Watch our Debate on Trust and the Environment

When it comes to the climate, who can you trust?

As part of Free Word Centre’s Weather Stations programme, comedian Tiernan Douieb hosted a lively debate  about how trust affects our understanding of climate change and our willingness to act on it.

The debate featured visiting Weather Stations writer Tony Birch, Tamsin Cooper from Green Alliance, freelance journalist Claudia Delpero and young climate activist Esha Marwaha. With poetry from Orla Price.

Memories of an Island

Island

1. North Sentinel Island

In the film, there is an island. Since I saw it fifteen years ago, this faded colour documentary has haunted me. It was shot from a small boat, off the coast of the island. The occupants of the boat were there to record the behaviour of the island’s inhabitants. In the gaze of camera’s long lens, naked tribal men are frantically running along the beach. And our civilized modern documentary makers watch them from the sea – afraid to set foot on shore. When I think about these images, they remind me of the early anthropological films of Robert J. Flaherty or Jean Rouch. The violent dance of the islanders remains forever a symbol of innocence in my memory.

They are members of the Sentinelese People, and they lived on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean’s Andaman archipelago. With thousands of years of isolation from the world, their hostile attitude towards outsiders was famous. Stark, black, African-looking, lean with strong legs, they ran like leopards across grassland. You can tell this even from the blurred images shot from a distant camera on a boat. As well as the cameraman, there were three other men in the boat, including a thoughtful-looking Indian anthropologist. The trip was intended to be a ‘Contact Expedition’ with the tribe on the island. But it didn’t work out like that. In the documentary, you can see the tribal people growing more and more angry as the boat gets closer to the island. They raise their spears and scream at the approaching filmmakers. It looks as if they are going to launch their weapons at the invaders. The camera keeps filming these gesticulating natives. Occasionally, the islanders fire a shower of arrows at the boat people. The boat stays on the wavy, windy sea, in deep, treacherous water, which can’t easily be accessed by any swimming natives. The thoughtful-looking anthropologist says something to his colleague, then the colleague begins to shout incomprehensible language to the islanders, whilst, in a vain gesture of friendliness, he raises two coconuts and a few bananas. We modern audiences understand this sort of body language easily, but it doesn’t work for the Sentinelese people. They continue to jump in rage along the shore with their spears and bows pointing towards the boat.

The film has an old-fashioned BBC voiceover telling the story. It explains that, earlier in the day, the boat had got close enough to the beach for one of the crew to jump out with a live pig in his arms. He was able to tie the pig to a tree on the beach as fast as he could and then rush back to the boat. They then waited on board, scanning the jungle beyond for a reaction. At first, no one came, the pig from the civilized world being the sole creature in view. Then, gradually, a few dark bodies emerged from the tree shadows. They seemed to be frightened by the strangers on the sea and by the pig. Then more and more tribal men arrived, carrying spears and arrows. After producing some threatening body language, the men slaughtered the pig, but didn’t take it with them. They buried it instead. Then they left, disappearing whence they had come.

I’m not sure exactly when this documentary was made, but it was easily three or four decades ago. Probably in the 70s. The voiceover tells me that the Sentinelese were one of the last hunter-gather people on this planet. Because of their violent attitude towards outsiders, people have left the island alone. The last census undertaken by the Indian government in 2001 counted 39 people living on the island. But this number was arrived at from a distance, observing and counting roughly from a boat, or a helicopter. Some people were probably hiding in caves while this was being done. It was estimated there could be 200 people in total. It wasn’t known what kind of language they spoke. Their religion remained unknown too, and their ethnicity was also unclear. But anthropologists believed that they were the direct descendants of hunter-gatherer people out of Africa. They probably arrived on their island 50,000 years ago and continued their lifestyle until today. Well, not actually today – the last news about the island was in 2006, when the inhabitants killed two fishermen from India who ventured too close. And now it is believed the Sentinelese people have all died out. But still, the Indian government won’t allow any foreigners access to this place of violent mystery. So no verification of the extinction has occurred.

2. Island Mentality

Is there really an Island Mentality as opposed to a Mainland Mentality?

