Nature matters in conversation
Nature matters in conversation

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Nature matters in conversation

2.3 Using conversation to construct environmental responsibility

If conversation is a creative exercise, in what sense might this be applied to the concept of responsibility around climate change? As David Cooper implies (Box 3), global ideas about the environment, such as climate change, are necessarily abstract and therefore lack the meaning and significance required to nurture appropriate responsibility. So the task for an appropriate ecological conversation is to make the subject matter more meaningful.

Take, for example, the concepts of mitigation and adaptation described in Box 4, which contains a synopsis of the BBC Analysis programme The wrong way to a warmer world?. This was a radio programme, first broadcast in April 2008, that discussed the tension between mitigation and adaptation in conversations about climate change. The language of adaptation can be understood in terms of a new language tool for ‘talking to’ climate change.

Box 4 The wrong way to a warmer world?

Mitigation and adaptation. Two words we’re going to have to get used to in the latest battle over climate change.

Over the past few years the key debate has been about the science – is the world really hotting up and, if so, are humans responsible?

There’s still a minority of sceptics who question the idea of man-made global warming. The consensus, though, is that the earth is getting warmer – and that humans have helped turn up the thermostat.

The new debate that’s splitting scientists, economists and politicians is not about whether the world is getting hotter but about how we should respond.

In this week’s ‘Analysis’, Kenan Malik examines whether we should pour all our resources into mitigation – reducing our carbon emissions individually and collectively?

Or whether we should accept that the world is going to get warmer anyway and rather than worry too much about emissions, we should adapt to global warming by building better flood defences or developing drought-resistant crops?

For many environmentalists, shifting the debate from mitigation to adaptation is tantamount to treason, nothing short of genocide according to the biologist Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers and voted Australian of the Year for his campaigning on climate change.

He tells Analysis that the extent to which any of us can adapt to a warming planet is directly related to our economic wealth.

The Netherlands may be able to pay for large dyking infrastructure in the face of rising sea levels. But the people of Bangladesh cannot and will simply be washed away.

On the other side of the argument, economist Richard Tol, from the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, tells Analysis that pouring international resources into stringent greenhouse gas emission reduction is actually putting lives at risk in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world.

Reducing our carbon emissions will be costly and will slow down economic growth in the West, taking money directly away from development aid.

Furthermore by restricting industrial progress in the developing world, these countries will have less income to adapt their infrastructures to cope with inevitable rising sea levels and higher temperatures.

In a significant change in language, the Minister responsible for Climate Change policy, Joan Ruddock, says that adaptation now has to be considered alongside mitigation.

(Source: BBC, 2008)

Any measures that might be introduced to prevent further global warming must have at least as much support as measures that will help us adapt to its current consequences. However, with the perceived shift of emphasis from mitigation to adaptation, there is a corresponding shift of responsibility away from carbon emitters and the principle of ‘polluter pays’. The more formalised conversation around scientific management and adaptation may also effectively further disengage not only big industrial polluters but also ordinary citizens, by providing comforting reassurance on their affluent lifestyles.

On the other hand, ‘adaptation’ can be viewed as a metaphor that provides a means of eliciting a more creative perspective on the issue, as described in Box 5.

Box 5 Adaptation to climate change?

The word ‘adaptation’ has always been important in scientific fields associated with evolution, ecology and environmental change … The advent of anthropogenic climate change has again positioned ‘adaptation’ as a key term and concept, along with ‘mitigation’… Etymologically ‘adapted’ means ‘fitted or suited’ and to adapt is ‘to fit’ or ‘make suitable’. At the level of metaphor two possible conceptions arise from these meanings which have significant practical and policy implications.

The first metaphor, and we argue, the most widespread understanding, is that of ‘adaptation as fitting into’. In this metaphor something (predetermined) is fitted into a situation (also predetermined or knowable in advance) to which it is fit-able or suited, like when doing a jigsaw. It can be argued that this is a common understanding that informs many policies and practices for climate change adaptation such as: ‘New investment … will … provide new technologies and strategies to enable them [farmers] to adapt their … farming systems and practices to climate change’ [Department of Primary Industries, Australia].

