The world bacteria made

Visiting Bacterial World at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for New Scientist, 23 November 2018

“It’s like a cheetah going after a wildebeest,” says Judith Armitage, lead scientist for Bacterial World, an exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. She’s struggling to find a simile adequate to describe Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, a predatory bacterium found, among other places, in the human gut. Indeed, it’s monstrously fast: capable of swimming 100 times its own body length every second.

Other bacteria are built for strength, not speed. Campylobacter jejuni, which we have to thank for most of our food poisoning, has a propeller-like flagellum geared so that it can heave its way through the thick mucus in the gut.

Armitage has put considerable effort into building a tiny exhibition that gives bacteria their due as the foundational components of living systems –and all I can think about is food poisoning. “Well that’s quorum sensing, isn’t it?” says Armitage, playing along. “After 24 hours or so biding their time, they decide there’s enough of them they can make you throw up.”

Above our heads hangs artist Luke Jerram’s gigantic inflatable E. coli, seen floating over visitors at the first New Scientist Live festival in 2016. It seems an altogether more sinister presence in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History: the alien overseer of a building so exuberantly Gothic (built in 1860, just in time for the famous evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford) that it appears more grown than made.

Armed with just 55 exhibits, from the Wellcome Collection, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Natural History Museum in London, Armitage has managed to squeeze 3.8 billion years of history along a narrow balcony just under the museum’s glass roof. Our journey is two-fold: from the very big to the very small, and from the beginnings of life on Earth to its likely future.

Towering stromatolites, the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth, reveal the action of countless anaerobic bacteria whose trick of splitting water would result, a million years later, in an extremely rusty planet filling up with toxic oxygen. To survive, let alone thrive, in the ghastly conditions ushered in by the Great Oxygenation Event required bacterial adaptations on which all living things today depend. For example, Paenibacilla (pictured) promote crop growth, and symbiotic bacteria of the genus Rhizobium pack essential hard-to-get at iron into our vegetables. Cellular adaptations defend against caustic oxygen, and have, incidentally, thrown up all manner of unforeseen by-products, including the bioluminescence of certain fish.

As multicellular organisms, we owe the very structure of our cells to an act of bacterial symbiosis. Our biosphere is shaped to meet the needs of ubiquitous bacteria like Wolbachia, without which some species of environmentally essential insect cannot reproduce, or even survive.

Naturally, we humans have tried to muscle in on this story. For a while we’ve been able to harness some bacteria to fight off others, thereby ridding ourselves of disease. But Armitage fears the antibiotic era was just a blip. “New antimicrobials are too expensive to develop,” she observes. “Once they’re shown to work they’ll be kept on the shelf waiting for the microbial apocalypse.”

But look on the bright side. At least once the great Throwing Up is over and the human population shrinks to a disease-racked minimum, the bacteria released from our ballooning guts can get back to what they’re good at: creating vibrant ecosystems out of random raw material. “Bacteria will eat all the plastic.” Of this Armitage is certain. “But,” she adds, “it takes time for metabolic cascades to evolve. We’ll probably not be around to see it happen.”

On the way out, my eye is caught by another artwork:  uneasy and delicate pieces of crochet by Elin Thomas depicting colonies of bacteria. The original colonies were grown on personal objects: a key, a gold wedding ring; a wooden pencil. A worn sock.

Microbial World is a tremendous exhibition, punching way above its tiny weight. It doesn’t half put you in your place, though.

Edward Burtynsky: Fossil futures

An overview of The Anthropocene Project for New Scientist, 10 October 2018

THE lasting geological impact of our species is clearly visible within the galleries of this potash mine in Russia’s Ural mountains. The Urals contain one of the largest deposits in the world of this salt, one of the most widely used fertilisers. Mining has left behind vast subterranean galleries, their walls machine-carved with enormous ammonite-like whorls.

The Canadian photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky took this photograph for The Anthropocene Project, a collaborative chronicle of geologically significant human activity such as extraction, urbanisation and deforestation. Works from the project are on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, while this image and other photographs feature in Burtynsky’s exhibition The Human Signature, at London’s Flowers Gallery, to 24 November.

This September also saw the release of a documentary film, Anthropocene: The human epoch, and a book of colour photographs by Burtynsky, which includes new writing from author and poet Margaret Atwood.