An island with life is a blessing of nature, but also a curse. To live on an island even teeming with life is to face limits of resources. Islanders either have to venture out into dangerous, unknown waters to find sustenance, or remain on land dealing with an essentially limited supply of nutrients. This is not the predicament of mainlanders. The mainland has no clear borders, and what borders there are can be crossed. In the old days, there were always pack animals with which to transport goods over mountains, and in modern times there are guns to force doors open. The Chinese had to build the Great Wall of China through centuries to defend themselves. Even so, man-made borders are always shattered in the end. The Mongols conquered China on horseback without even needing to cross the Great Wall. The Palestinians have managed to dig tunnels out of the Gaza strip to transport goods and human beings back and forth. In an ideal world, people should never try to live within borders, but rather learn to live with openness. Openness allows people to adapt and to change with all sorts of influences, even sometimes violent ones. The ceaseless transformations of maps is a demonstration of cultural overlap and integration, even though, in the course of this flux of conquest and settlement, some cultures are overridden by others.

The island of Britain, where I have made my home, is the largest island in Europe. More than 60 million people live on this rainy and windy landmass, vying for jobs, for opportunities, and for the so-called democracy and liberty that lots of Third-World immigrants came here for – at least in the first place. It is definitely the most crowded island in the western world, whether Scotland leaves it or not. Still, it is perhaps not the best place to search for examples of Island Mentality.

There are two reasons why at least parts of Britain have shaken off any Island Mentality. Britain has always been invaded, by the Romans, by the Vikings, by the Normans. Its culture has been mixed and its politics reshaped all the time through history. Secondly, Britain had an empire. The island of Britain expanded spectacularly beyond its shores to swallow a third of the world. Britain, by overcoming its Island Mentality, produced some of the best thinkers of our modern world.

Since coming to Britain, I have become fascinated by travellers and explorers who have left the confines of this island. People like Captain James Cook or Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was a perfect example of the romantic adventurer – he first journeyed out to America because of his lover. Then he was on a perpetual mission to find an ideal home to live in. Later in his life, he decided to reside on the island of Samoa in Polynesia, which for him was a perfect abode. He made a strong friendship with the islanders. And he died there. In his last years he wrote, ‘Sick and well, I have had a splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little … take it all over, damnation and all, would hardly change with any man of my time.’ I believe in the sincerity of his words, as far as it’s possible to believe a fabulist.

James Cook conquered islands, and was killed by islanders. Robert Louis Stevenson made peace with them. In the course of history, races have mixed, ethnicities have diversified. Still, humans are all Homo Sapiens. And to be Homo sapiens means to have an island mentality – we are unable to perceive what’s beyond our human life, let alone understand this Universe. As a species we have developed a narrow vision, an aggressive attitude towards other species. We think human goals on this planet are the first and foremost goals. As a result we have shaped our landscape as it is now, but at the cost of the extinction of many other species. We have overpopulated, heavily polluted this planet Earth. And of course we don’t give much of a damn for the next millennium since we can’t even be bothered to think beyond the life of our grandchildren. If we were to die out in the future, then our narrative in history would be like that of the Sentinelese people on their isolated little strip of jungle ringed by yellow sand. The people of the tribe disappear, and the island remains.

3. Coochiemudlo Island

Not long ago, I went to another island in the South Pacific Ocean. It is a much smaller island than North Sentinel Island, only 5 square kilometres in size. It is Coochiemudlo Island, just off the Queensland coast of Australia. Coochiemudlo is an aboriginal word meaning red earth. One can clearly see the deep red soil in which the gum tree bush is rooted. The sand on the beach is also brown red, even after being repeatedly washed by the sea. The soil is from an ancient volcano, which explains the lush vegetation on the island. But the mad sprawl of mangroves is the most impressive thing. Mangroves thrive where there is salt water and a tropical, or semi-tropical, climate. They shoot their roots deep in the sea water, then release salt on the surface of their leaves. A magical process! Unlike us! But it is said that the increase in growth of mangroves indicates climate change – seawater has been swallowing more land, and the temperature has been rising each year.

