Climate Change, Capitalism, Colonialism Study Group Meeting 2- presentation by:
Diane Smith – November 22, 2017
My personal thoughts about the state of the world, as related to CCCC
“They cannot take the land from me. The labor of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away. If I had the silver, they would have taken it. If I had bought with the silver to store it, they would have taken it all. I have the land still, and it is mine.”
“When there was rain and sun in proportion [Wang Lung] did not consider himself poor.” “The Good Earth”, Pearl S. Buck
My knowledge and understanding of Climate change, Capitalism and Colonialism is fairly limited, but I have my own observations and life experiences, especially in nature, and growing up in mining towns and coming from a family of miners.
What do I see as the future of we humans and “our” planet? There will likely be massive and catastrophic changes in the physical world well before the end of this century. Delicate balances in nature are being upset in too short a period of time for earth systems and humans to adjust. Much of what we take for granted (or not, in underdeveloped nations) will be increasingly disrupted – food production and water supply, travel, communications, health.
A minority is holding the reins – large oil and coal companies, banks, and governments, all of whom often aren’t looking after our interest. The rest of us may end up not being in control of our own destiny if we’re poorly organized and don’t have a strong vision, and especially if we don’t have a clear understanding of ourselves.
Everything that we do today – what we eat, what we buy, what we think and who we vote for – is our future. We must raise our eyes and look straight into our lives. Seeing clearly, as I’ve learned in my Zen practice, is necessary for making choices and living fully as a human being.
I find it difficult to be very optimistic about our future. I think we’re hugely unprepared, both physically and mentally, for the changes that are coming, and it would be very easy for chaos to settle in, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina for example. The systems and structures within which we live our lives are far more complex than most of us realize and could ever fully understand. Also, I think many of us are in denial of what’s happening and can’t conceive of how our lives will be impacted.
“I think our culture has this double think about this apocalyptic end to the world because we haven’t experienced anything on that scale and because it’s almost like a disaster movie so that it’s hard to construct a personal feeling, a personal sense of what that would mean for me. I can imagine what will happen to the planet when things fall apart and the centre no longer holds, but I can’t imagine what happens to me, what happens to my life.”
“The human brain evolved very nicely to deal with near-term predictions, near-term projections of possibilities. But the problem is the challenges we’re facing now don’t fit into that near-term prediction structure. They’re much longer-term problems, long-lag problems that our brain simply sin’t good at dealing with. We’re really good at dealing with short-term projections. Is-there-a-saber-toothed-tiger-around-the-corner kind of thing. “ – Jamais Cascio, Senior Fellow, Institute for the Future (CBC documentary “DocZone: Surviving the Future”, 2010)
“A lot of people simply don’t believe that the changes that are being described are actually happening. It’s extremely difficult to imagine what the world is like elsewhere when it’s 30 below and blizzarding outside. My inclination on days like that is to cheer for global warming. […] we are only evolved to experience what is in front of us. That’s fundamentally where our belief of the health of the world comes from, from the direct physical experience of the environment that we’re in at the beginning of the 21st century.” – Kari Shroeder, Science fiction author and futurist (CBC documentary “DocZone: Surviving the Future”, 2010)
My kids, who are around 30 years old, get uncomfortable and avoid eye contact when I mention climate change or global warming… and yet I know they believe it’s happening. I’ve asked them about it… they feel overwhelmed and powerless. I avoided the topic for many years… I felt overwhelmed and powerless. I now have a one-year old granddaughter. And it still took Petra’s email about the CCCC study group and a few coincidences to wake me up. My granddaughter will likely live in a dramatically different world and have to deal with really big problems… it’s hitting a little closer to home now. And so it seems insane to me now that we’re not dealing with the problems we ourselves have created.
We may or may not be able to avoid catastrophic changes to the planet, but we can learn how to live with and through them, at least for as long as we’re here. To do this we have to face what’s coming, we have to see clearly. This we can do. It’s our inherent nature. This is why I think Roy Scranton’s book is so important, and somehow even comforting. He explains that learning how to die is really about learning to let go – especially of the fear of death – in order to see clearly and to make better choices and decisions informed by reality.
As Naomi Klein says in the film “This Changes Everything”: “What if global warming isn’t only a crisis? What if it’s the best chance we’re ever going to get to build a better world?”… and I say: to become all that we are.
About Roy Scranton’s book “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”
What a great way to dive into the topic of climate change. Brutally honest, this book gave me an awful lot to learn about and to think about.
Roy Scranton says that we have to face the fact that death is an unavoidable part of life. There will be an end at some point to the way we live now, our civilization, and maybe our species … nothing is permanent. But our fear of death is preventing us from figuring out how we want to live the rest of our existence. And it may cause us to one day lose the rich resources of our cultural heritage.
