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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
This blog was written by Daniela Patti (Eutropian) and edited by Amanda Woodman-Hardy (@Enviro_Mand) and Professor Rich Pancost (@rpancost) from Cabot Institute for the Environment.
In order for European territories to be more environmentally and socially sustainable the involvement of citizens is key. Experiences throughout Europe show us that developing strategies to improve the engagement, collaboration and communication with local stakeholders – across diverse realms and thematic domains – is essential to ensure an effective outcome. During European Green Week, a workshop organised by DG Environment, was conducted to showcase some inspirational experiences in terms of sustainable urban development, health and waste management from different European cities.
Speakers included Mauro Gil Fournier (Estudio SIC), Professor Rich Pancost (Director of University of Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment), Silvia Moroni (AMAT), Paola Robalo (Centro Ciência Viva do Alviela), Sietse Gronheid (Wasted Social Enterprise) and Igor Kos (City of Maribor).
Rich Pancost speaking at EU Green Week. Image credit BristolBrussels.
[Rich Pancost contributed on a variety of issues, largely arising from Cabot Institute and Bristol City engagement, but spoke primarily about the Green and Black Conversation and Ambassadors programme. He emphasised the importance of engaging with marginalised groups, the fact that they have much to teach ‘established’ organisations, and the fact that inclusion requires far more than good will but hard work and appropriate financial investment.]
There was much feedback from the workshop as to how citizens could help to shape green cities which included:
We need to consider different levels of citizens’ involvement: consultation, participation, co-creation. For this reason we always have to consider who is involved and who is excluded from every process.
People are involved in topics they care about, so in order to get out of our elitism we need to address issues that really matter to most people, especially those people that are often not actively engaged. This is what was experienced by the Green and Black Ambassadors during the Bristol Green Capital year, where a community radio station with a focus on the local African-Caribbean community (Ujima Radio) framed environmental discussions and training around the perspectives of local community members.
Topics such as air quality, circular waste management or water pollution are hard topics to get people involved in, whilst topics such as food or green spaces are often more recognised by people because the feel ‘closer’. For this reason Milan, which is taking part in the Air Quality Partnership of the EU Urban Agenda, is working on developing an Action Plan that will actively address citizens’ involvement through a concrete toolkit.
For people to be engaged we need to involve them throughout the process and not just at the end to show the results. This is what has been experienced in Portugal by the Science Centre in Alcanena that is involving the local community in monitoring water quality, polluted by the local industry, in order to understand the roots of the problems and develop together possible solutions.
In order to get people involved in long term change we need to deliver short and medium term results that they can appreciate. This is what is being done in Maribor, that is developing a long term circular economy strategy and is creating festivals, schools events and fairs to get people involved and experience some of the changes taking place in the waste, such as for the biological waste turned into compost for community gardens.
Participatory processes that really get people committed, beyond a consultation, require people with professional skills of moderation and community engagement, which should therefore also be economically remunerated in order to ensure long term commitment. This is what is experienced by in Amsterdam, where through the Wasted project circular waste cycles are an opportunity to create complementary currencies in partnership with local enterprises. The same is true for engaging with marginalised groups who have to sacrifice precious time to contribute; we cannot extract free labour from anyone but especially groups that are already marginalised by structural inequities.
For environmental and societal transition to take place we need to ensure that it also affects economic and financial models in an inclusive and participatory way, otherwise large parts of our society will keep being left out. This is what has been done in Madrid through the MARES project that develops social economy cooperatives around sustainable mobility and energy production.
Skills around social media and communication tools need to be addressed in order to reach out to people, yet they might be more effective tools for consultation rather than co-creation.
Half of the planet lives in cities. By the middle of this century, that number will rise to nearly 75%, nearly 7 billion people. The decisions we make today will dictate whether those future cities are fit for purpose, whether they are just, sustainable, vibrant, resilient and pleasant. But those decisions must navigate an increasingly perilous web of urban complexity and global uncertainty.
The Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr famously said, ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,’ a quote that recognises and subverts the very nature of the scientific endeavour. Scientists aspire to understand something well enough that we can predict what will happen under certain conditions in the future, whether it be a chemical reaction or nuclear fission – or administering a drug or raising interest rates. In fact, prediction is the basis for all decision makers, not just doctors and engineers but mayors, CEOs, teachers and you. Whether it is predicting when you will run out of bread or predicting whether a residential parking scheme will bring about a net positive change to a congested city, we all make decisions based on what we think is about to happen or will happen if we take an action. In a simple world, we barely need to think about these things because the pattern has been reproduced numerous times or the solution will clearly address the challenge.