In any case, Coochiemudlo is nearly perfect as an island in a romantic sense. It is compact, blue and sunny during the day. And at night it has the most beautiful clean and clear starry sky. The houses are in typical Queensland style – timber construction, high-set, one or two storeys, with a rusty but rather charming veranda space. Each is attached to a little patch of land, and there are always one or two old gum trees standing in the front like guards protecting the house. I was told there are about 500 houses on the island, and 700 people living there. The average age is around 52, and of course most of the inhabitants are retired people. A ferry is the only public means to take the islanders back and forth to the mainland.

I went to Coochiemudlo to visit my friend and his family. They used to live in Brisbane and Sydney, but have now retired to the island. Life becomes much simpler with only two streets, one library and one shop. Wherever you walk you hear only hear the waves and the sound of birds hidden amongst the foliage of trees and shrubs.

The first time my island friends and I heard a bird on a gum tree chirping like a mobile phone, I burst out laughing. The mobile phone sound was so strange coming from high up in the sky. Anyone would be momentarily puzzled to hear such a noise whilst walking in a quiet tropical island. As we went further, another bird on a tree made another mobile phone ringtone. We stopped and stared at the bird as it cleverly imitated a piece of indispensable human technology. I felt sad and subdued that the pure tones of the birds, their pristine mating cries, had now been reprogrammed. There were three of us – I mean, three humans – each of us carrying a phone with a different ring tone. The birds were already picking up on these differences!

I stayed on the island for a few days, every morning walking on the beach and then in the afternoons creeping through the hidden tracks of the Wetland areas, where the mangroves dip their toes in the salty water. No supermarket, no cars, no urban scenes. One evening, those faded images filmed from a boat in the Indian Ocean returned to me. I remembered the Sentinelese people running like wild leopards along their beach. I missed them, as if I was one of them, as if I too belonged to that mysterious land. As I was taking the ferry, leaving Coochiemudlo for Victoria Point on the mainland, I looked back at the island I had stayed on, and wondered about its history, before the British arrived, before Captain James Cook’s boat ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. It is said that the English explorer Matthew Flinders was the first western man to set foot on this little island, at the end of eighteenth century, while he was searching for a river in the southern part of Moreton Bay. This was twenty years after James Cook ‘discovered’ the east coast of Australia. But before James Cook, before Matthew Flinders, obviously there had been the aboriginals living on that land for 60,000 years, at least.

I took a flight to Melbourne and prepared for my trip back to England. I was not looking forward to returning to London. What would be waiting for me there? Electricity bills or balance sheets from Thames Water? Probably another overdue council tax demand? And surely many more glossy posters and ads from Estate Agents. Property renting and buying, that’s the current passion in our urban world.

Before flying to London, in the airport, I read more about the Andaman archipelago and North Sentinel Island. I discovered that the anthropologist from India in the documentary was called T. N. Pandit. And finally I found a paragraph of writing by Dr Pandit himself about one of his last ‘Contact Expeditions’. After 20 years of trying, he and his team finally managed to make contact with the Sentinelese in the 90s. Well, at least they got to the shore of the island. He wrote:

‘After 20 years, the islanders voluntarily came forward to meet us – it was unbelievable. They must have come to a decision that the time had come. It could not have happened on the spur of the moment. But there was this feeling of sadness also – I did feel it. And there was the feeling that at a larger scale of human history, these people who were holding back, holding on, ultimately had to yield.’

Sadness, Dr T. N. Pandit. You mean this sadness was born from the islanders’ final surrender – which they manifested in the way in which they greeted the modern intruders on their beach? Sadness. What an acute and sorrowful description. But I still wonder, why were the Sentinelese people sad if they had never been to the outside world? They had never been able to compare the two worlds. Perhaps the face to face confrontation already convinced them of their disadvantage. Somehow, the tribe members knew that the intruders wanted something from them, and indeed, would change them for ever.

I read in Dr T. N. Pandit’s report that the last 200 inhabitants of North Sentinel Island had died. How had they gone, exactly? Too little food on the island? All the animals were killed by the tribe and became extinct? Sharks attacked them while they were fishing by the shore? Women died during labour, or from infections after child birth? A tsunami or an earthquake decimated the population? Perhaps all of this. Only the island knows what happened to its inhabitants. Yet on the sub-continent, on the mainland of India, the population has reached more than 1.2 billion. Everywhere you go, there are people. And people only. Children live in the streets without homes, people die in the streets without being cared for, but the economy is growing according to the government. The GDP is catching up proudly with China and the US. This is our very ordinary human story: the dying-out and the ever-expanding pattern, the two poles of this planet Earth. Whether we look back into history or forward to the future, we all aware that we humans have only one island to live upon and that is the island of our planet Earth. So, we must be careful.

