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Trouble with the Weather: a southern response
Take a globe and look at it from the bottom, from underneath, from below – from the south. A great ice-covered landmass spirals out into connected oceans, with fingers of land trailing in. The thin curl of Tierra del Fuego, land of fire and ice, the southern tip of Africa, Australia – the “southern land” itself - and scatterings of islands. This southern perspective is ocean driven – and it is the great ocean currents that drive the world’s weather.
The weather is that ultimate panacea of human conversation – something universally understood, and of universal concern – whether driving survival or fashion design, the weather is always interesting. Over the last years the weather has made it increasingly into the headlines, moving from individual to global conversation. There is a rising tenor of concern and even an undercurrent of fear. Global warming climate change, drought, storms, social and economic patterns driven awry by – nature?
It is a long time since natural processes featured much as the drivers of human planning. We have long since “tamed” the jungle – and coping with the weather has become the domain of design, with clothes, houses, offices and cars all designed to keep us “comfortable” and “in the zone’. In our cities we have found comfort and convenience, but we have lost respect; and with that, lost curiosity; and with that lost sensitivity to warning signals; and with that, we have courted disaster….
What is respect? Increasingly I believe that respect is the cornerstone of good relationship. Respect means looking at “the other” wholly and honestly, seeking to recognise similarity and difference, to learn the other and to share the self, and to use a richness of senses to understand the space between self and the other. (Benedictines are called to “listen with the ear of the heart”.) It is in that space that respect is given, received and grown. This works between individuals in regard to all the separating and identifying features we recognise as distinguishing ourselves from another. People of different ages, gender, race, tribe, sexual persuasion, belief, colour, and even political views can, through respect, engage in building relationship. As humans we have language and image to explore notions of respect, and yet even with these powerful tools we fail dismally. Out of disrespect grows oppression, discrimination, resentment, rebellion and ultimately, war.
If we struggle so to respect other humans how much more difficult is it to respect the earth, the planet? I am a South African and I embraced the transition to a democratic country with wild enthusiasm and joy – yet talking to a politician one day about “giving voice to the voiceless”, I noted “the environment is the most voiceless of all”. Therefore it is up to us – up to every person who feels respect for the earth to articulate an “earth” point of view – to be advocates for human respect for natural process, structures and functions. We need also to listen to those societies that are grounded in respect for country – and learn some of their wisdom.
There are many ways of “speaking”, and most of us learn the dialects of our disciplines – creating understanding in select patches but excluding many others. As a scientist I have sought to use research results to communicate science to managers, policy or law-makers so as to develop an understanding of the ways on which ecosystems function. I have worked in teams of many disciplines, all working to articulate in quantified and descriptive terms how much water rivers need, at what time, for how long, and of what quality – in order to be functional, healthy ecosystems. We have argued that healthy ecosystems provide services to people. Rivers, for example, supply water; transport, process and dilute wastes; provide natural products, are locations of biodiversity, assist with flood control, are places of recreation, and provide opportunities to meet aesthetic/spiritual needs. But we speak of these “services” into an economically primed society where the value of water for irrigation, industry, hot showers and pretty gardens is more easily ascertained than water for healthy ecosystems. We have not yet found ways of speaking a value that protects a clean, free-flowing river.
In the third of four quartets – The Dry Salvages, TS Eliot wrote”
“I do not know much about gods; but
I think that the river
The poet caught much of what scientists went on to describe for many subsequent decades. Humans use natural resources for social and economic benefit, but most resource-use damages ecosystems. We are less good at knowing when to be restrained, when and what to protect, nurture and value, than when to exploit. We resist the notion of intrinsic value, except, perhaps, of human life. In the next decades the huge challenge will be to transcend boundaries, to speak in and to hear many languages and voices and to become conversant with different ways of speaking and hearing. This exhibition challenges us. The images and sounds break into our senses, perhaps more clearly than other, more linear ways of understanding. These luminous works call out for adventure, courage and a willingness learning new ways of thinking. New ways of tackling this trouble with the weather….
Climate change puts everything under more pressure. Possibly the most difficult pressure is the uncertainty. Weather, like all natural patterns, is variable – this makes it more difficult to detect change. Was Katrina just another cyclone? Are the poles just unseasonally warm? Is Al Gore right with his maps of drowned coastal cities? Is this just another drought? – or is it the start of a new system of weather? We don’t know yet – but if it is a change, then more than ever we need to review our value systems and find ways to protect ecosystems.
What then is the special role of the southern perspective? Well, in this half of the world there is more ocean, less land, fewer people, more stars. We have the milky-way and the southern cross. With this alternative view, with these special attributes, can we inspire a new perspective, can we give the earth a powerful voice through image, sound, words, and action?