What will it take to stop extreme climate change?

Birkbeck graduate Leo Barasi discusses his new book, The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism, which confronts the reality of climate change and the need for ordinary people to take action. 

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has, one by one, been the hottest on record. A consequence of that was visible with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were made more destructive by oceans that had been warmed by human emissions. All of this has happened with the world only having warmed by perhaps a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession, but because of efforts to deal with the threat. Nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions, in an agreement that anticipates national commitments will strengthen over time.

Both views are right. Climate change is now here and is killing people. And the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever before. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it should if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will its efforts falter, emissions continue at their current rate (or even increase), and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism, looks at one of the factors that could make the difference – and how those of us who are worried about climate change could swing the balance.

While the world has done better than many predicted in halting the increase in emissions, its progress has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. The most important of these has been the closure of coal power plants, and cancellation of new plants, which are increasingly being replaced by lower-carbon sources like gas and renewables.

But eventually, the world will exhaust relatively painless changes like this. At some point, the only remaining emissions cuts – which will be crucial for avoiding dangerous warming – will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives.

Two of the most challenging of these are flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and investigates why they think what they do. It explores how human psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of left-wing liberals.

And the book looks at what we can do to overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are ways we can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort to deal with the threat. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism by Leo Barasi is published by New Internationalist on 21 September

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Building a hive mind through immersive art

Lily Hunter Green, Birkbeck’s next Artist in Residence, discusses the project she will be undertaking during her tenure: Bee Composed Live. The residency supports collaboration between academics and artists and will culminate in May with an exhibition of Lily’s work and a symposium.

I first began my work with honey bees in 2014. At the time I was working as a Sound Artist, exploring resonant and sustained sounds within different structures and spaces. As a pianist, I was anatomising the inner workings of my piano. By chance, a bee flew inside. The sound produced was resounding and alveolated, unlike anything I had heard before. I immediately began researching the bees. I was surprised that I didn’t know more about the pollination crisis, especially given the severity of the problem.

My previous piece, Bee Composed (2014), involved transforming a piano into a working beehive in which bees dwelled while an installed audio-visual recording device captured the harmonics of their interaction with the piano strings. One of the central aims of Bee Composed was to raise awareness about the human-caused threat to the honey bees and, as a result, to us too, if we don’t do something to stop their decline. I have since begun to develop Bee Composed Live, the work that my residency at Birkbeck will be focused on: that is, a live performance piece that combines music, dance and original audio-visual compositions in a bid to explore the ways in which we can artistically and critically draw attention to our rapidly changing ecology, and our role within it.

I believe that the role of the artist is to present an alternative way of experiencing the subject. One that provokes new ways of thinking, feeling and responding. Art as a creative transformer, as a catalyst for change, if you like. My primary objective in terms of Bee Composed Live is to present audiences with an alternative way of experiencing and interacting with nature via a series of immersive creative strategies. This will include the creation of a simulacrum ‘hive mind’, a unique microcosmic space, or ‘super-organism’, that enables audience members to experience the inner dynamics and scientific happenings of the hive. The concept of the ‘collective consciousness’ or ‘hive mind’ is itself an appropriation of how the worker bees administrate the hive.

As such, Bee Composed Live is dynamic collaboration. It represents togetherness, the power of collective thinking and action, and the importance of community.

This residency provides a unique opportunity for me to develop my creative thinking and practice within a new and challenging environment. To develop Bee Composed Live, I will work closely with the Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre, a space in which theatre makers, critics and audiences gather to share knowledge, ideas and practices.  I also hope to explore collaborative opportunities with other academic departments that intersect with my work, such as the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community. As someone who usually works in isolation, I am hugely excited at the prospect of working with such a range of creative practitioners and academics.

Most of the 10-month residency will be spent within The Centre for Contemporary Theatre. During this time students will have the opportunity to engage with a range of creative activities extending from inter-disciplinary workshops, digital screenings and seminars, through to the final performance and exhibition. My ambition is to inspire students and academics of all ages and disciplines to think ‘outside of the box’ and consider new ways of working with artists and creative forms, potentially creating new opportunities and collaborations across a range of disciplines, and thereby transforming complicated, often ‘dry’ scientific fact and theory, into a more accessible, digestible and dynamic form.