Through publications, films and immersive media, Burtynksy and his Anthropocene Project collaborators – filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier – convey the unsettling visual reality of resource depletion and extinction: how our planet’s surface is being scarred, ground and shovelled into abstract, almost painterly forms.

The effects of mining, in particular, are irreversible. While animal burrows reach a few metres at most, humans carve out networks that can descend several kilometres, below the reach of erosion. They are likely to survive, at least in trace form, for millions or even billions of years.

There is an eerie poetry to this: burrows found in 500-million-year-old sediment tipped off geologists to the massive diversification of animal forms known as the Cambrian explosion. Will our own gargantuan earthworks commemorate more than just a mass extinction event?

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.

Scotland’s secret weapon

Attending the launch of  Shore: How we see the sea for New Scientist, 18 August 2018

NOBODY catches much fish around the island of Arran now: overfishing and pollution have hit wild populations hard. There are still plenty of fish, mind: not free-swimming, but cooped up in huge salmon farms that leach detritus, pesticides, antibiotics and plastic waste into the Firth of Clyde.

And yet it is to Arran that Scotland’s coastal communities have turned to see a working vision of a cleaner, healthier, more productive ocean.

Arran’s Lamlash Bay became a Community Marine Reserve in January 2008. Its No Take Zone is helping local maerl, a fragile pink coral-like algae, which provides a habitat for sponges, sea squirts, crabs, squat lobsters and scallops. The hope is that commercial species such as cod will use this area to recover their numbers, and then spill out into the surrounding sea.

Meanwhile, the 280 square kilometres of the South Arran Marine Protected Area restricts trawling and dredging. A community development, it is the first of its kind, and has been taken up by the Scottish government with the creation of 30 more MPAs, covering some 20 per cent of the country’s seas.

Restoring Scottish sea life after decades of pollution, dredging and overfishing is not going to be easy. “We’ve got a long way to go, just to get the environment back to the condition it was 50 years ago,” says Howard Wood, founder of local advocacy organisation COAST, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust. Most ministers, he adds, are only interested in what the environment provides or used to provide – and how much can be wrung from it in five years.

The exciting thing about COAST is the armoury it brings to the battle against the myopia of politicians. Glasgow and York universities are monitoring Arran’s coastal waters, while COAST is working with local tourist organisations to develop dive sites. Even more impressively, it has won over the local fishing community.

Multimedia festival Shore: How we see the sea is the latest addition to COAST’s arsenal. This festival of coastal life was created in Arran and is now circling the Scottish coast, before it ends up in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth science theme park in April 2019. It is curated by Invisible Dust, a UK-wide organisation that pairs scientists and artists to explore key environmental issues.

Its founder, Alice Sharp, has commissioned two film-makers, despite the lack of cinemas in the north of Scotland. But the Shore festival does not lack technical backup: it has Screenmachine, a large blue lorry that unpacks Transformer-like into a comfortable 80-seater surround-sound cinema.

Margaret Salmon’s Cladach explores the shoreline of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area and the community bordering it in Ullapool. “Imagine somebody spending time in a town, then drifting down a beach and into the sea. Margaret’s film is like a journey from one medium to another,” says Sharp.

The second film, I Walk There Every Day But Never Saw It That Way by Ed Webb-Ingall, is a very different proposition as the first instalment in a community video project that aims to get Scotland’s disparate coastal communities talking to each other.

It is an old idea, Webb-Ingall says. In the 1970s, the National Film Board of Canada invited film-maker Colin Low to visit Fogo Island, off Newfoundland, whose fishing community was collapsing. “Low made short films of a group on one part of the island, then showed it to another group.” Soon the different communities and interests had a conversation going, and a more sustainable fishing industry began to emerge.

“The myth among film-makers is the ‘Fogo Process’ rejuvenated the island,” says Webb-Ingall. “Others reckon they were doing the work already!” Salmon is inclined to agree: “These precarious communities have experienced centuries of ebbs and flows. They’re a strong people.”

Parade of the Possible

Watching the Elfwegentocht parade spool by for New Scientist, 18 July 2018

Astronaut André Kuipers has enjoyed his share of travel, and has no doubt racked up some air miles. Who better, then, to wave the start flag for a parade of futuristic vehicles?

Spooling along at a sedate 30 miles an hour down the motorway from Drachten to Leeuwarden, this year’s European Capital of Culture, they lacked a certain Mad Max flair. But that’s Friesland for you: a land of 60 languages and 128 nationalities, birthplace of Mata Hari – and when you drive through there’s nothing to see but cows.