He tells us that we must interrupt the social vibrations that prevent us from reflecting on our future. What he’s saying is crucial yet seldom (as far I know) talked about. I mean, these ideas aren’t very practical and they don’t fill us with any hope of escaping death. Of course we can still try to change things, correct our mistakes if possible. But right now is always the time for us to stop and examine who we are and what we want. This reflection and self-examination is, after all, what makes humans so resilient.
And so I want to focus on the learning-how-to-die part of the book, beginning with Chapter 4, The Compulsion to Strife, and particularly on his idea of the interrupter.
Synopsis of Chapter 4 – The Compulsion to Strife
Roy Scranton begins with stories about the Civil Rights Movement and labour struggles beginning in the late 19th century. He concludes and sums up his thoughts by quoting Heraclitus: “It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife”.
I agree that there’s no growth and therefore no life without the compulsion to strife… but is violence a necessary response to conflict?
People have differing visions and different responses to imminent danger – there’s looking away, denial and escapism. Perceived threats looming in our future raise aggression and fear which are displayed as restrained aggression, and a constant generalized anxiety.
Our fears and anxieties are fed to us daily in ever-present “problems”: the threat of terrorism, images and messages in social media, weather reports, security checks, and the constant reminder of our inadequate actions.
We deal with this fear and anxiety by discharging them and passing them on (re-tweeting, etc) or by simply ignoring them or losing ourselves in pleasurable activities. We lose sight of what we really want for ourselves and humanity as we become increasingly susceptible to the distractions of social vibrations. I find this line chilling: “As we train ourselves to resonate fear and aggression, we reinforce patterns of thought and feeling that shape a society that breeds the same”.
The machinery of capitalism allows for the balancing of fear against aggression and pleasure, which America’s social infrastructure allows to be channeled. But the social fabric is beginning to tear and Roy Scranton sees the possibility of chaos being unleashed in the form of rioting, rebellion, civil war… something we’ve already seen in parts of the world where there have been extreme weather events.
The political and social media through which we experience conflict are not neutral, they shape our perceptions and our consciousness. We live in a system of carbon-fueled capitalism which doesn’t behave in human ways and we are manipulated into behaviours and emotions that are unproductive or counterproductive. Ultimately, without self-awareness and self-reflection, we get stuck in a loop re-iterating the same messages, feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Instead of coming up with our own authentic responses and vision we continually propagate the same feelings of fear and outrage, which takes the edge off… for the moment… and then we go on with our lives. In any case, we’re stuck in a loop without political leverage. And it’s not easy fighting an enemy you can’t quite see. In fact, there’s no enemy out there… we, as a collective, are the enemy, the problem.
We are human animals with fight-or-flight impulses but we must interrupt the escalation of social excitation. Instead of reinforcing useless, mindless and harmful patterns we can interrupt the flow and our connection to collective life. We can sit with the social vibrations. We can reflect. This would allow us to respond freely and thoughtfully to the stimulation, refusing to take on others’ opinions and react to social excitation and pass it on.
I’ve been thinking: isn’t this what artists do? They stop and think deeply, mirror and reflect, re-interpret, envision different possibilities, different worlds, follow their own paths.
Synopsis of Chapter 5 – A New Enlightenment
Enlightenment is being aware of our limits, of our own death. With practice we can learn to let go and learn to die.
The total of human knowledge, wisdom and skills available to us is contained in our memory. Our cultural heritage is our gift to the future. It will continue to grow and evolve.
Roy Scranton’s description of the impact of writing and literacy on the human mind and society was fascinating. I’m not sure that I understand exactly what he means by “photohumanism”, unless it’s just about digital-literacy, the lit screens of our computers and mobile devices.
In this century we’re interconnected like we’ve never been before and have become vibrations and channelers par excellence. This could lead to dangerous hive mind. We must practice interrupting social vibrations through critical thought, contemplation, philosophical debate, and posing bold questions. In this way we can live up to our responsibility to life… to the life of humanity that transcends space and time.
Synopsis of Chapter 6 – Coming Home
When we practice interrupting our automatic reactions we understand that all things are intimately connected. The human species may have reached the limit of its knowledge and power. Or it may survive the Anthropocene. Either way, nothing is ever lacking and everything is always as it should be.
The question then remains: will we be all that we are?
Development of my art practice since joining the CCCC Study Group
My work has always been an exploration of the physical, psychological, emotional, and “spiritual” relationship of the individual to his environment, including the human (society and other individuals) and the world (the landscape, the planet, the cosmos).
