Deep sustainability and the art and politics of forests - Univ College Cork


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Presentation by Cathy Fitzgerald at Sustainability and Modern Society seminar series on art, philosophy and sustainability, University College Cork, Ireland, 16 Oct 2012.

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  • Good everyone everyone and thx to Edmond Byrne for organising what I think is an important series. I feel honoured to share my work with you. I’m going to v. briefly talk about my work & how I am examining ideas of deep sustainability by looking at forests, thru perhaps an unsual pairing of contemporary art practice and forest policy Very briefly I have a 10 year background in biological science, long history in contemporary art practice and have had experience in national forest policy dev. While I have delivered some of the ideas in this talk before, tonight has given me an import chance to think about ideas of sustainability... to make clearer what I’m thinking abut when I talk about deep sustainablity In fact this talk is in two parts.. the first on thinking more about sustainability; the 2 nd part how through a contemporary transdiscplinary arts practice i am working through these ideas and putting them into practice
  • premise for this talk, and which I believe has been well outlined in previous sessions, is that we are living in an unprecedented age, where global exponentially accelerating disruption of many of the earth’s systems has begun. It is an unprecendented age due to the behaviour of our own species, which geologists are now calling, since our affects on the biosphere are so great, The Anthropocene. It is an almost inconceivable as well as an inconvenient truth that humanity also has a very short time frame in which to radically change its course for its own species survival.
  • By the way, ‘Get yourself a proper job’ is probably the most heard criticism most artists face
  • Even a cursory understanding of recent scientific reports on the many indicators of global biosphere change means it is often difficult to imagine that humanity will be able to change in time.... The pie chart shows the recently accepted 9 planetary boundaries/tipping points that we are already exceeding.
  • this still from the new web video, shows the accelerating exponential rate of change, most evident inthe last 50 years
  • Nevertheless I have been interested in examining the roots of ecocide in dominant Western cultures over the last 10,000 years, where a repeating pattern of exploitation and collapse of ecological systems has characterised western civilization and its culture, even seen here in our very first recorded story. I detail this in an article titled the Anth: 10 000 year of ecocide
  • From my own perspective such cultures of unsustainabilty and ecocide continue to thread through everyday life and have accelerated with the rapid spread of theindustrail age and particularly globalised in the last few decades. This image is like the deforestation in Giglamesh’s time but depicts even great and faster destruction; such industrial forestry is dominant in Irish and international industrial forestry practice,leading in 4 to 5 rotations to sig. soil degradation. For me, the ecological crisis we face is not just a crisis of economics, capitlism, politics etc but a crisis of culture in a much broader sense of western civilization that includes our dominant religions and our arts. It seems that we live in a culture whose dominant paradigms and cultural activities (of all kinds) successfully blinds us to the extent of our ongoing and accelerating violence to the interconnected lving communi that supports all life and other cultures that do not share this rapacious, scientific worldview. In my own endeavours I am trying to ask different questions about sustainability. I’d like to present this quote which refers to what I am ultimately aiming for in my work -. The writer activist, Derrick Jensen, like several others, has also found that by looking at how we treat forests is a good starting point to think about our relations to the world around us & ultimately deep sustainabilty. ‘Forests can literally show us the shadow of civilization.’ to quote Jensen ‘ I thought again of our fundamental inversion of all relatedness, of how we nearly always ask the wrong question— What can I get from this? —and so rarely the right one— What can I give back? Even when we try to learn from others, it is from the same spirit of acquisition: What can I learn from this forest ecosystem that will teach me how to manage if for maximum resource extraction?
  • He continues... Rarely do we ask: What can I learn from this forest community that will teach me better how to serve it?‘  Basically , the reasoning I’m trying to make is if we tend a forest community in all its complexity so it thrives, ultimately this relates to how we all thrive and survive (Incidentally, to date I think the writer Jensen has done much to explain the culture of make believe that masks our violent culture of ecocide.)