Reflection On Interesting Times

What sort of narrative does Climate Change have?

In the time of the Renaissance, the great artists were often also the great scientists: like Leonardo Da Vinci, like Michelangelo. In the East, the great emperors in many cases were poets and artists. But in the last century, when capitalism came to dominance and swallowed other social forms, science and art began to separate from each other.

This phenomenon was more significant in Europe and the USA than it was in other parts of the world, and the competition in the industrialised system has now cornered our artists and scientists into narrow definitions of their profession. Thus writers and artists have become more and more self-indulgent, and scientists more and more dry and incomprehensible.

But now there seems to be a turning point. The subject of climate change is now beginning to bring science and art back together. ‘Weatherfronts’, the two-day conference organised by Tipping Point and held this June at London’s Free Word Centre brought together a hundred writers, poets, scientists and politicians in an intense discussion about culture and politics. A writer myself, I have never seen such a mingling of the literary and scientific worlds at any event.

Elsewhere in the UK, the Dark Mountain movement, based just outside of Oxford, has been making waves in intellectual communities. The group wrote a beautiful manifesto addressing the relationship between our inward-looking world of literature and the future of humanity in the context of our self-destructive consumer society. They quoted the words of 19th century American thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization’, which echoes strongly the problem in our age – the age of the Anthropocene*.

mangroves

According to a current study, the next generation of the UK’s population will live shorter lives than their parents, because of the combined effects of our food industry and the severe contamination of our food chains. The worst thing is that our current economic system presents itself as the solution to all our problems, and the politicians sell us the same idea, while the scientists have insisted that there is great uncertainty about our future – let alone the future beyond the human world. The echelons of power, wielding the ever-widening net of capitalism, aren’t interested in the scientific message. But our only future lies beyond the corporate world.

However, not everything is a reason for gloom. My recent trip to Australia, and especially to the Great Barrier Reef, is far more than a grey memory. When looking at the bleached and dying coral in the water in front of us, we writers all felt mournful, until a group of Sydney and Melbourne-based scientists told us that in ten years time the coral will have moved south. At some point, Sydney and Melbourne will have lots of coral growing along their shores. The scientists said: ‘Nature has a way of adjusting its eco systems in the course of history, and there are always many factors that can lead to utterly unpredictable outcomes.’ Well, I don’t take these words as a comfort, but rather, as a mysterious hint that forces us to open ourselves up: to think about the wide blue yonder beyond our trivial reality.

Here and now, I look around at our limited urban reality. Although surrounded by fast cars and traffic lights, there are still many tree lovers in these cities and towns, and I am one of them. I love the nature worshippers of the Amazon forests. I love the stories of Australian Aboriginals who sang their song lines and knew all the waterways of their lands. And I love a certain feminist who bought a patch of rainforest land in the South Hemisphere and planted hundreds of thousands of trees. If we can all love nature in a truthful way, or to use another phrase – love it intensely, I cannot see why our world will always be as messed up as it is now.

From Ego-story to Eco-story

lone stone in ocean

Regarding the relationship between Homo sapiens and Nature: Nature itself never needs its own autobiography, even though its history is written in rocks under the earth. Nature has no self-obsession. It is the human who is in love with its own history and measures the value of the world in terms of its own sense of importance. The self -‘I’ – cannot help placing itself at the centre of creation, just as each person seems to want to place themselves at the centre of life.

 

I should pay royalties to Julian Barnes, and I would happily do so since he is really the finest English writer still alive in Britain. In his Flaubert’s Parrot, he wrote: ‘I was reading Mauriac the other day: the Memoires Interieurs, written at the very end of his life. It’s the time when the final pellets of vanity accumulate into a cyst, when the self starts up its last pathetic murmur of ‘Remember me, remember me… ’; it’s the time when the autobiographies get written, the last boasts are made, and the memories which no one else’s brain still holds are written down with a false idea of value.’