But we do not live in a simple world. We live in a complex world – an astonishingly complex world in which the landscape is changing faster than our ability to map it.
People are complex: our emotions, motivations, desires and fears make us notoriously (and wonderfully) difficult to understand and predict. Society is complex: our communities, whether they be geographical, historical, ethnic or religious, interact in marvellously messy ways. And most of all, our cities are complex. Beautifully, fantastically, unpredictably, frustratingly and vibrantly complex. Cities represent tens or hundreds or even thousands of years of ad hoc expansion, destruction and redevelopment; the accumulation of technological and infrastructural strata, from ancient paths, to great roads, to modern electrical grids, to smart city digital networks; and vast demographic changes including an aging population, migration, globalisation and a frightening increase in social inequality.
That is just the complexity within a city, but cities are not isolated from the rest of the world. They are nodes within a vast and increasingly complex global supply chain on which we depend for everything from our food and electricity to our culture and entertainment.
And adding yet additional layers of complexity are our global environmental and societal challenges. We are warming the planet and depleting it of vital resources. Those would be challenging enough given the complex interdependencies that now define 21st century society. Unfortunately, global warming could change our planet in ways that are unique in human history and possibly geological history. We have not experienced and our models cannot fully constrain this uncertain world. Forecasts for rainfall patterns, extreme weather events or food production are fraught with uncertainty – and by extension, so are forecasts for political insecurity and financial markets.
How does the complexity intersect and overlap, how do these systems merge, either dampening or enhancing their collective impacts? How will climate change and food insecurity, for example, exacerbate inequality? We do have tools for navigating these complex systems – ranging from cognitive shortcuts in decision making to community histories to sophisticated models. However, those are almost all based on experience, and experience loses value when the ground rules are changed. Our vast experiment with the Earth’s climate and ecosystem – making our world not just complex but complex and uncertain – makes it harder for scientists to predict the future, decision makers to plan and individuals to act with creative and empowering agency.
Of course, complexity need not be bad. Complexity and change can bring about positive challenges, shaking us out of complacency and inspiring creativity. Perhaps even more inspiring, complexity could be harnessed as a tool for connection rather than isolation. Although our interdependence makes us particularly vulnerable to conflict or instability on the far side of the planet, it also makes us all invested in one another’s lives. This also applies to the urban scale as exemplified by Bristol is Open, in which an additional layer of complexity – a publicly shared digital infrastructure managed by a smart city operating system – could generate new platforms for social cohesion. It could be a new set of cross-city linkages, a digital commons, or a shared lab for city-scale experimentation in which all of us are the scientists.
Ensuring how our complex cities thrive in an uncertain world is a rather exciting challenge that will likely require a range of solutions. During the Festival of the Future City we will explore both what it means to be a citizen in a complex city, how we navigate that complexity both on a personal and societal scale, and the new technologies that create both new challenges and new opportunities. In some cases, we should avoid unnecessary uncertainty, such as potentially devastating climate change. In others, we should harness the social and economic opportunities it presents. But in all cases, we ourselves must change. A more complex world requires a more resilient citizen or community, one that is empowered to learn, to improvise and to create.
In 2015, I joined the Bristol delegation to COP21 in Paris, where the world agreed to limit warming to less than 2C and aspired to limit warming to 1.5C.
Six years later, COP26 comes to the UK, and delayed by Covid, it comes in the aftermath of an IPCC report that starkly highlights how inadequate our efforts have been to meet those Paris 2015 aspirations.
The Step Change Yet to Happen
It would be a mistake to argue that nothing was achieved in Paris. The agreement – and the subsequent increase in ambition of the UK Climate Change Act to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – appears to have had an impact on governments and legal decisions. Although the declaration of Climate Emergencies, starting in Bristol and spreading widely, is largely symbolic, the political recognition of climate change and on-the-record commitment to decarbonisation exerts a pressure on policy. Most obviously, it has (for the time being) prevented the expansion of both Bristol and London Airports. These government commitments have also exerted pressure on energy infrastructure and contributed to the UK’s decreasing carbon emissions. Globally, even though CO2 emissions and concentrations continue to climb, they are ever so slowly bending away from the worst case scenario, which tellingly was once called the Business as Usual scenario.
Most importantly, however, the Paris Agreement has invited and legitimised a long overdue surge in activism. Friday Strikes, marches, and rallies on College Green as well as the more disruptive interventions of XR have forced climate action onto the media and political agenda. We also see this in the more activist intervention of climate scientists. Our activism is not just driven by government inaction on our warnings for over 50 years, but also because those same governments have now established their objectives in law and international agreements. Is taking to the streets really ‘activism’ if it is just asking governments to do what they are legally as well as morally compelled to do – by their very own admission?
But let’s not deceive ourselves. By necessity the Paris Agreement was non-binding. Globally, emissions still increase; bending away from 5C of warming to perhaps 3C of warming is not reassuring. Moreover, very little meaningful – transformative – change has happened. We have achieved a decrease in emissions and that is cause for some celebration. But that has largely been achieved by switching from coal to gas, but we still fundamentally rely on burning things to generate our heat, electricity and transport. We have made incremental gains by grabbing the low-hanging fruit. This is true of the UK and it is true of Bristol. And our delays mean that the window of time for driving emissions to zero has shrunk dramatically. Even the most optimistic scenarios of the most recent IPCC report lean heavily on carbon capture.
Community Collaboration and Action
As we approach COP26, therefore, where can Bristol lead? Are we powerless as a city if national governments fail to act?
In this it is worth reflecting why Bristol was awarded the Green Capital honour for 2015. It was largely because of the number and variety of organisations, from volunteer groups of 2 to 3 people to civil society organisations and CICs to charities to businesses and to local government, united in their pursuit of an environmentally sustainable future. Bristol cannot solve climate change but it can show the world that we are not powerless in the face of national government prevarication. Too often the climate debate is split between those arguing for individual action vs structural change at a national level. Not only is this a false dichotomy (clearly we need both), but more importantly it misses the most important agent of change: communities.
Communities amplify individual action.
Communities create pressure for wider political change.
Communities come up with novel solutions and the solutions that will be most effective for them. In doing so, they learn fast, learn hard, fail, learn again. And then they share.
Climate Action that Centres Environmental and Social Justice
Community leadership and collaboration is also vital in addressing the other major theme that has emerged in the climate movement since COP21: It is not just about the climate. Of course, we always knew this, but the past five years of Ecological Emergencies and Black Lives Matter have shown starkly that nothing exists in isolation. We must not devastate nature to achieve our climate solutions, i.e. by taking land from wildlife and devoting it to the capture of carbon. We must not ignore the injustices of climate change or the potential injustices of our environmental solutions; fossil fuel colonialism must not be replaced by green colonialism just so we can continue exactly as we always have, albeit in electric cars.
Bristol can do this.
Through the Green Capital Partnership but not only the partnership, we have the capacity to connect, cooperate and mobilise. The Black and Green Ambassadors, for example, have challenged organisations to recognise their lack of racial diversity and inclusion as well as its consequences; and they have supported those organisations to become stronger by addressing those issues. Crucially, although the Ambassadors Programme was successful, we never forgot that it was not about our ego but about community, it was not about promoting itself but rather celebrating the fact that Bristol’s Black community was already active and engaged in environmental issues. It elevated those groups and challenged other organisations, including my own, to recognise that the lack of engagement from the black community with our initiatives did not mean that they were not leading their own.
I can give so many other examples: Voscur, Ujima Radio, Black 2 Nature, Avon Wildlife Trust, Locality, Babbasa, the Black Southwest Network, the Bristol Zoo, 91 Ways, the Bristol Energy Network, Bristol Ideas, Feeding Bristol… I am so impressed by what they have accomplished, while being supported by Bristol City Council in concept but largely starved of funds by nearly a decade of austerity. They have championed projects in a profoundly intersectional manner, decreasing carbon footprints while alleviating fuel poverty, growing food while creating green spaces in marginalised neighbourhoods. What could they achieve with empowerment and a sustainable budget? What new transport schemes, community energy projects, car or tool sharing, allotments, youth training, community gardens and more could they bring to our city if they were supported with finances and freedom that matched their passion??
