Sunday, 20 December 2009

The stripped earth

This week I’ve been to see two movies with the same question at their heart, what might humans do when the earth is stripped of all life other than ourselves? The Road and Avatar may not appear to have much in common but in both the biosphere is a major character. The Road is a harrowing depiction of a world extinct of all life apart from brutalised human wreckage surviving on cans and other remains they find left over from before the disaster. The film is faithful to the brilliantly written novel and conveys something of the horror of a world without ecosystems. There’s no suggestion that humans are responsible for the change; we can speculate about super-volcanoes and asteroids but what matters is the experience of a world without life. I admire The Road and especially Cormac McCarthy’s spare, biblically inflected prose, but for me the story is riven by ecophobia and articulates some too-familiar Western myths. McCarthy writes frontier novels, Man against Nature. The Road finds redemption in love between the Father and Son, and in the Son’s love for humanity (the weak mother is jettisoned early).

Where The Road envisions a grey-brown dead world, Avatar discovers a planet brimming with green, filled with startling bioluminescent creatures suggestive of our ocean organisms. Having stripped Earth of life, humans are recklessly mining the new world, Pandora, and murdering the native People in the process. Critics have slammed the movie for silliness and sermons. The People talk a lot about the flow of energy moving through all living things. Helpfully, they can directly experience this flow by plugging into trees, birds, horses and so on with a bunch of tentacles growing amongst their hair (what a great idea, I thought – if we could tell stories that do that…). Needless to say, the Gaian sermons did not trouble me and since I watched the movie in 3D I was happily immersed in it throughout.

Avatar is another redemption movie, and again the redemption comes from a Great White Male. The filmmakers have not sought new stories; presumably the white-man-goes-native plot is supposed to allow us to identify with the hero and not the evil planet-destroying corporate men and mercenaries. Even so, the eco-message is sound and enjoyably conveyed. The cinema audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end. I guess it’s obvious that The Road is a ‘better’ movie than Avatar with stronger dialogue and acting, but Avatar will reach more people.

This week planet-saving talks collapsed at Copenhagen and the date environmentalists have focussed on for the past two or three years has gone and achieved worse than nothing. It’s telling that both movies started from the point of giving up on Earth’s ecosystems. The pristine perfection of Pandora (the planet in Avatar) recalls all those nature documentaries with David Attenborough voice-overs. I sometimes wonder if that’s the only Nature we learn to care about. The Road angrily wipes out our messy, compromised natural world altogether for a purer form of wilderness. I’m pretty excited to see ecology at the heart of our most mainstream movies, but what I’d really like to see now are films that make us care for the natural world as it is here and now, fractured and astonishing.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Paris in snow

Paris woke up to snow this morning.
At our nearest entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens this statue of the continents holding up the globe was lightly dusted:
The striking horse-sea-serpents that surround the base dripped with ice:
In Paris they like their parks immaculate:

I admit this sometimes makes me nostalgic for Wytham, but the place is deeply elegant and the sculptures are stunning. Here's the Luxembourg Statue of Liberty, the first bronze model made in preparation for New York's statue:
Or, Liberty Enlightening the World. I like the symmetry between her arm and the tree branching behind her.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Holding the flame

We marked the Copenhagen march today in Paris with a candlelit vigil on the Place de la Concorde. We were a small group encircled by traffic and shoppers on their way to the Champs Elysees. It was not so much a protest as a moment to think about what's happening.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Greeting Copenhagen

The long-awaited Copenhagen Summit has now started. Here’s the film with which they opened the conference:

I find this rather cheesy and evasive (the impacts are portrayed as a child’s nightmare), but it’s interesting to see how our world leaders see themselves. As reassurers of children?

