Art, Population and Climate Change

Trawling the web looking for references to Stephen Emmott’s play “Ten Billion”, I came upon this:

http://creativetimereports.org/2013/02/01/5-billion-more/

in which New York artist Laurie Anderson interviews Barbara Crossette, who is the author of the UNFPA reports on population for 2010 and 2011 which can be found at http://www.unfpa.org/public/home/publications/pid/6801

and at http://www.unfpa.org/public/home/publications/pid/8726

Barbara is not the author of the 2012 report, but she’s 73, and no doubt has earned her retirement.

UNFPA is the United Nations Population Fund. Their 2011 report explained their mission thus:

“UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.”

The 2012 report cuts back seriously on the organisation’s pretensions, saying simply:

“Delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.”

One wonders how many committee meetings it took to rewrite that sentence, hidden away on the back page of a report by an obscure UN organisation.

In 2010 Ms Crossette was sole author of the report. In 2011 she had as co-author her editor,  UN employee Richard Kollodge. In 2012 Kollodge is back to being a simple editor, but there are three co-authors, none as prominent as Ms Crossette, who wrote for the New York Times for twenty years, has written several books, and, according to Wikipaedia: “has been accused of prejudice against India, describing it as a ‘rogue nation’ and .. as ‘pious,’ ‘craving,’ ‘petulant,’ and ‘intransigent’.”

My problem is not with Ms Crossette’s personal views. She’s a professional writer, (she’s written a book about The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas) and is entitled to her opinions.

My problem is with the use which may be made of them when they appear in an official UN report which is then quoted by journalists as some kind of  source of infallible truth. For example, Paul Harris in The Observer (22 October, 2011):

“Nearly 7 billion people now inhabit planet, but projections that number will double this century have shocked academics ….The new figure is contained in a landmark study by the United Nations Population Fund (Unfpa) that will be released this week…”

and Stuart Dredge in the Guardian (23 November, 2011):

“According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the number of people older than 60 … is expected to increase to 2 billion by 2050.”

The UNFPA reports make it quite clear that they are not experts in demography but, just like you and me, they rely for their statistics on the United Nations Population Division. Yet here they are being quoted as authorative sources of information.

Just a while ago I was criticising the WWF for starting its indoctrination course for young green cadres in the UKYCC by making them memorise the acronyms of UN organisations, before going on to explain the meaning of such really complex concepts as “anthropogenic global warming”. How wrong I was! ROTFWWF*.

*Roll On The Floor Weeping With Fear

Laurie Anderson, the Interviewer in this post, is a big name in the New York art world, and the  CreativeTimeReports blog, though it’s only been going for less than a year, is an ambitious affair, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, among others.

They say this about themselves:

“Creative Time Reports is a dynamic multimedia website featuring artists around the world actively engaging in and commenting on the most pressing issues of our time. Asserting that culture and the free exchange of ideas are at the core of a vibrant democracy, Creative Time Reports aims to publish dispatches that speak truth to power and upend traditional takes on critical issues.  We believe that artists are uniquely capable of inspiring and encouraging a more engaged and informed public, whether they are addressing elections or climate change, censorship or immigration, protest movements or politically motivated violence”.

“Speaking truth to power” and “upending traditional takes” on “critical issues like climate change” sounds good. They have a large number of posts, from Haiti, Iran, Columbia and Israel, among other places. I’m all in favour of art, and of artists taking an interest in the world around them, so I knocked off a comment on Laurie Anderson’s article and started to look around their site.

Alas, the arts blogosphere seems to be exactly like the science blogosphere or the green activist blogosphere – all Chiefs and no Indians; all posts and no comments (at least on blogs which receive funding from hugely powerful public and private organisations – see my past comments on UKYCC and NESTA).

Five articles on Israel, Palestine and Iran on a well-funded blogssite run by New York intellectuals, without provoking a single comment! That must be some kind of record.

The only other comment I found, apart from mine, was on an article entitled “War and Peace: Between Bombs and Potatoes in Colombia,” where someone wrote in to complain that there was no mention of potatoes in the article – a fair point, I thought.

I scanned all 68 articles and found just one on climate change, at

http://creativetimereports.org/2013/01/04/farewell-glacier-illustrated/

which is a video of Nick Drake on the Cape Farewell voyage to Spitzbergen reading his poem about global warming against a backdrop of pretty melting glaciers. This was the trip which inspired Ian McEwan’s dreadful novel “Solar”.

Activists in the future won’t know what a Greenpeace-sponsored trip to the Arctic looks like.

To be fair, Nick Drake’s Arctic poetry reading wasn’t just financed by Greenpeace (i.e. the European Union taxpayer) but also by the Arts Council (i.e. the British taxpayer) the British Council (ditto) the Southbank Centre (“) ..

[I sound like the typical far right climate denialist sounding off about my precious taxes being used to fund artsy-fartsy lefty  projects don’t I? Well, at this point I tried to establish who was funding Barbican, who are one of the official sponsors of Cape Farewell, and it’s not that easy. I imagined that Barbican, being the name of a part of London centred (centered) around a  Greater London Council estate (housing project) might be in receipt of government (taxpayer) money too. But as far as one can determine, it’s funded by personal donations fromSir Filthy Lucre and the Lord Thingy Foundation. So that’s alright then.]

Barbican is just one of  51 sponsors of Cape Farewell, who include Toshiba (who are not financed by the British taxpayer) and the Royal Navy, who are. (Or are they? Maybe Toshiba sponsors the Royal Navy these days, in exchange for British support for Japan in their dispute with China over the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands? Who knows?)

But anyway, to get back to the  Rockefeller-financed New York-based artistic website which aims to speak truth to power, and is giving space to British poet Nick Drake and his lament for the melting glaciers based on his Greenpeace-organised Arctic holiday partly financed by the Royal Navy:

In his poem he mentions Brueghel’s painting “Winter: Return from the Hunt”, which just happens to play a central role in Michael Frayn’s  novel “Headlong” which happens to be one of the two modern British novels I’ve read recently, the other one being Ian McEwan’s “Solar”, which contains a long episode based on his experience on the same “Cape Farewell” voyage which inspired Nick Drake’s poem.

Both novels are about loss: in Frayn’s “Headlong”, the loss of a priceless painting; in McEwan’s “Solar”, the loss of the planet due to man-made global warming. In both cases, a central theme is male infidelity (or the threat of it) and the danger it represents. In one case, it results in the loss of a precious relic of European civilisation; in the other, it threatens the future of civilisation itself.

Guilt about sexual freedom and the moral burden it imposes expresses itself  in terms of the danger it represents to the survival, in one case of a precious work of art, in the other, of the human race.

I’ve long been wondering whether the current obsession with the rape of the planet and the catastrophic effects of sexual activity in the third world isn’t an expression of a certain frustration among the educated chattering classes in the West, possibly linked to a fear of AIDS and the consequent limitation of  pleasure it has engendered. [You think I’m exaggerating? See a recent comment in the oh-so-civilised Guardian that the citizens of Bangladesh should “stop bonking.”]

Barbara Crossette seems a very decent woman, give or take a certain prejudice against India, which is the world’s largest democracy, but where the rights of women probably don’t come up to the standards demanded by a New York feminist. She isn’t concerned with abstract musings such as mine, but with the everyday sufferings of women in countries like Ethiopia, where the future population increase which is causing so much anguish among Western intellectuals (and writers of UN reports) is going to happen.

But the world is a funny place, in some ways smaller than we think. Catastrophists love to ponder the way a butterfly flapping it’s wings in the Amazon forest can cause an American President to promise to bring down global temperatures, or something. Perhaps its not so fanciful to imagine that a generation brought up to believe that risk-free sex is a natural human right might react to the AIDS epidemic by projecting their perfectly sensible worries about their personal health on to the planet in general, and in particularly on it’s hottest parts, on the danger of increasing heat, and on heat in general.

And I mean on heat.

[These UN documents are deadly serious, and to tell the truth, rather boring. Which is why I was intrigued by  this footnote to the 2011 report:

“Total population calculated by adding male and female totals. Totals may not add up due to rounding.”]

Nothing adds up in our complex society. Perhaps it’s all due to rounding.

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9 Responses to Art, Population and Climate Change

  1. Mooloo says:

    I have a rule, as a teacher, that if a child announces that “I am going to work this year” then you can bet he won’t. Those that have decided to work just get on with doing it.

    I suspect people who proclaim they “speak truth to power” are the same. They are so happy with the concept of speaking to power that they forget to do the really hard work of hunting hard for the truth first.

  2. alexjc38 says:

    You’d think there would be a few more comments up at Creative Time Reports. As the Participate page says, it “will only reach its highest potential with online input from our community”. The community, though, seems to be otherwise engaged…

    A recent showcase for Cape Farewell, Arts Council and all things absurd was the Cultural Olympiad of 2012, or “Artists Taking the Lead” (the gentle reader may be able to think of appropriate alternatives for the last word). Here’s a page listing all the various projects:
    http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/our-priorities-2011-15/london-2012/artists-taking-the-lead/

    Nowhere Island is the cream of the crop for sheer – I don’t know, whimsical misallocation of public dosh on a grand scale? Even Leo Hickman thought it was a bad idea. It did seem to get some positive comments from people, amongst the brickbats – I read one account from a mum whose kids thoroughly enjoyed visiting the travelling embassy (a sort of mobile shore-based museum that accompanied the island on its journeys), for instance. Here it is:
    http://jellyjamdorset.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/nowhere-in-particular.html

    Reading this, I conclude that Alex Hartley and the others might as well just have had the embassy by itself, which people generally seemed to have liked, without spending half a million towing all those tons of rock and gravel down from the Arctic and back again. But if they had done that, of course, they’d probably not have got the money or the commission in the first place. It’s a funny old world.

  3. I could happily go far off-topic on the subject of public funding for the arts. It’s not new, of course. There was opposition to the Florentine republic wasting taxpayer’s money on Michelangelo’s “David”, and people posted rude sonnets on the plinth (the 16th century equivalent of blogging).
    If Michelangelo was working now, he’d just dump a block of Carrara marble in the town square as a protest against unsustainable quarrying, I suppose.

  4. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Geoff, are you perhaps thinking of the state-funded artist who dumped huge Ghanaian tree stumps in the centres of Copenhagen, London and Oxford as a protest against unsustainable logging? I happened to read about that project (Ghost Forest) last night. Not a bad idea, I suppose, as long as you’re not paying for it, aren’t inconvenienced by it and don’t worry too much about whether it’s art.

    Unfortunately for the artist, stunts like that only qualify as art when they are accompanied by explanatory texts and hers revealed that, despite months of research, including several trips to Ghana, she thinks that Ghana is in the Congo Basin. Most news reports of the project parroted this notion, the exception being the one that ventured too far into paraphrase territory and declared that the Congo Basin is in Western Ghana.

    Venturing even further off-topic, here are some recently uploaded videos of a workshop on climate change and violence:

    http://www.crisis-forum.org.uk/events/workshop7_resources.php

    I haven’t watched any properly yet, just skipped through a couple. You’ll probably recognize most of the names.

  5. Mooloo
    You’re very cynical about your students’ psychology. “I am going to work this year” is the kind of thing I’ve being telling myself for an awful long time.

    Vinny Burgoo
    Thanks for that. Of course Ghana isn’t in the Congo Basin. It’s in the National Geographic, between the Great Barrier Reef and the Rio Carnival.
    Crisis Forum was new to me, as were almost all the participants. There’s Alistair McIntosh who lectures on environmental and spiritual issues at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. His talk was entitled “So what is to be done? A basic call to consciousness, empathy and antisyzygy”. (He’s also a whizz at Scrabble).
    There was a vegetarian buffet lunch and a final plenary, “including all available speakers plus Jo Abbess”. (Not sure why Jo is mentioned as a “plus”. Possibly she was out to lunch).

  6. Mooloo says:

    I’m not cynical about my students at all. I just have learned that public expressions of desire rarely turn into actual changes in behaviour.

    We see it plenty with the Greens too. “Society should do …” too often means that they are incapable of quietly setting a good example themselves and persuading by that means. Loads of people talk about how good it would be to have a low carbon life-style, but the number who do is tiny.

  7. Mooloo
    “public expressions of desire rarely turn into actual changes in behaviour”.
    You’re probably right , but I can see why people do it. It’s even clearer with green behaviour. They’re trying to impose a social norm, and they’re quite within their rights to do so. Just as we’re within our rights to ignore them.
    “Speaking truth to power” is a good idea. Announcing that’s what you’re going to do is a bit grandiose, particularly when you’re financed by such powerful interests. Spending a lot of money speaking truth on a website that no-one reads is daft. They should take a leaf out of Vivienne Westwood’s book and print the truth on a t-shirt and get Naomi Campbell to wear it.

  8. alexjc38 says:

    On the subject of sex, climate change and the “rape of the planet” I think the fear of AIDS (as some kind of Gaian revenge, maybe) could well be part of it but it could also be yet another flowering of the guilt the chattering classes feel, for being – well, for being themselves (white as opposed to brown, male – where applicable – opposed to female, middle-class as opposed to prole, human as opposed to animal or plant, for all I know animate as opposed to mineral – mustn’t be overly zoocentric, after all.)

    I’ve been interested in the Grail stories for some time (mostly, I admit, because the Templars’ treasure hoard must be hidden somewhere, and it would be nice to find it) but there’s one Grail story which also interested Theodore Roszak, founder of ecopsychology, and that was the Tale of the Well Maidens, which he apparently used as an allegory of the sort of thing he felt was terribly wrong about civilisation.

    It’s re-told quite succinctly on this web page (on the website Depth Insights, a “scholarly e-zine for the Jungian and depth psychology community”), and there’s a link which is ridiculously long, so I’ve compressed it here:
    http://tinyurl.com/bebdg8z

    “Long, long ago, even before the reign of King Arthur, the land was blessed with enchantment and great fertility. Throughout the realm, maidens stood guard over the sacred wells, offering their healing waters in golden cups to any journeyers who might pass. Indeed, some say that these were the very waters of inspiration, offering transport between the worlds. The maidens themselves may have been Otherworldly, but the tale does not say. In those days, when the veil between the worlds was thinner, these distinctions were not so sharp.

    All was well, with the land bounteous and the people content, until the King conceived a desire to possess one of the well-maidens. He stole her sacred cup, carried her off, and raped her. His men followed his example, raping the other maidens. In response to these unheard-of acts, these violations against nature itself, the maidens withdrew themselves and their magic from the world. The wells dried up, and the regenerative powers of the land were destroyed, leaving it barren and devoid of enchantment. By seeking dominion over others, the King and his men had diminished the world.”

    The writer (Dennis Pottenger, a Californian marriage and family therapist) then recounts one of his own dreams, which featured “darkly numinous images of masculinity and mutilation” and which expressed the “rape-and-kill power dynamics which seemed archetypally-threaded into both psyche and culture”, filling him with “a sense of horror over the inescapable presence within me of a mutilating and compulsively heroic masculine ego tyrant”.

    Anyway, it’s quite a long article.

    By coincidence (or could it be a twist of Jungian synchronicity?), in the first of the Crisis Forum videos Vinny has linked to, historian Mark Levene describes climate change as a “metaphor for all the catastrophes which are already inbuilt into ourselves, perhaps into our collective unconsciousness”.

    In other words, not very much to do with lines on graphs going up or down.

  9. Alex
    This is all part of a cunning plan to get me off the subject of climate change and into lusher and freakier pastures.
    The Templars’ treasure horde is hidden just up the road from here near Rennes-le-Chateau. I haven’t read Dan Brown, but I thought everybody knew that.
    I’d never heard of the Tale of the Well Maidens. (Is there a sequel – the Tale of the Unwell Maidens? It must surely have been illustrated by some PreRaphaelite painter, starring Jane Morris). Then perhaps William Russell Flint took up the thread with the tale of the Really Fit Maidens – but I digress.

    [Dennis Pottenger, Californian marriage and family therapist, with his dreams featuring “darkly numinous images of masculinity and mutilation” has obviously spent too long on the kind of websites one sometimes comes across by accident when looking for something else.]
    I didn’t know Theodore Roszak invented ecopsychology. I knew of him only as a prophet of the counterculture. I see he taught at Stanford, where Ehrlich hangs out, and was in London editing Peace News in the sixties. I sold my first strip cartoon via the Peace News bookshop. It was about Thatcher and World War Three.
    I was thrilled to learn via Wiki that Roszak was a recipient of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, surely the only science fiction book prize financed by the sale of cookbooks and feminist bakesales. James Tiptree will certainly be featuring here one of these days.
    This is all very fascinating, and adds fuel to my theory that catastrophic climate change will still be alive and kicking long after Mann Jones and Pachauri have admitted that it was all a random wobble on their graphs.

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