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Reflections on Research Network Reading Group: Surviving on a Damaged Planet


Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet and Decolonising Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology

A reflective blog by Chloe Austin, Curatorial Trainee.

On September 24th we held a reading group entitled Surviving on a Damaged Planet, where we responded to the ideas of Ayesha Tan Jones’ research network event Optimystic Dystopia. The reading group space was intimate and generative, with the group working together to unpack complex and, at times depressing, realities. This blogpost hopes to relay some of the conversations sparked by the text we read, Deborah Bird Rose’s, “Shimmer: When All You love Is Being Trashed,” from Anna Tsing et al. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet and T. J. Demos’ “Ways Forward,” from Decolonising Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology.

Before we began reading, we started by sharing our feelings towards the climate crisis. There was a mix of emotions; from sadness to fear and anger with some saying they felt furious and outraged. Others felt confused, lost and even useless. However, it was not all negative, one group member shared that despite feeling scared for the future she also felt hopeful that things will change. Another group member said they felt grateful for the effort being made by some scientists and activists to seek solutions and push for change.

Our first text, by Bird Rose, focused on the work done by flying foxes carers, people who dedicate their time to looking after flying foxes, who are key pollinators in Australia. Bird Rose reframes the idea of “human exceptionalism” by foregrounding humanity’s exceptional talent for destruction and cruelty over the usual characteristics of intelligence and emotions.

Bird Rose’s text was popular among the group because of its poetic tone. We discussed the privileging of scientific writing in environmentalism and thought that perhaps more poetic ways of mediating data, like Bird Rose’s text, might have more of an impact on society.

Bird Rose was also commended by the group for her sensitivity to non-Western knowledge. In the text, she explains the Australian Aboriginal concept of shimmer. Attendees thought Rose’s explanation gave the idea the respect it deserved, unlike some writing on indigenous knowledge which can be condescending. Attendees felt that indigenous knowledge should be respected and studied as an alternative to Western values which have contributed to the climate crisis. The group thought authors like Bird Rose could act as an effective bridge between indigenous and Western cultures.

“Life flows from ancestors into the present and on into the future, and from the outset it is a multispecies interactive project…”

We also latched onto the Aboriginal idea that our ancestors are active agents in the present. One attendee identifies this concept in the environmental movement: today we are looking at our actions and considering not just how they affect us and those around us, but also the effect they will have on future generations. We are trying to protect the planet because we know the consequences of our actions will live on past us.

“We humans, too, can say yes. There is a fantastically large set of contexts within which to say yes … It is to say yes to photosynthesis and to say yes to oxygen. Why would one not? We breathe in, we breathe out.”

This attempt to protect the planet for future generations also links to another key take away from Bird Rose’s text: the power of positive action. Bird Rose encourages us to say “Yes” to life and by focusing on this positive exclamation Bird Rose avoids the common “doom and gloom” approach to the climate crisis. Of course, this is not to deny the disastrous situation we are in but, as an attendee pointed out, more can be achieved when acting out of joy and a need to protect instead of guilt and fear. The people living near flying foxes act on love for the animals and nature, rather than fear of extinction. Fear can be paralysing, a few of us expressed how at one time or another we had felt helpless and hopeless in the face of climate disaster. However, joy, gratitude and love are galvanising, fighting to keep what you love “from being trashed” will keep you energised.

However, despite trying to keep the group positive it was impossible not to consider the reality of the apocalyptic times we are living through. One interesting, and dare I say hopeful, train of thought that emerged from discussions considered what might come after humans. Bird Rose writes about how we [humans] have persuaded ourselves that humanity is the peak of living beings, this idea is so prevalent that questioning of its veracity is only seen in sci-fi fiction when hyper-intelligent aliens land on Earth. However, if we reject human exceptionalism, we open ourselves up to the possibility that after humanity something better might emerge. The shimmer of life dictates that for life to be beautiful, it must be dull. What if humanity’s extinction is just a dull point? To be followed by something far beyond our imaginations. It is, paradoxically a morbid but hopeful idea.

“Indeed, for power to come forth, it must recede. For shimmer to capture the eye, there must be absence of shimmer. To understand how absence brings forth, it must be understood not as lack but as potential.”

Flying fox ph

Flying fox from Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

Before moving on to our next text, we paused to consider and share ways in which we say “yes” to life, the planet and all the living beings in it. Again, we found this difficult; so much of writing around the environment is couched in negativity, for obvious reasons, so while we tried to focus on positive approaches there was some black sliding into discussing the problems. This was not necessarily all negative, as many of us agreed that talking about the issues, sharing knowledge and concerns could be a way to build a community and support our mental well-being. A group member expressed concern about how she came across when having these conversations with others, stressing that she was constantly searching for a way to inform people about the issues without coming across as “preachy or patronising”.

In response to this, we discussed how before talking to others it is important to take personal responsibility and be self-critical. The reality is that due to socio-economic and health reasons some people can’t go on climate strike, shop locally or sustainably or, reduce their carbon footprint. An important point raised was to avoid being ableist or expecting too much of others when you do not know their situation. By starting with ourselves we are also able to regain some control and promote more environmentally friendly ways of living by example.

However, despite the need to take action on a personal level, recognising and understanding the wider structural issue is key. Governments and corporations need to be made to take action, rather than all the responsibility falling on individuals. We discussed Wretched of the Earth’s open letter to Extinction Rebellion, which contextualised climate change in relation to colonialism and Capitalism. Suggestions were made for alternative ways of structuring society, with a focus on sharing more and consuming less which we thought would benefit well-being and foster closer communities as well as being more sustainable.

A group member, who has a background in fashion, has written a manifesto to challenge the fashion industry’s unsustainable attitude. It’s a great read and demonstrates how more and more people are working to resist established ideas by creating their own spaces.

Another tactic was to question and reject ingrained values. For example, one group member said she wanted to reconsider how she valued time and move away from consumption, instead trying to self-produce as much as possible. Another attendee wanted to shift the focus from the West and consider the effect of the climate crisis in other regions.

This discussion of our positive approaches to climate crisis was so abundant that we had little time to read T. J. Demos’ text. However, from the little we read it was noted that his style of writing was thought to be far more “academic” than Bird Rose’s. Group members thought there was space for a multitude of voices in the debate but that work like Bird Rose’s deserved more validation.

To round off the session, I asked for some final thoughts. One attendee said that the reading group felt like a space full of potential. I agree and I hope there are more spaces for sharing and conversations around environmental issues.

Thank you to all the participants who attended this reading group. To keep up to date on future Research Network events, please join our Facebook Group.