Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Climate change: what role for the arts?


As promised, an edited version of my Climarte keynote lecture on art and climate change is now available with The Guardian. It stars jellyfish. You can read it here. A sample:
Mother’s Beach, Mornington. I’m eight years old – my son’s age now. This is the last day of my swimming safety course. I’m wearing jeans, boots, t-shirt and hoodie, but I’m still shivering. I jump from the pier into the green-grey froth to tread water for 10 minutes. I’m still fully clothed, but keeping afloat is not a problem. The problem is jellyfish: thousands of gelatinous morning-glories, bobbing about me. 
I grew up with jellyfish: they were part of my summers. I loved diving underneath their fronds and watching them flap and float, silhouetted by the sea’s silk mirror. But at Mother’s Beach, their intricate geometries lost their charm. Massed like that, they seemed malicious, not elegant. The sublime became horrific. 
This Lovecraftian vision of translucent tentacles keeps coming back to me, as I think about our planet’s future. Reviewing Lisa-ann Gershwin’s Stung! for the New York Review of Books, Tim Flannery reports that jellyfish may eventually have the run of the oceans.
Already the water’s warming, making it more comfortable for tropical jellyfish. 
Overfishing, as with anchovies, means the jellyfish have fewer predators. Fertilizer runoff depletes oxygen in the water – jellyfish, with their lower metabolisms, are fine. Carbon in the oceans is increasing acidification, which eats away at the shells of shellfish – jellyfish, with no shells, are seemingly not threatened.
(Illustration: 'Discomedusae', by Ernst Haeckel, from his Art Forms in Nature)

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