Another dimension of the residency will be to involve local communities and the wider public in Bee Composed Live: whether as active participants or as passive observers. Diversity is at the heart of my creative practice. As such, I am keen to ensure that as many people as possible are able to engage with this project in some way. As a consequence, every effort will be made to create a piece of work that can eventually go out into the community, by physically in a touring capacity, and/or, via a digital platform.

Collaboration and participation will be key to the success of this residency. I hope as many people as possible will become part of this creative hive mind.

 

 

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Animating medieval manuscripts

Professor of Medieval Studies Anthony Bale discusses his work with Birkbeck’s artist in residence, animator Shay Hamias. Together, they are developing a new interface between contemporary digital animation and medieval studies.

This year Birkbeck received one of only 19 prestigious Leverhulme Trust Artist-in-Residence awards. The residency is supporting animation artist Shay Hamias to work with me in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Hamias is an animation director, with experience working on short and feature films, advertisements, and the museum and heritage sectors. Hamias’ work creatively explores the visual possibilities of design, motion and narrative, seeking new ways to interpret the medium. Hamias had long been fascinated by the artistry of medieval manuscripts, their combination of the written word and visual effects, and their engagement with religious belief. So the Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence award provided a superb opportunity to develop a completely new interface between contemporary digital animation and medieval studies.

Hamias and I share an interest in the meanings of images and symbolism, in particular, the religious symbolism in Christianity and Judaism. Our project has sought to put modern design in conversation with medieval artefacts in a bold new way. We have tried to test that idea, proposed by many scholars of medieval culture, that the pages of medieval books are ‘alive’ and animate, full of ‘active’ visual and mnemonic effects for the reader. Can contemporary animation engage in a fruitful and stimulating encounter with the often perplexing but beautiful images we find in medieval manuscripts? In medieval manuscripts, design and illustration are provided as tools for the viewer/reader to enable them to decode biblical narratives, using a visual language that would resonate with them and locate them mentally.

In the creative process, the artist looks at a subject from a personal point of engagement with it, combined with established ways of seeing.  Animation lends itself to translating inner thought and inner states, in a creative process based on lateral approaches to thinking and the use of associative emotions and imagination. Hamias and I have been thinking about how parallels might be drawn between modern visual language and medieval visuals. Might traditional techniques be applied to modern narratives, in a creative anachronism?

Formally, medieval manuscripts have much in common with modern animation: both condense time and space, through discontinuous visual and verbal narrative; both can rapidly illustrate change over a long period and produce memorable narrative through a ‘familiar’ iconography and media in service of popularly-held or generally-endorsed views; both can reveal metamorphosis and sudden change, sudden effects which are accepted by audiences because of their familiarity with the world created by the medium.

The emphasis of the residency is on Hamias’ artistic and creative freedom to respond to medieval sources in his own distinctive way. Hamias and I have met at least weekly during the residency, sometimes in libraries and archives with medieval manuscripts in front of us. The first animation project we have produced focusses on pilgrimage and visual movement. We have taken the idea of ‘visual storytelling’ and given it a contemporary take. We feel that our methodology remains ‘medieval’: our project is constructed entirely from things we have read in medieval texts or found in medieval visual culture. Moreover, Hamias put himself in a similar position to the medieval artist, who was imagining things based largely on received stories and depictions. Our first short animated film is called ‘The Matter of Jerusalem’, after William Wey’s 1460s manuscript book which describes the journey from Venice to Jerusalem.

We now have plans to develop this film and to collaborate on an exhibition about Birkbeck’s own medieval books in summer 2018.

You can follow Anthony and Shay’s project on their Instagram page @animatedpage

 

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Verbal dynamite: how swearing differs between first and foreign language users

Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication recalls his experience of learning the strength of swear words after moving to the UK, and his research on how the use and perceived offensiveness of words differs between first and foreign users of English. 

