Monday, November 05, 2007

Climate change, imagination and culture, part 3


This is the third part of a three part essay based on a talk given on 22 Oct in the series The Cultures of Climate Change at CRASSH in Cambridge. The first part is here. The second part is here.


In the last part of this talk I want to reflect on some questions raised, in my mind at least, by a recent protest involving venerated cultural objects. Conventional opinion seems to hold that this particular protest was beyond the bounds of what is culturally and politically acceptable.

On 14th October Martin Wyness, a forty-nine year old painter and father of two, crossed a barrier in the British Museum in London and put dust masks with “CO2” written on them over the mouths of two to the famous Terracotta Warriors on loan from China (Footnote 1). Wyness said, “I did it because I have got two children and I am very, very concerned about the global inaction over climate change, particularly what is happening in China.” It seems that no damage was done to the statues. It was reported that Wyness was banned from the museum for life.

There was some humour in response to the incident – The Sun talked about the Terracougher Warriors – but overwhelmingly the reaction was one of condemnation or placing oneself at a distance from the actions of the protestor.

I want to reflect on what the incident and reaction to it says about our current culture and politics regarding climate change. I should make it clear that my purpose today is not to defend what Wyness did. And I am not today advocating that others should go out and do anything like it.

According to press reports Wyness was “banned from the museum for life”. I wondered about that, and called the museum to learn their side of the story. Here is, roughly (2), what a spokesperson (3) told me:
Part of the point of this exhibition is that the public be able to get close [to the statues]. Wyness abused that privilege...Our primary motivation is to take care of the objects and protect the visitors. Wyness was potentially endangering both...He was given a verbal warning for inappropriate and irresponsible behaviour but the [British] Museum is not pressing charges... Press reports that he is 'banned for life' are overstating it. I suspect that phrase came from him. In practice [a lifetime ban] would be difficult to enforce. But without an apology or acceptance of responsibility from him we will not exactly welcome him back with open arms...We need to be very careful about giving any sort of precedent that this kind of action is in any way approved....No one denies Wyness’s right to make a point, but this was clearly taking it too far.
This is the sound of someone doing their job well and carefully. And I think one can absolutely see where the Museum are coming from.

At least one big environmental group also kept their distance from Mr Wyness. He called up them beforehand to ask if they would be involved, and they said no. According to a contact, there were two main reasons: people in the West shouldn’t be telling the Chinese what to do; and involvement might put at risk people from their organization who are working in China. Again, this will sound to many, perhaps most people like a well-judged and prudent decision.

I will say again, just to make is quite clear, that I am not trying try to mount a defense of what Wyness did. But please do consider the following provocations:

1. This is not the first time in recent years there have been illicit interventions at the British Museum. In 2005 the artist known as Banksy surreptitiously installed a painted rock at the British Museum. The rock depicts a primitive human pushing a shopping cart. Upon discovering the prank, the museum promptly added the artifact to its permanent collection. Could it be that comfortable, lucrative subversion is OK (4), but not protest that creatively and without damage calls attention to one of the gravest challenges facing the planet?

2. The amazing clay soldiers in the First Emperor exhibition sponsored by Morgan Stanley were made to honour an exceptionally ruthless and brutal tyrant responsible for vast numbers of deaths (5). Today their international display helps mark the re-emergence of China as a dominant global power. Ancient and modern China are, to state the bleedin’ obvious, vastly different in almost every way. But the country continues an almost unbroken record of environmental destruction at enormous human cost (6),(7).

3. To quote the New York Times, “Pollution has reached epidemic proportions in China in part because the ruling Communist Party still treats environmental advocates as bigger threats than the degradation of air, water and soil that prompts them to speak out” (8). Environmental activists in China risk serious abuse, jail and even murder. International action in solidarity must not endanger them, but it should say: ‘we are deeply concerned’. China needs more constructive critics and fewer conformists (9): a little more Chuang Tzu, and a little less Confucius.

4) When a small lifeboat boat is already lying low in rough seas water thanks to reckless behaviour by others in the past, it is unhelpful to make the boat even more unstable. China, now the largest polluter, is now among those doing exactly that to the global climate. China will carry growing its emissions very rapidly unless much richer countries take the challenge seriously. That very likely means that the rich countries will have to put up serious amounts of money to help the Chinese and other rapidly emerging economies deploy clean technology. And that looks a near political impossibility (10) even though it may be the only way to avoid dangerous climate change. In times like these what does it mean to ‘take it too far’?