Eran and I greeted the summit in different cities at the London and Paris demonstrations. I was only able to join the start of the London rally and march before catching the Eurostar home but the event looked vocal and well attended. About 50,000 people marched, making it the biggest climate protest in the UK so far, but the number is still short of a mass movement. Seeing everyone dressed in blue gave a sense of togetherness and lifted the gathering out of the ordinary. Thank you to Emma and others reading this who marched – it’s a beautiful thing to act at this moment. My walk back to King’s Cross took me down Oxford Street, which was closed to traffic I presume for the march route. The street was utterly packed with Christmas shoppers and outside Selfridges machines puffed polystyrene ‘snow’ over passers by. The pure strangeness of walking from a crowd of climate change protesters into hoards of consumers and being greeted by fake snow almost makes me forget how sad this is. Earlier that day in Hyde Park I watched a small boy very seriously reading his handmade sign, ‘No more toys from China’. Presumably he wrote the words but his face did not show it at that moment.

In Paris the demonstration was more modest. About a thousand met for a flash mob, clattering saucepans and other noisy objects; you can see a few in Eran’s photo. Parisians were also encouraged to wear colours, but given the choice of orange, white and black, guess what most of the crowd chose...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Cuts and Culprits

In the run up to Copenhagen the Guardian has published this comparison of different nations’ contributions to climate change from which I’ve learnt that the per capita carbon emissions in the UK are 9.3 tonnes compared with 6.4 tonnes in France. The main reason for this difference is that France gets 80% of its energy from nuclear power, though possibly local food habits and the popularity of holidays inside the ‘Hexagon’ help marginally. The figure is heartening to me because there’s no significant difference in quality of life between the two countries. Neither lack for luxury. Francophiles and Anglophiles could argue this both ways but really the differences are trivial (the French do have very excellent bread and fresh vegetables, but personally I find this hard to weigh against the watery tea and lack of good cheddar). The statistics show that it would be possible to cut UK emissions by a third without any pain or loss at all by shifting energy generation away from fossil fuels.*

As well as useful information these national figures offer dubious entertainment – it’s very tempting to search out the bad guys. Most obviously, the USA’s 19.9 tonnes per capita annual emissions are quite shocking. But even the USA could point to worse culprits: they’re drinking oil in Bahrain (41 tonnes), Qatar (70.6 tonnes) and UAE (38.5 tonnes), and who can say what’s going on in the Virgin Islands (150 tonnes). Some of the discrepancies are caused by population size so it’s useful – and chilling – to remember that British has the 8th highest total carbon emissions of all countries (France is 16th).

The figures aren’t helpful if they're a temptation to evade individual responsibility by pointing to other nations or thinking in relative rather than absolute terms about emissions. We know that the earth can sustain no more than 1 tonne of annual carbon emissions from each of us.** But national statistics are helpful in giving some indication of whether a nation’s actions match their words during the rhetoric storm we can expect from Copenhagen.***

* Many environmentalists would argue that the French merely displace the problem since nuclear power creates its own dangerous pollution. There’s a very useful assessment of the UK energy situation in Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air.

** George Marshall’s Carbon Detox is still my favourite guide to reaching this target.

*** If you’re in the UK, don’t forget the march in London on Saturday December 5th, from 12 noon to call for strong action against climate change at the UN meeting. (I have to be in the UK that week so will be there. Please do get in touch if you’d like to join me; I will have my British mobile.)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Icarus and the fox

Outside St Sulpice today I enjoyed these sculptures, inspired by books and stories:

Icare (Icarus), by Robert Aupetit

Le Corbeau et le Reynard (The Crow and the Fox), by Florence de Ponthaud-Neyrat

(The sculpture is inspired by another cautionary tale, here.)

'Le grand livre du temps' (The big book of time) by NISA
('Monocycle', Ilio Signore)

It seemed to me that all these sculptures have an element of the precarious in them: Icarus launching towards the dim November sun, the fox and crow sketched in driftwood, the pages in the book fragmenting, and this unicyclist wildly wheeling around. But that fragility is combined with humour, lightness, and joy of living.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My paper boat

I came across this beautiful short video about climate change on the One Minute to Save the World competition website:

There are about a thousand eco-films on the site, where you can vote for your favourite. I love the unspoken emotion of this film by Arun Boses.

