Armidale
Type
Article
Category
Climate politics
Long read

On bucketing water – and a response to Jonathan Franzen

Driving to Groundswell last weekend felt like I was in a disaster movie or the end times. Maybe both. A hot and powerful westerly blew like nothing I’d ever witnessed before. Dust was blocking out the sun and masking the road like a thick dirty fog, moving chaotically in every direction. We were slowed by heavy trucks hauling water to the next tank that’s run dry. All the while my phone was beeping: ‘how are you in the fires?’ and ‘It will be a miracle if her house doesn’t burn’. The one comfort of driving through in the over-cleared, over-grazed, bare, dusty, dry land is that the risk of fire is negligible because there is nothing left to burn.

We kept driving.

The destination was Bingara and an event marking the end of a multi-year collaboration between the collective known as the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation and a select group of artists, farmers and scientists from all over. It was held on unceded Gomeroi Country at The Living Classroom, an education and demonstration site for different methods of food growing, carbon sequestration, dam regeneration and soil health.

The goal of the collaboration – known also as Artist, Farmer, Scientistwas to see what happened when these three types of people interacted, collaborated, shared skills and methods, let down their defences and thought anew about what they were doing, how they were doing it and why. At Groundswell, we reflected on how this collaboration broached and modelled a big challenge on a smallish scale. We know this: the industrial, monocultural agricultural system is one of the worst polluting industries. Conversely, transforming the agricultural system means both addressing a big problem and offering a big solution in one move.

While such a transformation is incredibly hard to achieve – especially given the current corporate environment and lack of political will – these people are finding ways to do it. In this regard, one of the most interesting take-aways from the weekend for me was how the project made room for reckoning with how physical adaptation would be better with political will and corporate responsibility from the top, but how it also requires transformations of one’s emotional attachments and identity from below. Years of habitually doing the same thing, in the same way and believing it is right – arting, farming or sciencing, for example – hardens into a professional identity that is very difficult to relinquish. The project showed how with self-reflection, community and, above all, networks of support, change is possible and new selves and new worlds can be made.

The event was awesome but not perfect. It didn’t substantially address certain major questions, in particular the status of an agricultural property in settler colonial Australia on unceded Country, but it made broaching that challenge feel possible: what would it take to get settler farmers to both lock the gate and open it at the same time? If the move to a new agriculture is possible, why not a future with that acknowledges and fulsomely reckons with the past?

Participating enabled me to think all this, but I was also there for a slightly tangential reason. Some new friends and I put up a little gazebo called The Community Weathering Station, a collective response to the drought in Armidale. 150 kms east of Bingara and nearly 1 km above sea level, Armidale is a small city on unceded Anaiwan Country. And, if it doesn’t rain, the settlement of about 25,000 people is slated to run out of water in October 2020. While Armidale is surrounded by farmland mostly occupied by cows and sheep, the town itself is a regional education hub with a university – where I work – and heaps of schools. As such, our relationship with water in the town is more akin to a big city’s compared to the adjacent farms. Our water is centrally treated and most houses are connected to this infrastructure.

Current conversations about drought in the town are understandably and anxiously focussed on short-term water reduction but not linked in strong ways to the much bigger challenges we face. Collectivelym, we are talking about holding the line, turning the tap off between brushing teeth until things return to normal. But there is no normal anymore. So, what can we do? How does bucketing water from the bath to the garden to reduce water use today relate to the current dam levels and the bigger challenge we call climate change? That’s the question the Community Weathering Station is trying to answer.

At Groundswell, artist Alex Wisser said this: ‘a question draws you across time.’ And he qualified: ‘a question is only as good as the length of time it takes to answer’. I feel empowered to say that I don’t right now have a clue about how bucketing bathwater in Armidale today relates to climate change. But what I do know is this: if we don’t think about how small-scale gestures and iterative processes of slowly and imperfectly cultivating new habits are a necessary part of the difficult slog of building a different future, then what are we even doing getting up each day?

***

After an existential frying on the weekend, I woke Monday morning to learn that Jonathan Franzen was trending on twitter for a horrifically bad take on climate change in the New Yorker. We cancelled Franzen years ago for his unbelievably lazy universalism. But because he was writing about this topic, I just couldn’t resist. Hoping for a complete conceptual train wreck to kickstart my week, I clicked on the link.

I don’t want to spend too long unpacking Franzen’s argument, except to say this: the piece ultimately fails because it sets up a completely false binary: you can either pin your hope on avoiding it or accept it is happening and rethink hope. Because of this, I don’t truly agree with anything he says, but at the same time, I also kind of agree with everything he says.