As COP26 approaches, I have expectations for our national government, our regional authority, Bristol City Council and the Mayor. But for Bristol as a city, my hope is that its citizens are afforded the opportunity to do what they have always done: argue but also collaborate; innovate and fail but also succeed and create; and then share.
‘The University always has to have its moment in the spotlight.’ Sarcasm dripped from every word, heard by me even though it was whispered only to his neighbour in the audience. His colleague laughed in reply. I had just given a talk as part of a Conference on Bristol’s Resilience Strategy, on work we had co-produced.
On another occasion, after speaking about the racial impacts of climate change, a person who’s opinion I valued and still value above nearly all others cornered me and said, ‘If you care so much about racial inequality why is your audience all white? Why are your speakers all white?’
Co-production. Participatory Approaches. Citizen Science. Co-creation. Shared learning. We now recognise that our research – maybe all of it and certainly aspects of it – cannot be conducted in the ivory tower but instead must be done in an engaged, equal and constructive partnership with the relevant communities. Increasingly, however, the nature of that engagement is critiqued. Who do we engage and why? What are the implicit and explicit power imbalances and hierarchies? Even when we engage genuinely, are we still centering our agenda through our soft influence and power?
These are not new questions, but as researchers approach community engagement with new enthusiasm, they are re-discovered by new parts of the academic community and university leadership. The lessons have to be learned again. Our partners have to teach us. Again. And are exploited further.
Twenty years ago, it was thought to be enough to simply be seen to be engaging, so desperate were cities and communities for researchers to listen to them. But engagement can reproduce the same inequities of the past. In fact, given the greater emotional and labour investment of the partnership, the potential for exploitation is far greater.
Why must we engage?
I was asked this at a recent workshop, not because anyone there thought it was a contested question but rather to stimulate discussion. Nonetheless, if we are to collaborate with communities with integrity, it is essential to understand not just why we are obliged to engage as researchers but why we choose to engage as people.
When I first started working more closely with communities – those in Tanzania as part of project to study past climate, with Bristol communities to explore local climate action – I was inspired by the classical reasons. It is fun; I enjoy working with people. And it is ethical; people have a right to know where and how their taxes, resources, or history are used and have a right to shape that research.
As I increasingly focused on the intersection of my work on past climate change with local and national strategies for climate action and resilience, my motivation became more pragmatic. If we expect our work to make a difference to society, then people need to have not just understanding but buy-in to that research. Where possible, they should be co-creating those solutions and policies, whether via Citizen Assemblies or involvement in technological innovations. Too often, scientists, engineers and social scientists have envisioned solutions that have been met with apathy, indifference or even hostility by the citizens they’ve been meant to serve: nuclear power, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Vaccines. And with communities, flood defences, wind farms, hazard resilience strategies, clean air zones, park restoration. Co-production will never eliminate controversy, but it mitigates it. And it certainly helps all of society anticipate challenges and create a more constructive path towards the implementation of solutions. It will be especially important to implement the very challenging changes required to address the Climate and Ecological Emergencies.
Although I still embrace that pragmatic rationale and approach, it is too simplistic.
First, it is not enough to simply engage the usual, expected or obvious stakeholders. Instead, we must ask challenging questions about who we are engaging and why, viewed through a decolonial lens and in a manner that challenges the prevailing conventions. Failure to do so in a society with deeply embedded inequities – locally, nationally and globally – will likely replicate or even amplify the structural racism, sexism and classism of our world.
Take as an example the electric car, a critical part of decarbonising transport. In the news, in policy, and in engagement by researchers, whose voices are privileged, whose have been centered. Whose have been marginalised. Which communities do we challenge and which do we placate. I would argue that the entire dialogue centres the current car user – how to make electric cars affordable and comfortable. How to build the enabling infrastucture. Where to invest in charging stations. The dialogue frequently fails to consider the non-car user or the impoverished. It almost always fails to consider the resources to manufacture those cars: The countries that still suffer from neocolonial exploitation; the people in those countries; the marginalised groups and indigenous communities in those countries. Every pledge to invest in electrification of transport is a colonial claim to a finite resource, and yet these issues are almost never discussed in the race to innovate and invest.
The act of engagement is not a neutral one.
Second, we must complicate the personal dimension of the ‘why engage’ question by examining motivations and power inequities. What are your motivations. Why are you doing this? Was it necessary to the grant? Is it necessary for your work to have ‘impact’? Is it because it is what your employer expects of you in order to achieve the previous? Engagement is necessary for the success of academics and the University, and therefore, it is always an act of institutional privilege, centering our agenda even when it is co-produced.
