Tomás Saraceno: Beneath an ocean of air

Visiting Tomás Saraceno’s Berlin studio for New Scientist, 13 October 2018

THE Argentine-born artist Tomás Saraceno maintains a studio in Berlin – if you can call a disused chemicals factory a studio. There is nothing small about this operation. Saraceno, who trained as an architect in Buenos Aires, now employs hundreds of people, with specialisms ranging from art history and architecture to biology and anthropology. If you’re serious about saving the world, you need this kind of cross-disciplinary team, I suppose.

Though Saraceno hasn’t exactly promised to save the world, he has been dropping some big hints. His utopian installations include Cloud Cities at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, in 2011 – a collection of geometric, inflated shapes. Even by the time of his Observatory/Air-Port-City show at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2008, these shapes contained autonomous residential units. A network of habitable cells floated in the air, combining and recombining like clouds.

A year later at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, gallery-goers got to explore these spaces via 16 interconnected modules made up of glass segments held in place by steel cables. And in June 2013, the K21 gallery in Düsseldorf invited visitors to wander more than 25 metres above the gallery’s piazza across a web dotted with inflated PVC spheres.

This is Saraceno’s answer to our global problems: he wants us to take to the air. That’s why he coined the term “Aerocene” for one of his projects. He wants people to think of climate change in terms of possibility, playfulness and, yes, escape. “We live beneath an ocean of air,” he once wrote, as he sketched his utopian vision of a city in the clouds. “But we’ve yet to find a way to inhabit it.”

Near his Berlin studio is a scruffy public park. Part of it is marked out for football. Behind one goal stands a graffitied stretch of the Berlin Wall. Today there’s another attraction: two men are running back and forth, trying to fill a black bag as big as a minivan with air. It is a fine, windless day; the air in the bag heats up quickly, and once it is sealed, the container rises into the sky. A bag no longer, it is clearly recognisable as one of Saraceno’s signature tetrahedral solar balloons.

These black balloons have been plying the skies since 2007. They are mascots of the artist’s multi-stranded effort to combine engineering, architecture and the natural sciences to create a new, democratic kind of environmental art, made of bubbles and aerial platforms and webs. An art that mitigates climate change, he says, and makes the sky habitable, by establishing a modular, transnational settlement in the skies through solar balloons that require no fuel at all. An art that ushers in utopia.

Could it be that this chap is just playing about with balloons? Trying to calculate Saraceno’s level of seriousness is half the fun. Over lunch, for instance, he tells me that he wants to return us “to a sort of Mayan sensitivity towards celestial mechanics”.

But some of his efforts are admirably practical. The balloon I’d just seen being demonstrated was an Aerocene Explorer: it comes in a backpack complete with instructions on how to create and fly lightweight sensors. Any data collected can be uploaded and shared with Aerocene’s online community, via a website where participants from all over the world are sharing their experiments and innovations.

Practicalities aside, much of Saraceno’s work is simply beautiful. For a show opening at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris on 17 October, the team is busy building playful orreries, mechanical models of the solar system that combine planetary orbits with the physics of soap bubbles and webs spun by his pet Cyrtophora citricola spiders.

These unbelievably delicate confections will be on show with some mirrored umbrellas that also double as solar cookers. When arranged in concentric circles, Saraceno imagines that in the manner of a solar thermal power plant, the umbrellas might even concentrate enough heat to inflate a large balloon. He hopes to try out the idea when Audemars Piguet – a Swiss watch manufacturer that has recent form in backing innovative science-inflected art – takes parts of his sprawling Aerocene endeavour to Miami this December for the Art Basel fair.

Meanwhile, there are myriad things to organise for Paris: workshops, concerts, public symposiums uniting scientific institutions, researchers, activists, local communities, musicians and philosophers. As he says: “People aren’t very interested in simple ideas. You have to give things a little bit of complication to get the audience to engage.”