The other metaphor is that of ‘adaptation as a good pair of shoes’.

This metaphor requires a little more explication. What makes a good pair of shoes at a given moment? Well, usually because you have worn them in, they are comfortable, flexible etc. But these same shoes may not be a good pair of shoes if you were to put them in a cupboard for a year before wearing them again. Why? Because your feet will have changed and the shoes may have become stiff and unbending through lack of use. Within this metaphor a good pair of shoes arises from the recurrent interactions between shoes and feet – this is an example of co-evolution. This has also been described as the structural coupling of a system to its environment over time …

For those who understand the dynamics of co-evolution, and are not so interested in shoes, then the metaphor can become ‘adaptation as co-evolution’. Rather than seeing adaptation as one way, co-evolution is different – the idea of a separate environment is set aside in favour of processes of mutual interaction which in human social systems can be seen as processes of learning and development.

(Source: Collins and Ison, 2008)

The authors in Box 5 go on to argue for an understanding of adaptation in line with ideas on social learning (which will be introduced in Part 3). What is important here is the endeavour to use language as a creative tool rather than as a formalised constraint. Building on a similar notion, another interesting proposal that attempts to alter the language of climate change is presented in Box 6.

Box 6 Creative climate

The creative climate proposal comes directly out of my experience of working in broadcasting, in outreach and in teaching. But, of course, I’ve experienced those as three things that had been boxed off in the past. I’m really interested in the possibilities we’ve now got to thread those together. Creative climate is a proposal for a ten-year project, which would see us working in broadcast, online, with a wide public, global public, and in generating learning materials for our students. But we want to break the walls down between those three …

So, in the case of creative climate, we know that we’re going to be giving digital media equipment to two groups of Amerindians in Guyana, who we’re going to be visiting every year over a decade. Visiting via web media, we’re going to be web conferencing with them, and they’re going to be showing their experiences of environmental change in the Amazon. It’s an example of how we can give a global reach and depth of knowledge to our students, but also be setting up conversations that are of interest to much wider groups and really globally.

(Source: extracts from transcript of interview with Joe Smith, Senior Lecturer in Geography, The Open University, April 2008)

Activity 4 Climate change: adaptation, mitigation or being creative?

Listen to the two podcasts featuring a later interview with Joe Smith. To what extent might the creative climate project shift the conversation from the formal to the less formal?

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1
Skip transcript: Audio 1

Transcript: Audio 1

Martin Reynolds
Hi, I’m Martin Reynolds from TD866. In 2008 I talked to Joe Smith from The Open University about the ‘creative climate’ initiative. This has implications for enhancing environmental responsibility.
My conversation with Joe is divided into two podcasts. In the first we focus on the main features of the initiative, what it is and how it might look. In the second we talk about who does what and also about why the initiative is important in the wider scheme of things.
Hello, Joe, thanks for joining me. The creative partnership is a partnership between the BBC and the OU. Could we begin by you giving us a brief explanation of what creative climate is?
Joe Smith
Creative climate is an attempt to tell the story of the decade from 2010 to 2020 and to give an account of how human ingenuity responds to the challenge of understanding and acting on climate change. I heard chief scientists, presidents, prime ministers saying that the next decade is a key decade in human history in terms of responding to climate change. And two things occurred to me. First that, well, if it’s a key decade in human history someone ought to capture it; and secondly, that actually the business of saying we’re going to create an archive was a hopeful act that would help people feel that actually this is a problem that we can probably fix. And that in trying to capture a whole range of stories about human ingenuity, creativity, imagination in response to environmental change, that actually we would reinforce society’s capacity to cope.
In my dreams it involves edited broadcast stories that the BBC will produce; that might be television and radio, it might just be radio, but we’d certainly be using video on the Web – although, of course, over the decade of the project I think what TV means will have changed. We’re going to work with the BBC to tell stories of charismatic people and institutions that are, in one way or another, important to how we respond to climate change. They’re going to be following them. They’re going to be going back to them, year in year out, to see how their stories are unfolding.
And those stories will follow everyone, from polar scientists through to architects, engineers, designers, right through to, you know, people like me at the weekend down on the allotments. People who are growing their own food, people that are coming up with their own solutions to how you might live a low- or zero-carbon lifestyle.That’s where I think there’s lots of interesting material going on for Open University students. We’re going to be inviting what the web-wise call ‘communities of interest’ to cluster on the creative climate site. So you might have architects or artists clustering together to, a couple of times a year, benchmark each other; swap notes, see what they’re doing, share their experiences, maybe post recent projects. And then another aspect of the web offer is for open public posting, where you or me, my grandmother, anyone in a bus queue could go and post their own experiences, experiments, ideas about understanding or responding to environmental change. Note that I’ve said environmental change, not just climate change, because we’d like biodiversity loss to be part of this conversation.
Martin Reynolds
You mentioned benchmarking in relation to retrieving stories from the past. Could you just say something a bit more, Joe, about the value of that process – of keeping that kind of repository?
Joe Smith
You know, I love history – in a parallel life I would be a historian – and I think that the period we’re going through is of historical significance. I mean, every period is, but you know we really are at a hinge point. Humanity has to get wise, and do it quickly, around how we think about resources, how we think about pollution, how we think about the character of our development. And for that reason, I think that we ought to do a good job of capturing this period so that in the future people will be able to make sense of it in a rich way.
Martin Reynolds
And, very clearly, the technologies that are available to us now facilitate that kind of process very well.
Joe Smith
Yeah – really rich textual histories, really rich oral histories. But perhaps the much more important thing – I mean, really that’s an indulgence at some level – the more important and urgent thing is that I think benchmarking could have a really significant role in allowing, as I say, the general public and specific communities of interest in accelerating progress, sharing learning.
Martin Reynolds
And that notion of sharing invites this idea of providing a space, and there seems something about the creative climate which is offering an alternative type of space for these types of conversations. Is that roughly about it?
Joe Smith
Bang on! No, thanks – thanks for raising that Martin. The Web obviously offers all sorts of new spaces for dialogue and exchange, and they’re being used, you know, whether people want them to or not. People are invading that space and doing fantastically interesting things with it.I’m really interested in the way the Web can generate new public spaces. At one level – you might think it trivial – I think the photo-sharing site Flickr has given people a whole new way of showing themselves to the world, sharing themselves, you know, family snaps among a family or, you know, keeping in touch with people they’ve met at a festival. So … just if you take some of the technologies inside that site, just a simple one – tagging – allows a whole body of the population to visit a site like Creative Climate and pursue their own interests. So I mentioned allotment holders to you earlier – well, I’m an allotment holder; one of the tags I would pursue is gardening, self-provisioning. You know, we’re going to see new ideas developing about how you can provide for yourself cheaply and healthily on your own garden.
Martin Reynolds
And when you talk about tagging, this is something which is a way of locating different types of conversations that are going on, on the web space –
Joe Smith
Yes, simply, it’s just one of a number of ways in which people can identify other people with common interests –
Martin Reynolds
And engage with them.
Joe Smith
Engage with them, post their own thoughts – it’s how we can find each other, in short, and have the conversation we want to have.
Martin Reynolds
This use of web space seems to bridge two purposes – a broadcasting model of disseminating lots of information, and an exchange model providing a medium for conversation. Focusing on the broadcasting model, is there a danger of the public, or even interest groups, being overwhelmed with the amount of information?
Joe Smith
Overwhelming, but also there is the dangers of how you, kind of, measure the authority of statements on the Web. So people who are sceptical of climate change, but without an adequate scientific basis to their claims, have caused all sorts of havoc around public understanding of this critical issue, simply because the Web gives them a space to muck around, misbehave really.
Martin Reynolds
So what help might be given here?
Joe Smith
I think what we’d like to do is to make a space where the joins between expert opinion and public debate are both a bit more explicit, but also we make a space where that can happen with a bit more confidence and a bit more authority. So people can have more confidence that their own judgements have been well considered, so people have, you know, a right and an opportunity to have their opinion and their voice heard. But they’ve also got access to the kinds of materials they need to equip themselves to take part in the debate. So, I mean, it’s a classic Open University thing to do, to act in a way as a bridge between expertise and wider public debate.
End transcript: Audio 1
Audio 1
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2
Skip transcript: Audio 2

