Climate Complexity Change
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Preface to the magazine by Julia Macintosh and Steve Thorp
We live in days of complexity and change. We live in times of crisis. Since the inception of Unpsychology Magazine in 2014, the climate emergency has overshadowed everything we have done. Every poem, essay, story and piece of art, video or music has had this awareness at its heart.
Sometimes our response has been to despair. Sometimes we have hope, when we see the courage of our fellow citizens putting themselves on the line to highlight the state we are in. Maybe something will change? There often doesn’t seem much indication of it, but change is unpredictable and hope says something about trusting the process of activism without knowing exactly where it is heading.
Unpsychology has always concerned itself with the art of reflection. We focus on a theme, and consider it — in mind and in depth — together with the ‘unpsychological’ meanings it may have. We inquire into the ways this aspect of culture or that might be in our human minds and in the Earth. We notice how our experience of ‘wellbeing’ is utterly grounded in the interdependent social, ecological and economic contexts in which we live.
For this second climate-focussed issue of our magazine, we wanted to highlight this complexity, and invited our contributors to respond to it. The writers and artists here have responded in a suitably non-linear fashion! They have approached the theme of climate obliquely and with measure, curiosity and humour. The essays gently push out against our understandings and psychological practices. The poems are, by turn, angry, despairing and gentle. The artwork is sketchy, experimental, graphical and beautiful.
Whatever transpires in our ecological universe in years to come, we trust in the human imagination when it is at its best. If the future is difficult, we owe it to our children and the human and more-than- human community to have these creative conversations about what is to come…
We invite contributions and responses to the themes contained in this issue, to be published on our Unpsychology Voices publication hereon Medium. Please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas.
Straight lines and spirit levels: introduction to the magazine by Steve Thorp
Fallacy one: straight lines
“This is a fairy tale” begins Ursula LeGuin’s short story, ‘Unlocking the Air’, “People stand in the lightly falling snow. Something is shining, trembling, making a silvery sound. Voices sing. People laugh and weep, clasp each one another’s hands, embrace”. The story, set in a troubled land, is about the ways that people might act together from love, solidarity and courage to bring change in a world of trouble and a history of oppression and cruelty.
But (as Nora Bateson tells us) we can’t get there via a ‘direct corrective’ or with straight-line solutions. Our cultural and personal stories, scripts, habits and ways of seeing hold a myriad of actions — some small and accumulative; many networked and unpredictable; others mythical, symbolic and archetypal.
Despite this, according to the scripts, hope is always drawn in lines, as if we could plan our way from A to B. However, we know deep down that these lines cannot be drawn. As one of LeGuin’s characters says at a meeting of the student rebels to debate tactics: “When the dam breaks? You have to shoot the rapids! All at once!”
This dam of our civilisation is breaking and we cannot choose the direction we will be carried. Because of this, we cannot truly know what ‘climate activism’ means, nor be sure which actions might unlock change. The change that does emerge often comes from the unknown and unexpected. It is seeded in love and the endless meetings between people and lands and stories — and is embedded in the informational ecology and in this very moment…
“This is a love story”, writes LeGuin, and she tells us of crowds meeting day-after-day outside the Palace to turn their troubled land towards hope: “This is the truth. They stood on the stones in the lightly falling snow and listened to the silvery trembled sounds of thousands of keys, being shaken, unlocking the air, once upon a time”.
I have a sense that most of the readers of this rich edition of Unpsychology Magazine know that something has to be done about the climate emergency and the associated crises we are facing, and that we probably have a clear sense of the changes needed, and the urgency which goes along with this awareness. But how is change to happen?
We are activists: spiritual activists that Jeff Carreira calls ‘artists of possibility’; extinction rebels cutting loose on the streets; ecopsychologists looking to reconnect with ‘Earth’; globe-trotting technocrats calmly preparing the ‘solutions’ to this deeply ‘wicked’ problem; writers and artists. All of us organising online and in communities believing deep in our bones (or somewhere in our fingers-crossed hoping-bones anyway) that the key to change must be somewhere, and when it is found, it only needs to be turned in the lock.
But change doesn’t work like that. It never has. It isn’t something we make happen — not predictably and directly anyway. This has long been a fallacy of modern human thinking: “Take a problem — apply human ingenuity and technical know-how — and solve it. ‘Easy’ is a straight line — or it will be — we just haven’t got there yet. Emergency or crisis is just a matter of scale. The problem isn’t just big, but wicked!”
Wicked problems are also complex, we are told, implying that all we need to do is to work out the pattern — like a fiendish puzzle or a particularly difficult Rubik’s Cube.
Now, though, we’ve had it with straight lines and wicked solutions, and a growing number of us — perhaps including the readers of and contributors to this particularly placed-in-time issue of Unpsychology Magazine — may have given up on them entirely! Witness the rich variety of poetry, writing, art and ‘unpsychology’ contained here. And see how the magazine itself meanders…
A poem might have a beginning and an end, but it moseys and roams around before it gets anywhere — and sometimes it just hangs there, waiting for a response — or not. An essay might be about snow, breath, ancestors and homelands, mythical formulations and imaginal delving. Images and artwork might be oblique and allegorical — perhaps not really related to ‘climate’ at all — only to the underlying gooey mess of deep relationships and culture — and may be sometimes sketchy, seemingly unfinished, or otherwise visual pieces of inquiry framed in a box, a photograph, a word, a flow. And whilst all these are grounded in the real world of forest fires, ice-melt, carbon addiction and collective trauma, they may also be weaving something essential with these existential threads.