OK, I’ll stop it at that for provocations, and finish with this:

There is a lot of talk about climate ‘denial’ as an obstacle to serious action (11). Denial may continue a big problem and should be fought, but I think there is a bigger and even more serious one: the spectre of indifference: indifference by those who calculate that privileges of wealth and power will protect them (12); indifference on the part of those who, like crack cocaine addicts, will go on destroying the future for immediate gratification; and the indifference of learned helplessness on the part of those who understand there is a massive problem but think there is no prospect of solution (13). The arts and critical thinking can help counter this threat when they make us both feel and think. It’s a slim hope but it is a real one (14) and we must hold on to it (15).


(1) Terracotta eco-warrior: protester breaches security to put masks on 2,200-year-old statues. Mail on Sunday, 15 Oct 07

(2) according to my notes - not verbatim

(3) British Museum Press Officer, 17 Oct 2007

(4) “He has found a visual style for self-congratulatory smugness and given a look to well-heeled soi-disant radicalism” – Jonathan Jones in The Guardian profile of Banksy, 2 Nov 07. Banksy’s work is ‘worth’ serious money.

(5) Yíng Zhèng, the man who became the first Emperor of China (Qin Shi Huang), "staged a palace coup at the age of 21 and assumed full power. Contrary to the accepted rules of war of the time, he ordered the execution of prisoners of war"… Late in life the emperor greatly feared and was obsessed with death, and desperately sought a fabled elixir of life. Reportedly, he died of swallowing mercury pills supposed by alchemists to make him immortal, but which were of course toxic. Qin Shi Huang did not like to talk about death and never wrote a will.

(6) Read, for example, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China by Mark Elvin (2004)

(7) China’s present ‘Great Leap Forward’ may have even worse consequences than its famous socialist counterpart in the 1960s. Just because the payback this time is likely to be in decades rather than months or years does not mean it is unreal.

(8) In China, a Lake’s Champion Imperils Himself, 14 October 2007 – from the series New York Times series Choking on Growth

(9) There was language at the recent 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party Conference of a new ‘scientific’ basis for development which marries human security and environmental sustainability and does not necessarily put growth first at all costs. There is nothing like optimism.

(10) This, more or less, is the argument made by Paul J. Saunders and Vaughan Turekia in Why Climate Change Can't Be Stopped, Foreign Policy, Sept 07.

(11) See, for example,

(12) To hold that there is some universal right to "life", not to speak of liberty or the pursuit of happiness, is after all, to hold with something rather abstract, even socialist. As George W. Bush said about the provision in the Geneva conventions to protect human dignity, "That's very vague. What does it actually mean?" See, for example, Naomi Klein Rapture Rescue: “Like so many private disaster companies, Sovereign Deed is selling escape from climate change and the failed state” (See too Mike Davis on Who really set the California fires) and Experts say climate change threatens national security (ENN 5 Nov 07): "Rich countries could 'go through a 30-year process of kicking people away from the lifeboat' as the world's poorest face the worst environmental consequences", which...would be "extremely debilitating in moral terms."

(13) To many people helplessness and hopelessness can seem eminently rational. Tackling this effectively may include starting with techniques to teach people mindfulness, which (according to Michael Bond in a review of David Livingston Smith's The Most Dangerous Animal) Ellen Langer, a psychologist at Harvard University, has been exploring as a way to counteract violent impulses. The idea is that an intentionally heightened awareness of thoughts and actions minute-by-minute can help people to resist negative social pressures and break ingrained habits.

(14) An unpublished manifesto for "artists united by a conviction that the destabilisation of the climate now in progress creates fundamentally new conditions for the production of art and for the relationship between art and society", written by a senior international negotiator on climate change for a major country who remains anonymous, places great hope in the power of the arts to help bring about a global transformation in self- and planetary- awareness. This a lot to ask of the arts. Maybe it starts with compassion. Norman Mailer writes in the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Naked and The Dead that “Tolstoy teaches us that compassion is of value and enriches our life only when compassion is severe, which is to say when we can perceive everything that is good and bad about a character but are still able to feel that the sum of us as human beings is probably a little more good than awful”.

(15) Because no one gets points for saying, as Robert Conquest supposedly did when asked what the revised title might be of his history of Stalin’s Great Terror, “I told you so, you fucking fools”.

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