Reflections on a Climate Lab
I set the alarm for 4.45am, to be up and out by 5.15, and at Swansea University for 5.45 ready for our 7am start to the Autumn Global Online Climate Lab this past Thursday 28th September. The university was quiet but fluorescent lit, the cleaners the only ones in the Wallace Building which houses the Geography Department, our home base for running our 6-hour online zoom workshop. The subject? ‘Taking the expert viewpoint of climate researchers out of the box of the scientific method’ whilst creating a space for those on the front-line of climate research to connect to the emotions they have about the climate data they are collecting or working alongside.
Our little team from Swansea University trickled in over the next hour, appearing in person and online: social geographer Anna Pigott; interdisciplinarian Merryn Thomas; Prof. of English Kirsti Bohata, IPCC contributor and glaciologist Prof. Tavi Murray, Marega Palser artist and co-facilitator, and Yanis, our technical zoom maestro. Dawn was at 7.11am that day so the sky was still dark outside the window. I’d never facilitated a workshop starting this early in the UK before as we’d set the time to enable those from different time zones to join us. Our Climate Lab earlier in the year ran from 3-9pm – after a life touring theatre, my body clock was a little more accustomed to this, as ‘show-time’ usually coincided with around 7.30 in the evening.
We had a participant list of those who’d signed up but knew precious little about them except their names and the countries they were calling in from. In the end, this extended to Japan, Lebanon, Europe, and the UK.
I see Climate Lab as an experiment in the power of connection, creativity, and spontaneity. Specifically, responding to and sharing experiences and feelings about the dire straits we are in with a burning planet, extreme floods, and everything else that accompanies the fragmentation and climate disruption we are currently experiencing.
Our intention is to honour those who are doing the work of protecting, protesting, attempting to lessen the impact of and bearing witness to a planet in peril. We are small in number – around 16 of us today - but there is solace to be had in knowing we are not the only ones feeling what we are feeling. Yes, there is sadness, numbness, grief, despair and yes, there are also feelings of comfort and joy, though the ‘tidings’ aren’t responsible for that. The comfort and joy come from knowing that each of us is not alone in our caring and that these feelings are actually a very sane response to living through insane times. Climate Lab is free to participate in and so far is supported by academic research funding. We’ve been running our ‘Labs’ specifically within the academic environment for those engaged in climate work. The academic setting has its own ‘environmental concerns’. For those of us outside (and for many inside the system), it can sometimes feel overly bureaucratic, self-absorbed, involved in research for research’s sake and not ‘human - or (humanities) - centred. The emphasis is on hitting ever more impossible targets, bottom lines, and outcomes. Increased year-on-year cuts since I was a student of Psychology at Swansea University back in the early 1980s make it a tough environment to stay sane and open-hearted within. The traditional western education model has always privileged facts over feelings. Coming ‘out of the box of the scientific method’, means that Climate Lab participants turns this on its head. The invitation to connect to our ‘soft animal bodies,’ our authentic selves and to welcome the heavy emotions that arise in response to climate research seems like a radical practice. It also feels anathema to the hard light of the fluorescent strips, the polished corridors, the conformity of décor that meet us as our little team greet and hug one another in-person in the Wallace Building corridors in our Zoom breaks and trot bare-foot along shiny walkways to the loo. These things are not typically done in a university setting, and the hordes of new students arriving at Swansea University for ‘Freshers Week’ will learn to accommodate their behaviour accordingly.
So, Climate Lab is - yes - about climate change, species loss, acidification and heating of the oceans, biodiversity reduction and soil depletion. And it is equally about changing the climate of the culture in which we do our work – scientists as well as artists, even if it is only for today’s 6-hour online workshop.