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He found this out the moment he started using solar balloons. The balloons, which work by simply zipping up some air in a heat-absorbing bag, have been around since the 1970s. His own projects have demonstrated their usefulness in meteorology, pollution monitoring, even passenger transport. In 2015, he flew in a tethered solar balloon over the dunes of White Sands in New Mexico, where the US launched its first rockets and where the world’s first tourist spaceport is located. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology got in on the act, and created technology so that you can use the Aerocene.org website to plan a meteorologically feasible journey, by balloon, from Point A to Point B, anywhere on Earth.

“Rats saved at the point of giving up fought for life 240 times longer when returned to danger”

Here’s the paradox. Saraceno’s work has always been playful, and part of the game, he explains, has been “trying to sell this work as some sort of global solution to something”. But while his visions of an airborne utopia remain as remote as ever, his Aerocene project has spawned a foundation that uses lightweight balloons for climate activism and pollution monitoring. And even the absurd spectacle of someone jetting from country to country to fly fuel-less balloons has become part of the art, as Saraceno’s studio begins to record his own carbon footprint.

Saraceno makes an important point about how we address climate change in our lives. The trick, he says, is not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Escapism is fine. He has no time for the way so many artists and pundits are ringing humanity’s death knell. He has a special contempt for the lazy way the word Anthropocene crops up now in every climate conversation, as if, with the advent of this putative new era, our doom was sealed. “What a great way for a small number of people to disempower and demotivate us,” he says.

Given the seriousness of our environmental bind, isn’t escapism a bit irresponsible? Saraceno points me to a 1957 paper by psychobiologist Curt Richter. His gruesome experiments left rats to drown in water-filled containers from which they could not escape. But if he briefly rescued rats at the point they gave up swimming, and then returned them to the water, those rats continued to fight for life 240 times longer. Richter concluded that they had learned that there was hope. Faced with challenges on a planetary scale, we are scrambling for our lives, and can see no way out. “We need the energy those rats got when they saw some small hope,” says Saraceno.

I hadn’t expected our conversation to take this dark turn, but creating such small glimmers of hope is his business. If he is a joker, then he is one in the best sense of the word.

Should we take Saraceno’s work seriously? I was doubtful, but now I think, why look a gift horse in the mouth? He enthuses people. He gets us thinking. And he is right: a little hope goes a long way.

Unseen, Amsterdam: Blanket coverage

When Records Melt at Unseen Amsterdam, discussed in New Scientist, 20 September 2018

Visit the Rhône Glacier in southern Switzerland, and you are more than likely to wander past a small shop. It’s worth a visit: the owners have carved out an ice grotto, and charge tourists for the eerie and beautiful experience of exploring the inside of their glacier’s mass of blue ice.

Now, though, it’s melting. The grotto is such an important part of their livelihood, some years ago the owners invested 100,000 euros in a special thermal blanket. “It’s kept about 25 metres’ depth of ice from disappearing and has kept the grotto in business,” explains the photographer Simon Norfolk. But a few winters on the mountain have left the blanket in tatters.

“It’s the gesture that fascinates me,” says Norfolk. “There is something insane about trying to reverse the inevitable – a gesture as forlorn and doomed as the glacier itself.”

Norfolk and fellow photographer Klaus Thymann climbed up to the grotto just before dawn, armed with a light attached to a helium balloon that cast a sepulchral light over the scene. “I wanted to recreate the same light you get over a mortuary slab,” Norfolk says.

Emilia van Lynden, artistic director of Unseen Amsterdam, finds the effect as aesthetically chilling as it is beautiful. Of the whole series, called Shroud, she observes: “We’re seeing a glacier being wrapped and prepared for death.”

“There’s next to no photo-journalism here,” van Lynden explains. “None of the images here expect you to take them at face value. They expect you to pay attention and figure things out for yourself. These are works into which you need to invest a little bit of time and effort, to see what the artist is trying to tell you.”

On the face of it, then, the presence at Unseen of Project Pressure, Norfolk and Thymann’s campaigning environmental charity, seems odd. The whole point of the outfit, which has collaborated with the likes of NASA and the World Glacier Monitoring Service, is not just to get us to think about climate change, but to do something positive about it.

But art photography, Norfolk and Thymann believe, is a more effective communication tool than straightforward photo-journalism.

Their point is eloquently made by this 24 hour time-lapse video, created with a thermal imaging camera. By revealing the heat-properties of the scene, Norfolk and Thymann underline the different temperatures in the ice-body versus the surrounding landscape – a key indicator of climate change.

“I believe artists often make the best social and environmental investigators,” says van Lynden. “The trouble with ‘straight’ photography is it looks for stunning subjects and leaves you, well, stunned by them. Glaciers are magnificent in their natural form even as they’re melting away.”

The series exhibited in Project Pressure’s show When Records Melt take a different approach.

Among van Lynden’s favourite works are photographs by Christopher Parsons, who is better known for photographic portraits of explorers and sports personalities. Parsons won Project Pressure’s open call, and was invited on an expedition to the Himalayas. He collaborated with scientists studying alterations in the microbial life around retreating glaciers, and his photographs, while full of dread, are also accurate records of how changing weather patterns are altering the course of life in these fragile environments.

Lhotse at sundown, Nepal

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin also take an apparently left-field approach to glacier retreat that nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch. “Their work is literally a huge photograph of a bone that was found within the Rhône glacier,” says van Lynden. “They’re looking at the glacier as a living archive that now is slowly unravelling. All this information, all this stored data, which has been locked in the ice for however many thousands of years, is being lost.”

She is in no doubt that Project Pressure’s message is clear. If you’re not convinced by one series of photographs, says van Lynden, “then you have six other projects that showcase, each in its individual manner, the irreparable damage we have done to our planet.”

Just how much does the world follow laws?

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How the Zebra Got its Stripes and Other Darwinian Just So Stories by Léo Grasset
The Serengeti Rules: The quest to discover how life works and why it matters by Sean B. Carroll
Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia by Loren Graham
The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
reviewed for New Scientist, 15 October 2016

JUST how much does the world follow laws? The human mind, it seems, may not be the ideal toolkit with which to craft an answer. To understand the world at all, we have to predict likely events and so we have a lot invested in spotting rules, even when they are not really there.

Such demands have also shaped more specialised parts of culture. The history of the sciences is one of constant struggle between the accumulation of observations and their abstraction into natural laws. The temptation (especially for physicists) is to assume these laws are real: a bedrock underpinning the messy, observable world. Life scientists, on the other hand, can afford no such assumption. Their field is constantly on the move, a plaything of time and historical contingency. If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it.

Consider, for example, the charming “just so” stories in French biologist and YouTuber Léo Grasset’s book of short essays, How the Zebra Got its Stripes. Now and again Grasset finds order and coherence in the natural world. His cost-benefit analysis of how animal communities make decisions, contrasting “autocracy” and “democracy”, is a fine example of lawfulness in action.

But Grasset is also sharply aware of those points where the cause-and-effect logic of scientific description cannot show the whole picture. There are, for instance, four really good ways of explaining how the zebra got its stripes, and those stripes arose probably for all those reasons, along with a couple of dozen others whose mechanisms are lost to evolutionary history.

And Grasset has even more fun describing the occasions when, frankly, nature goes nuts. Take the female hyena, for example, which has to give birth through a “pseudo-penis”. As a result, 15 per cent of mothers die after their first labour and 60 per cent of cubs die at birth. If this were a “just so” story, it would be a decidedly off-colour one.