Transcript: Audio 2

Martin Reynolds
The idea of providing and nurturing an alternative form of space for conversation is clearly an important aspect of creative climate. In this second part of my conversation with Joe, we discuss more the role of stakeholders using the space and why such initiatives might be important for environmental responsibility. Joe, you mentioned a number of different stakeholders involved with the creative climate initiative. This brings me on to the second domain of questions regarding the ‘who’. Who do you see as being the primary actors in facilitating creative climate?
Joe Smith
The University is at the core of the project, and a team of academics that have a strong understanding of the issues from across the science, the politics, the philosophy are going to be, if you like, central to the editorial direction of the whole thing. We’re also going to make use of The Open University’s distinctive capacities to put together interactive spaces on the Web and interactive materials – supporting materials. But really all we’re doing is behaving to type, in the sense of carving out public space for complex issues to be understood better and debated better. It’s something we’ve done from birth, if you like, at The Open University. So our natural partners, our central partners in terms of media, are certainly the BBC and we’re very confident that we’ll be working with them. We don’t know precisely how, but there’s a lot of people interested at their end. We are also open to working with other partners, institutional partners, and I – just from the earliest conversations I’ve had with international bodies, research bodies and some other relevant players –
Martin Reynolds
And any government bodies?
Joe Smith
The government aren’t just key stakeholders. They’re central to anything that happens next on environmental change, so I’ll certainly be knocking at their door and I’ll want them to play. I think they’re going to be very supportive of this project. One of the things that I think it helps to build is political space around the issue of climate change. It makes a bit more room for the idea that this is a problem that will take some time, some patience and a bit of, if you like, generosity of spirit towards our leaders, our political elected leaders. And for that reason, I think they will want to back us in different ways. Of course, one of the stories I’d like to follow is the stories of civil servants and ministers, you know. I’d like them to be posting on the site and make a bit of space for consideration of the challenges they’re dealing with.
Martin Reynolds
And presumably broadening that out to an international scale – the kind of conferencing that’s going on around climate change in particular, but also related issues to do with environment.
Joe Smith
Oh yes. And, I mean, realistically I recognise that you’re not going to have huge numbers of civil servants and politicians taking time out to effectively blog for us across a decade. But what I think we can do is get, if you like, a representative sample of the story, so we’ll seek to have a mix of developed world and Southern voices, a mix of different interests represented in our, if you like, diary exercise across the decade. Yeah – I’m going to be looking for that.
Martin Reynolds
OK, now moving on from the ‘who’, let’s step back a bit and have a look at the wider rationale for the initiative. Could you say something more about why the creative climate initiative is important? What is it challenging and why?
Joe Smith
I think that the public conversation around climate change has become stalled. We’ve developed the idea, somehow, that this is an expert conversation that happens far, far away – that we’ll get a report about the science and a report about the policy and we’ll be more or less told how to respond. Actually, we know that we’ve run out of road with that kind of approach to the issue, and that this question of how we respond to climate change is going to have to seep into every corner of society. Everyone’s going to have to, at one level or another, be either accepting of policies that come their way or be a part of building alternatives, whether in their working life or personally, or indeed just simply in the kinds of permission they give to politicians when they vote. So I wanted to develop a project that would help – that would help to build the political space around climate change and would allow us to see our response not as, you know, flicking a switch but rather engaging in a collective project over time that would require a whole range of voices, a whole range of talents, in response.
Martin Reynolds
Now that prompts me to think about the current discourse around climate change, which has been very much centred on mitigation – how to cut our carbon emissions – whereas, of course, there is increasing reference given to adaptation. But am I right in thinking that creative climate is actually more about adaptation but on a more conversational mode?
Joe Smith