I’ve long been interested in how we are living increasingly disconnected lives – disconnected from nature, from each other (ironic, as we’re more connected than ever with technology), from our own thoughts and feelings, from the present moment. Living disconnected lives allows us to be controlled by forces we’re often not even aware of such as technologies, capitalist systems or structures. It contributes to the difficulties we’re having in dealing with the overwhelming problem of climate change and why we take for granted all that we have: a natural world that many don’t experience or participate in regularly, a mind that we don’t exercise as we are constantly stuffing it with others’ ideas and opinions, the latent power of our feelings and thoughts because we don’t dare to own our problems.
At the time that I received Petra’s email calling us to form this study group, I was trying to find connections between various seemingly disparate projects or themes in my work that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Since then my readings about climate change, and to a lesser degree capitalism and colonialism, have resulted in a focusing of my art practice and the unearthing of very interesting connections I hadn’t seen before.
Some of the projects and themes I’ve been working on:
– the human form: where I’ve explored our place in the world by examining my own relationship to the world and to other people
– colourful abstract drawings: an exploration of my own intuitive thinking as well as about finding or creating order and structure out of disorder or chaos
– mining: its impact on the landscape, on our lives and the lives of miners and their families
– climate change (very recent): combining colour drawing and the human form and mining equipment.
My work is transforming along with my research on climate change. Right now it’s an intersection of the psychological and emotional impact of chronic illness in my life, and the psychological and emotional difficulties we face living in a world increasingly impacted by our technologies and the crisis of global warming.
I’ve been trying to figure out what has been compelling me to explore the theme of mining for almost two decades without creating much related art work. The context of global warming has given me a new perspective on my experiences and conflicted feelings related to mining. It was after recently seeing Naomi Klein’s film “This Changes Everything” that I started making connections:
– a metal sculpture I made over 10 years ago of a scarred shell of a back stands on its extended spine in a box filled with slag from Sudbury mines
– photos which I’ve tried to work with for years, from when my Dad took me and my kids to an old marble pit where the land was cut into and then left, mutilated, because it had too many flaws and wasn’t good enough. I’ll never forget the contrast of the raped Earth and the beauty of the peach-coloured marble… and of my Dad and kids leaning against the beautiful marble, heedless of the fact that this sheer cut into the earth was made by humans for profit
– a visit to the Alberta tar sands where my uncle worked most of his life. The machinery and other ingenious products of human engineering, and the vast open pits were awe inspiring… and at the same time incredibly sobering to witness.
– in 2006 my Dad and I traveled me to the mine sites in Northern Ontario where he and my grandfathers had worked. I gathered stories and photos of mine shafts and scars in the landscape, but never could figure out what to do with them.
– this past summer I went up north again and took hundreds of photos of mine equipment. I remembered how my Dad marveled at man’s ingenuity while and how I felt vaguely uneasy about the plundering of Earth.
– when I was young and living in Sudbury, I thought that all rocks were black on the outside… now I know it’s the pollution from the mines that turned them black. And it was only when I moved away from Sudbury as a young adult that I noticed how much the air reeked of pollution when I went back to visit. I remember wondering whether this damage to our world was justified, did we really have to do this?
The very last work I made when I took a painting course 20 years ago at the University of Ottawa was a painting on the floor. I wanted to take painting off the wall, remove it from its hallowed place, and make it a response to and a part of the world we live in. I wanted works of art to literally be under our feet and impossible to ignore. When I found a photo of this work recently it got me thinking about what artists can do, how can art work “interrupt”?
I don’t know where all of this is going to take me. But I do know that making art work is helping me think about what we’re doing to our world and how we’re handling the crisis we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Discussion and Questions
1 – What do you think of the idea of philosopher interrupter, and of the artist as interrupter? Is it enough? does it matter? Is it only a part of the solution or a way of going forward or a way to just sit with the problem?
2 – Can interrupter-artists realistically effect change, and what would be the nature of this change? Roy Scranton seems to believe that collective action is futile, yet he suggests that a group of people can help guide us through upcoming difficulties
3 – How can artists get people to listen to them? How can we engage people? Do we need to think about changing ourselves and what we do, the art we make, in order to make more of an impact and to be heard? I’m thinking of the value of traditional painting, drawing, sculpture as compared to the newer forms of art such as new media, performance, collaborations with the public and “social activism”
4 – how has or could your own art practice be changed by this topic? Do you know if and how you’re going to respond to the author’s call to interrupters?
Naomi Klein, in her film “This Changes Everything”
“we’re just guests here and we can get evicted for bad behaviour”
Try to Praise this Mutilated World”, by Adam Zagajewski (trans. by Clare Canvanagh)
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Bibliography and reading list
– Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, by Roy Scranton
– The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck
– Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, by Kari Marie Norgaard
– Neoliberalism, by David Harvey
– This Changes Everything – screenplay by Naomi Klein, directed by Avi Lewis (2015)
– DocZone: Surviving the Future – a CBC documentary (2010)
– George Carlin’s routine “the planet is fine” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W33HRc1A6c