The tussle between observation and abstraction in biology has a fascinating, fraught and sometimes violent history. In Europe at the birth of the 20th century, biology was still a descriptive science. Life presented, German molecular biologist Gunther Stent observed, “a near infinitude of particulars which have to be sorted out case by case”. Purely descriptive approaches had exhausted their usefulness and new, experimental approaches were developed: genetics, cytology, protozoology, hydrobiology, endocrinology, experimental embryology – even animal psychology. And with the elucidation of underlying biological process came the illusion of control.

In 1917, even as Vladimir Lenin was preparing to seize power in Russia, the botanist Nikolai Vavilov was lecturing to his class at the Saratov Agricultural Institute, outlining the task before them as “the planned and rational utilisation of the plant resources of the terrestrial globe”.

Predicting that the young science of genetics would give the next generation the ability “to sculpt organic forms at will”, Vavilov asserted that “biological synthesis is becoming as much a reality as chemical”.

The consequences of this kind of boosterism are laid bare in Lysenko’s Ghost by the veteran historian of Soviet science Loren Graham. He reminds us what happened when the tentatively defined scientific “laws” of plant physiology were wielded as policy instruments by a desperate and resource-strapped government.

Within the Soviet Union, dogmatic views on agrobiology led to disastrous agricultural reforms, and no amount of modern, politically motivated revisionism (the especial target of Graham’s book) can make those efforts seem more rational, or their aftermath less catastrophic.

In modern times, thankfully, a naive belief in nature’s lawfulness, reflected in lazy and increasingly outmoded expressions such as “the balance of nature”, is giving way to a more nuanced, self-aware, even tragic view of the living world. The Serengeti Rules, Sean B. Carroll’s otherwise triumphant account of how physiology and ecology turned out to share some of the same mathematics, does not shy away from the fact that the “rules” he talks about are really just arguments from analogy.

“If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it”
Some notable conservation triumphs have led from the discovery that “just as there are molecular rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place”.

For example, in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, in 2000, there were fewer than 1000 elephants, hippos, wildebeest, waterbuck, zebras, eland, buffalo, hartebeest and sable antelopes combined. Today, with the reintroduction of key predators, there are almost 40,000 animals, including 535 elephants and 436 hippos. And several of the populations are increasing by more than 20 per cent a year.

But Carroll is understandably flummoxed when it comes to explaining how those rules might apply to us. “How can we possibly hope that 7 billion people, in more than 190 countries, rich and poor, with so many different political and religious beliefs, might begin to act in ways for the long-term good of everyone?” he asks. How indeed: humans’ capacity for cultural transmission renders every Serengeti rule moot, along with the Serengeti itself – and a “law of nature” that does not include its dominant species is not really a law at all.

Of course, it is not just the sciences that have laws: the humanities and the arts do too. In The Great Derangement, a book that began as four lectures presented at the University of Chicago last year, the novelist Amitav Ghosh considers the laws of his own practice. The vast majority of novels, he explains, are realistic. In other words, the novel arose to reflect the kind of regularised life that gave you time to read novels – a regularity achieved through the availability of reliable, cheap energy: first, coal and steam, and later, oil.

No wonder, then, that “in the literary imagination climate change was somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel”. Ghosh is keenly aware of and impressively well informed about climate change: in 1978, he was nearly killed in an unprecedentedly ferocious tornado that ripped through northern Delhi, leaving 30 dead and 700 injured. Yet he has never been able to work this story into his “realist” fiction. His hands are tied: he is trapped in “the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the Earth”.

The exciting and frightening thing about Ghosh’s argument is how he traces the novel’s narrow compass back to popular and influential scientific ideas – ideas that championed uniform and gradual processes over cataclysms and catastrophes.

One big complaint about science – that it kills wonder – is the same criticism Ghosh levels at the novel: that it bequeaths us “a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”. Lawfulness in biology is rather like realism in fiction: it is a convention so useful that we forget that it is a convention.

But, if anthropogenic climate change and the gathering sixth mass extinction event have taught us anything, it is that the world is wilder than the laws we are used to would predict. Indeed, if the world really were in a novel – or even in a book of popular science – no one would believe it.