  • Interestingly when preparing ideas for this talk was I found that modern concepts of sustainability/and sustainable development derive from ideas of european medieval forest management I used the term ‘deep sustainability’ for an article at the start of this year without much thought but with a sense there are complexities to the idea of sustainability
  • in fact when i googled ‘deep sustainability’ I came across this summary, The early stages of sustainability were concerned mostly with making changes on the margin of the existing system (industrial civilization) to “make it sustainable”; that is, reforming our current agricultural, transportation, and energy systems by increasing efficiency and substituting non-sustainable materials and energy with more sustainable alternatives....
  • A deeper sustainability often shows that the existing system (industrial civilization) is inherently exploitative of people and nature, and that no amount of tinkering (efficiency or substitution) will make that system sustainable.
  • in itself, the word ‘sustain’ is active and implies actions in relations with others..and today the idea of sustainability/sd is now part of everyday discourse. In its most general defn is appears to offer a necessary common sense and ethical regard for the planets resources and communities, for inhabitants of earth in the future, but in fact it is complex and hard to pin down -to some sd is now an oxymoron, impossible to achieve with our grossly diminishing/ed earth systems under the assault of globalised exponential consumerism and uncontrolled pop growth -to some its rhetoric is too easy and reassuring, hiding the gross damage of the biosphere but also appropriated too easily for commercial greenwashing gains -to others its take-up is so piecemeal thats its impossible to coordinate/evaluate -with a confusion of sd as an endpoint rather than an ongoing process - Donella Meadows, key author of the Limits to Growth book reminded us that too often many people hear sustainability as simply and unthinkingly “sustaining” the world we have now
  • I also came across a philosopher/educator who also uses the term ‘deep sustainability’ but with a lot more thought that I have given it. John Foster, a UK philosopher, proposes a radical and strong argument about the dangers deeply inherent our currently accepted idea of sustainable development, something he describes as the ‘politics of never getting there’. Foster argues an urgent need to think beyond any  ethics towards future generations/ which he believes are inherently impossible against the pull of today’s concerns,. Inevitably the model of sd results ins a series of movable targets and action that will always fall short of what we need. Ultimately, sustainable development is the pursuit of a mirage.’ .....‘to quote Foster - he says ‘this whole picure of future-oriented responsibility is radically flawed, fundamentally misrepresenting our creative engagement in change... likely to ensure continuing practical failure. Foster like others believes the deep alienation of contemporary society ‘is the most deep-rooted driver’ of ecological destruction. Foster.. argues that sustainability must go deeper and rest  on making renewed 'meaning' for our lives, with deep and valid sustainability resting on a core of active and critical learning, an explorartory-creative committement , to ‘imagine possibilities and create the emergent future as we go on’ (401, 2011). ‘ There is of course no guarantee... 13min
  • So to the 2nd part of my talk... that there is in the arts much potential for such learning although presently, and I’m talking from a visual culture perspective, it is relegated to the small field of art & ecology on the edge of contemporary arts practice. This area of activity acknowledges the extreme biospheric challenges we face, is process based, and thrives on moving across disciplines A leading arts educator in this area, David Haley, has pointed out that that even for the arts ecology area ‘ transdiciplinarity is an emergent process and that this process is counter-intuitive, as much of society teaches us to think and do the opposite. Much of today’s knowledge is in separate ‘silos’ and is solution-led, problem-based, target-driven training that is very difficult to un-learn. (Cultura21 email communication, 2012)
  • Above are key artists who have been v important in bring together ecological, sustainable, green political thinking into contemporary arts theory and practice and for my own work in particular. These are not artists illustrating the expect/current horrors of climate change etc or other techno utopian solutions... but artists seeking to bring deep sustainability and ecological thinking and practice through the arts to audiences. I never really thought, even though I was taught by an Beuys scholar at NCAD that I would have the skills, confidence to work in this way when I first started in the arts though. And probably for many in the arts now approaching this area it is still very challenging as a great divide exists still between the humanities and sciences. But initially, for my own work in this area, I had an advantage that I spent 10 years in science before art college.