This is what sits under the simmering resentment of the anecdote I opened with. That work was some of my most genuine and heartfelt; it was good work of which I am proud and it did involve multiple communities. But in that moment, in that forum, I was speaking because I was expected to. I had a platform not because of the work but because of my employer. I had long ago understood my white and male privilege, but in that moment I understood my institutional privilege. Just like I had initially resisted the idea of white privilege because I had suffered as a poor working class kid in rural Ohio, I resisted the idea of institutional privilege because I viewed myself as another proud Union member who loved the University of Bristol but still thought of myself as exploited by the neoliberal University machine as anyone else.
But it is not true. I had and have the privilege of working for an institution that has nearly a billion pound annual turnover, whose decisions shape our city in profound and long-lasting ways, skewing property values, demographics and investment. I have no doubt that our University, as progressive as it is, brings not only income to Bristol but also inequality. I was leveraging that privilege for a spotlight. And I would later be able to leverage that spotlight for recognition and promotion.
These complicated power dynamics are not an excuse not to engage, however; they are a lesson about recognising the privilege that is embodied in any interaction with our community. A counter example is my involvement with the Bristol Festival of Nature. For over ten years, the University and my research group has attended, bringing an interactive display about how molecular fossils can tell us about past climate and past human history. It is sort of the most rudimentary form of community engagement. There is no co-creation. It’s just scientists rocking up and talking to the public and answering their questions. And no one has ever challenged my role in that or the University’s.
That is because this engagement, although it offers little, offers more than it asks.
Deep, meaningful, long-term and honest engagement with communities is not necessarily “better” than rocking up and giving a talk but it is deeper, with greater rewards and also greater obligations. In any interaction, but especially interactions involving the vast power disparities of Universities with their cities or UK scientists with marginalised communities, it is not enough to fixate only on the most effective mechanism but to understand the privilege we derive from those power differentials, the underlying transactions and the potential for exploitation.
Barriers to Engagement and their Solutions
The Barriers to successful engagement are extensive: finding common cause, a shared language and approach, agreeing mutually beneficial outcomes. There are questions of legitimacy and trust, especially when there has been a history of exploitation. When trust is built, there is the shared frustration of funding, with the options available to all of us limited to months or years, undermining the ability to develop the meaningful relationships to which we aspire.
Prosaically, the solutions are obvious. Coming from a privileged organisation, can you procure more long-term investment? Given that engagement is part of our jobs, are we willing to transfer some of our academic privilege to our partners by volunteering our time?
But informing and underpinning all of that is the essential need to understand the transactions implicit or explicit in our partnerships. I don’t want any of us to make our world any more transactional than it already is. But we are obliged to have an understanding of the transactions that are explicit and implicit in our partnerships – for us and our partners – and use that understanding to build a collaboration based on equity, honesty and empathy.
Researchers must be more honest with our partners about what we will get out of it – and sometimes that means being more honest with ourselves. Successful engagement will help us get a PhD. A job. A grant. A paper. A promotion. A pay raise.
Similarly – and in light of history and privilege differentials – we must create the space where our partners can also be honest about their needs, their research priorities, and how they need to have that knowledge returned to them in an actionable way.
And we have an obligation to understand what we are asking of them. Remember this: For a poor person, we can ask for few things more valuable than time. For someone from a marginalised group, we can ask for few things more valuable than their emotional labour, experience and re-lived trauma.
And most of all, understand the source of power imbalances in any interaction. Marginalised groups have power. Growing up in a working class family, I was acutely aware that we did not have access to much financial, legal or political power; but we had other power that comes from closeness, resilience and lived experience. My community partners would say the same. The Green and Black Ambassadors are powerful. Ujima Radio is powerful. The real question is the intersection of power and privilege. What power (skills, knowledge, experience) is privileged in society? And what power do we wield in a civic partnership that arises not from legitimacy but from our institutional and individual privilege.
