What people truly need

Sabine Topf visits Eco-Visionaries, an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

As I book the tickets, species that have only recently been discovered in Australia are now on the brink of extinction because of the climate crisis fuelled bush fires. Extinctions happen, yes; they are part of life. But not at this rate. If we can do with one thing at the moment, it’s eco-visionaries.

‘Eco-Visionaries’, not only reflects a planet undergoing profound change but proposes ways to adapt without succumbing to apathy or inertia, according to Sam Solnick’s November 2019 article about the exhibition in the RA Magazine. Most of us know (and accept) that there is a massive problem and something needs to be done. Nevertheless, almost no-one, especially governments, have so far acted in a way that is proportionate to the problem. Apathy/inertia is the theme of the climate crisis. So the big question is: Does the exhibition hold up to its own standard?

The short answer is: No. With some exceptions, the story of the exhibition is one we have heard many times. Act One: What we (humans, mainly of the western kind, mainly those born since the industrial revolution) have done to support our ever more comfortable lifestyles has ruined the planet, perhaps beyond rescue. The room is dark while we walk through this part of the story, to the background of living fossil fish and a globe eerily rotating in a soupy blue substance. Act Two: The lights come on; the surroundings are clean, minimalist. Here are some solutions. But this section on how humans can and must adapt to the new climate is somewhere between ridiculous (two bright green extended nostrils that filter the air for nutrients in a food-deprived world) and dystopian. The prospect that we will see some extinct species only as digital 3D models is frightening, not least because each time we look at them we will be using more resources, driving others to extinction in the course of it. What’s the point? 

If we knew what would get people out of their apathy we’d be halfway there. Here is one idea: We could think about what people truly and universally need and write stories that make them come true. For instance, when we give up long distance travel and social media as flights and massive server hubs are recognised as unsustainable, we may gain closer connections in local communities. We may gain relatedness. As we recognise that consumerism is not sustainable and we have to mend and create from what would previously have been termed waste, we may gain competence. The closest the exhibition comes to an inspirational vision that we can all take part in is when the Chthulucene, coined by Donna Harraway, is mentioned in passing in Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera’s cinematographic installation. By humbly accepting that we are all closely and complexly interconnected, we may – counter-intuitively – find the autonomy to act. But then the film is over.

‘Eco-visionaries’ is an exhibition well worth seeing if only for the jellyfish experience ‘win >< win’ by Rimini Protokoll. But it neither deserves the title visionary, nor should you expect to leave it uplifted, ready to ditch your lithium battery fuelled mobile phone and take on the climate crisis. But then, a bit of climate grief is fine, too.

- Reviewed by Sabine Topf, University College London

- Eco-visionaries runs at the Royal Academy of Arts until 23 February.

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