As the halt to global surface warming continues beyond 17 years, science museums around the Western world are revving up their efforts to frighten young visitors with visions of climate catastrophe. Indeed, as the “evidence” of a warming planet appears ever more feeble, efforts to promote the cause grow more concerted, not to mention strident. The museums are now coordinating their efforts while pursuing a shared policy of washing their apocalyptic story through multiple displays, including those dealing with history, anthropology, literature and the arts.
In this coordination, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in New York, and Australia’s National Museum, in Canberra, are taking leading roles. The institutions convened a joint conference in New York last October on more effective climate displays. It was called Collecting the Future: Museums, Communities & Climate Change.
Participants were all chummy once again at a similar conference in Sydney in February, Encountering the Anthropocene — the Anthropocene being “where it seems humanity may bring on its own demise”. Declaring a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, is a big call. The warming late last century lasted only 25 years, compared with the previous Holocene period’s 12,000 years.
The New York joint organisers were our National Museum’s environmental historian, Dr Libby Robin, her catastrophist colleague Dr Kirsten Wehner, the AMNH’s Dr Jenny Newell (who thinks Pacific islands are “in the line of fire from climate change events”) and AMNH’s Jacklyn Lacey (who imagines that Hurricane Katrina was climate-change related).[i]
My own visits to climate displays at world-leading science museums have found them error-ridden and bizarre. At the Smithsonian in Washington, I witnessed children being invited to play a computer game involving a nuclear war over resources. Michael Mann’s discredited ‘hockey stick’ temperature reconstruction may be a dead letter, even with the IPCC these days, but it’s alive and well in museum displays for students.
The Sydney Anthropocene conference was run by the Sydney University’s “Sydney Environment Institute”. An SEI offshoot called Australia-Pacific Observatory in Environmental Humanities helped fund the New York conference, and is itself funded by the New York-based Andrew Mellon Foundation.
Everyone seems to be rolling in both money and Sydney-New York contrails. (I counted at least seven academics attending both conferences). The Sydney University climate push scored $650,000 in grants in 2012-13 for two projects alone: “Rethinking climate justice” and how human societies “understand and adapt” to climate change that “has arrived, and will continue and expand”.
The tenor at both conferences was darkest green, with complaints about the allegedly pernicious effects of ‘economic progress’ and accompanying predictions of catastrophe unless green zero-carbon agendas are adopted forthwith.
Fiona Allon, from – you guessed it! – the University of Sydney gender and cultural studies department, opined:
“In The Order of Things, Foucault expresses his ‘profound relief’ that Man is only a recent invention and that he will disappear again as quickly as he appeared. Ironically, the concept of the Anthropocene confirms this sense of relief as both prescient and as somewhat optimistic.”
And try this speech title from Dr Libby Robin: The End of The Environment: Apocalypse, the Anthropocene and the Future.
“If we can say ‘the environment’ began in 1948, the advent of the Anthropocene in 2000 marks its end… No longer can we afford to limit our thinking to ̳’probable‘ futures: they are too grim. Finding possibilities for living with the Great Acceleration is the greatest human problem of our time. The Anthropocene offers a metaphor to stimulate the imagination.”
Indeed, the imagination is stimulated to the extent that a recent polar vortex in the US, and the previous Australian hot summer, were deemed in Sydney to be facets of human causation. Sydney participants competed for the catastropharian crown. A good contender was research associate Ben Dibley (UWS), who spoke of the Anthropocene as showing “the relative insignificance of human life, and thus of the interval in which it appeared and, most likely, will disappear.”
The New York conference was an irony-free zone. Speakers even trotted out the “striking images” of distressed polar bears on crumbling ice floes (bear populations in fact are doing fine, Al Gore notwithstanding). Arctic sea ice minima in 2007 and 2012 were paraded with no reference to the rebound in 2013 (let alone the current record extent of Antarctic sea ice and rising sea ice in total).
The arrival of artists into the climate-change hullaballoo enabled participants to enjoy fictional fantasies even more free from the discomfit of considering empirical facts about climate than their academic conference confreres. One of the three themes at the Sydney conference was
“The roles that artists and writers play in the interpretation and popularization of scientific ideas and themes in the broader cultural landscape.”
Perched on the roof of his small house, armed only with a typewriter and a rare imagination, a dog attempts to adapt after a [“Sandy-like”] hurricane that left him stranded and floating far away from home. Inspired by [Peanuts cartoonist] Charles Shultz’s iconic beagle, incorporating leading climate science [yeah, right!] and featuring live music and unique physicality, Don’t Be Sad, Flying Ace! is a multi-disciplinary tour-de-force arousing hope for a changing world.
To cultivated minds, the three-minute Youtube précis below (42 views) seems interminable, but the full thing goes on, alas, for 45 minutes.