What I learned about dismantling privilege and building engagement with the Green and Black Ambassadors
In 2015 Bristol was the European Green Capital and it was widely regarded as a successful year. But it was rightfully critiqued for failing to be inclusive – despite well intentioned efforts to be so. Because of that, I partnered via the Cabot Institute with Ujima Radio, a community radio station, and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership to explore the lack of inclusion during the Green Capital Year and more widely in the environmental movement. This was the Green and Black Conversation, and through its delivery we learned a lot of things that environmental movement should have known already:
– That the programme was shaped by and favoured the interests of the ‘in-crowd’; its focus and themes, the venues, the types of events all reflected the tastes, interests and convenience of the usual suspects.
– That they were invited to events and even to speak but only after the agenda was set.
– That individuals and groups that represented marginalised groups were being exploited for their time and labour. Moreover, they were not supported in leveraging the Green Capital accolades to win their own funding. It is not the same for the Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment to sacrifice his day to attend a sustainability workshop than it is for the Director of a racial equity organisation. Not only are there questions of alignment of responsibilities but also a chasm in resource. Inviting them to attend was not inclusion. Expecting them to attend was exploitation.
– That the language was exclusionary. In particular, language about marginalised groups assumed a lack of interest – ‘How do we get more Black people into nature.’ ‘How can we ensure Black people have access to nature’ – without recognising that they already had their own initiatives and projects. That they had their own sustainability solutions. That they were engaged just not with the ‘in crowd’s projects.
– We would always pay our Ambassadors and our partners, compensating them for their labour and experience; and that we would use our privilege to demand the same from all future partners.
– We would invest in a new generation, recognising both the great capacity in Bristol’s African and Caribbean populations but also that this capacity had been undermined by decades of under-investment.
– We would give them a platform to promote initiatives from their own community; and eventually, we would cede our platforms to them. I would no longer accept the invitations arising from my institutional privilege but pass those invitations to Zakiya and Jazz.
– We would be allies in challenging institutions, including our own. We advocated for their voices in our Board Rooms, classrooms, working parties, One City Plans and more. We were their voice when they were not present but more importantly, we agreed to open the door and let them come in and have our places instead.
In short, it was a political project to challenge the lack of equity and inclusion in the environmental movement, politics and industry. And although that might seem far from how you might build engagement into a research proposal, it is not. The principles for all engagement must be the same because all interactions characterised by power differentials are political projects.
But moreso, this type of collaboration enriches and adds value to all of our scholarly endeavours. Much of the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme was funded by my ERC project on The Greenhouse Earth System. Centering racial inclusion in the environmental movement might seem rather removed from developing molecular tools to study Earth’s climate 50 million years ago. Maybe. But by building trust, relationships and credibility, I have been able to share my research findings with 1000s of people I might not otherwise. The palaeoclimate research was never centred, rarely prominent, usually never mentioned, because that would have undermined the ethos of the Green and Black Programme. Instead our conversations focused on the air pollution and food poverty issues that our engaged communities had prioritised.
But here is the thing: I’d far rather have my work be a very small part of a large story shared by many than the central part of a small story heard by few. And I think that is a truth of the entire suite of global crises we face. If we are to address the many environmental and social justice challenges of the future, we must embrace community while rejecting ego.
Addendum. There is a lot of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this essay. Ultimately, we must get away from that. We must avoid not just the language of we and them but the unconscious view from which that language arises. But I still believe that in the vast majority of partnerships, ‘we’ still need to do better by ‘them’; and pretending we are all in this together, that we all enter into a partnership with equal privilege and capacity is duplicitous. So my final advice is recognise there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ arising from differences in privilege, and do everything you can to dismantle that.
Addendum 2: Once you begin to explore power differentials, you unlock a range of challenging questions. In particular, I find this short article by Farhana Sultana to be illuminating in revealing the power dynamics within the communities we engage.
From an article for GW4 on Innovative approaches in SW England. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute is an exemplar of interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together researchers from across the arts and humanities, sciences and technologies to address global environmental challenges. We hear from its Director, Professor Richard Pancost, on the lessons he has learned from leading the institute, from the importance of building trust between academics, to the value of managing expectations and eschewing ‘checklist targets’.
Nine years ago, many of us at the University of Bristol set out to create a new kind of research institute, one that would draw together multiple disciplines to tackle society’s grand environmental challenges. It was supported from the ‘top’ of the University, with an ambition to foster cross-disciplinary research; but it was led from the ‘bottom’, by those already leading diverse themes while also recognising that something larger, bolder and more creative was necessary. Those conversations led to the launch of the Cabot Institute in 2010, the University of Bristol’s first (of four) University Research Institutes (URIs), of which I have been the Director since 2013.