The Parade was the festive conclusion of the Elfwegentocht: for two weeks, people have got about the region without using a drop of fossil fuel. “And now we’ve shown it’s possible,” says Bouwe de Boer, the municipality’s energy coordinator at the municipality of Leeuwarden, “we’ve shown that it is possible also for the rest of the Netherlands.”

De Boer is now project leader of Fossylfrij Fryslân, the fossil-free movement in Friesland, bringing disparate environmental campaigns and start-up technologies together to achieve real goals in tiny time frames. Electric vehicles dominate the parade but as de Boer points out, there are other ways to drive fossil-free. “Think of trucks and buses on hydrogen, cars on blue diesel, buses on green gas, Segways, bicycles, mobility scooters, go-karts…”

Go-karts? It’s a gimcrack future, this – but then, what else can the future ever be but an amalgam of new and old, complex and homespun?

The two big innovative technologies on display here aren’t actually “on display” in a physical sense. You’ll have to take my word for it that the “Blauwe Diesel” manufactured by Neste in Rotterdam from restaurant waste and residues is, indeed, satisfyingly blue. It’s a pure HVO (“hydrotreated vegetable oil” to you), low on emissions and so similar to regular diesel in the way it behaves that it requires no modifications to existing diesel engines or distribution systems. At a pump near you – assuming you live in this go-ahead region of the Netherlands – it could be the saving of an industry that some manufacturers and governments have already written off. Meanwhile Neste is trying to make its blue diesel from other sources, including old car tires, waste paper and algae.

Elsewhere in the parade, under the bonnets of a handful of electric cars, sit batteries from MG Energy Systems. These are the batteries you most often find in racing cars and speedboats, and they’re the brainchild of local entrepreneurs Gerard van der Schaar and Mark Scholten, whose first project, back in 2006, was a vessel to compete in the world’s first solar boat race (another de Boer initiative).

They quickly discovered that batteries were the boats’ Achilles’ heel. There was simply no good battery management system available. A little over a decade later their products power the Furia solar boat, which has finished first in just about every international solar boat event; Solarwave 62, the first hybrid yacht with electric propulsion to cross the Atlantic Ocean; the Elektra One Solar, the first electric-and-solar aircraft to fly over the Alps; and the Nuna7 car, winner of the World Solar Challenge in 2013, having achieved an average speed of 90.71 kmh for over 30 hours.

De Boer is proud of his region’s achievements but he has his eye on the bigger picture, too. As of 27 June the Netherlands has set in train one of the world’s most ambitious climate laws, which if it’s finalised in 2019, will set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent by 2050, with the introduction of a carbon-neutral electricity system. (The UK’s mandated 2050 emissions target is an 80 per cent reduction. Sweden and Norway are set to go carbon neutral by 2045 and 2050 respectively)

De Boer talks excitedly about Friesland’s circular energy economy. Cleaning up waste water in this region generates methane which is being harvested to boost biogas production. He talks excitedly about advances in renewable energy. Solar panels power MG’s entire battery factory. He talks excitedly about everything, quite frankly. But it’s an incidental detail which captures my attention: fruit, I am told, of another one of de Boer’s endless stream of friendly, chivvying phone-calls.

The police looking after the parade are riding electric bikes.

Shell game

Reading Catching Thunder by by Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Saeter for the Daily Telegraph, 1 April 2018 

In March 23 1969 the shipbuilders of Ulsteinvik in Norway launched a stern trawler called the Vesturvon. It was their most advanced factory trawler yet, beautiful as these ships go, and big: outfitted for a crew of 47.

In 2000, after many adventures, the ship suffered a midlife crisis. Denied a renewal of their usual fishing quota, its owners partnered up with a Russian company and sent the ship, renamed the Rubin, to ply the Barents Sea. There, in the words of Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Saeter, two Norwegian journalists, the ship slipped ineluctably into “a maelstrom of shell corporations, bizarre ships registers and shady expeditions”.

In the years that followed, the ship changed its name often: Kuko, Wuhan No 4, Ming No 5, Batu 1. Its crew had to look over the side of the ship at the name plate, attached that morning to the stern, to find out which ship they were on. Flags from countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania and Panama were kept in a cardboard box.

It fell to a Chilean, Luis Cataldo, to be captaining the ship (then named the Thunder) on December 17 2014 – the day when, off Antarctica’s windy Banzare Bank, in the middle of an illegal fishing expedition, it was spotted by the Bob Barker, a craft belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The Bob Barker’s captain got on the radio and told Cataldo his vessel was wanted by Interpol and should follow him to port.

Cataldo retorted that he wasn’t inclined to obey a ship whose black flag bore a skull (albeit with a shepherd’s crook and a trident instead of crossbones). And it is fair to say that the Sea Shepherd organisation, whose mission “is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans”, has enjoyed a fairly anomalous relationship with nautical authority since its foundation in 1977.

So began the world’s longest sea chase to date, recorded with flair and precision in Catching Thunder, Diane Oatley’s effortlessly noir translation of Engdal and Saeter’s 2016 Norwegian bestseller. The book promises all the pleasures of a crime novel, but it is after bigger game: let’s call it the unremitting weirdness of the real world.

This is a book about fish – and also a chase narrative in which the protagonists spend most of the time sailing in circles and sending each other passive-aggressive radio messages. (“You are worried about the crew, and now all the Indonesians are nervous,” Cataldo complains. “One person attempted to take his life. Over.”)

It’s about attempting to regulate the movement of lumps of steel weighing more than 650 tons which, if they want, can thug their way out of any harbour whether they’ve been “impounded” or not, and it’s about the sheer slow-mo clumsiness of ship-handling.

At one point the Thunder “moves in circles, directing a searchlight on the Bob Barker, then suddenly stops and drifts for a few hours. Then the mate puts the ship in motion again, heading for a point in the middle of nowhere.” There’s no Hollywood hot-headedness here. The violence here is rare, veiled and, when it comes, unstoppable and ice-cold.

The Thunder was wanted for hunting the Patagonian toothfish, a protected species of “petulant and repulsive” giants that can grow to a weight of 120kg and live more than 50 years. When the Bob Barker caught sight of it in the Southern Ocean, no one could have guessed that their chase would last for 110 days.

Stoked by Sea Shepherd’s YouTube campaign, the pursuit became a cause célèbre and the Bob Barker’s hardened crew were prepared for the long game: “As long as the two ships are operating without using the engines, it is only the generators that are consuming fuel. If it continues like this, they can be at sea for two years.”

Engdal and Saeter must keep their human story going while doing justice to the scale of their subject. At the start, their subject is the fishing industry, in which a cargo of frozen toothfish can go “on a circumnavigation of the world from the Southern Ocean to Thailand, then around the entire African continent, past the Horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and into the South China Sea before ending up in Vietnam.” But they also have something to say about the planet.

Suppose you catch fish for a living. If you saw that your catch was dwindling, you might limit your days at sea to ensure that you can continue to fish that species in future years. This isn’t “ecological thinking”; it’s simple self-interest. In the fishing industry, though, self-interest works differently.

And in a chapter about Chimbote in Peru, the authors hit upon a striking metonym for the global mechanisms denuding our seas.

The Peruvian anchovy boom of the late 2000s turned Chimbote from a sleepy village into Peru’s busiest fishing port. Fifty factories exuded a stench of rotten fish, and pumped wastewater and fish blood into the ocean, to the point where the local ecosystem was so damaged that an ordinary El Niño event finished off the anchovy stocks for good.

The point is this: fishing companies are not fisherfolk. They are companies: lumps of capital incorporated to maximise returns on investment. It makes no sense for an extraction company to limit its consumption of a resource.

Once stocks have been reduced to nothing, the company simply reinvests its capital in some other, more available resource. You can put rules in place to limit the rapaciousness of the enterprise, but the rapaciousness is baked in. Rare resources are doomed to extinction eventually because the rarer a resource is, the more expensive it is, and the more incentive there is to trade in it. This is why, past a certain point, rare stocks hurtle towards zero.

Politically savvy readers will find, between the lines, an account here of how increasingly desperate governments are coming to a rapprochement with the Sea Shepherd organisation, whose self-consciously piratical founder Paul Watson declared in 1988: “We hold the position that the laws of ecology take precedence over the laws designed by nation states to protect corporate interests.”

