Eco- Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency
Did you know that the last male northern white rhinoceros, known as Sudan, died in March 2018, leaving only two female northern white rhinoceroses remaining on earth? Did you know that on the eve of the First World War in 1914, the world’s population was estimated at 1.6 billion, that after the Second War World, the world’s human population was estimated to be 2.5 billion, by 1999 the population reached 6 billion and by 2020 it will reach nearly 7.8 billion and is expected to grow by a further 20% by 2050? Did you know that Agbogbloshie, in Ghana is home to the world’s largest e-waste dumping site? Did you know that one hundred companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions?
These facts and more are all part of the Eco-Visionaries exhibition on climate change and global warming currently showing at the Royal Academy. Since the Industrial revolution, almost 200 years since scientists and thinkers first started raising serious concerns about the impact of human activity on the environment, our planet has been suffering and there is no doubt that we are currently facing an ecological emergency.
As trauma therapists, we often grapple with the different meanings of the terms “big T” trauma versus “small t” trauma. What does it mean, what can really capture human suffering as a “small t” trauma? Visiting this alarming exhibition has not only raised my limited awareness about global warming and climate change, but seeing and reading about the escalating conditions of our planet felt more like a looming “big T” trauma, leaving me with a burning sense of urgency that time is running. Based on a United Nation report, if we want to avoid a climate breakdown, carbon emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030 and reach zero by 2050.
All the exhibits and posters in the exhibitions are factual and evocative. One of the most striking exhibits in the exhibition is a short film, “The Breast Milk of the Volcano”, by Eduardo Andreu Gonzalez (2018). It is a poetic documentary which refers to an Inca origin myth of the Salar de Uyuni in which salt flats were formed by the breast milk and tears of a mother volcano mourning the loss of her child. The film shows how over half of the world’s reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in the rechargeable batteries in phones, laptops, electric cars and drone technology, is found in salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. The film travels through the parallels between myth and reality, powerfully examining how even the cleanest energy utopias can have dramatic consequences in material, resource and economic exploitation.
Not everything is depressing, as the ‘Eco-Visionaries’ project is also meant to generate a sense of hope. The works of arts displayed in this compelling exhibition reveal how the environment can be both destroyed as well as transformed by human activity on a global scale. It was probably only in 2017 that the public first became truly aware of the links between recurring floods, droughts and fires and climate change. The “Anthropocene” is the term coined to describe the new geological era in which humans have become the major force that shape the earth. Announcing the political, economic and social complexities is meant to highlight the important power human beings hold in this transformation today. The philosopher and writer Timothy Morton has developed a radically new approach to ecological thinking. In an interview he said: “People are always looking for some special kind of awareness that will finally get them into an ecological frame of mind, and I think that’s part of the problem. The idea that we need to push our reality away completely and grab onto a new reality seems to be part of the dynamic that got us here in the first place. I’d much rather we start with where we are now, which is a mix of guilt, shame, shock, anxiety and depression. This caring kind of sadness – which we’re currently tuned, it’s not outside it. We shouldn’t keep on trying to search for some special thing” (p.25).
The safety of our planet has never been guaranteed and will always be outside our control. Nevertheless, if, in our new ways of being as psycho-educators, we can use the same metaphors that we use in attachment terms, then if we were to become more securely attached to our planet, this might mean that the intrusiveness of the Industrial Revolution to which we have become so accustomed and the ambivalent relationship we have developed with our material life, can still be repaired in new, alternative and creative ways. Over recent decades many environmental regulations have been introduced to reduce the impact of these industries and there is an increased awareness and activism necessary to build, farm and consume in more sustainable ways. However, these measures have proved not to be enough and in order to avoid further damage to nature, we need to forge a more empathic and compassionate relationship between humans and the environment, putting nature’s need before our own. In doing so, we are actually taking care of our own and our children’s needs.
The absence of a future has already begun, our planet’s resilience depends on our transformation. We are no longer debating an environmental catastrophe that might impact future generations but a catastrophe that is already affecting our own. Although this exhibition may lack some form of cheeriness, its aim is to reignite people’s ability to understand that in seeking survival, human’s creativity and life force have always been inspiring. We are actually living in exciting times. In this “phygital” age, which blends digital experiences with physical ones, there are many new opportunities available for our imagination. In this respect, this exhibition is one of the many ways to awaken people’s ability to think creatively and offer new hope, as one of the exhibition posters boldly announces: THE FUTURE BELONGS TO US.
“Eco-Visionaries, Conversations on a planet in a state of emergency”, Royal Academy (2019).