Climate change is an urgent issue, and interdisciplinary approaches are the need of the hour. There is a growing awareness of and interest in the same in the humanities, especially at The University of Edinburgh.

An image from the event.

For example, the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network recognises the environmental crisis as one that is best understood as driven by the intersecting ‘political, economic, philosophical, ethical, relational, and spiritual crises’, and focuses on providing a humanities-led response to these crises.

In the spirit of this very humanities-led response to the climate crisis, in May, the ECCI hosted the ‘Green Tease: Reimagining climate resilience through ecopoetics’ event – a collaboration between The University of Edinburgh, Creative Carbon Scotland, and the Scottish Communities Climate Action Network & Transition (SCCAN).

The event began with Dr Martin Schauss, Early Career Research and Teaching Fellow at the Department of English, School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures, introducing his current research project, where he looks at how ecopoetic storytelling combines different media, establishing a connection to parse through pressing issues like environmental justice, climate activism, and decolonisation. For him, ecopoetics is fundamentally about “making meaningful connections and reaching communities”.

Dr Schauss then introduced the stellar speakers of the day – Alec Finlay, Yulia Kovanova, Patrick James Errington, and Jessica Gaitan Johannesson. The poet and artist Alec Finlay spoke about energy landscapes, rewilding, and his work with the metaphors of energy flow and healing. Drawing attention to the off-grid communities in the Orkney Islands, Finlay’s talk threaded together studies on the stochastic complexity of the wind, the Costa Hill turbine, hydroscopes, and the cultural significance and implications of quern stones, to reframe the narrative around renewable energy and our perception of it. Finlay pointed out how much of the public good from renewables is eventually wasted due to privatisation and, using the example of the quern stones, showed how local communities are withheld from using their own technologies. “Renewables remind us of what the natural [sources] of energy are, and who is [and isn’t] allowed to own and use energy”, said Finlay.

Up next was a presentation by Yulia Kovanova, a Scotland-based artist and BAFTA Scotland-nominated filmmaker and Patrick James Errington, a multi-award-winning poet, translator, and researcher. Their presentation was centred around their mixed collaborations highlighting ecological precarity, resilience, and multispecies relationships. Kovanova spoke of her interest in the ecology of colour and observed that colour could not be expressed in isolation; all colours intermingle and influence each other. Their project explored the dynamics of ecological entanglement, the web and reach of interdependencies in the environment, and how certain species have co-developed alongside others. Through a series of installations, the project explored the co-evolutions of the swallow-tailed hummingbird and flowers, avocados and the Great Giant Sloth, mango and the Stegomastodon – tracing the journey of the fruit as it goes through the various stages of ripening without its partner to pick it up; the purple cornflower and the rusty patched bumblebee, among others. Of the rationale behind the project, Kovanova said that it was about “looking together, working together, and responding with artwork, rather than responding to it”. Patrick James Errington then performed four poems as accompaniments to the artwork, reinforcing the intermediality of the project.

In ‘And Then What? Environmental Storytelling and Changemaking’ Jessica Gaitan Johannesson asked us to consider the questions of how storytelling and activism can nurture one another and how writing changes the world. The talk touched upon climate storytelling’s penchant for dystopia and how by shifting the focus to the future and delaying accountability, such stories achieve catharsis but at the cost of setting the stage for disavowal. Johannesson urged us to contend with pertinent questions, such as: How are books made?; How is art made?; What kind of stories do we need?; What does storytelling mean and entail when removed from the confines of the industry?; How is our response to environmental crises shaped by where we are in the world? Johannesson also said that “stories of inspiration must not inspire fear” and advocated for a changed approach, aptly ending the talk with yet another question on actionable stories.

After a brief and enlivening discussion between the speakers and the audience, Kaska Hempel and Lesley Anne Rose, story weavers at SCCAN, spoke of the uniqueness of locative storytelling and place-based sound walks. In their address, they drew on the ability of a place to endow individuals with a sense of belonging and therefore chisel identities. Undergirding the importance of place in climate storytelling, they further spoke of people’s belief in community. They then invited the audience to participate in a place-based sound walk using the Walksy app, actively encouraging the re-mapping of familiar places, documenting the present, and rekindling our relationships with place.

As a perfect bookend to the event, Lighthouse Bookshop’s stall had an eclectic display of books that engage variously with the themes of ecopoetics, environmental storytelling, and beyond. The event served as a potent reminder of how, when it comes to finding solutions to climate change, it is essential to involve all the disciplines in the movement – after all, climate change is an everyday, everybody problem that requires our utmost attention, and there is no limit to the changes that a dialogue with the arts and culture can achieve.

Useful links

Creative Carbon Scotland

Scottish Communities Climate Action Network & Transition (SCCAN)

Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network