Absolutely, and I think that we need to knit those two together. I mean, there’s no doubt, of course we have to reduce our CO2 emissions. Mitigation is essential. But it’s, I think, interesting how little we’ve addressed adaptation. Adaptation is a much bigger issue for particularly the poorest parts of the world; places that are already very vulnerable to economic or social change now have another problem on the list. So you’re right to sense that creative climate has behind it a desire to kind of even the scales in favour of considering adaptation. But also to set a tone around that that’s a tone of opportunity – that we’ve got an opportunity in the next ten years to fix a whole lot of problems by addressing climate change. Those include the quality of our cities, whether we’re in Dakar or London. To address the perilous nature of our energy systems. To address the simple fact that massive increases in our material standard of living have not resulted in increases in our measurable quality of life, in our happiness, in our – a whole range of indices around how we feel. So I think addressing climate change in a creative way, in a creative frame, is a great way of approaching a whole set of other challenges we have at the moment. But not representing it as a sort of fait accompli – something we simply have to sign up to, as if then everything else will follow. It’s a conversation. It’s a whole set of practices we have to work through. Addressing climate change is going to require a great deal of creativity; and actually reminding ourselves that it’s creativity we need, more than giving things up, I think is really, really liberating.
Martin Reynolds
Yes, but adaptation normally implies a unilateral action. Creative climate appears to imply something different, more dynamic.
Joe Smith
Look, you’re right – you know, one of the things that I think that you and I share, and a number of our other Open University colleagues share, is a sense of excitement at the fact that we’re just entering a phase where we’re beginning to think about ourselves differently. By that I mean we’re in a phase where our whole intellectual frame of where humans sit in the world is shifting. And, you know, a phrase I’ve used before is, you know, in a sense climate change finishes Darwin’s sentence. It means that we have to accept the fact that we’re animal, that we’re of the natural world and in the natural world. We can’t pretend somehow that we live in a kind of discreet little machine-age bubble separate from natural forces.
Martin Reynolds
And it brings me back to the question about stakeholding and stakeholders, because there is an issue of how do we actually recognise non-human nature, the stuff that’s out there that can’t sit around a table like we are doing now and have a discussion about these things. What is it that has to change in order to provide that stakeholding for this incredibly important aspect of our natural world?
Joe Smith
Well, I think, I know you and your colleagues in Maths, Computing and Technology have been doing work recently that tries to reveal the reality, the presence of the non-human natural world in everyday practices and processes, and that’s one creative way of doing it. It’s an important way of doing it. But there are lots of other ways – you know, we have to work with proxies. We’re pretty used to the idea that scientists generate proxies for the natural world in the generation of data and the reporting of results, and that’s important too, but I’m really interested at the moment in how kind of other sorts of cultural work, particularly by artists, musicians, film makers, photographers, can help to just begin to melt that boundary between the sense of there being a cultural world and a natural world. And certainly one of the places on the creative climate website that I personally anticipate visiting regularly is going to be tracking the new creative work that people are doing in the arts in response to environmental change. I think that’s going to be really rich. It isn’t, if you like, the natural world speaking with its own voice all the time, although there are some interesting things happening in sound art that I think will give us some surprises.
Martin Reynolds
I appreciate very much the issue about you wanting the artists’ input, but there is a kind of a danger, isn’t there, of alienating the scientists. And it seems to me that if we’re going to have conversational space provided here, somehow we have to try and get the scientists to think in more artistic terms as well as vice versa. So are there opportunities, do you think, of actually having the science and the arts engaging with each other? Is that something which you foresee?
Joe Smith
Someone said that you don’t make interdisciplinary people. You find them. Some people are open to the idea of a conversation with people coming from different disciplines and backgrounds and with different kinds of creativity to hand, and some people aren’t. And I think we’re going to be looking for those people that are open to that. The Open University itself is full of people who are very open to interdisciplinary conversations, very open to breaking down the borders between arts and sciences. Only in the last week, I’ve got a great example – I won’t start on it now, but a great example that I’d love to look at putting up very early on in the creation of the website – between an artist and a scientist about common threads in their work.
Martin Reynolds
OK, Joe, that sounds like a good point to stop and a good prompt for us to keep a check on the ongoing conversation. Joe Smith, many thanks for your time.
Joe Smith
Thanks very much. Cheers Martin
End transcript: Audio 2
Audio 2
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

