In a recent series of articles, the Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason, author of On Time and Water, a novel about climate change, deals with a crucial issue of our times: the lack of impactful words to explain what is happening to the climate. Better, terms like global warming, acidification of the oceans or glaciers melting aren’t capable, it seems, of penetrating our consciousness and make us sense the urge to strongly demand our governments to put these themes on top of their political agendas. We believe we understand those terms, nonetheless Magnason argues that if we would really understand their real extent, we’d be more than worried. Newspaper headlines are a sort of white noise which prevent to fully acknowledge the situation. For these words to become meaningful for all of us it might take years but human activities are leaving traces on earth like geological eras used to do, it’s been called the Great Acceleration, the most visible sign of Anthropocene. We probably can’t wait decades for those concept to sediment within us.
Of course, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has shed a new light in a rather traumatic way, showing that all these issues are connected and concern the way we live in the world. It might contribute to reduce the white noise that hinder our comprehension of the state of things. For the first time in decades, we are experiencing that the very structure of our societies is at the core of the situation we are suffering.
Slowly the idea that our economic and development models are playing a big role in this health/environmental/social crisis is getting much more credit from a broader audience. But still, we need words with the capacity to convincingly affect our vision of the world. One of the claims that was spreading quite widely at the beginning of the pandemic was we won’t get back to normal because normal was the problem. After almost 9 month this claim seems to have lost its rupture strength.
Before being softly reconfined and seeing all the cultural spaces shut down again I went to see the exhibition POST GROWTH at iMAL in Molenbeek, curated by DISNOVATION.ORG with Baruch Gottlieb, Clémence Seurat, Julien Maudet, and Pauline Briand.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this exhibition and the result was quite surprising, a sort of visualization of the assumptions I’ve just talked about.
DISNOVATION.ORG is a collective which operates at the crossroads between contemporary art, research and hacking, mixing different media and ways to challenge mainstream narratives, techno-solutionist myth, and the ideology of the infinite growth. I found their practice very much in line with the need of finding the words that will help create a symbolic horizon that will make us realize that the situation is critical.
The exhibition consists of two main parts the Post Growth Toolkit and Solar Share, the first one leans towards the creation of a shared vocabulary that creates a common ground for the post growth societies, mainly with the means of the interviews. Solar Share is an artistic research which aims to challenge the prevailing economic models that seems to ignore the material conditions required for the persistence of our form of life in the biosphere, and most important, it visualize the energy systems that govern the planet’s metabolism.
POST GROWTH TOOLKIT
The interviews are short videos where scholars like Bill Tomlinson, Geoffrey Bowker, and Rose O’Leary discuss terms and expressions that are crucial in the development of Post Growth ideology. I’ll report a few examples and the other ones you can find on postgrowth.art.
The idea that there might be some contexts where, when you learn about the system, what you realize is that there should not be a technological intervention, let’s not add more technology to this, that isn’t the right way to solve the problem. There’s also the field of undesign which is looking at, if you already have a lot of computational systems in place, should you extract some of those systems, is there a way to reduce the number of computational systems or the complexity of the computational systems that you’re interacting with.
So, the 7th Generation principle is just that anytime that someone makes a decision, they should think about its impact seven generations into the future. And make that decision mindfully and with care and responsibility for the health and welfare of the seven generations into the future.
The idea of kinship is recognizing that we don’t have any kind of special place in reality. The old religious idea was the great chain of being, where there were people on top and then the apes and then we kind of go down and down and down until we get to the bacteria, and it’s a kind of hierarchical system going down like that. That’s not the way in which we can and should understand the world. The world is much more rhizomatic than that, it’s not ordered into a nice, neat hierarchy. It’s rhizomatic and being rhizomatic means we’re always connected with each other and with the world around us in all the ways you can’t imagine.
I find fascinating the idea of building a new lexicon for a future world, for our way of staying in it and imagine new interspecies relationalities. What I do appreciate in this approach is that there is no preaching or unnecessary catastrophism. It is not intimidating but stimulating at the same time. Another proof of this approach that aims to reach as much people as possible is The Game, a tactical card game that proposes to reshuffle our world-views and to share stories, concepts and objects to re-examine how we are programmed and to stimulate new modes of understanding.
Solar Share was for me the most intriguing and thought-provoking installation of the entire exhibition, it makes visible processes that we’ve taken for granted for so long and reveal in a tangible form what are the energetic costs of our society.
In The Coins they use the concept of Emergy which acknowledge as vital contributions to life processes that are extremely slow and vast and in the great acceleration era are not for granted anymore. Basically, these coins, made of PET plastic, which we can see as ancient sunlight concentrated in organic material over millions of years, embody the same energy of 1m2 of a yearly solar irradiation in Brussels, for example. Processes that needed millions of years are now reduced in a few grams of plastic; one thing is reading it another is visualizing it through these coins which is somehow staggering.
In the Energy Slave Token, the term energy slave is used to describe the energy required to power modern lifestyle, the tokens are weights made of bitumen which represent the quantities of physical human labor time, in this way we can be aware of the energy that is consumed mostly from fossil fuels in order to power our lives in this society.
Finally, in The Farm, they question the contemporary myth of vertical hydroponic farms in cities claimed to be the potential substitute for much farmland. Unfortunately, the kind of plants that grow like this lack of carbohydrates, protein, or fat, which means good for leafy greens and tomatoes rather impossible for cereals, so they cannot feed our big cities. Moreover, and this is well shown by the 1 m2 of wheat exhibited, this way of farming relies on a massive availability of cheap fossil energy and considerable technical infrastructures. The Solar Share installation makes visible and concrete all the relations and interdependencies that our socio-economic model tends to hide, in order to deny pollution, social inequalities and prevent people to fully understand events like immigration of which we see just the last segment of a much longer chain of events.
Lately, also because of this exhibition, I have been thinking a lot to the book 1177 BC. The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline, I find it an inspiring reading for these times, we don’t want to end up like Late Bronze Age societies in the Mediterranean and Near-East, which collapsed, almost at the same time, for many factors like droughts, famine, earthquakes, and invasions by the infamous and mostly unknown Sea People. Some scholars argue that their vision of the events was myopic, and they could have prevented their complete destruction, some others say that it was hard to see that conjuncture of events coming. They didn’t have the predictive models and advanced tools like we do. Although, as we’ve seen, these tools can’t suffice, we need the right words and symbolic imagery which resonates within ourselves, 2050 and 2100 are not that far away and we’ll be unprepared.