Trips Across the Abyss
How do we make sense of climate breakdown? What are the effects of imagining and naming how we live amid the uncertainties, upheavals, and pain caused by climate breakdown? How is it defined, and by whom?
This year ArtEZ studium generale published two literary explorations in response to the film Bridge Over Troubled Water (2016)*, written by researcher and activist Harriet Bergman, and artist, writer, curator, and pleasure activist Ama Josephine Budge.
In the first essay Trips Across the Abyss, Harriet Bergman explores what it takes to ‘create new worlds, visions, ideas, and horizons’ based upon her personal accounts of climate activism.
In a responding essay – Tales from the Abyss – Ama Josephine Budge questions how we resist, why we resist, for-whom and for-what we resist and asks of us to think about who ‘we’ are in the face of climate change, instead of who we think we are and want to be:
Both authors reflect upon how their attentive account of climate breakdown is bound to their embodied experiences, livelihoods, climate racism, and decolonial struggles.
When I think of climate change, I struggle to make sense of the world and the people around me. Scientists have called the next century ‘the century of hell’. What is immoral and illogical should not happen. And yet, it does happen. ‘Status quo’, ‘business as usual,’ or, in less fuzzy terms, ‘situation normal, all fucked up.’ Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.
I sometimes feel as if it were better to try to feel at home. But only sometimes. More often, I’m convinced that there are many ways in which our shared home, our world, can be different. When I chant: ‘We are unstoppable, another world is possible’ on a march, I assume that this other world is more just, sustainable, greener, more affective and empathetic. A world, in which it all simply feels better. Recently, the coronavirus has shown us that things do not have to go as they usually do. In essence, it shows us more solidarity but also magnifies the existing inequalities. The same is visible in the responses to climate breakdown.
Inspired by a work of Finnish Performance Collective MSL and Jaakko Pallasvuo, I want to explore both feelings: trying to accept and knowing things can change through two scenarios: Fossil Fuel Break Up and Climate Break-down. With Bridge over Troubled Water, their short film about climate breakdown for which they have chosen Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel as their protagonists, they took me on a strange journey. Throughout Fossil Fuel Break Up, the scenario of trying to accept, I emulate the feel of the film and let its protagonists speak to you. The rhythm of the film and the strange special effects evoke the experience of a trip on acid. The beauty, melancholy and the occasionally uplifting rhythm of the songs of Simon and Garfunkel form the perfect soundtrack for vast horizons of white snow. It’s an ideal soundtrack for the various scenes in the film, in which the duo walks around Turku botanical garden, Garfunkel with a Nike backpack, bored adults scrolling through Facebook, a pizza heating up in a microwave, while a jail is made for climate criminals. ‘Outside is endless snow and 4G,’ one of them sighs.
Bridge over Troubled Water confuses me. The narrative crisscrosses across different locations. The protagonists can time-travel, and as in a free-writing exercise, the scenes seem to be associated with each other loosely. The camera follows beautiful nature and utter boredom and strange, ironic layers of melancholy, depression, hope and defeat, while the music of Simon and Garfunkel seems to soothe us.
Do I want to be soothed?
The film is perfect in conveying a certain climate breakdown feel. But it is the feeling of resignation and defeat, and it depicts only part of the story that is climate breakdown. The choices of those with money and power – whether resulting in temperatures rising by 1.5 degrees or much, much more – will cause many to suffer. And both these groups are absent in this film. We see the protagonists trying to make sense of confusion, melancholy, desperateness and beauty. They try to answer questions about their own responsibility, about their possibilities, about their individual impacts and constraints. But what if those who make the decisions decide not to follow capital? If a jail for climate criminals would be erected, like they show, who would be in it? Would it be a Shell CEO, or would it be the immigrant taking the plane to visit her relatives in a former colony once every other year? Do we really think we would jail Garfunkel who wastes time on Facebook, trying to make sense of it all?
While some struggle to make sense of the world, others struggle for new worlds. Because what is, can be different. The second trip, Climate Beak-down, is my answer to MSL and Jaallo Pallasvuo’s film. Sighing and giving up is a privilege that cannot be afforded by everyone. For some, accepting what can’t be changed means warming up another pizza. For others, it means not being able to eat. Although climate change is depicted as being exquisitely capable of inspiring fraternization between everyone, the existence of climate racism and other forms of climate injustice refute this vision. Feelings matter – I therefore like to focus on how we treat one another, how our affective relations are built, maintained and kept. But I also like to consider the ‘we’ that I just evoked, for ‘we’ is often spoken about in climate change discourse – think of the ‘Anthropocene’ or ‘spaceship earth’.
When I left what was not good for me – habits and ideas about what was possible – I felt a new sort of freedom and responsibility that still makes me high. I firmly believe we should create new worlds, visions, ideas and horizons where things are different. To challenge what is in front of us. I do not merely want to provide a bridge over troubled water. I want to take you on a trip across the abyss¬ by examining how it feels to accept things as they are, and how they can change. I want to accompany you from sobriety to a high, a comedown and who knows a hangover. ‘Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson.’