UPDATE, 19 January 2010
My Paper Boat went on to win the competition. Congratulations Arun Boses!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Home in other words

Living in a foreign country gets me thinking about words. A few days ago I saw Marilyn Robinson’s novel Home in a bookshop, translated as Chez Nous. In French it’s customary to use this phrase, ‘at ours’ or ‘at x’s’, to mean home. You can also use the word for house, la maison, but there isn’t an exact translation for ‘home’. Hebrew also doesn’t have a word for ‘home’ in the English sense. You just use the word for ‘house’/‘building’. Robinson’s heart-breaking and perfectly written novel conveys some of the emotions, beliefs and memories with which we layer the word ‘home’. For me ‘our place’ has none of those (though perhaps it might for a native French speaker). I’m willing to call our current flat ‘ours’, but it isn’t ‘home’.

The word ‘ecology’ has its root in the Greek word for ‘home’, oikos. This means we could translate ‘ecology’ as something like home-saying, or maybe home-knowing. I love this word. It’s slightly painful to see oikos also co-opted into ‘economy’, but that’s another matter. Eco-critics and greens in general often object to the word ‘environment’ because it means something that surrounds us and prefer ‘ecology’ for suggesting connection and shared being between ourselves and the natural world. I find it tempting to describe myself as an ‘ecologist’ rather than an ‘environmentalist’ for this reason, but to do so might be a bit pretentious and deceptive, as though I were pretending to be a scientist. Here in France there’s no problem: all greens are called écologistes.

So here’s a thought from French post-modernist Jean-François Lyotard, who argues that ecology is ‘not an environment at all, but a relation with something that is inscribed at the origin in all minds… ‘ecology’ means the discourse of the secluded, of the thing that has not become public, that has not become communicational, that has not become systematic, and that can never become any of these things. This presupposes that there is a relation of language with the logos, which is not centred on optimal performance and which is not obsessed by it, but which is preoccupied, in the full sense of ‘pre-occupied’, with listening to and seeking for what is secluded, oikeion. This discourse is called ‘literature’, ‘art’, or ‘writing’ in general.’ 

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Autumn in Paris

I took a longer break than I anticipated mostly because settling into Paris took a while, but also because wildness is tricky to spot in this city, at least at first glance. Parisians are quite conscious of the environment to judge by the efficient recycling schemes, popular bike-hire system and the volume of adverts that promote brands as green. I’m quite hopeful that there will be lots of ecological French activity to blog: by chance, the first French-English conversation group I went to was themed ‘Going Green’, and we’ve already received a circular from the mayor of our district who has written a fistful of books on sustainability.

But as autumn is in its glory I’ve been hankering after trees. Just round the corner from our flat is an ingenious little park, the Jardin Atlantique, built across the roof of Gare Montparnasse (a major city train station).

It’s a curious place, circled by tall office blocks with Tour Montparnasse looming above them all. Train announcements and other sounds from the station platforms resonate through the ground. Like all Parisian public spaces it’s also carefully organised with lots of municipal activities: tennis courts, boules court, ping-pong tables and so on. There’s a very impressive children’s play area, including this lovely canopy walkway. 

A little marsh area rustles under the tower.

On the way back today I was struck by the sunlight in these birch leaves. 

While taking photos I thought I may as well take a photo of the view from another of the same roundabout’s exits. 

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Mull and Iona

From Cumbria earlier this week my parents and I visited the Scottish west coast and the islands of Mull and Iona

Right on the edge of the ocean the land becomes fluid with the wind and the sea. Rocks and hillsides rise suddenly from the tides and lochs fill up any low place in this beautiful area. Iona’s light and colour is often praised, perhaps because the sky is so large there. Here’s a sunset over our campsite on the Ross of Mull.

Even Iona’s rocks are extravagantly coloured and organic.

Rockpools cluster with Mussels, Limpets, Anemones and seaweeds. More camera-shy were Eider Ducks, Gannets, Guillemots, Herons and the occasional Seal.