  • getting onto my own work, my interest in forests is I think some sort of repressed homesickness and an awareness even from when I first came to Ireland that something important was missing in this country... I recently found in my earliest irish sketchbook from 18 years ago this image with a note saying ‘I so miss NZ’s forests... ‘.. getting back to Foster, my own work perhaps has been an attempt to make meaning of the change earth on which i live --------
  • Strangely not quite a year after I arrived Ireland I worked with the Irish Tree organisation Crann, with Jan Alexander and others up in Co Leitrim and saw firsthand work undertaken to bring back Ireland’s native forests. This project had a longlasting effect on me and many years later after art college I created a solo exhibition in Leitrim at The Dock gallery in 2006 that gave me an opportunity to really develop on my forest art & ecology interests. For this exhibition I documented all the new woodlands that Jan Alexander had inspired the local community to plant 13 years earlier and which I believe is still to date the biggest broadleaf plantings by individuals in a community in Ireland . I was curious, as was Jan, to revisit and interview these new woodlands and their owners. We both ended the project wondering about the long term sustainability of these new woodlands in a country that has long lost its forest culture. This was my first film too- I borrowed a video camera from the local arts office & managed to created a half hr docum and installation that fully recorded this extensive community project. (the films are online) The other thing at this time was that I had started working for my neighbour, the then deputy leader of the Green Party, Mary White. From the rel. slow reflective world of art, the env. activism of the Crann project, I was brought into the fast and challenging world of implementing green policy -. Never having been involved in politics before this gave me an in-depth insight to all the efforts and frustration of politics that has at its heart, an aim for sustainable living and ecological and hence social justice. However, at the time, like with other things, I never really saw how this connected with my art practice.
  • Some years later it struck me, that I had the means outside my door to develop my art and sustainable forest interests much further as I’m in the very fortunate position to live in a small conifer monoculture plantation. I had since the Leitrim exhibition been aware from Jan A. of the the radical changes beginning in the mindset amongst leading EU foresters, who now, embracing long term sustainability are transforming monoculture plantations to permanent, selectively harvested forests. So it struck me one day, that I had, literally surrounding me, the opportunity to transform my own woodland & make a long term commitment to this diverse community. It could also be the site for my film works. At the point, I was also working full-time on a project that involved building a large online community and I became v. confident with social media. So in my spare time in 2008 I started blogging on art & ecology and was a close follower & contributor to the comprehensive UK Art & Ecology programme (at that time there was an art & ecology person, this prior to Copenhagen, in the UK arts council). Slowly I gained confidence and quite an in-depth knowledge of key debates in the art & ecology area.
  • In regards to my art practice i first thought my video work was just about creating short films about environmental actions but I was soon returning to old questions that I have long had,
  • & this has in fact lead on to my current phd work, where I’m looking at asking can we aspire to a more ecological, rather than human centered means of encountering the world beyond the tired conventions of current nature documentary formats
  • these formats have changed little since the very first nature/expedition documentaries of the 1920s. To my surprise, when I looked at film theory I found very little critical analysis of the form of nature films. Film writer Scott MacDonald has in recent years tried to alert the film world about this
  • Encouragingly, MacDonald has also commented that he thinks
  • the extent of books on nature film... the one on the right just published last month, much of this work is being lead by ecocritical studies in literary theory, not film theory
  • what i find it interesting for my experimental film practice now, is that leading ecocritical thinkers are turning back to consider indigenous worldviews, where the word and concept of ‘ nature ’ didn’t exist - as in Prof of en Lit - Tim Morton ‘dark ecology’ He says ‘When you realize that everything is interconnected, you can't hold on to a concept of a single, solid, present-at-hand “over there” thing called Nature.’ Morton speaks of new ecological thinking deeper than deep ecology and describes an awareness of what he calls the mesh of which all material is part of, to get over the binary of separation that we have created between humanity and the natural world. However, he recognises that we still have to know, care and even love ‘the strange, stranger’, our neighbours and hyperobjects, if we are to survive.