We start by establishing a ‘Community Agreement’ and a ‘brave space’ in which to do our work - thank you author and activist Adrienne Maree Brown for acknowledging that there are actually no entirely ‘safe spaces’ for all, and expecting to create one is probably disingenuous and impossible. Instead, we invite looking after ourselves and each other whilst stepping into a brave space with courage, whilst acknowledging that vulnerability and openness will look and feel different for all of us. There is no right or wrong. We invite respect for what each of us says. There is no need for agreement or consensus on how little or much time we have left, the extent of the damage, or ‘how bad things are.’ Neither is today about solutions, actions, or outcomes. The invitation is to ‘say it like it is,’ to speak and listen from the heart without pressure to critique, quantify or to corroborate.
ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN
I am a student of Beauty with a capital B. For me, the notion, presence, and power of ‘Beauty’ is at the very heart of Climate Lab, just as much as is emotion and creativity. Can we orient to beauty? By this I don’t mean glamour, niceness, or a superficial kind of prettiness. The late, great poet John O’Donohue has written and spoken exquisitely on the subject. He describes beauty as “an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth and a homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding, emerging life.” I am a staunch advocate of beauty and am increasingly ‘coming out’ in favour of it. I want there to be more an acknowledgement of the power of aligning to beauty in these times – the best of times/the worst of times, the end of times/the beginning of times…? I make it a practise to at least try to notice and to ‘speak beauty’ as much as I can. When I’m not facilitating workshops and ‘spaces for change,’ I practise as a Craniosacral Therapist. At the heart of my work with clients who come to see me for a variety of health and emotional issues is ‘connecting to and amplifying the health that is always present.’ Again, Adrienne Maree Brown puts this – yes, beautifully, when she says: “what we pay attention to grows.” This doesn’t mean we don’t see the pain, the sorrow, the terror, but can there be balance? Can we see it all? The sorrow and the beauty? The beauty and the sorrow? After all, we have two eyes and two hands with which to work – each with its own way of meeting the world.
In this online space we invite participants to connect to their own bodies through somatic exercises, offered by co-facilitator, Climate Lab artist-in-residence and yoga teacher, Marega Palser. We invite connection to other bodies in a series of break-out rooms, diving further into the material each time with a series of prompts and questions to respond to. We share a ‘beautiful question.’ We share a ‘beautiful story’. Each person speaks uninterrupted and listens to others. All are witnessed. On hearing these questions and stories, our hearts open, invisible armour softens, and the tendrils of our connection reach out a little more to find one another, strengthening this delicate web of life of which we are all a vital part.
There is an exercise we offer with Climate Lab:
“‘Pin’ yourself on your computer screen.”
“Take 30 seconds to draw yourself with your ‘dominant’ hand.”
“Now 45 seconds to draw yourself with your ‘non-dominant’ hand.”
“Finally take 60 seconds to draw yourself with both hands.”
RIGHT HAND SELF PORTRAIT NOT LOOKING
Magically, whatever they look like, the resulting three portraits appear to profile different aspects of us. We draw like a 12-year-old and see our essence as if captured by a modernist painter. We smile and laugh. We soften around our habitual patterns and habits. We see ourselves through the eyes of others.
Climate Lab intentionally blurs boundaries. This comes as part of the invitation as well as the trigger warning. The activities and exercises we offer are intended to pulse back and forth between body and mind, professional and personal, individual and group, thoughts and feelings, science and art. The real work and the real change happen in the space where both polarities or opposites meet. We invite scientists into the space of Climate Lab, and we have specific guest artists whose job it is to make a ‘creative response’ according to what emerges from our time together. We find, that in many respects, that we are all scientists and that we are all artists. We begin to see the benefits, possibilities, and experience of claiming both ways of moving through the world and a new coherence in how we might approach the ‘wicked problem’ of Climate Chaos. And, whatever we call it: ‘Global Warming’, ‘Global Climate Change’, ‘Climate Chaos’, or ‘Climate Boiling’ - doesn’t really come close to describing the full extent of what we are actually living through. Of course, this is even harder when its impact is felt so disproportionately, affecting those most who are least responsible for the harm done. This also makes it easier for some of us to look away. T.S Eliot is right when he says, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”
There is inspiring work going on in climate change analysis, adaptation and communication by scientists and also by artists. The book ‘Art and Climate Change’ by Maja and Reuben Fowkes published by Thames and Hudson came out in 2022. It’s chapter headings include ‘Crude Oil’, ‘Non-Human Persons’, ‘Reparative Histories’ and describe the work of hundreds of international artists whose focus is climate, social and ecological justice. Our very own Carolina Caycedo, another Climate Lab guest artist, is included for her project Be Damned “on the effects of hydroelectric dams on the natural and social environments of Latin America.”
In Climate Lab, we are mindful that artists are not just in service to and documenters of ‘the science’, and nor are the scientists separate from the data they are gathering. There is a liminal space between the two disciplines, and it has been elegantly occupied by many visionaries who can see both.
Climate Lab was born out of a conversation. As someone who identifies as an artist, initiated over many years of jointly being at the helm of Volcano Theatre Company, my focus now is space-making, facilitation, and supporting the conditions for dialogue and transformation. I believe that real change usually begins with some sort of conversation. And authentic conversation requires time and is founded on trust. My life is enriched and changed by every real conversation I have. The conversation that brought Climate Lab into being was between Professor Tavi Murray, renowned IPCC English Glaciologist and AntarcticResearcher, and a 12 year old Japanese schoolboy who asked to interview Tavi about her work measuring ice flow for his school homework. On a whim and an impulse, she said, ‘yes’. Towards the end of their conversation, the final question he asked was the ‘Beautiful Question:’ “How does it makes you feel seeing the changes you’ve seen?” Tavi confessed she had never before in all her years as a professional scientist been asked this question. It floored her, and she has spent the next several years of her life making space to answer this herself and inviting other climate scientists to answer it too: “How do you feel about the work you do, the changes you are seeing and the information you are gathering?” When we make space and time to truly address this question, it makes a world of difference. The most frequently asked question of any climate professional probably opens with the phrase: “What do we do about….?” This is an important question but if it is the only one we ask, then feelings are by-passed and glossed over. They become at best a ‘nice to have’ if you can indulge yourself with the time to sit around and discuss them and, at worst, an irrelevance, distraction or even dangerous.
EYES CLOSED DRAWING TO MUSIC
On Climate Lab, these questions have been asked many times to many people since we started organising them in person and on zoom last year: “How do you feel about the work you are doing? What do you grieve? What are your mourning? When you think of the future and ‘the now’ what do you feel?” If we take the time to ask and answer, we feel witnessed, we feel appreciated, and we appreciate the other – we don’t just see but feel our common ground, connectedness and worth. This is “the difference that makes the difference”, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson coined it. It has the capacity to enable us to act from a different place, more in alignment with our values and deepest selves.
However, we pay a lot of attention to preparing the ground before we dive into those ‘Beautiful Questions’ which have the potential to see us unravel. Adrienne Maree Brown articulates this as “moving at the speed of trust.” We do this by going slow, step by step, establishing a sense of shared humanity ,and coming into a more tender space together. We first share a story of a ‘Beautiful Moment’ – perhaps a small everyday moment or a peak life experience. Speaking and listening to these stories reminds us of the blessings and entirety of the human experience. We come into our hearts. We have found that if we first ‘speak of beauty’ we can more readily speak about what we mourn, what we grieve, and what breaks our hearts open. Eco-psychologist and systems thinker JoannaMacy discovered this over countless decades running what she initially called ‘Grief and Empowerment’ workshops all over the world. She eventually renamed her practice, ‘The Work That Re-connects’, and described a four stage process of change: ‘Coming from Gratitude’, ‘Honouring our Pain for the World’, ‘Seeing with New Eyes’, culminating with ‘Going Forth.’
‘Coming from Gratitude’ is powerful if we really go to depth and don’t just ‘go through the motions’ skating on the superficial. Macy says that gratitude “quietens the frantic mind and brings us back to source. It reconnects us with basic goodness and our personal power. It helps us to become more fully present to our world.”
Climate Lab is indebted to the work of elders such as Macy and is dedicated to those indigenous as well as more contemporary figures who stand for and have made their work the protection of life on this beautiful and precious earth. We stand on the shoulders and are inspired by the work of many in creating Climate Lab.