While certain things should have been said with much greater care and maybe some actual knowledge – especially regarding energy transition, the Green New Deal and the whole idea of ‘human nature’ – Franzen can also be on point. This is the crux of his argument:

All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. … Any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons – these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.

While Franzen and I have strikingly different views on the role of civil disobedience always and forever, he makes an otherwise valid point. To tackle climate change, we cannot always only be tackling climate change. Other things are important, too: partial questions, weird tangents, strange collaborations and very human struggles for liberation and justice.

Recently, I asked my mentor and collaborator Astrida Neimanis for advice. How, as feminist environmental humanities researchers, can we best anchor ourselves the seemingly unrelated set of interconnected problems our research projects want to – need to – tackle? I write about weather. Weather can be everything. It acknowledges that the climate crisis touches everything. But it can end up being nothing. She responded by referring to the environmental crisis as a ‘symptom’. It is a classic cultural theory interpretive move adapted for the current situation. Beginning with Marx and Freud, to understand the social roots of seemingly discrete problems we think of them as symptoms.

In the past, Neimanis made a claim similar to Franzen’s, decentring the environment in what are ultimately environmental projects. In one of her papers, she theorised the concept ‘weathering’:

‘Weathering’ shifts away from the dominant temporality of climate change discourse, where progress and sustainability narratives meld in the anticipatory mode of ‘what should we do to stop climate change?’ and instead asks ‘how is climate change me?’

While climate crisis is our biggest problem spatially and perhaps existentially because it is so multifaceted and all-encompassing, the quest to save the planet alone does not address its causes. These are in some ways both bigger and smaller, more and less material: imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy, industrial capitalism, militarisation, land enclosure. Put another way, if the environment is a body, those interlocking power-structures are its diseases.

To heal the body, we have to address the sickness, not the symptom. But as anyone who has been seriously sick before knows, healing does not perfectly restore what was before. Illness changes people. I have fake boobs and an intermittent health anxiety problem, but to the best of my knowledge I currently don’t have breast cancer. In other words, while sharp focus on environmental issues at times will make sense (for instance, at times of drought and bushfire, or fish kills), it won’t always make sense to have the environment or climate change as the absolute central focus all activity seeking to address this problem.

Addressing the all-encompassing nature of climate change is impossible without a significant amount of social transformation at the same time. In fact, it feels that climate is fast becoming another word for what we once called the social. In her book In the Wake, Christina Sharpe names racism and anti-blackness the ‘total climate’ in which we all live. In other words, racialised power structures infuse everything, including the air we breathe. When climate refugees are seeking asylum, fixing climate change alone won’t solve their problem: ensuring safe havens that don’t have horrifically violent, exclusive and racist immigration systems is part of the solution.

More esoterically, when I wrote about shame in King Lear for a chapter in my book about the play’s iconic storm, I found it hard to even write about the storm at the same time as writing about shame, let alone linking it to climate change. The details of the particular representation of shame in the king and how it manifested as misogyny in relation to his own body and his daughters struck me as hitting on what was ultimately a bigger problem, at the same time as being totally related to how dominant power systems relate to the non-human forces like storms. Similarly, I think that Jess Hill’s recent book on domestic abuse, which barely even mentions anything beyond the human, is also and necessarily related to challenging the logics of our patriarchal climate.

Franzen is as wrong as he is right. We have to admit we’ve lost, rethink hope and work to mitigate climate change. In admitting ‘we’ve lost’, we – meaning people like Jonathan Franzen – also need to recognise that many people have never ‘won’. Maybe, Franzen would agree with me on this point since by the end of his piece the either/or binary has collapsed into a both/and.

***

Earlier in the year, before Franzen, feminist urban geographer Natalie Osborne wrote a paper with intriguing similarities to his piece. To be clear, I’m not accusing Franzen of plagiarism, nor am I trying to equate the politics of their respective claims. Osborne’s argument is far more interesting and allows us to tease out the central idea with much more nuance.

She begins: ‘Let us sit with the idea, for a moment, that we have lost.’ Lost what? Osborne’s target is already bigger than Franzen’s. We have not only lost the so-called ‘war on climate change,’ but also the fight against (let’s call it) neoliberalism. To put it another way, we’ve lost a collective drive to achieve, maintain and even expand a better world in the current configurations of power. Our structures fail anti-colonial, anti-racist, queer, demilitarised, feminist, collective visions. Activists are fighting so hard right now, and their fights are unbelievably inventive and inspirational, but it is all uphill and the mountain seems to get higher and higher. The Imperialist Capitalist Individualist Juggernaut team has won the Superbowl Monopoly. Rather than trying to change the rules of that game, why not play new ones?