One moment we had light bright enough to turn the sea crystal, and the next moment the wind rushed in rain storms. Honestly, the seasons changed every ten minutes.

Iona is most famous for the abbey established there by St Columba who came to the island in 563 and was important in spreading Christianity from Ireland to Scotland and England. The Book of Kells is likely to have been written there, and Iona is still home to much beautiful Celtic stonework.

The modern cloisters draw upon the Celtic tradition of creating sacred art from the natural world. 

Friday, 18 September 2009

No wealth but life

I’m in Cumbria with family at the moment and this week visited Ruskin’s house, Brantwood, where Alexander Hamilton has responded to the place with an exhibition, Sensorium: Picture’s from Nature’s Laboratory. In a blue room he displays a series of photograms of plants, images made from laying plants on light sensitive paper which when exposed to the sun catches the plant’s shape in a vivid white against the indigo.

(from Sensorium, (c) Alexander Hamilton)

Hamilton explains, ‘I want to let the plants reveal themselves’. By the chance of his chemicals and the plants’ forms the resulting image is very beautiful, laying out the plant as though moonlit so you look again at a crocus or snowdrop because it has been made strange. I appreciated this glimpse of spirit of crocus, anemone, fern; Hamilton himself avoids naming.

(Sensorium, (c) Alexander Hamilton)

Hamilton is also experimenting with images drawn from the plants’ sap. He tries to show the inner life of the plants by making a solution of sap and water that soaks up into paper to form bubbling layers of greens and browns. From day to day the images change, perhaps responding to the moon, to the weather, or to the artist.

Hamilton worked in Ruskin’s moorland garden on the slopes above Coniston Water. Ruskin (who is quoted in today’s title) shaped grassy terraces between the trees and created small reservoirs in a stream that flows down through Brantwood’s gardens. The path zigzags up to this place away from the more managed gardens. Ruskin had a plan for the slopes patterned on Dante’s Mount Purgatory, topped by the garden of the earthly paradise. 

The idea made me smile, since we visited on a grey Cumbrian day and the moorland garden stream gives out before reaching the lake, so it didn’t appear to have the cleansing force of Dante’s Lethe. But after we’d spent a quiet moment there listening to the breeze in the birch leaves and smelling the damp grass, while a last heavy bodied dragonfly danced alone at the end of summer and clattered above the ponds, I felt differently about Ruskin’s idea.  

Friday, 11 September 2009

and grieved to have a soulless image on the eye

 My brother recently returned from a trip in the French Alps in an area we often visited as children and he reports that the glaciers have retreated remarkably over the past decade. His photos are here, and there’s an article here about climbing and climate change that really gives a sense of time running out.
It's a painful situation. One of the most powerful parts of the magnificent film Age of Stupid shows a Chamonix guide thinking about what's happening:
Here are images from around the world:

The thought of mountains without glaciers gives the title quote, wrenched from Wordsworth's account of first seeing Mont Blanc:

. . . That day we first
Beheld the summit of Mont Blanc, and griev'd
To have a soulless image on the eye
Which had usurp'd upon a living thought
That never more could be. (The Prelude, Vl 452-6)

(There is good news. While Wordsworth did have some more positive experiences in the Alps later, his heart was in the Lakes. Also, there were great winter conditions in Scotland last year as the Mountainplan blog recorded. So flying isn't totally necessary. But really, there are no easy answers to this.)

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Late summer in the Botanic Garden

The route into the city is fruiting riotously just now, with blackberries, rosehips, conkers and all sorts of red berries, cherries and so on. At the Botanic Garden the apple trees are heavily loaded with all different varieties, in shades from apricot through lime to chestnut-red:

Cat's head

John Innes 1001

John Downie
Golden Hornet

Here's Magdalene Tower from behind the pond, as though rising out of the jungle:

Some jolly sunflowers:
Something spiky from Spain (Eryngium Tricuspidatum):
And finally crocuses hallucinating spring, even as we approach Autumn Equinox: