Hope and grief in our unnatural future

A Hobart conference provides much to ponder, wonder and grieve about. [8 July 2014 | Peter Boyer]

The spectacular death of the Chelyabinsk meteor, 15 February 2013. PHOTO MARAT AHMETVALEEV

The spectacular death of the Chelyabinsk meteor, 15 February 2013. PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARAT AHMETVALEEV <http://marateaman.livejournal.com/2013/02/15/>

You’re driving along a highway on the outskirts of Chelyabinsk, 1500 km east of Moscow, around nine o’clock on a clear winter morning in early 2013, when a dazzling light appears in the sky.

As the light streaks across in front of you the burning object suddenly brightens to fill the sky, accompanied by a loud bang and breaking glass, before a smaller trail disappears over the horizon to the southwest. The blast, you later discover, shattered windows across an area 100 km wide.

The Chelyabinsk object was a large meteor that flashed many times brighter than the sun as it broke up. A 650 kg piece of it was recovered last October from a lake 70 km west of the city.

Russian cars are often fitted with camcorders to record the view ahead, so there was a lot of video of the Chelyabinsk meteor, available since the event on YouTube. Which is where Phil Bagust, a communications specialist from the University of South Australia, comes in.

As a speaker in “Unnatural Futures”, a University of Tasmania conference in Hobart last week, Bagust presented video from Chelyabinsk. Those few fleeting seconds of video are riveting, grabbing and holding your attention even when repeated multiple times.

Bagust made his point that while disasters are dreadful things, they can also be enervating, thrilling, even sexy. That is, he added, so long as you’re not part of one yourself. Bearing in mind that a bright light in the sky, an asteroid, heralded the dinosaurs’ extinction 66 million years ago.

Unnatural Futures, supported by the university’s Arts Environment Research Group, brought together academics from Australia, New Zealand and the UK investigating how we imagine the future with all its risks, and how we might go about navigating it.

The meeting was laden with foreboding and full of sobering reminders, yet I’m sure that many, like me, found it enjoyable. It may be that like viewers of the Chelyabinsk videos, we got sucked in by the morbid fascination of it all. Or perhaps there’s still much from which we can take heart.

Many presentations had nothing to offer in the way of hope. “We are the asteroid” was a recurring theme. Today’s business-as-usual is itself a disaster, said one presenter, but political demands cause leaders to promote it instead of seeing it and calling it for what it is.

If it’s true that corporations’ pursuit of profit, governments’ exercise of power and our own demand for paid employment are driving us headlong into environmental disaster, we could find no more apt illustration of it than the changing landscapes of the upper Hunter Valley, NSW.

A presentation about the visual impact of this astonishing transformation, caused by demand for coal to meet energy needs here and overseas, showed how gently-undulating valley landscapes are being transformed into holes and spoil heaps on a huge scale. Such is the power of homo sapiens.

A concentration of energy, population and political and economic power, we were told, was leading to an unprecedented level of inequity, a breakdown of law, and ultimate social chaos. New state weaponry now being developed using robotics and nanotechnology could only hasten that process.

Then there’s insurance. For a quarter of a century this industry has stood out from others in flagging its concern about climate change. Its future depends on being able to keep premiums affordable, and its records say that this is getting steadily harder with each passing year.

A discussion of the importance of place raised the prospect that insurance as a business will in coming decades become an unaffordable luxury, starting with properties at highest risk of loss. The answer might be communities taking joint responsibility for property loss or damage.

A lighter moment of the conference was a quirky presentation about how book and film fans are creating their own geography. New Zealand now has to cater to tourists’ demands to see Lord of the Rings filming locations, even to the extent of giving them new placenames.

Future Tasmanian tourism may have to contend with something similar. Internet rumours have it that a teenage witch called Kiki, heroine of a 1989 Miyazaki movie, once worked in our very own Ross Bakery, and Japanese visitors to Ross are already asking for directions to “Kiki’s room”.

The most profound moments of “Unnatural Futures” involved discussion of our personal responses to transformation and loss. One of these came in a keynote paper by Lesley Head, of the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research at the University of Wollongong.

Head addressed a climate-constrained future in terms of abundance, scarcity, hope and grief. She spoke of the false hope that government measures like a carbon price will fix everything, without us having to change ourselves. In a sense, she said, we’re all climate change deniers.

The impact of a changing climate on the provision of goods, water and food, said Head, required us to “unsettle our understandings”, such that we intuitively see all of this in terms of cycles of abundance and scarcity, and reframe failures as “productive disruptions”.

Hobart sociologist John Cianchi is interested in how people derive meaning from their world, especially the “non-human” part of it, and has surveyed radical environmental activists to try to understand what drives them in pursuing their ideals.

His paper recounted the profound grief felt by activists at the felling of trees or the slaughter of whales, and stressed the importance of this “nature culture” in their activism. The issue of grief has not come up in discussion about Tasmania’s proposed forest arrest laws, more’s the pity.

Unnatural Futures was essentially for university people, so it’s unsurprising that no political figures attended. But it’s sad that politics will in all likelihood remain uninformed about the imaginative and innovative thinking on show at this memorable event.

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