On the drive home from Bingara, in a landscape less apocalyptic but still bleak, my partner used the metaphor of bankruptcy to make a point like this, too. Shonky stockbrokers can rort thousands of people, trash the world and simply declare bankruptcy and start again, without giving up the cocaine. Movements for social and environmental justice can, should and do reorient themselves from time to time. Declaring the bankruptcy of certain kinds of claims, of certain fights, allows for a new movement, new identities. Pick your battles carefully, thoughtfully. Fight them well. Perhaps the battle is not to stop climate change or save the world as such, but something else related, smaller, more diverse, truly decolonising, better?

In talking about how we’ve lost, Osborne, channels feminist, queer and environmentalist thinkers, inviting a rethinking of hope by being open to negativity:

Sometimes hope flags or fails, or does not meet us where we are. In grief, loss, and trauma, we cannot always talk ourselves back into hope or optimism. Sometimes hope is entirely pointless, a form of denial (Lesley Head), and optimism depressogenic and cruel (Lauren Berlant). Further, some of these negative feelings must be, should be felt – indeed more than they currently are. There are still many lives – human and more-than-human – that are ungrieved, ungrievable (Judith Butler; Thom Van Dooren), and if we are to take seriously our obligations to each other we must recognise and grieve our failures to do so.

Letting go of the crude idea that we can win against climate change is not ‘giving up’ but an moment of important reckoning, realignment and reflection. What is it that we will have to grieve and let go of? What must we work as hard as possible to save? How are seemingly unrelated movements like refugee action groups, Aboriginal language revivals, queer community health projects, progressive literary journals, also and already forms of climate action?

The point is that this process of building a better world for the dispossessed, the marginalised, the exposed will never succeed as an either/or endgame. The world as it is doesn’t serve so many people now, and so many aspects of it are not at all worth saving.

Which brings me back to Jonathan Franzen happily eating Strawberries from his local CSA. Is there not something slightly refreshing about a white man giving up the fight, rather than proposing to be the hero? He is just going to the Homeless Garden project rather than trying to save the world. Okay, he didn’t have to broadcast it in the New Yorker. And yes, his privileged life is deeply annoying and so secure that he places inevitable climate change in the future, not right now. But why not take what we can get? The fight to save the planet without a bigger social and existential transformation is akin fighting to save the status quo.

***

At Groundswell in Bingara, lots of people passed through the Community Weathering Station tent. We had a small library with a very random assortment of philosophical and practical books (for instance, bell hooks feminism is for everybody and Michel Daniek’s Do It Yourself 12 Volt Solar Power), a small demonstration low-water-low-evaporation ‘wicking’ garden bed, two questions (‘who needs water?’ and ‘how do you feel about water?’) and an art-station for people to craft their answers, a board for people to share their answers, a petition for water tank rebates and a mailing list sign-up sheet. A genuine hodge-podge. Some people said they had no idea what it was all about. The kids used all as much paper and paint as they could. Some people looked at the books and didn’t talk. Some signed the petition. Others discussed at length the concept of weathering. Some told stories of drought. One comment struck me: that this space – this shitty little gazebo that miraculously didn’t blow away – opens up a new temporality through which to grapple with these questions, urgent but not anxious, focussed but not anticipatory. That this project recognises that questions should draw us across time and space, rather than be answered quickly. That some things are urgent and others need to take time, and be open and feel bad things, and reckon with the personal and small as much as the impersonal and big.

There isn’t much time to take time, of course. People are already suffering and forced to move due to this thing called climate change, just as formerly ‘drought-proof’ Armidale is frantically pondering its future in the thirteen months until the dam runs out of water. In this, the act of bucketing bathwater and chucking it somewhere else is both water-saving and, at least potentially, radical. The bucket of water directs the flow towards another future. Building new habits today for a different kind of tomorrow.

Bucketing water shouldn’t be a moral obligation or legislation – when I’m sick I can’t physically lift a bucket water and I’m so grateful for the functional infrastructure, potable water in the tap and community – but interrupting the logics of this colonial water infrastructure is also necessary. In this regard, this drought, if we pull through, is a way of seeing all this and thinking it through and making small in roads towards change. What will grow where the water is tossed is unknown, but one thing’s certain: bucketing water isn’t only about pulling out all the stops to save what we have today.

 

Image: A flower in Armidale, Flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jennifer Mae Hamilton is a lecturer in literary studies at the University of New England.

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