Fossil Fuel Break Up
I order takeaway coffee, and the barista asks if I want a bio-degradable lid to save the planet.
When did I learn to say no? At home? Playing with the other kids? On a particularly hot summer day? During protests, demonstrations, occupations? It definitely was not something that came quickly, that was always there. And what comes after ‘no’? What is the substance behind refusal? ‘I want to think about this ecological catastrophe, at the same time, I want to be hopeful, correct and useful.’
Hopeful, correct and useful means pushing the horizons of the possible further. What is, can be different. And the first time I saw something that I couldn’t accept and realized that it could be changed, it was as if pure energy was flowing through my veins. My breaths were deeper and purer. I had a whole new, super-sharp vision. Laser-eyes! And such clear thoughts.
It was when I entered an occupied building.
I never knew what was possible. Until I broadened the limits of possibility by pushing through a closed door, running through a police line, being in the heat of the moment. Until I felt everything inside of me alive. They don’t have a chance.
I couldn’t see outside what is given, because I am thrown in the world. I found myself in a world already made, but it is made by people. Every brick in the street, every rule in the law, every officer on the road has a uniform that was designed by someone and is the results of endless choices, choices, choices. Who are they? Those who think they are too big to fail, too big to fall. Once they were feudal lords, once they were monarchs, slaveholders, the master of the house, the boss, the manager, the big company, the police, the government, the capitalists running away with the money. Once they will fall.
What is, can be different.
And the difference will be made by us together. By comrades, allies, friends, neighbours, lovers, queers and everyone else. By you and me, brimming with our collective power. I’m not a separate, isolated individual. We have access to organized social action. We will not only win, but we will also dance while winning. To protect our shared habitat. The forest, the trees, the beauty of a summer day, the beauty of endless snow. Look at the fucking beauty, beautiful, look at the sky and how it changes colour, do you feel the sun on your skin – I feel it caressing me, just the right temperature, like when I was young. I remember spending days near the beach, in a forest maybe. I remember how my father used to rub sunscreen on my back before I went swimming. Isn’t it incredible how good summer can be, when I don’t have to go to school, when time is endless, when everything is possible.
I remember, I know, how it feels, to be together, to do something, to go out. We must fight for justice. It is our duty to win. What is can be different. It’s not logical that we will win, maybe the odds are against it, but it’s also immoral if we don’t, we’re on the right side of history, we can push it to the edge, in the right direction, where we want it, utopia is always on the horizon, and we can go together, I can push it, when we go together we go far, further then imagined, nothing but fully automated gay space luxury, collective joy, collective militancy, dancing, all night long, feeling the sun caress our skin, swimming, being overwhelmed by it all, everyone is free, no one in jail, I dance and dance and dance as if the night never ends, we dance and dance and dance.
Hope looks forward without the promise of success. Hope believes things can be different because they are different, right here, right now. How do people go about their daily lives, without the joy of dancing? Is there Netflix after collective power? Don’t they know that utopia is on the horizon, that we can reach it, that while walking we come closer, that while getting there we find each other?
There are many and real alternatives. They can be found in the Hambach Forest occupation, they can be found at former squatted autonomous zone ADM, they can be found at the travelling anarchist circus, at the local punk show, in the music that transports us, in the communal spaces we share, in the temporary autonomous zone, in between the pages of the zines that were printed, in the face of your lovers, at the zone a defendre where no airport will be built, at Burning Man, in the pages of social ecologist Murray Bookchin and in the speculative fiction of Ursula K Le Guin. Why is nobody acting as if there is so much more? So much to discover? As if we have the power to change things, to live?
It’s such a pleasure to be able to do things. To get out and do something about climate breakdown. To be a privileged tree-hugger, even though the original tree huggers weren’t that privileged, but fierce forest defenders fighting against the powerful. I don’t even like trees. I like people and I do what I can, because I can. I am on a powerplant. We occupied it. In the middle of the Rhineland in Germany. An apocalyptic landscape and two thousand activists shutting it down. When the smoke disappeared from the pipeline, we knew we made a difference. We stopped the machine. We were the cog. And now I’m back again behind my desk. All two thousands of us could have flown to New York and back, five times. That’s the amount of CO2 we stopped. Now, someone is talking about the need to recycle. No longer putting plastic lids on the coffee cup that you buy at the station. She smiles. Together, we can make a difference. I feel the burn of a police club. My body is pulling me back, everything heavy, my thoughts cloudy. Recycling is taking responsibility. Responsibility. Responsibility. Re-sponse-ability. The ability to respond.
I have all the opportunities to fight back. I take my coffee without a plastic lid, it’s only minimal. For the more significant acts, I’m in the perfect place to act. I will change what I can’t accept.