At the time, both interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity were popular but contentious concepts. Many organisations were pursuing them but perhaps without a robust intellectual justification or an understanding of their ultimate purpose. This was particularly challenging because classical but constrained concepts of interdisciplinarity were being challenged as insufficiently ambitious. No longer was a collaboration between a chemist and physicist worthy of special recognition; the new and challenging aspiration was to join scientists, social scientists, engineers and cultural scholars.
At the same time, interdisciplinary research was being critiqued as too frequently treated as an end in and of itself by individuals, funders and organisations. Instead, interdisciplinary methods, like any other, should be deployed only when they are appropriate to the challenge or question. And when done so, they have great power, drawing together the different disciplines required to tackle grand challenges and co-producing energising new ideas. This was the rationale of Cabot – we could not tackle challenges like climate change within a single discipline or within academia alone; nor could we tackle climate change as an isolated challenge given its connection to social justice, energy policy and food production. This challenge-led motivation for interdisciplinarity – and more fundamentally the co-production of knowledge – is the inspiring force behind Cabot.
However, there is some risk that we have swung the pendulum too far towards the ‘problem-solving’ rationale for interdisciplinary research. Just as applied research best thrives in an ecosystem that includes fundamental research, so do interdisciplinary endeavours. The joy of such research and the benefit it brings is not simply new solutions but new ideas, new ways of thinking, even new disciplines. Many of these new ideas arise from the friction of interdisciplinary research and many arise from the new processes created to facilitate it. The intersection and clash of perspectives and different forms of knowing creates an environment in which new ideas can germinate and thrive. It does not always lead to new proposals, papers or solutions; instead, sometimes it infects its participants with new perspectives on their own research and new ways of interrogating old problems.
For example, Cabot now has extensive scholarship associated with the cultural understanding of natural hazards; some of that will help us mitigate risk but much of it more fundamentally helps us understand the human condition and how we conceptualise our relationship with nature. My own research on past climate has thrived within Cabot not because of how it has informed better climate model predictions but because it has allowed me to reframe conversations around uncertainty, decision and anticipation. This in turn has created new avenues for engaging with policy makers and our community.
Holding those competing intellectual values in tension, the Cabot Institute has experimented, facilitated and catalysed, with both successes and failures, the former often surprising and the latter sometimes predictable in hindsight. And during that time, we’ve learned a great deal that elaborates on these themes of multi- and interdisciplinarity. Below I describe four values that I have found particularly important.
BRINGING DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES TOGETHER IS INTRINSICALLY ABOUT BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
Of Cabot’s many objectives, the first and most essential is to build new communities of scholars, within and beyond the University. These comprise both interdisciplinary efforts that genuinely sit in new intellectual spaces and multidisciplinary ones that represent a mosaic of classical disciplines. This ethos imposes a range of secondary considerations. The inter- and multidisciplinary thrives best when the disciplinary thrives as well; some of our greatest successes have emerged from strong disciplines coming together as multidisciplinary efforts that then give rise to a new interdisciplinary way of thinking.
Community building also requires a diverse form of support activity. We can bring groups together to discuss a particular challenge, but we also need to bring people together in more creative and less prescribed frameworks. The Cabot team needs to have 1-2-1s with our community, so that we are sufficiently informed to be match-makers. And we all need funding to nurture these ideas, allowing them to thrive to sufficient maturity to attract external funding.
Moreover, a truly intellectually diverse multi-disciplinary environment is one that it is not limited to academics. Cabot has thrived via strong partnerships across the city, UK and world, supported by the traditional mechanisms (a brilliant External Advisory Board chaired by Chris Curling, then Sir John Beddington and currently Dame Julia Slingo; secondments into the Government Office of Science; partnerships with Rothamsted Research and the Met Office) but also creative collaborations that have created the space for our esteemed University to be more humble and learn from the brilliant civil society organisations and incredible individuals in Bristol.
When we have drifted from those values is when we have failed. One of our initiatives was to create a ‘Corporate Club’, VENTURE, in which corporate partners, via a subscription, would fund staff, who in turn would help build collaborations and develop research projects. It was a legitimate effort towards co-production, based on shared resourcing. However, trying to procure funding from our partners undermined the message of collaboration, partnership and support. Would we not provide the same service to those who did not join? Would we not support those organisations with fewer resources? Of course we would. Partnership was not just a way of working but a Cabot value. VENTURE could work for other organisations, but for Cabot it revealed itself to be inconsistent with our core mission. It is to the credit of our partners that this dialogue, through shared learning and deeper respect, led to stronger relationships – even if VENTURE failed.
