Sensing and showing climate change

Part one of three: Becoming substance same

Dear friends and colleagues,

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I begin with a trio of writings concerning a conundrum of climate change: if one can’t perceive the whole shape of a thing, how can one engage it? This first text explores not perceiving; the following two will describe possible methods for engaging anew.

I once took a walk in a forest on a moonless night. I was a college kid working a summer job at an environmental research station, living onsite with a cluster of other students. One very inky night, we took a walk to listen to the frogs. Out we went from the fluorescent-lit dorm, crossed the lawn, passed the labs, and entered the woods. Flashlight-seeing, we made our way just a few minutes into the forest until well surrounded by trees. We stopped, turned off the lights, and listened. First silence, then the frogs began: lone voices, syncopations, a pulsing thrum, complete roaring! The saturation made us permeable, sponges for loud sound.

After a while, frog song felt, it was time to go back. But, funny this, our eyes had not adjusted – there was nothing for them to adjust to, the moonless blackness so complete. Before any thumb hit a button, someone hatched an idea – “let’s leave the flashlights off!” Ooh, nice idea. We shuffled about, blind as if eyes shut, listening for each other. It was impossibly dark. We found and grabbed hands. Our wobbly slow mass scuffled its way on the trail. Feet low stepping on the gravel, touch-watchful for the forest edge. This strange method, we got the hang of it; kept going, a bit more sure. A few minutes and the lights emerged, the familiar slid into view. We made it! We returned to the dorm and went to bed.

The other day I sat down to start this text, on the challenges of sensing and showing climate change. I’ve been working with the topic as of late, so thoughts are researched and honed, ready to be spilled onto the page. There are things to say, sure, of course. But… where to begin?

The problem was not a lack of starting points, but over-abundance. I could open with my friend, deep-thinking city-dweller, voicing desperation on a long walk. “I recycle, reuse, avoid plastic, ride mass transit, walk when I can, repair things instead of replacing them, I buy used stuff instead of new. But it doesn’t change anything. What can I do?” Or perhaps with my students some years back, assigned to recount a moment when they glimpsed a very, very large landscape and it made them feel small. Their submissions were a revelation, vivid and full of feeling for long roads, steep slopes, big water, high views. Or I could start with a studio discussion just a few months ago, in which the students struggled to draw the dynamics of global warming. In conversation some revealed, alarmed, that they had not understood the carbon cycle until now.

Any of these would make a decent launch for discussing climate change, itself an elephant, each story a small blindfolded grasp. But I most want to begin with the fact of the elephant itself. What is it to touch an enormity, holding a tiny piece, others doing the same, all at a loss regarding the whole?

Emily Eliza Scott describes this as “representational breakdown” – the impossibility of holding climate dynamics in one coherent view. Others, too – Beuret, Latour, Haraway, de la Bellacasa, Tsing (, to name a few - have explored aspects of this phenomenon and what to do about it, with particular concern for tensions between techno-bureaucratic problem-solving and local/individual agency.

Let us tilt their observations towards landscape architectural practice. Of course landscape architects can rationally engage aspects of climate change, access relevant data and predictions, and visualize and explain the information. But to dwell in data is not enough. It does not easily engage laypeople, for one. For another, comprehending a new shape of things is not a purely rational act, for laypeople or for experts either. To make sensible what climate change is and how it moves, new perceptions must be built.

This is a task for landscape architects, prepared as we are to create visions at once environmental, social, and cultural. Why are we not tackling the representational, perceptual problems of climate change more? Why are we not obsessed with doing so?

Perhaps grief is a barrier; perhaps terror is too. Perhaps for many this is a time of running ragged, keeping things together as best one can. Surely all of this is so. Creating new ways to envision massive complex environmental dynamics, after all, is nothing simple. We need multi-scalar views, attunement to deep time, familiarity with decomposition; the very notion of site boundary is more complicated in a climate change world.

And then there is this: taken all together, the representational tasks add up to something more difficult still. The problem at hand is simply not modern, this warming earth no spaceship: its parts neither fixed nor separable, its causality baroquely indirect, its dynamics indifferent to machinic modeling. It will not do to sit god-view gazing at plans, analyzing and orchestrating from above.

This observation, I admit, is more felt than rational. It can be reasoned, sure – and I’ll get more specific in texts to come – but today the feeling is the point. In fact, I am certain, however uneasily, that feeling is somehow key to moving forward from here. For right this moment, as my child breathes in soot from Michigan skies, I fear, I hope, I feel that living things are irreducibly kin. Not discrete, coherent. Each of us respiring. Each holding carbon and water, desire and loss.

We are immersed in a place we’ve walked before, but now it is fully strange. Intimately close and untouchable all at once. We will need to feel our way, selves small and substance same, reaching for other hands, scuffling along, wild world all around. Open, as best we can be, to finding something new.

I have questions!

As asked above: why are landscape architects not tackling the “representational breakdown” problems of climate change more? Why are we not obsessed with doing so? Surely more are working on this than I realize - examples? Please share…

I use “we” at times in this text. It feels inescapable in one way, potentially problematic in another. I welcome your thoughts on what “we” can and cannot be today…