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by Paul Graham Raven
16th February 2021

The Museum of Carbon Ruins is… well, we’re still not sure how to categorise it, in truth. Is it an art intervention? An immersive research exhibit on decarbonisation? Climate change theatre? It’s all of these things, in a way – the common thread being the creation of a space of speculation about climate change, and how we might adapt to it.

More prosaically, the Museum of Carbon Ruins (MCR) is a set of vitrines (or an antique suitcase, depending on the venue) full of familiar objects and images, which are reframed for the museum’s ‘visitors’ by researchers performing the role of curators or guides to the museum itself, which purports to ‘exist’ in 2050 or thereabouts.

If you’re wondering what the point is, you’re not the first! However, we flatter ourselves that most of the museum’s ‘visitors’ have grasped it, even if they haven’t taken away exactly the same point as one another. It’s in the nature of the thing that describing it can’t come close to reproducing it – and I might go so far as to say that’s the point. But what of speculative methods in general? Why are we academics messing around with the tools of science fiction, product design and participatory theatre? I have three answers, or three aspects of a single answer: the creation of speculative climate futures can serve to concretise the challenge, situate the consequences and democratise the discussion.

First, concretisation. When we talk about climate change, we often do so in the abstract. We academics are responsible for this, along with policy makers and industrialists – but in our defence, it’s not (only) a matter of five-dollar words from the ivory tower. Climate change – like trade agreements, epidemiology or particle physics – is a complex thing, and those who research complex things inevitably develop terms and concepts with which we can communicate efficiently. That’s why the IPCC reports, and the political and industrial responses to them, tend to throw around ideas like ‘two degrees of warming’ or ‘net-zero carbon’; we all know what we mean (though we often disagree on the details), and using those phrases saves us time.

However, many people have not had the privilege of devoting years to learning about climate change and its common abstractions. As such, when they encounter a phrase like ‘net-zero carbon’, they can infer some of the implications based on context, but the detail is absent. ‘Net-zero carbon’ thus serves as a label for a future which, implicitly, we want to achieve – but the contents of the box of futurity which bears that label are often left undescribed, or at least underdescribed. Interventions like the MCR are a way to open up those boxes, and concretise climate futures in terms of the lives that non-experts recognise and relate to.

Concretisation is achieved in part through situating climate change – through depicting this most global of challenges from a local perspective. On one level, I’m using ‘local’ here in the spatial sense. A concept like ‘two degrees of warming’ is hard to grasp even for experts, because those two degrees are averaged over the entire planet – and its potential for being misunderstood (with a little assistance from the denial industry) can be seen every time a period of cold weather brings out a chorus of trolls bellowing “so much for global warming, amirite?!”. In this sense, situating climate change means talking about possible futures in terms of the audience’s own surroundings. How warm might it be by mid-April in Malmö, Manchester or Mogadishu? What familiar crops and garden plants might no longer thrive, and what might they have been replaced with? By how much might the sea level have risen, and how often might it flood?

But situating the challenge is not just about place, it’s about people. The way I know my locale is a function of my embodiment as a middle-aged white male able-bodied Anglophone academic; while there’s surely some overlap, the things that matter to me may be very different to those that matter to an immigrant mother of three, to a line manager in a big bakery or to a guy who works in finance when he’s not playing golf. Of course, no speculative space can include everyone’s perspective –and as we discuss in our paper, we are aware that MCR has mostly spoken to and with a particularly middle-class strata of Swedish society. But rather than seeing that as an argument against speculative methods, we view it as an argument for letting a thousand speculations bloom. This will mean doing the work of situating the abstract consequences of climate change and decarbonisation policy for multiple locations and audiences – which is surely what a democratic form of science and governance should be doing anyway.

The ultimate goal is to democratise the visualisation of how we might live in a climate-changed world. For far too long, albeit with the best of intentions, we have simply handed down abstract visions of decarbonised futures to the people as sealed packages, and expected their acceptance and support. Not only has this been ineffective, it is arguably unethical, and plays into the accusations of ‘green totalitarianism’ that the denial industry likes to throw around.

Democratic futuring isn’t just good in principle. It’s also more effective, because it taps into the vast resource of everyday expertise in lifestyle, practices and locations that years of ethnographic study could not hope to replicate: as artist-researchers are fond of saying, ‘people are experts in their own lives’. Showing people our concretised and situated projections of their future environment, and then asking them how they think they might want to live within that context, may end up producing answers that we experts would never have thought of. We’re sure to get some answers that make us uncomfortable, too – but that’s perhaps the best reason of all for doing it. If we want people to trust our expertise, we have to break with a long and regrettable tradition and start trusting in theirs.

Building spaces of speculation where those different forms of expertise might meet – of which the MCR is just one example among a growing number – is a way to build that trust, and to build a better future. For, make no mistake, we need to change the ways we live; but by showing what this might actually look like at street level, and doing so in partnership with those who will live those changes, we might also show just how many of those changes might be for the better, not only for the climate, but also for us.

You can read the original research paper by Paul Graham Raven and Johannes Stripple (2020) in Global Discourse: ‘Touring the carbon ruins: towards an ethics of speculative decarbonisation’

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Image Credit: Jessica Bloem, Lund University.
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