental change appears to be essentially unprecedented in Earth history, let alone human experience.

My hope is that Withdrawn has caused people to engage with the concept of change. How do we manage change in the 21st century?  How do we recognise those things that can and should be let go. As one visitor said, ‘We want to resist romanticising the past.’  Conversely, how do we decide what change must be moderated, because its cost is too high?  We can reduce our plastic consumption and waste, and we can enforce more rigorous regulations to stop the pollution of our planet – and we should.  More complicated questions arise from how we manage our dependencies on these precious marine resources, but it is clear that we can eat fish more sustainably and that we must create marine reserves that will not only conserve species but serve as biodiversity hotspots benefitting all of the oceans.

Perhaps most importantly, how do we recognise those things that must be preserved?  When I see the ghost ships of Withdrawn, I feel the poignant loss of our connection with nature and our connection with what it provides. Our food is now produced far away, delivered to sterile supermarkets via ships, trains and lorries; maybe that is necessary on a planet of over 7 billion people but if so, we must strive to preserve our connection to the sea – to our whole planet – understanding what it provides and understanding its limits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climate action and the Contemplative Power of Art

I wrote the following as an introduction to the Bristol Green Capital Arts Programme in 2015.  I still agree with every word – the power of art to create a space for contemplation and collaboration, thereby allowing new ideas to prosper and grow.  If I were writing it now, however, I would stress the need to ensure that art is commissioned equitably and shared inclusively.  I would stress that even when art is accessible to all, its reach is not always universal, its audience not biased.  And so I would not only celebrate the power of artistic collaboration but the obligation to engage marginalised communities (recognising the structural barriers that hinder that) and ensure that their artists are funded and their voices heard.

Image

During the Green Capital year, the Cabot Institute is excited to work with a fantastic variety of artists, including many from our culturally vibrant city.   Many of these pieces, from the exotic beauty of Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Bridge to the playfulness of Alex Lucas street art to the haunted mystery of Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn, cause us to reconsider our lifestyles, our city and immediate surroundings, our national beauty and the wider world.  Others, like the Coleridge Lectures, serve as a platform for debating diverse contentious issues, from environmental ethics to animal rights, in new contexts.

The Cabot Institute has worked with many artists and we do so because of their ability to transcend exhausted narratives and stimulate new dialogue. The discussion over how we Bridge the Gap to a sustainable and low carbon future is too often mired in a debate between academics or environmentalists against ‘pragmatic’ economic considerations.  That is a false dichotomy that must be shattered, but it will not be shattered by the current participants.  It requires the intervention of new voices and new perspectives, a role that is particularly well suited for artists.

One of the most powerful ways that artists change the conversation is by causing us to slow down, to consider, to stop debating and to start contemplating.  With a few notable examples, art is not direct in its message, which can be elusive or enigmatic.  In our world of fifteen minutes of fame and 140 character conversations, I think there is great power in an intellectual stimulus that eludes simple definition.  It was fascinating watching people stop at the foot of Pero’s Bridge, stare at the billowing clouds of fog and ponder what it meant.  Sustainably living on our planet requires lateral thinking and vibrant discussion but also contemplation.

Via these more sustained and elusive interactions, art makes us examine ourselves and our surroundings differently, and in doing so causes us to reach unexpected conclusions; these can lead to the new ideas needed to live in an increasingly uncertain world.  During my conversations with the In Between Time organisers and participants at the launch of the Fog Bridge, we were continually drawn to its peaceful character and its invitation to collaborate with weather – it was not exactly a metaphor for the catastrophic and dangerous types of extreme weather that climate change is likely to cause.  I firmly agree with the scientific and political consensus that the best and most fair policies, for our planet and our society, are those that avoid rapid and extreme climate change.  But if we do fall short, the Fog Bridge reminds that there are more nuanced solutions than simply fighting the changing climate by building higher flood defenses.

Of course, if the Bristol 2015 Arts Programme is to achieve this potential, then it must be inclusive and enduring.  Can we create art that will linger for years – either physically or in the imagination?  Can we ensure that the art is not only internationally respected but that it resonates and connects with the citizens of Bristol? And most importantly, can we ensure that it brings beauty and value to the entirety of our city, thereby serving as a gateway for inclusion and empowerment?  That is what makes the diverse and city-scale projects described here so exciting.  They are quirky, thoughtful, stimulating, and most importantly, embedded via the Neighbourhood Arts Project in every part of the city.

I used to think that artists could help facilitate the conversation.  That is true.  But I now believe that their true value is in changing the conversation.

Image

 

The Uncertain World Artwork

Everyone, gather round! I want to tell you how the marvelous @LucasAntics Park Row artwork came to pass!
In 2014, Bristol was preparing to be the European Green Capital in 2015. Many great projects were envisioned, including collaborations with Bristol’s outstanding artists, like @lukejerram who created Withdrawn: lukejerram.com/withdrawn/ and many curated by @FestivalofIdeas
It had been about 50 years since the publication of J.G. Ballard’s iconic disaster novels, The Drowned World, The Burning World and my favourite, the surreal and biologically disturbing The Crystal World. Consequently, ideas were brainstormed around these.
These did not happen. That was probably for the best as no matter how brilliant and perceptive Ballard is, these novels have a very white, male, colonial perspective. Not ideal for our diverse city. 
But it simulated conversations. As @cabotinstitute Director, I was asked: “What will be the nature of our future world, under climate change?” And my answer was ‘An Uncertain World.’ We can predict warming & rainfall, but we are creating a world beyond all human experience. 

This was informed by our work on past climates. It has been about 3 million years since the Earth last had so much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. And the rate of increase is nearly unprecedented in Earth history.

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/08/17/evi…

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/08/17/an-…

And hence the Uncertain World.

And to visualise that, we thought it would be fascinating to juxtapose our city – specifically St Werburgh’s – with it’s ancient Mesozoic past. Flooded and thriving with plesiosaurs, ammonites and icthyosaurs. And who better than @LucasAntics?

And so Alex created these! Thanks to @ERC_Research and @NERCscience for helping to fund it!
And we all loved them so much, that we got permission to paint them on the side of the @BristolUni Drama Building!

Learn more about Alex’s great work at her website: Visit. It. Now. And be filled with joy.

lucasantics.com

To read about what we learned about the challenges of living with Uncertainty, more relevant now than ever, go here:

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2020/01/11/the… 

Fun fact: @DrHeatherBuss and I have all of the original artwork in our house! Including these drawings of a soon to be flooded St Werburgh’s. Views toward St Werburgh’s City Farm and Graffiti Tunnel!

AND…. all* of the original drawings of the menagerie of critters, not all of whom made it into the art!

*All but one that we gave away to a young fan of Mary Anning!

Thank you for listening. I thank Alex and others for inspiring me to use some quirkiness, wonder and silliness as a gateway to the very serious conversations we must have about climate change and biodiversity loss. 💚 

Postscript: The Green Capital Year was amazing. I loved it our collaborations with artists, engaged citizen movements and innovators. But it was not as inclusive as it should have been. And from that lesson arose the Green and Black Ambassadors.

richpancost.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/category/green…