Is this enough — this collection of words, images and imaginings? Almost certainly not — practical actions are needed, of course — but these reflections and responses may help us get used to new assumptions about ancient realities of existence, and prepare us — and those for whom we will be ancestors — for the new realities we will be facing on an over-heating Earth in decades and centuries to come.
Fallacy 2: spirit levels
Straight lines have their uses, of course, and spirit levels (of one sort) have helped them to be designed and built into our world. Yet, everything that has been built has — in a way — brought us here. To the edge of emergency; to the places where straight lines are drawn into hard edges, built environments, streams of code and ledgers.
There is another sort of spirit-level, of course, that carries its own fallacies and invites deep and urgent questions: How might we meet and value and embed the art of being human in our life and work, without chasing fantasies and conspiracies of spiritual certainty? And how can we meet a climate-changing world with hope, courage and resolve? And how can we acknowledge the deep and wonderful world of humans, the embodied and ‘natural’ other-than-human world, and the wonder of the universe, without resorting to…well, fairy tales?
I love fairy stories and tales of fantasy — particularly the ones that Ursula LeGuin gave us — but the thing about the best writers of fiction — particularly the speculative types — is that they know what is real and what is not, whilst imagining what might be possible and (in LeGuin’s case) much that might not be!
So, why is this important? Because I and others are coming to recognise (through the window on the world that COVID provided) that the ‘paradigm shifts’ touted by the ‘spiritual’ counter-culture are as unlikely to lead to the necessary change as straight-line solutions offered by the technocrats. They are two sides of the same coin; coming from places of disturbing and often wilful ignorance about the interdependence of the world and the universe — and particularly the ways that scientific inquiry can offer an integral unfolding of a universe of truth and wonder.
The new-age stories of love, light and personal sovereignty, that have taken hold and swiftly ossified in recent times, are deeply unimaginative and reductive, often carrying shadows of colonialism, patriarchy and abuse. Their philosophies and practices favour and encourage individualism, narcissism and acceptance of inequality, as opposed to the generation of more collective, communitarian, public-centred and earth-centred systems. ‘Love and light’ has become a commodity market that simply reflects the neo-liberal mainstream. Both systems decry rationality and objectivity. Both regard personal experience and ‘intuition’ as ‘sovereign’. Both prioiritise individual ‘liberty’ over the public and ecological good.
For all of my adult life I have been sceptical about mainstream economic and political systems. Now, I no longer see a place for the language and framing of spirituality in this journey of ours. In this time of crisis, through the window that COVID opened for us, I’ve seen Old-School and New-Age prophets, priests and cultists coming at us through cultural funnels and social media channels with their straight lines, moral certainties, alternative truths, science denial, sales pitches and, increasingly, the terrifying consequences that often emanate from their actions.
If mysticism is necessary, I prefer the metaphors of mystery that come from being aware of the scale of things — the excitement of the infinite unknowns of the universe (and, perhaps, infinite other universes!), to our relationships with the ‘smalls’ (“a very charismatic group of beings” as Siv Watkins puts it) — the microorganisms that make up and mediate most life processes on Earth, and everything (rocks, rooks and rivers) in between. These emerging frames put the hubris of human supremacy into perspective. They recognise the importance and beauty of fiction, poetry, philosophy and science, valuing the different things each of these offer, whilst ultimately understanding that nothing can be pulled apart. In short, they recognise that everything — including the horrors of the climate emergency and other crises — rests in a deep and ever-shifting relational interdependence.
These relationships are complex and ever-changing, and are the ground from which our post-COVID and planet- warmed futures will grow. Change takes place in what Nora Bateson calls, the ‘symmathesy’: “the contextual mutual learning through interaction that takes place in living entities at larger or smaller scales”. I think we can have conversations about these most wonderful elements of the universe and human nature alike, without talking about ‘spirit’ or ‘transcendence’ or, the frankly ludicrous, ‘sovereignty’. This could be a mythical language of poetics, or embodiment or ‘ecology of mind’ or imagination or Bateson’s ‘transcontextuality’– or all of these and more.
So in this time of wicked complexity, this time of grief and fear, this time of difficulty, trouble and fallings-apart, straight-lines and spirit-levels are probably the last thing we need. We might, on the other hand, need tales of ancestors, poems about robins, and art that asks questions about what will be necessary and essential: like hope (not drawn in lines). Like courage and resolve. Like fairy tales and meanderings. Like taking things seriously and having a laugh. Like witnessing and marking the ways things are for us humans and other-than-humans in this time of climate emergency, complexity and change.
Like standing together in the streets, shaking keys and unlocking the air…
Notes and references:
1. Nora Bateson’s work on Warm Data is becoming increasingly influential. Her book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing through other patterns (2016) is published by Triarchy Press. The Warm Data and People Need People community of practice can be found at: https://warmdatalab.net and her writings at: https://norabateson.medium.com. In it she introduces the term, ‘Transcontextuality’, that describe “the multiple, interlayered spatial, social, temporal, cultural, ecological, economic contexts in which symmathesy takes place”.
2. Ursula LeGuin’s story, Unlocking the Air, is in The Unreal & The Real, Selected Stories Vol 1, https://www.ursulakleguin.com/unreal-real, Gollanz, 2012.
3. Siv Watkins’ Microanimism project can be found at: https://www.microanimism.com