Another example of catastrophists co-opting artists was the Sydney talk by Professor Kate Rigby (Environmental Humanities, Monash University) on a book for children 8+ years, the late Colin Thiele’s “February Dragon” (1985). Rigby says the kids’ story “affords consideration of the educational potential of narratives of eco-catastrophe for young readers.” But hey, Kate, what about the under-eight kids! Surely they’d also benefit from a dose of eco-catastrophism?
A celebrated artist, Mandy Martin, titled her talk Vivitur Ex Rapto (Man lives off greed), referencing her paintings series
“about the rapacious wave of mining sweeping across Australia and the changing climate chasing it. It is time to draw a line in the dirt … as we face the sublime state of extinction (we) must look for ways to stop rising carbon emissions and wholesale destruction of environments now.”
One can even feel sorry for some arty presenters. Joshua Wodak, an inter-disciplinary artist exploring climate change, told the Sydney audience:
“Models of climate change trajectories show the shape of things to come for the biosphere and its inhabitants this century. Scientific organisations worldwide overwhelmingly maintain that the window to avoid runaway catastrophic climate change is closing fast: being one decade…at most.”
Nice try, but the IPCC acknowledged this year that 111 of its 114 models are running too hot.
An example of how remote Australian curators have become from mainstream Australians was the New York conference talk by Dr George Main, an environmental historian whose specialty is “people and the environment” at our National Museum.
Most Australians are proud of the stump-jump plough, invented in South Australia in 1876, but Main pans it for ‘erasure of indigenous biological communities’, ‘devastating changes in land and climate [huh?]’, and ‘the release of immense [huh?] volumes of carbon into the atmosphere’. Main reinterprets the plough’s history “to reveal and undermine cultural foundations of climatic and ecological disorder.”
It is worth recalling that the Canberra museum’s designers slyly inserted the coded words “Forgive us our genocide”, and “Sorry” in braille on the museum facade, as intended mockery of then Prime Minister Howard, who officially opened the museum in 2001 and had declined to apologise to Aborigines for the British takeover of Australia in 1788. Maybe ‘forgive us our stump-jump ploughs’ should be added to the facade, also in braille.
At both conferences, speakers were big on new concepts of “justice” – particularly “environmental justice” — in line with the UN’s push for unlimited climate ‘compensation’ from ( as a wag put it) the poor in the First-World to the rich in the Third-World. New York keynote speaker Rob Nixon banged on about ‘widening inequalities’ in the so-called Anthropocene, as if humanity’s climb from poverty in the past half-century (think China and India) is a myth.[ii]
Another theme at these museum conferences is about the imminent drowning of coral-island communities like Tuvalu and the Maldives. It is tiresome that Quadrant needs to point out yet again to expert museum curators that these islands are not being swallowed by rising seas, and that any salt-water contamination is due to over-population and environment mismanagement. This is true no matter how many Maldives scuba-tank cabinet meetings are arranged as picture-opportunities for the gullible world media.
In the two conferences, only one presenter, Raluca Ellis, from the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, was off-message. Her biography reads, “Raluca is very passionate about sharing the fun and wonderful side of science with the public, engaging in lifelong learning, and encouraging young kids, especially girls, to pursue science.” Assuming, we hope, that the Anthropocene doesn’t do the girls in first.
MUSEUM NEWS UPDATE: Climate change is maybe not Uganda’s most pressing problem. But the British Government decided in 2009 that a new and permanent climate change exhibition would be great for the Uganda Museum in Kampala.
The display shows that if Uganda’s climate gets 2degC hotter, lots of bad things will happen to the people and the country. Moreover, the display fibs that climate change’s impacts have already hurt the country, as in floods and droughts, which never occurred previously (sarc).
So the exhibition urges Ugandans to do more bike-riding, and even switch to mini-cars and ‘buses’ powered by human pedaling to save CO2 emissions. So much for progress.
Uganda Radio Network did a report on the exhibition and said that although admission was free, “Ugandans are not giving it a second thought”. The radio noted that in two hours, only two Ugandans went in, one of them a professor. This contrasted with the earlier rush of ministers, MPs and flunkeys to the exhibition opening, sponsored by the British High Commission and doubtless including wine and cheese.
On the same day, the radio station aired another report about the ‘filthy’ police mortuary at Hoima, 200km to the north-west. A horrible stench from murder and accident victims was escaping, along with swarms of flies, through the big holes in the mortuary roof. In such a Ugandan milieu, forecasts of climate doom in future decades don’t get much traction.
Tony Thomas blogs at tthomas061.wordpress.com
[i] The conference was back-ended by a soiree at the Ocean Grill, Columbus Avenue, “ to explore, over a glass of wine, how museums are shifting their agendas, roles and practices to respond to the global challenge of climate change.”