Recalling the Paris climate talks

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Taking a look at the artwork around COP21, the Paris climate talks, for New Scientist, 11 December 2015.

In the failing winter light, in full view of Paris’s Cité des Sciences et de L’Industrie, the dead are rising from the Canal de l’Ourcq. Municipal bicycles; shopping trolleys; a filing cabinet. Volunteers have hauled up these unedifying objects and the artist has mounted them just above the water’s surface.

The point, probably, is that in our ever more crowded, ever more connected world, there is no longer any “away” in which to throw anything; we must live with our waste, as surely as we must live with our past. Something like that. In any event Breaking the Surface by Michael Pinsky is, well, recycled: it has been done before (indeed, dates back to the work of artist Marcel Duchamp around 1913-15), and it makes a point that is an unwinning combination of the necessary and the overdone, like a parent always telling you to eat your greens.

I came to Paris to cover what was billed as an unprecedented cultural ferment around COP21, the UN conference on climate change. I expected more than a few mud-encrusted chairs and bikes.

But as the hours went by, and the days, and the kilometres, two painful truths become evident. First, there will be no ferment. The most exciting public events have been cancelled, scaled back, or hurriedly relocated. The recent terror attacks on Paris have seen to that, and the subsequent city-wide ban on demonstrations, not to mention the controversial decision to place local climate activists under house arrest.

Even more painful is the realisation that our current cultural responses to the wicked problem of climate change look as narrow, as blinkered, and as hard to communicate as the scientific ones. Climate change is no longer a purely scientific problem: it is a political and social truth we must handle as best we can. And we aren’t handling it. We can’t handle it. We haven’t got a clue.

So why is there so little in the cultural bank? On the face of it, art and culture have enough of the right kind of lenses to focus on the wicked problem’s wickedness and to prompt new thoughts, forge new understandings and settlements – maybe even spur new actions.

However, in the absence of any fresh currency, the organisers of ArtCOP21 – the cultural programme surrounding the talks, and running on well after any deal is brokered – had a duty to see what could be done with art-culture’s existing toolkit.

Take visualisation, making the invisible visible. Like Breaking the Surface, this is a very old game. But in the right hands it can work well, and arguably, one of the best pieces in Paris is EXIT at the Palais de Tokyo, a full and quite scary updating of an immersive video installation first shown in 2008.

In a dark room, an Earth 2 metres across moves remorselessly around a 360-degree screen. A sound like the chattering of millions accompanies six animated maps as they move round the screen, with their all too respectable data showing how the connection between humans and their environment has fallen off a cliff over the past seven years.

The titles speak volumes: Population Shifts: Cities; Remittances: Sending Money Home; Political Refugees and Forced Migration; Natural Catastrophes; Rising Seas, Sinking Cities; Speechless and Deforestation.

The pixels making up each map represent human experiences, some dots standing in for thousands of people on the move: does attachment to a place now have more to do with moving across it than living on it?

The man who inspired the work, philosopher Paul Virilio, captured its spirit in a separate film: “It’s almost as though the sky, and the clouds in it and the pollution of it, were making their entry into history.”

EXIT is a chilling but effective call to action by design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, along with Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan, Ben Rubin and a host of others, exposing connections that would otherwise have been missed.

At the other end of the empathy spectrum is the deceptive work of Janet Laurence and Tania Kovats. On the face of things, both artists appear to be concerned more with aesthetic values rather than social and political ones. But in fact their exquisite, precise work is all about raw, tranformative emotion, the stuff that generates change without knowing how it does so.

Laurence’s Deep Breathing (Resuscitation for the Reef) at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle looks glacial and cool, with glass containers showing pieces of broken coral, shells and the skeletons of marine animals.

But the glass is meant to represent a resuscitation unit for the Great Barrier Reef, full of bleached-out dead and dying creatures – including some units that suggest babies in intensive care.

For environmental artist Laurence, the reef is not a tourist object but all about fragility: it invokes our need to heal it, to pity it, to love it. Emotion. What a great gig!

And for Tania Kovats, too. Evaporation is one of ArtCOP21’s highlighted works outside Paris: it premiered during the Manchester Science Festival in October and will show until March next year at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

As the recipient of a Lovelock Art Commission, which invites an artist to take inspiration from the work of independent scientist James Lovelock, her emotion is for water, for the planet’s seas as barometer of planetary health, for Gaia theory.

Kovats’s installation comprises three large, shallow, metal bowls made from the shapes of the world’s three major oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. A solution of salt and blue ink placed in each bowl gradually evaporates during the show, leaving crusts of salt crystals in concentric rings.

It is never the same again. It bears witness to the metaphorical movement of oceans, unlike the poem Dear Matafele Peinem, which is forced to bear witness to the real movement of water.

Waves of the future

Marshall Islander Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner first performed her poem at the 2014 UN climate meeting in New York. And she read it again – to a flash mob during a “cultural takeover” of London’s St Pancras International Station the day the conference opened.

The promises to her Buddha-fat baby that her generation would not let the waves of the future literally roll over the Marshall Islands should have been embarrassing:

And they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us
because we deserve to do more than just
survive
we deserve
to thrive…
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace
because we won’t let you down
you’ll see.

but they are more than that, they are terrible. Because no one can make such promises.

You can dream up perfectly legitimate ways to fix the world. Indeed, you jolly well should. The now pudgy little toddler Matafele won’t thank us for not trying. Ultimately, while scientists measure problems, and technologists can build tools to deal with them, what we do and when and how is a political issue. It is up to us.

Alternatiba, the global village of alternatives, was one of those grass-roots, left-leaning outings that are very easy to satirise (there were a lot of polar bear suits about, a lot of singing) but not, ultimately, so very easy to dismiss.

“Change the system, not the climate”, was the festival’s motto, the point being that our entire global civilisation is built on fossil fuels, and we’re unlikely to be able to wean ourselves off them without asking a lot of hard questions about our society.

The problem for Alterniba was that it brought together a whole set of perfectly reasonable local practices, from organic gardening to straw-bale house construction, and – in a paroxysm of magical thinking – posited them as global solutions.

“Think global, act local” is one of those phrases whose euphony masks its fatuity. No local solution is globally applicable. The trick is surely for everyone to act local and think local: not to tilt at “the system” willy-nilly, but – in the teeth of serious political and legislative opposition – to operate outside it.

Outside or inside the system, is it worthwhile to simply play with climate change? Tomás Saraceno thinks so. An artist obsessed with weightlessness, the sky and the possibilities offered by floating utopias, Saraceno is spearheading a global effort to resettle humanity in the atmosphere inside habitable solar balloons. Or something.

Uncertainties around the scale of project, its aims and the degree of seriousness we should assign to it, are part of Saraceno’s game. He is an artist, after all: questions and speculations are his stock in trade. In launching a handful of balloons made out of plastic bags, Saraceno raises some very good questions: about who owns what in the environment; where our individual physical freedom comes from, and who grants it; about risk, and responsibility, and civics, and community.

His Aerocene movement achieves what Alterniba cannot: it extricates itself from the global agenda set by global agencies and pursues (or at any rate dreams up) a blank canvas – the air itself! – for its tiny, winning experiments in featherweight living. Revolutions have sprung from less.

And in a world that has very little space and patience for revolutions, Saraceno’s chutzpah – and in the proper sense of the word, his naiveté – are much to be commended.

A breath of fresh air

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The Planet Remade: How geoengineering could change the world by Oliver Morton
reviewed for New Scientist, 9 December 2015.

 

WHO’S afraid of big engineering? Apparently, there exists a global network of activists convinced that aircraft vapour trails are substances sprayed into the air as part of a government programme for – take your pick – mind control, sterilisation or climate management.

All those in this network, and many outside, fear Promethean science. And geoengineering – the idea that we should alter the climate to our advantage while there’s still food in the shops and our coastal cities are above sea level – is certainly Promethean.

It is, however, anything but the darling of the military-industrial complex. Its researchers are poorly funded enthusiasts, many of them close to retirement. They do not want to control the climate, and indeed could not, even if they tried. Instead, they want to offer a stopgap technology that will keep global temperatures stable while the gargantuan work of unpicking the carbon economy goes on.

The global consensus on climate change treats carbon as a contaminant. The hope is that enough political will can be mustered to get rid of excess atmospheric carbon, in much the way the world abandoned the chlorofluorocarbons responsible for damaging the ozone layer.

This is an approach that has been shown to work, but in The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton is here to show that it is hopeless: “Any plausible cuts in carbon dioxide emissions made today would have more or less no effect until the mid-century. By that time the costs of inaction might be horribly plain – but there will be no time machine with which to come back and set the necessary cuts in motion on the basis of that future knowledge.” Something as complex as the relationship of industrial civilisation to Earth “isn’t the sort of thing that is simply solved, once and for all, and it’s a snare to think that it is”.

Veiling the atmosphere with sulphur could stabilise global temperatures indefinitely for little cost, he believes. It would be another form of climate change and Earth would be a little drier. There might be losers as well as winners. But even the losers in Morton’s meticulously detailed and exhaustively referenced scenarios would fare better than if we heat Earth by more than 2 °C. The task would then be to replace the carbon economy.

Naysayers believe that if we were to stabilise global temperatures, we would somehow forget about the carbon problem. But given the fast-declining alkalinity of the oceans, this hardly seems likely.

Morton believes the climate-change debate is hobbled by a bleak view of humanity. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that we will not recognise runaway industrial growth as folly until it has done all the damage it can – and that full recognition of that folly is the only route to avoiding further destruction. “I can’t say that there is no wisdom in that stance,” writes Morton. “I can only say I do not share it. I refuse to accept a world in which nothing can be protected and only pain and loss instruct.”

Over nearly 400 pages, Morton constructs his argument with the intensity of an essayist. It is a dizzying, exhausting, exhilarating read. And let me nail my colours to the mast: he’s right.

Andrew Krasnow: skin in the climate game

 

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Interviewing the artist Andrew Krasnow for New Scientist

It’s part walrus, part human. This is the first picture released of a controversial sculpture made from human skin combined with leather, complete with tusks made from animal bone from the 1960s. “Whiskers” of human hair are also attached near its nose.

Created by US artist Andrew Krasnow, Walrus Souvenir, which is based on a pattern from a leather craft hobby kit, incorporates some of the artist’s own skin. “The rest was obtained from skin donors in the 1980s who gave their living consent,” he says.

Completed in 2000, the walrus was first exhibited in the US in response to then president George W. Bush’s recommendation to start exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The recently released photo allows the piece to be seen by the rest of the world for the first time.

Although Krasnow was originally targeting the Bush administration’s obsession with uncertainties around climate change, he now hopes Walrus Souvenir will serve to highlight the global scale of the problem. His sculpture alludes to the interconnection between human and other animal life, raising the possibility that human handiwork may one day lead to the extinction not only of the walrus, but of humanity itself, he says.

Over the years, Krasnow’s bleak and uncompromising view of US political history has landed him in just as much trouble as the human skin used in his artwork. The irony of having exhibitions rejected in the 1980s, when prior to the NAGPRA Act the US government held about 15,000 indigenous human remains without the communities’ permission, isn’t lost on him. “In terms of purposeful intent, the only agenda I have in mind for this piece is that it does some good,” he says.

The GV Art gallery in London is hoping to exhibit the walrus later this year, once they obtain permission from the UK’s Human Tissue Authority.