We invite our participants to weave back and forth between introspection and shared reflection, we come home to our bodies and senses, exercise the ‘brains in our fingertips’ with spontaneous drawing and writing, and surprise ourselves by opening to reverie and the ‘poetic imagination’. We each bring an object and take turns to ‘let it speak.’ These objects are either randomly or carefully chosen, apparently meaningless or personally meaningful. They include: a wooden cross; a piece of yellow ribbon; a seed head from a plant; a wooden egg; a teddy bear. Mine is a weighty shard of crystal quartz.
OBJECT AS SUBJECT AS OBJECT
Participants are invited to: “Hold your object. Close your eyes, feel its weight, texture and qualities.” We enter into a ‘Thought Experiment, A Perceptual Shift together’ or as Macy says, we “See with New Eyes.” This brings us into a different relationship with our objects and the universe. We look at our object, we let our object look at us, we take another step… and we both look at one other. We introduce ourselves ‘as object’. Our object becomes subject. The world becomes animate, and we speak as if from a different sensibility, a different place. We pay attention in a way which we are not perhaps accustomed to.
Mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer, says that “paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and an open heart.”
After sharing, we write and then take some moments to pull the threads of our words together in the form of a ‘found poem’ which on hearing back, have the haunting feel of a collection of haikus, ‘englyns’, or ancient mystical texts.
A ribbon and a crystal
The bark tree ribbon
Kryptonite she said. Superman he said.
They carry it into the future
The future of the yellow and the clear
The furling and the unfurling.
AUTOMATIC WRITING EXERCISE
Each time, after hearing the group witness back these moments, stories and poems throughout the day, there is what we describe in Craniosacral Therapy as a ‘Holistic Shift’ and there becomes a Dynamic Stillness, full of potentiality… there is a sense of wholeness and ‘Something Happens’ - an integration, a re-ordering, a re-patterning. The prerequisite for health to come through. It is as if something else is invited through… information, insight and support comes from another place entirely. We are invited, encouraged, supported to act in service of life on earth from a place of connectedness with all sentient beings.
We invite participants not to just focus on outcome. In the spirit of ‘Emergence,’ we don’t know what will happen and do not prescribe how Climate Lab will play out in their lives in future… As we close the process for the day at 1pm UK time we invite reflections.
People name high-points, memories and ‘take-aways.’ Connecting to their bodies, creative exercises, hearing the questions, stories and reflections of others, a chance to share and be heard. Sitting in circle as if shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee on Zoom but feeling as if we were together sitting at the heart of our community around the light of a fire. We feel the warmth and the reflected glow. We feel the connectedness and the kin. We feel we are part of a family of not just humans but of all ‘things.’ This is ancient and modern.
We will re-gather round the circle of Zoom again in October – those of us who are able. A mirror will be held up to us by our two guest artists – Marega Palser from Newport, Wales and Christine Kettaneh from Beirut,Lebanon. Their role is to harvest, to gather the data which has arisen from this workshop. The data is in the form of poems, marks on paper, memories, feelings, animate objects and ‘Beautiful Questions and Moments’. They will offer us back a ‘Creative Response’ arising from all they have seen and heard. This may come in the form of film, photography, live art, installation, spoken word… We shall see.
This is the art of emergence in action. Those that ‘bear witness’ to the changing climate will be born witness to by the artists. All the sorrow and all the beauty will be welcomed, acknowledged and honoured. These Creative Responses will in turn be witnessed, and the cycle will continue into the uncertain future…
You may think that you are simply one small positive droplet in an ocean of troubles. A droplet that can’t do anything. But if you search our ever expanding ocean you will find millions of other small droplets with the same mindset as yourself. Together you form a sea in an ocean. That sea can stir a storm. That sea can make a change.
S.S. Dhingra, Age 15. From Letters to the Earth (Writing to A Planet in Crisis).
LETTERS TO THE EARTH
October 1st 2023