 

Whenever I am asked this question by a journalist: ‘how would you like to be remembered?’

I would look at the journalist’s face, I am at loss, and totally wordless.

It’s not that I am dying or being toothlessly old, it is that I have never believed in this after-life in which we supposedly gain some immortality, where we live posthumously as the reward of this life and its struggles, and the great works we labored on. Only Jesus and Sartre believe in this sort of vanity. Even de Beauvoir didn’t believe in the posthumous reward, or the idea of the literary immortals. Well, if I have no answer to such a question, I would say I wish to be remembered as a nameless tree, a stone, a palm of sand, a drop of water. We never need or want to remember such things from the point of view of the human value system.

 

It’s our utter self-absorption and strange habit of belief, that reality revolves around us which makes us unable to see the longer term view.

We are unable to look reality in the face as it is, and see what we are doing. Inside, we already believe in our own story, in which human life is a meaningful, indispensable corner of the cosmos. This is our vanity: The very reason for creation at all is us: we are God’s companions. In that story,

Our real place is beyond this world. Isn’t heaven beyond the sky, and God is waiting up there for us? How strange that we still think like this! Science tells us this is false. But it seems that the essence of our mind has programmed us not to believe it. The self-aggrandizing autobiographical impulse tells us it is false. How strange that a creature born from nature should come to think it is so disconnected from nature.

 

From where does this alienation come? Maybe it is just a trick of evolution. If creatures have a self-deluding program in their minds about what they are, they are more likely to successfully reproduce and look after their young. But this success comes at a price: ecological destruction.

 

So, here is my poem, summing up:

 

The ego is the reason for ecocide.

Ego-death may give us eco-life.

Seeing ourselves as nature means

no longer clinging to the auto-biographical

and its implicit idea that we are immortal.

We are just nature.

Nature is built without purpose or meaning.

When your hand can feel the drops of water,

And see the drops as beautifully meaningless.

Then we shall see things as they are,

rock as rock, tree as tree, water as water.

 

Field trip in the City 3

london bridge shard

Views in front of the Shard.

Our field trip with children from the Islington Art and Media School starts in front of the London Bridge Shard. How strange, the Shard Glass building is owned by the state of Qatar. They should have bought the London Bridge too, at least to make a new usage. I thought I am living in the European Union. But in the end, all the monarchy countries are united.

Field Trip in the City 2

cctv

Five minutes away from the truly shinny Canary Wharf new financial center, the old council houses appeared. The ghost memory of old Lime House area. Brutal square brown buildings, one after another, with fences and CCTV cameras. The teacher asked the students to use ten adjectives to describe this area again. ‘Not too offensive, ’ he gently suggested, while the neighborhood grandma watching them from a fenced balcony. The children screamed: ‘shabby, slum, old, poor, dirty…’ Well, perhaps the kids were a little mean, from an adult point of view. It was not that bad, those council houses, if you know what I mean in England. But our working class kids certainly have their own value system. ‘The Dockland redevelopment fund should be put half here, shouldn’t they?’ The teacher suggested, and the kids agreed, impatiently.

Daintree Rainforest

daintree rainforestWalking on a track of this rainforest in Queensland, north Australia; touched by crowded ancient trees and vines and roots and birds. Struggle for sunlight, struggle for space. Hot wind on the face. Henri Rousseau’s sexy painting ‘Tiger in A Tropical Storm’. One of the most beautiful paintings in the world. All the same, but no more
tigers.  I felt home here – a question being asked each time when I do a talk in literature festivals.

A Romantic Island No Longer Exists

North Sentinel island, AndamanReally, as Keats claimed, romantic islands no longer exist? And they become the phantom islands, dead and empty with once lived souls drifting on the sand. Easter Island. Those enormous but emotionless faces. Even worse, some islands have never existed. Last winter, Geologists from the University of Sydney went for an expedition, looking for ‘Sandy Island’ in the Coral Sea according to the google map. But they discovered the pacific island that never was. There is nothing there, it’s only a blue dot printed on the supposed map. If an island can disappear, what about the human ego?