During its brief five-year lifespan from 2009 to 2014, I was lucky enough to work on the MA Art and Environment at Falmouth University. Both then and now, however, my main involevement at Falmouth has been on the MA Illustration: Authorial Practice. 'Authorial illustration’ is a broad church, but a thing that it frequently involves is telling stories in pictures and words. In some cases – including my own - what that comes down to might be more accurately described as a mode of poetry that uses both drawing and writing.
This, a talk from a R.A.N.E. (Research into Art, Nature and the Environment) research meeting in 2011, was a sort of first crack at situating this business of making word-and-picture poems within the ongoing conversation,within eco-poetics and beyond, about sustainability – a tired word, that’s looking even more redundant, five years on, than it did back then.
"Imagine the technologies that would be invented by a culture of inhabitation, that is, a sustainable culture, that is, a culture planning on being in the same place for 10,000 years. That culture would create technologies that enhance the landscape...that would decompose afterwards into components that help, not poison, the soil. The technologies would remind human inhabitants of their place in this landscape. The technologies would promote leisure, not production. The technologies would not be bombs and factory conveyor belts but perhaps stories, songs, and dances..."
Derrick Jensen - Endgame Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilisation. p.186
My starting point here is an article by Arran Stibbe, titled Education for Sustainability and Beyond, Contemplating Collapse, which considers how our understanding of art education’s relevance to the work of achieving sustainability may be quite differently informed by one or another notion of what ‘sustainability’ actually means. Stibbe looks at a range of views, from art students merely using recycled materials, to art practice re-framing their understanding of the human, and of the world. His article is in part a reflection on the work of the Dark Mountain Project (www.dark-mountain.net), a literary movement concerned with the cultural response to the environmental crisis, which champions, in particular, the importance of storytelling.
What are the stories which led us to this pass? What stories may better carry us forward? are two questions at the heart Dark Mountain’s work. As Stibbe suggests, we might most usefully understand such ‘stories’ as the underlying assumptions that shape our values and our discourses. With that idea in mind, I want to draw a rough sketch of two currently prevalent stories about sustainability, and consider what they each might have to say about the value of art education.
Story 1 - Making a Difference
Unsustainability refers to a number of related crises that have been generated by industrial civilization, which can, and must, be solved by the urgent restructuring of that civilization. Achieving sustainability is therefore a matter of political will, technological adaptation, and voluntary cultural change, as we collectively adopt and promote the various corrections by which we may yet head off impending chaos. The role of art education in this work is principally to raise public awareness of the problems, to campaign for change by speaking truth to power, and to embody and promote alternative ways of living, in order that society make these adaptations while there is still time.
Here, what matters is that artists enter the fray, helping to avert catastrophe before it is too late for us to act. Story 1 tends to cast the artist in the role of social educator: improving the viewer, telling them what they need to know, and variously inspiring, provoking or haranguing them to set about what they too ought to be doing, to remedy the situation. In calling for a successfully managed transition to a reformed and sustainable version of industrial civilization, Story 1 also tends to assume that a broad continuity in regard to present structures and ways of living can be maintained within such a transition, if only the right choices are made - albeit made within a rapidly closing window of time.
Stibbe challenges the validity of an education system based on such assumptions of continuity, arguing that students, and all of us, are already facing fundamental discontinuity in regard to our present ways of living. He suggests that we might do better to speak in terms of educating for unsustainability – an idea whose implicit priorities may turn out to be utterly different to highlighting what we can or should be doing to achieve sustainability, in the above sense. Like the Dark Mountain Project themselves, then, Stibbe’s perspective is based on a rather different notion of the role of the arts in addressing a situation of radical unsustainability, to that above. Recovering from Civilization might be a more accurate term for this second perspective:
Story 2 - Recovering from Civilisation Industrial civilization is inherently and irredeemably unsustainable. With accelerating speed it is eroding the ecological base on which it rests, and within the foreseeable future it will therefore bring about its own unraveling, at least as it is currently conceived. This process of transition, already well underway, is not a matter of political will, nor of our willingness to change. It is not being led by preemptive adjustments such as streamlined, renewable energy use and willingly moderated patterns of consumption. It involves the unorchestrated collapse of our current way of living, over an uncertain period of time, despite our governments’ dogged attempts to maintain business as usual.
In this second scenario, achieving sustainability is less a matter of heading off that process of change, than of responding to it creatively, and from a position of informed understanding, instead of burying our heads in the sand - including the sand of false hope. As above, this requires gaining insight into the nature and root causes of unsustainability, and beginning to envision alternative ways of living that are not marked by the compulsive consumption, systemic violence and anthropocentric insanity intrinsic to industrial civilization. But in Story 2 (to borrow from Stibbe), while the value of art education might include questioning “the social and cultural structures that underpin an unsustainable society” the purpose of such critique is not “the unrealistic expectation that students can contribute on a large enough scale and in a short enough time to make society sustainable”; it is rather “to expose and record unsustainable social structures” in order to help those who follow us to create “a very different basis for their emerging communities.” Educating for unsustainability involves a “preparation for what comes next…preservation of vital knowledge from the past… pockets of resilience, forging new ways to live on very different principles.”
Activists identifying with Story 1 have accused advocates of Story 2 of fatalism, of despair, of giving succor to business-as-usual vested interests, and in particular of apocalyptic zeal. They, in turn, have portrayed Story 1 as selling the despair of false hope - a hope which requires an unsupportable denial of the evidence. They have also criticized the apocalyptic rhetoric concerning what will happen if we don’t succeed, invoked by Story 1 to frighten people into action. Both stories agree that we are faced with a situation of accelerating change, but it seems they have rather different views of the challenges and the opportunities afforded within that process of change.
Recuperation: towards a culture of inhabitation
Perhaps offering us a bridge between these polarised views of sustainability, the eco-philosopher David Abram (Becoming Animal, 2010) speaks of his research as a work of recuperation, complementary to his own commitment to environmental activism. Without deflecting from the urgency of such activism, this work recognizes the need for a parallel process of cultural recuperation, as the basis for a genuine renewal of the social and political domains.
In terms of framing art practice, this word recuperation is, for me, a far more helpful idea than sustainability. In its everyday use, recuperation isn’t really something one achieves, although it may require us to drop certain toxic habits - including, typically, excessive or unnessary activity. Abram calls this process a work, but his choice of word makes it sound quite an unhurried sort of work – more a matter of slowing down, than of springing into action. We don’t, after all, ever make ourselves better. Recuperation happens of itself, when the conditions allow. Such conditions include, in some cases, the inevitable process of dying.
Seen in these terms, unsustainability could be viewed as primarily a matter of our relating in an insane manner to the conditions that sustain us. Regardless of distracting and hypothetical arguments about what we might or might not be able to do to affect the future course of large-scale transitions, this work of recuperation perhaps requires, first and foremost, that we wake up to our present condition of radical dependency: dependency on the dynamic life patterns, the myriad webs of being within which we co-arise, moment to moment.
The role of art education within such a process of recuperation might include the means by which we articulate and inhabit that radically dependent condition, and in doing so, begin to foster a shared culture of inhabitation – a mode of living based on awareness of, and reverence for that which sustains us. A way of living as if we actually planned, as Derrick Jensen suggests, on sticking around.