Watson’s position seems legally extreme. But 30 years on, with an ecological catastrophe looming, many maritime law enforcers hardly care. Robbed of income and ecological capital, some countries are getting gnarly. In 2016, Indonesian authorities sank 170 foreign fishing vessels in less than two years. They would like to sink many more: according to this daunting thriller, 5,000 illegal fishing vessels ply their waters at any one time.

Marine life is rubbish

“The aim of my work is to create a visually attractive image that draws the viewer in, then shocks them with what is represented,” artist Mandy Barker explains. “This contradiction between beauty and fact is intended to make people question how their shoe, computer, or ink cartridge ended up in the sea.”

A short feature for New Scientist, 22 April 2017

Wild, silly and enlightening

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Visiting Lofoten’s International Art Festival and the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, for New Scientist23 September 2015

SITTING on a driftwood sculpture in the middle of a large paddling pool, a man in silver face paint and bodysuit – I think he is supposed to be a fish – is shouting his lungs up. He is attempting to express the emotions of the sea.

There’s a lot of this sort of thing on the Scandinavian arts scene, and it’s spreading. More often than not it doesn’t work, but how other than by wild, ugly and very silly experiments will we work out how to express, in human terms rather than in figures, the enormity of climate change, mass extinction and the epochal depletion we are learning to call the Anthropocene?

“Disappearing Acts” was the theme of this year’s Lofoten International Art Festival. A 24-year-old institution, it is held every other year on a cluster of islands off Norway’s north-west coast, just above the Arctic circle. This year’s festival explored several kinds of disappearance: people are leaving the countryside for the cities, while globally, the countryside itself is dying off in unexpected and unnerving ways.

There’s paranoia in this vision, and a millennial impulse that has nothing to do with science. As the UN climate conference in Paris nears, however, and with Syrian refugees being spotted entering Norway from Arctic Russia by bike, some response beyond blind panic would surely be welcome.

At the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, a behemoth of the art, science and design scene now 36 years old, discrete “problems” find technical “solutions” in a distinctly dated manner. For example, it featured a “Future Mobility” expo, the star of which was the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion self-driving car.

The F 015 is meant to exemplify a future “when there are more robots than people working in factories, everything is intelligently interlinked, autos drive autonomously and drones deliver the mail”. Don’t let the automobile styling fool you, this “car” is the size of a truck, and stuffed with exotic materials. Nearby, the curators have undercut it quite brilliantly by placing a “Fahrradi Farfalla FFX”, Austrian artist Hannes Langeder’s absurdly overstyled “sports car”, made from bicycle parts and gaffer tape, and sprayed with bright red lacquer.

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Ars Electronica is full of such arch gestures. This year it also featured PSX Consultancy, an international collaboration to produce “sex toys for plants”. Information boards explain each plant’s reproductive “problem” and then propose a “solution”. For turmeric, an infertile plant that reproduces only via its rhizomes, weather balloons will carry the plants to the stratosphere, where, it is hoped, the increased solar radiation will introduce some variety to its genome. Alas this is not true: turmeric is not infertile – it is another flowering ginger, which happens to have the option of reproducing via rhizomes besides producing seed.

This kind of intervention used to seem ingenious, then cute, but now it’s irritating. Even when the premise is right, if our deteriorating ecology has taught us anything, it’s that our solutions to discrete problems only breed more problems down the road.

Why don’t we just pay attention to what is happening to our world, and speak about that as honestly as we can? This is the idea behind SALT, a refreshingly low-key festival whose run on the Norwegian island of Sandhornøy has just ended. Over the coming years, it will circumnavigate Earth’s most northerly settlements, from Greenland to the Faroes, from Scotland to Spitsbergen.

It has staged music concerts attended by thousands, but is most itself when a handful of visitors huddle in a shack made of driftwood and shipping containers to contemplate Glimt, an installation of moving lights by Norwegian artist HC Gilje that evokes the fleeting passage of living things across the landscape.

SALT’s co-founder Helga-Marie Nordby apologised when I visited this September: it was so warm, you could bathe in the ocean and dry off in the sun. “It’s not usually like this,” she said. A long and eloquent silence followed.Lofotens

The past is like Baltimore: there is no there there

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Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and atomic nostalgia, Lindsey A. Freeman (University of North Carolina Press)
Seeing Green: The use and abuse of American environmental images, Finis Dunaway (Chicago University Press)
for New Scientist  (4 April 2015),

THE past can’t be re-experienced. It leaves only traces and artefacts, which we constantly shuffle, sort, discard and recover, in an obsessive effort to recall where we have come from. This is as true of societies as it is of individuals.