The advantage of using ‘conversation’ as a metaphor towards appreciating environmental responsibility lies with its sense of vibrancy, flux and continual change – ‘All conversation, then, is inventive, continually escaping its previous bounds’ (Talbott, 2004, p. 43). Conversation does not stand still. Similarly, the values attributed to nature – whether intrinsic or instrumental – are subject to change along with the flow of cultural change that shapes those values.

Ray Ison also uses the conversation metaphor (2002, p. 246):

As a species conversation is our unique selling point! We engage in conversation and in the process we bring forth ourselves and our world … To converse is to turn together, to dance, and thus an ecological conversation is a tango of responsibility. A conversation is inventive, unpredictable and is always particularizing to place and people … Engaging with this metaphor is not to turn away from doing science or ecology, or any other practice.

Ison considers the practices associated with environmental responsibility – whether science, policy design or everyday practices such as shopping – to be actual engagements with responding to nature. He defines ‘response-ability’ as the capacity to engage in responding (p. 237):

Early 21st century life has evolved many ways to undermine ‘response-ability’ – one can see it in highly prescribed curricula, in imposed targets from policy makers, in performance measures etc. It is also undermined when the outcomes of practices such as science are used to claim that ‘I am right and you are wrong’.

Response-ability might also be undermined when science (natural or social), or any other formalised professional practice, makes a definitive claim on what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. Moral judgements on good and bad, and right and wrong, are conditioned by particular circumstances at the time. Such constructs might be further reinforced by some fixed notions of value and obligation relating to an intuitive sense of care, or measure of well-intentioned guidance, constructed at a particular time and in a particular circumstance.

The two moral dilemmas associated with doing what’s good (not harmful) and doing what’s right (not wrong) relate to the ethical traditions of consequentialism and deontology. Response-abilities might be interpreted on these two fronts: first, a consequentialist concern about being responsive to the potential harm done to the natural environment; and second, a deontological concern about being responsive to the potential wrongdoing of human activity, either individually or collectively.

Both Ison and Talbott suggest that environmental responsibility involves the need to keep a conversation ongoing with nature without falling into the trap of generating fixed, intransigent values and perspectives. Values and perspectives need continual revision, depending on the circumstances and any changes in the situation.

I have translated Talbott’s description of two types of ecological conversation in terms of informal and formal. Environmental responsibility can be thought of in terms of an informal dimension of obligations and entitlements alongside a complementary, though more formalised, dimension of codified rights and duties. To some extent these expressions of informal and formal complement each other in a similar way to the concepts of caring for an environment and being accountable for harm and wrong done to the environment. Caring for an environment usually involves recognising the obligations associated with addressing the entitlements of non-human entities. Ensuring accountability for harm or wrong, on the other hand, tends to be more formalised and is associated with duties and rights.

Figure 8 attempts to capture the notion of environmental responsibility in terms of a conversation involving rights, duties, obligations and entitlements. This representation uses the distinction between ‘nature’ as a codified construction and Nature as an extra-discursive reality. Expressing responsibility in this way may allow an appreciation of the idea of continual flux and change.

Figure 8 Environmental responsibility as conversation

The Nature that we converse with includes the whole complex world of which our codified notions of ‘nature’ are an integral part. The obligations and duties that we have are not just a response to present generations of human and non-human nature, but future generations as well. Similarly, our entitlements in relation to Nature, informed by rights, are a response to both human and non-human nature.

Skip Your course resources

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371