  • Simarily, D Jensen who I mentioned previously, reminds us over and over that indigenous people lived for millinnea in different parts of the world without destroying their landbases and that they never, ever, see the non-human world as a metaphor, the way it has become in the west.
  • Morton continues with the idea that artists should be aware not to create works that wish to create a sense of being immersed in a disappearing fantasy of ‘lost’ nature, more that we should move towards ‘an ecological sympathy’. ‘ Rather than taking pity on the animal world in a soft-focus version of the normal sadistic distance, ‘that’ we try to glimpse humans through nonhuman eyes.
  • Polly Higgins, the env lawyer who has done much in the last few years to raise awareness about legalising against corporate ecocide, has in her work with indigenous peoples come to similar conclusions., in lawyer speak she suggests for peace and for the survival of all species that ‘ that we must urgently extend our duty of care to all life’ Perhaps we may recover our humanity this way too.
  • in my own art & ecology practice -I am attempting to create experimental film works that reflect on a long term transformation of a conifer plantation into a permanent, non clear fell forest. In the last few years, I have been interested in the moments in my films where I stop speaking and allow space for other non-human presences??. I struggle with acknowledging that while one is holding a camera and does all the editing, that one can never escape our anthropocentric gaze. However I believe we can still aspire to a more sensitive and respecting, ecocentric perspective/perceptions.
  • At the same time, I’m still learning with my neighbours and local green cllr about close to nature, non clearfell forestry; my site is now listed on the new Irish database - at just 2.5 acres its the smallest close to nature manged forest in Ireland; clever wee forest: every 3 years it produces 70 tonnes of firewood and is home to increasingly biodiverse communities!!! Im presently the communications person for ProSilva Ireland and Europe
  • With ProSilva, the EU wide close to nature forest group I have studied mixed species, permanent forests in Netherlands, Hungary, Austria and Slovenia; clearfelling has not been practised in Slovenia for 64 years; this also led me to lead work on new Irish national sustainable forest policy over the last 3 yrs - i innoncently said I could help the green party with their forest policy... it was a long 3 years but my hope as national policy it will be examined by other parties. Of course, my long term intention would be have clear-felling here also made illegeal and greater recognition that in the longterm industrial forestry is a form of slow ecocidal violence.
  • I see my expected 40 yr+ residency in this forest and perhaps linking up with other forest projects around the world - as a continuing dialogue, my relational audiovisual expts becoming a sort of diary that I share with other humans online - I see my forest interventions not as conservation project but more a restoration, an active tending in the present that has good results for future communities.
  • WHile I’m unsure whether my films will have any cinematic merit I already know that looking/listening with my camera and mic is certainly making me much more aware of the vast complexity of the dynamics of the living communities/my neighbours that I need to relate to, if all is to thrive and survive.
  • One final point is that I was fortunate enough to visit the californian redwoods earlier this year and came across an academic book on native americans who actively managed their landbases carefully over millennia. I was fascinated as the book describes their lifestyles as an active relational one; they saw all non-human entities, in their culture works and beliefs, as kin. The author describes their relations to the nonhuman world as a concept of ‘tending’ where nat. americans intervened in their natural environments to the benefit of all - ‘Tending’ Anderson writes suggests a healthy tension, a specific application of wisdom, of culture practices that fosters active relations, a respectful dance with the nonhuman world. In fact Native americans that saw areas without humans as leading to entropy, what they would call ‘wilderness’; careful tending they believed sustained all beings and brought beauty too - that was what they saw humans role in life was. Similarly when in Australia recently I came across another new academic book on how historic evidence is indicating that aboriginals also actively tending their lands in sustainable ways over presumably 1000s of years. I’m interested in such works as the knowledge of previous forest cultures here was lost too long ago.
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