Lindsey Freeman, an assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is the grandchild of first-generation residents of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Once a “secret city”, where uranium was enriched for the US’s Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge opened its gates to the world in 1949 as America’s first “Atomic City”: a post-war utopia of universal healthcare, zero unemployment and state-owned housing.

In Longing for the Bomb, Freeman describes how residents of Oak Ridge dreamed up an identity for themselves as a new breed of American pioneer. He visits Oak Ridge’s Y-12 National Security Complex (an “American Uranium Center of Excellence”) during its Secret City Festival, boards its Scenic Excursion Train and cannot decide if converting a uranium processing site into a wildlife reserve is good or bad.

It would have been easy to turn the Oak Ridge story into something sinister, but Freeman is too generous a writer for that. Oak Ridge owes its existence to the geopolitical business of mass destruction, but its people have created stories that keep them a proud and happy community. Local trumps global, every time.

This is good for the founders of communities, but a problem for those who want to wake up those communities to the need for change. As historian Finis Dunaway puts it in Seeing Green, his history of environmental imagery, “even as media images have made the environmental crisis visible to a mass public, they often have masked systemic causes and ignored structural inequalities”.

Reading this, I was reminded of a talk by author Andrew Blackwell, where he told us just how hard it is to take authentic pictures of some of the world’s most polluted places. Systemic problems do not photograph well. Some manipulation is unavoidable.

Dunaway knows this. Three months after the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979the worst radioactive spill in US history occurred near Church Rock, New Mexico, on lands held by the Navajo nation. It took a week for the event to be reported, once, on a single news channel.

The remoteness of the site and a lack of national interest in Native American affairs might explain the silence but, as Dunaway points out, the absence of an iconic and photogenic cooling tower can’t have helped.

The iconic environmental images Dunaway discusses are essentially advertisements, and adverts address individuals. They assume that radical social change will catch on like any other consumer good. For example, the film An Inconvenient Truth, chock full of eye-catching images, is the acme of the sincere advertiser’s art, and its maker, former US vice-president and environmental campaigner Al Gore, is a vocal proponent of carbon offset and other market initiatives.

Dunaway, though, argues that you cannot market radical social action. For him, the moral seems to be that sometimes, you just have to give the order – as Franklin Roosevelt did when he made Oak Ridge a city.

Arctic nightmares

Russia's relentless quest for Arctic fuel treasure

Reading Paul Josephson’s The Conquest of the Russian Arctic for New Scientist, 25 June 2014

AT -15 °C, high-carbon steel cracks. At -30°C, pneumatic hoses split and cranes fail. At -40 °C, compressors stop working. Ball bearings shatter. Steel structures rupture on a massive scale.

Still Russia builds, and mines, and tries to settle its Arctic territories. President Vladimir Putin has revived the old Stalinist vision that saw slave labour assembling cities on beds of permafrost. This time around, in place of the inexhaustible human resources of the gulag, there are delays, cancellations and nervous foreign investors.

The Arctic contains 90 per cent of Russia’s recoverable hydrocarbons. Were the country to finally overcome its many and various technical challenges, after more than a century of trying, it would be vastly wealthy.

So the Arctic remains a burden Russia cannot bear to relinquish. This potentially great nation continues to saddle itself with the costs of transportation over great distances, of keeping warm, or just staying alive, in great cold.

Since the mid-1980s, Paul Josephson, a historian of science and technology, has charted the country’s heroic engineering projects. He has traced its gigantomanic ambitions back, more often than not, to Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. Launched in 1948, it aimed to divert the flow of major waterways, industrialise Siberia, and turn the infertile steppe into a breadbasket.

The consequences for the environment have been at best ambiguous, at worst catastrophic. Natural resources had no price in Soviet economics. Since they were not owned privately, they had no value. Development had no regard for waste or loss. Little has changed under the current system of state capitalism; the Arctic’s underfunded environmental projects are smothered under state plans for “modernisation”.

Josephson is a well-travelled, well-connected and impassioned analyst. But his call for Putin’s Russia “to move more slowly, to adopt measured policies… forego impatience for circumspection” is unlikely to be heeded.

After 40 years writing sober, academic accounts of the world’s most hubristic, atrocity-littered engineering projects, it may be time for Josephson to bare his teeth a little.