Learning from the ‘heritage of climate change’

Most studies that explore the relationship between heritage and climate change tend to focus on the effect that climate change has on (tangible) heritage – particularly the impact that predicted sea level rise will have on famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Venice. There is, however, a good deal more complexity and nuance in the relationship between climate change and heritage than this narrow focus suggests. These complexities, challenges and opportunities form the central theme of a collection of papers that I have just published with Jim Perry (University of Minnesota), entitled The Future of Heritage as Climates Change: Loss, Adaptation and Creativity (Routledge, London; 2015): http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781138781832

One element of this relationship that is often overlooked involves what can be described as the ‘heritage of climate change’. Partly, this can be seen through recognising that the politics of climate change has a ‘heritage’, in that it involves invocations of a past, in order to effect change in the present for the sake of a desired future. And this is often done through emotive speculation about future scenarios that act to collide aspects of past, present and future together.

Consequently, the cultural dimensions of climate change debates have a history, which is often overlooked. Therefore, we need to explore the cultural politics of climate change itself: This imperative challenges us to reflect upon both the history of how climate change narratives are practised, and how constructed notions of the past have an affective influence within future-orientated policy debates today. In other words, how the heritage of climate change has agency within public and institutional politics today. Partly, these debates are invoked by contemporary fascination with the realms of the Anthropocene – or the current fashion of the ‘Anthropo-scene’ as Noel Castree (2015) has recently referred to it. But what much of this work also does, is to point us towards an interest in the ‘heritage of human-climate change relations’ more broadly.

One element of this aspect of the ‘heritage of climate change’ can be found through tracing the stories of previous attempts by humans to cope with dynamic environmental and climatic contexts. Such a focus also brings with it a necessary historical depth to proceedings, since these stories are often associated with how people struggled, literally, to acclimatise during the Little Ice Age.

For instance, the deserted medieval village of Hound Tor, on Dartmoor (about 20 miles from Exeter, in Devon) lies at nearly 400m ASL, and was depopulated during the 14th century due to a deteriorating climate. Some of the houses were abandoned, and their materials are re-used to build grain drying facilities – drying the grain harvest and hay over a big furnace; a forlorn attempt to cope with wetter and cooler summers. Archaeologists and others working in Iceland and Greenland have uncovered similar narratives, as societies sought to cope with deteriorating climates, thus leaving behind a sort of heritage of climate struggle.

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Hound Tor deserted medieval village (Wiki-commons)

Of course, the Little Ice Age was a ‘natural’ phenomenon, probably very different to today’s concerns about climate change, but I think that the investigation of sites like Hound Tor has some important messages for us today. First, and perhaps foremost, it underlines the historical pedigree of any human-climate change relationship, but it also points squarely at the notion that the only constant in this relationship is change – that searching for ‘stability’ is a quest that is doomed to failure. What this work also does, is turn our attention to a very visceral and material world of ordinary and un-named people, trying to cope. This is a world beyond famous people and World Heritage Sites – rather it speaks to a ‘universal’ heritage of the everyday. Furthermore, however, a focus on this sort of heritage can, I feel, be instructive for how we, ourselves, might cope with future climate scenarios. In other words, how we can literally ‘learn’ from the heritage of climate change in order to make the world a better, fairer and more sustainable place.

This was certainly in my mind recently, when I visited the Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse, in the north of Jutland, in Denmark. This lighthouse was built in 1900, but has now been overwhelmed by drifting sand. There is a good seasonal museum, and excellent ‘web-exhibit’: http://rubjergknude.dk/engelsk/net-exhibit/explore-rubjerg/

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Rubjerg Knude, Denmark

The environmental changes at Rubjerg Knude are not ‘anthropogenic’ perhaps, but the apparent problems are certainly exacerbated by human decision-making (of where to build light houses, and how to manage a dynamic landscape). It is now an iconic site to remind Danes about the ‘power of nature’; and perhaps of ‘human frailty’. It is listed by the Lonely Planet guidebooks as one of the Denmark’s key sites and visitor attractions. I think it speaks volumes of the ‘heritage of dynamic environment-human interaction’.

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These examples of the ‘heritage of climate change’ ask us to cast a prospective memory of what might be described as a ‘future past’. The heritage of climate change forces us to accept that ‘the natural world’ can never be neatly bounded, but must be seen as culturally and politically contingent. Personally, I think we should try and be optimistic, and support a sort of ‘progressive’ or radical nostalgia, in which ideas of heritage can engage as well as be engaged with.

This recognition should be seen as encouragement for an alternative view of climate change. We need neither deny its existence nor simply accept an inevitable narrative of ‘loss’ due to ‘threat’. What we need is a more creative engagement – creative engagements with the future past – and to take account of the lives and experiences of ordinary people, beyond the tight bounds of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Rather than ‘stopping change’, therefore, we need to turn our attention towards who wins and who loses, and to recognise this in a global context – why are some forms of heritage more important to ‘save for the future’ than others?

Reading:

Castree, N. (2015) ‘Changing the Anthropo(s)cene: geographers, global environmental change and the politics of knowledge’, Dialogues in Human Geography, Vol. 5(3), pp. 301-316.

Harvey, D.C. and Perry, J. Eds. (2015) The Future of Heritage as Climates Change: Loss, Adaptation and Creativity (Routledge; London). ISBN: 978-1-138-78184-9.

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