wake for a vanishing world

From the late 1950s onwards, scientists have warned of the dangers of rising CO2 levels. The US government advisors, for one, began to flag it up as a serious problem in 1965, based on the scientific reports they received. Despite all warnings, we carried on our uninhibited use of fossil fuels for all of that century, and the current one. At the same time, climate scientists developed ever more precise predictions of what will happen if we don’t heed the warnings. Over the last decade, signs that climate change is as bad as they predicted, have begun to proliferate. This February, the CEO of the Environment Agency, an organisation full of people that usually soldier on no matter what adversity comes their way, announced that ‘in recent years several of the “reasonable worst case scenarios” had happened in the UK, with more extreme weather and flooding. ‘This is not science fiction’, he said, and urged politicians to ‘adapt to the inevitable impacts of the climate emergency.’

Increasingly frank public discourse of this kind shows how it is now dawning on wide parts of the population that our earth is changing. Despite that, most people still find it hard to engage effectively with what is happening. Many feel helpless, because they cannot see how individual behaviour-change alone could alleviate the problem, but policy changes seem hard to achieve. And so they worry in silence, where in fact joint reflection is needed to change our ways.

Wake for a Vanishing World, convened by community builder and ritual maker Gail Davidson and me, will address a global problem in an entirely local way. It will focus on locality, and how a community can understand and engage practically and psychologically with the particular way that their immediate environment will change. For some communities (e.g. those living close to the sea) changes might be easy to foresee (e.g. rising sea level), for other communities, the impacts of effects such as drought, flooding or biodiversity loss might be harder to understand. Wake for a Vanishing World will take groups of people in specific communities on a journey of discovery during which they will initially set out to take stock of what lives in their immediate environment. They will collect samples such as leaves, blossoms, fruit, water, soil, dust, or anything else that strikes them as representative from the environment around them, be that a park, their garden, a riverbank or a street corner. These objects will form the heartpiece of a grieving ceremony – contributions to an altar around which we will remember and grieve the members of the non-human world which live alongside us in our community, and of which many are set to disappear over the next decades. In this way we’ll engage practically and psychologically with the particular way that our immediate environment will change.

When the wake is over, DNA will be extracted from these samples and analysed to reveal the visible and invisible life that has passed through the sampled environment – microbes, fungi, plants, mammals and insects alike. The nature altar will be turned into an artistic sculpture or form, co-designed with a local artist and the community. It will be left in the locality, as a memorial to the love for the earth that propels many working towards a regenerative future. The analysed DNA will act as a public archive of human and non-human life in that place. As a signature of all attendees witnessing this moment in time, and for future generations looking back to this snapshot in time in which the human community of the area acknowledged the change they had brought about.

With our Wake for a Vanishing World, Gail and I are creating a platform for communities to engage with the sense of grief and confusion about the effects of climate change, but also with the desire to find resilience and positive action in the face of it. Our first community of collaborators are the beautiful people from the Centre for Stewardship in Falkland, Fife.

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