When I arrived in the French department at Birkbeck in October 1994, after having finished my PhD on French interlanguage at the Free University of Brussels, I was well aware of a number of aspects of the English language that I was still struggling with: prepositions, the pronunciation of certain words, some verbal constructions… I was unaware of gaps in my knowledge of taboo words, appropriate communication of emotion, the distance between British speakers (one arm length, rather than half an arm’s length like on the continent) and general avoidance of physical contact with interlocutors. I picked up most of these things gradually, through the observation of my colleagues and students.  My neighbour, a librarian at Senate House, was kind enough to proofread my papers until I became more sure-footed in academic English. I realised that I would never get rid of my French-Dutch accent in English and decided that I could live with that – even if it involves answering the regular and rather tedious question ‘where are you from?’ to which I invariably answer ‘London’ and then add ‘from Belgium originally’.  My English vocabulary grew, with the exception of words that were bleeped out on radio and television or censured in the newspapers.  I had no idea what was meant with b****, b******, c***, d***, though I guessed that f*** meant ‘fuck’.

My colleagues, students and friends were too well educated to use such words in conversation, the words were unprintable and they did not figure in the English word lists at my secondary school in Bruges.  How then, I wondered, was I, a foreign language user, supposed to learn these vibrant dark words? I asked a colleague in the Applied Linguistics department, Dr Macolm Edwards, what he considered to be the worst English taboo word.  He looked at me quizzically and remained silent. I encouraged him, telling him that we were applied linguists after all and that we could deal with the dark linguistic stuff.  He straightened his back, looked at me and said: ‘I couldn’t possibly tell you but I can spell it out: c – u – n- t’.  ‘Cunt?!’ I repeated.  He jumped back as stung by a wasp. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘mighty word indeed’.

I told him that French and Dutch have cognates ‘con’ and ‘kont’ that are not nearly as powerful and wondered why some words that share the same origin become taboo whereas others don’t quite manage to join that league.  This conversation happened in the mid-2000s when I was busy working on how multilinguals used their different languages to express particular emotions. One of the striking findings was that languages learnt later in life typically felt disembodied and that emotion words in these languages lacked the emotional force of equivalent words in multilinguals’ first language(s).

I decided then to focus on specific negative emotion-laden words in one language, English, and to invite first (L1) and foreign language (LX) users to rate their offensiveness and frequency of use. The aim was to have a wide range in offensiveness, from relatively mild words such as ‘fruitcake’ and ‘idiot’ to really taboo words and expressions such as ‘fucking hell’ and ‘cunt’. There are also questions about general frequency of swearing in English with various categories of interlocutor.  More than two thousand English L1 and LX users participated in the study. English LX users reported swearing significantly less in English than L1 users, possibly because of a lack of emotional resonance of the LX or because they had other languages to swear in. High levels of Psychoticism, Extraversion and Neuroticism were linked with more swearing in English among both L1 and LX users. The level of English proficiency, the frequency of use, early onset and context of the acquisition were linked to swearing among LX users.

The analysis of differences between L1 and LX users for the 30 words and expressions yielded some unexpected findings. As expected, L1 users reported more frequent use of the highly offensive words.  However, rather than underestimating offensiveness, LX users significantly overestimated the offensiveness of 29 out of the 30 words.  The only word they underestimated was ‘cunt’ – the most offensive word in the list. I have argued that the word is so offensive that it is invisible in the press and used quite rarely by L1 users which means that LX users have few opportunities to acquire a complete semantic and conceptual representation of the word. They may therefore wrongly believe that ‘cunt’ is just another swear word, not perceiving the second red flag known to all L1 users. Use of the word was found to be linked to personality with participants scoring high on Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism reporting more frequent use of the word.

To conclude, the dark side of English is a bit like the dark side of the moon to those who are not astronauts: full of fascinating, mysterious and potentially dangerous features.

Dewaele’s most recent research into swearing – “Cunt: On the perception and handling of verbal dynamite by L1 and LX users of English” is published by Multilingua. 

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