When did I learn about climate breakdown? At school? On the news? On a particularly hot summer day? Or was it something that I always already knew, like gravity? I think I learned about climate breakdown when it was still called ‘global warming.’ It didn’t get me excited – it seemed both boring and abstract. It was taught between El Niño and the topography of capitals of the European countries. It probably was in between math and French. In my mind, it was not connected to anything in particular.
I know they know. I know they have known. Shell knew. Exxon knew. BP knew. People have known about climate breakdown for quite some time. Before the last century even. Since then, people have worried and raised the alarm. Raising the alarm or communicating facts does not mean people will hear. Not when they don’t like what you’re saying. So I often feel alone.
I didn’t differentiate between the subjects taught at school. I also learned to nod at the right moments and speak up at the wrong time. Of course, nothing could have prepared me for the unthinkable. But why is climate breakdown unbelievable? Most of the times, when people see an illogical and immoral reality, if it does not concern them, they try to make it logical. This is how cognitive dissonance is resolved. Because what else is there to do? “I will donate 5 euros to Greenpeace.”
Carbon Lock-in, Fossil Capital, Petro Culture. It was all there before I was born. Surely, if people understand, they will do something about it? If I communicate facts? If science is precise? If the seasons are less and less recognizable? If climate-related weather events take millions of lives per year?
I learned about humanity failing when I heard Kanye West say that George Bush doesn’t care about black people. The issue is not: when will we act? The puzzle is: who are we?
The climate crisis is represented as if the burdens fall on everyone equally, and as if it has the unique ability to inspire fraternization. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Me and my middle-class blue eyes, white tears, welfare state guilt trip.
It will get hotter and hotter and hotter. And it will not impact everyone in the same way. Life is shit, and then you die, but how fast do you die, how shit is your life? Existing inequalities will be magnified through climate change – when you’re poor, when you’re black, when you’re female, when you’re not able-bodied, when you’re different, always when you’re different when you’re not the man, who even is this man – is there a way in which the LGBTQIA+ community will be hit harder through climate breakdown, I can imagine it will, it will, won’t it? Those will be hit harder, and harder, and harder. And, on top of that, the impacts of all this mess will not fall equally along the lines of gender, race and class. It will not, it will not, not within national boundaries, not across national borders. It will not fall on everyone equally. This island, do you know, all these islands, the small islands, they campaigned, in Copenhagen – Hopenhagen, as if any hope was left, what is there to do, what hope, I donate money to Greenpeace and that will be it – with the slogan ‘1.5 to stay alive.’ ‘We have to forego meat, alcohol, sex, everything.’
Understanding our different embodied positions will be of crucial importance for responding to the crisis in a humane and solidary way.
‘It is just too heavy to think about.’ It is too much. ‘Our whole experience of the world is underpinned by the energy bound into fossil fuels.’ E-mailing! The transport of the notebook I’m writing. The food I eat. Plastic. It is abstract, but when it is made tangible nothing is left. Almost everything except the food my friend has grown in his own garden. ‘Depression and anxiety don’t originate from anything.’
Someone said during the Copenhagen summit, so many years ago already, that people who were losing their homelands were less rational in calculating the benefits and costs. Less rational. Who knows? Many philosophers, activists, sociologists have recognized that being in a privileged position prevents you from recognizing and acknowledging your privilege. Epistemologies of ignorance. Habits of invisibility. Whatever the term, it means I just don’t see, will not see, don’t want to see.
It is not only that it seems as if there is no alternative. Margaret Thatcher’s voice is echoing through my head, there is no society, only individuals, and there is no alternative, only capitalism. There. Is. No. Alternative. There is green capitalism and there is greenwashing, and there are companies who kill to continue their business but will plant a tree if you pay them 30 cents more.
What is meaning if there is no future? What if I tried. We tried. I tried. Ever tried, ever failed. I don’t want to fail again. It makes no sense to risk if it is hopeless. Maybe green technology can help. Maybe CO2 capturing. It makes no sense to try. I do not fly. We must forego meat. We must forego sex. Or is population control not the answer? Higher borders. More Frontex. The military agrees. The army admits that politicians are failing us. The military says climate change is a security threat.
We must forego meat and take shorter showers. Take our responsibility as ethical subjects. This, remember, is not a political issue, the science is clear, just vote with your euros, buy the sustainable brand, be just, take your responsibility, because what is can be different and I can make a difference, everyone can make a difference, no one is too young to make a difference, even though, maybe some differences are minimal and why should I bother?
Simon and Garfunkel disappear from view and outside is only white, white, white. What does my behavior matter when the earth is getting hotter and hotter and hotter? What does it mean if there is no future? Whom am I not consuming for? It makes no sense. “I just want to accept what we cannot change.”
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes. Out on the streets, inside a coal mine, within the cultural institute that accepts dirty money – there are so many places where I can make a difference. What is, can be different. What is, will be different. What is, will be changed. What is, could feel so much better if we try.