THE VALUE (OR NOT) OF HAVING A RESEARCH THEME
The Cabot community has resisted calls to be the Institute of the ‘environment’ or ‘climate change’ or ‘sustainability’ or ‘risk’ or all of the above. As soon as one of those words is imposed, it would begin to define and constrain our purpose. And Cabot was created to disrupt silos not to create a new one. We would not have been able to engage in a rich dialogue with our city around social justice, co-create the Green and Black Ambassadors, support smart city initiatives, sponsor the International Conference on Anticipation, or explore the challenge of food security if we had an overly constrained remit. Associated with this, we view our membership and partnership as permeable, with nearly 1000 academics and other colleagues engaging with us over the years, more or less, off and on, depending on the opportunities, challenges and potential for creativity.
On the other hand, it is essential to have some broad thematic focus. There is already an entity that should support all multi- and interdisciplinary research – it is called the 21st century University. Therefore, Cabot’s value arises from having a loose thematic remit that provides some guidance of what colleagues and partners can expect us to offer, who they might meet at a Cabot event, what we might be prepared to profile. Moreover, having some common themes, such as low carbon energy, food security and environmental change, allows us to build added value, partnerships and communities as our projects accumulate and diversify. Of course, we can never fully anticipate where such dynamic and creative conversations might take us – and that is part of the fun!
EMBEDDING COLLABORATION AND COMMUNITY IN INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH
One of the great pleasures of Cabot has been not only drawing in new ideas from our academics and partners but also our professional services. Breaking down silos is not limited to the silos that exist between Schools or disciplines: we all live in a world of structural and administrative silos. And building bridges between them reveals great pools of experience and knowledge. Our estates team is a world leader in sustainability and has fostered new discussions around everything from district heating and sustainable procurement to the carbon footprint of our research. Collaboration with our Press Office led to the creation of the Press Gang, in which we train postgraduate students keen on developing their communication skills and connect them to partners; in return they help us produce blogs and press releases. A partnership with our Centre for Public Engagement led to the Engaged MSc Research projects, which connect postgraduate researchers with external organisations who have a wealth of ideas but limited resource.
Crucially, this fosters not just the creation of new research directions but new ways of working, new ways to support and enable the academic community, and new learning experiences. We have brought in external provocateurs, run sandpits, workshops, mingles, and all the activities one might expect. But we have also fostered conversation through curated peer-to-peer learning. We have worked with artists – who have served as collaborators, facilitators and enablers. We have connected UGs to academics, PGRs to community organisations, citizens to councillors, academics to MPs. We have run conferences and curated discussions on behalf of city partners. And all of that has been fostered by an ethos of partnership and learning, and fuelled by permission – or perhaps more accurately, a mandate – to try new things.
METRICS: MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
Cabot’s budget is small but powerful given that our mission is not to deliver but to be catalytic. But more important is the conditionality of that funding. We are not assessed against a checklist of targets or how much of a specific activity we deliver – how many workshops we have organised or events we have hosted. Instead, we are assessed against a more challenging but vital target – how we have added something new to our research or teaching portfolio. This permissiveness is the foundation for experimentation and creativity. It is the foundation of collaboration rather than competition. And therefore, it creates the environment in which new ideas can thrive. These new ways of working might or might not solve climate change or any other grand challenge; however, a diversity of new ideas inspired by a diversity of perspectives, whether from Bristol, GW4 partners or others, likely will. As such, Cabot’s ambitions transcends our initial ambition to facilitate problem-driven interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research; we aspire to create an environment where we challenge one another to think, learn and conduct research in exciting new ways.
These perspectives do not represent the only approach – and certainly not the only rationale. My comments have arisen from the many who are part of the Cabot community. And not all of them would agree with what I’ve written or omitted. For example, I see no need for a physical space and in fact view it as a threat to creativity and adaptability; others would have good reasons to disagree. As such, these observations are not meant to be lessons but rather provocations; and as such, I hope they help catalyse the conversations of others pursuing similar initiatives – even if they make different choices.