Drawing the climate and reimagining our future

8 November 2022
How can we reimagine our climatic and social imaginaries? SEI Doctoral Fellow Freya MacDonald reflects on how the climate crisis is represented in images across multiple disciplinary settings.

By Freya MacDonald, SEI Doctoral Fellow, Department of English

Imaginaries are the shared backgrounds through which we experience ourselves and the world and shape our social practices and projects.1 They inform individual and collective expectations about how certain things ought and do occur. Imaginaries arise across multiple institutional and community settings, and they emerge through diverse mediums.

Generating sets of norms and values about certain things – the climate and the environment – imaginaries play a powerful role in shaping and dictating the dominant modes of being, seeing, doing, and desiring that shape lived experiences of the world, and the ecological relationship between human beings and the more-than-human-world.

Imaginaries are vital to social change processes, and they can be observed shifting at distinct historical moments where gradual, profound shifts in collective thought took place, spurring and permitting the paradigm shifts that have allowed new ways of being in the world to emerge and proliferate.

A set of dominant, Western, anthropocentric climatic imaginaries – stories, images, institutions and more – that have held and carried dominant ideas, norms, values, assumptions, and expectations about the climate together, have given way to the climate crisis. But these imaginaries are in flux. As anthropogenic climate change and the ensuing climate crisis continue to inflict immense, unevenly distributed, pressure and trauma on contemporary societies globally, it is increasingly evident that the climatic and social imaginaries that have shaped and overseen the dominant interactions between social and environmental systems since industrialisation need to change. And new imaginaries are ready to emerge.

Imaginaries are vital to social change processes, and they can be observed shifting at distinct historical moments where gradual, profound shifts in collective thought took place, spurring and permitting the paradigm shifts that have allowed new ways of being in the world to emerge and proliferate.

For new, ecologically just, climatic and social imaginaries to take shape and for them to hold and influence large-scale collectives, they must emerge across and be tethered to multiple institutional settings. Given this, multidisciplinary discussions and collaborative research projects that attend to imaginaries and that set out to identify and subvert the dominant social and climatic imaginaries that have caused and perpetuate the climate crisis are more critical than ever.

Earlier this year, the Drawing Climate workshop promoted one such collaborative research discussion. Run by the SEI with members Dr Jennifer Ferng and Dr Daniel Ryan from the Sydney School of Architecture, Design, and Planning, the workshop took a fundamental step in seeking to better understand and reimagine climatic and social imaginaries, by sparking a multidisciplinary exploration of images of climate and the climatic imaginaries they feed.

Embedded in SEI’s Environmental imaginaries and storytelling research theme, the workshop, based upon Ferng and Ryan’s book Drawing Climate,2 brought together a team of multidisciplinary researchers from Architecture, Art History, Business, Business Information Systems, English, Gender and Cultural Studies, Geosciences, Law, and Sociology to reflect on and explore how climate is represented in images of climate that arise across, and circulate within, multiple disciplinary settings.

But why images?

Images of climate, that emerge through diverse visual media, are a central site for analysis, as they do immense work in representing and sustaining the climatic imaginaries through which ideas, expectations, and norms and values about climate and the relationship between human beings and the environment are formed. As lone images they may seem transitory and inconsequential, yet as they coalesce and proliferate, they feed, punctuate and perpetuate the imaginaries – predominantly of human exceptionalism – that inform how individuals and collectives come to know, feel, and act in relation to the climate crisis.

Together, the multidisciplinary group of researchers explored the intersections between different disciplinary approaches to imaging climate. Reflecting on the dominant climatic imaginaries of the day – that have led us to an era of widespread climate crisis – we discussed how these dominant climatic imaginaries, of fossil fuels forever, business as usual and more, might be subverted across multiple institutional settings to support better climate governance today and nourish just future climate imaginaries.

Multidisciplinary discussions and collaborative research projects that attend to imaginaries and that set out to identify and subvert the dominant social and climatic imaginaries that have caused and perpetuate the climate crisis are more critical than ever.

To better understand and explore the relationship between images of climate and the climatic imaginaries they feed, we divided the images that emerged at the workshop into categories: those which were stereotypical to each discipline; those which might be considered radical or revolutionary; and those that were iconic or familiar to each discipline.

Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Ann Elias reflected on an image of an advertisement for ‘sustainable furniture’, illuminating how stereotypical, symbolic representations of stable climates – sun hitting blue water on a sandy beach (an idealised image of summer), and pristine environments – depict climate as stable and largely static, aesthetic backdrops that aid the selling of consumer goods.

Images of stable climates and pristine environments trigger emotional states in consumers. In advertising, representations of climate help sell products. These images, and the environmental rhetoric they inspire, are put to use in increasingly intricate ways. As Professor Christopher Wright from the Sydney Business School reflected, images of climate are key actors in Green Capitalism and are central to corporate greenwashing strategies.

These images highlighted how in contemporary, industrialised societies, images of climate have become central to the language we use to communicate ideas about climate. Further to this, these stereotypical images of climate highlight the ways in which images of climate dangerously reinforce and drive the nature/culture binary.

Beyond the stereotypical, radical and revolutionary images and approaches emerged. Dr Jennifer Ferng and Dr Daniel Ryan highlighted the work of Kevin O’Brien, whose Finding Country project uses fire as an imaginative device to reveal Country, asking participants to consider the obligations and connections to Country within cities.

Kevin O'Brien, 'Finding Country: Radical Practice,' 2018, University of Sydney, Sydney. Image courtesy of Tin Sheds Gallery, University of Sydney. Used with permission of Kevin O'Brien.

Associate Professor Kurt Iveson from the School of Geosciences reflected on the binary between density vs sprawl and the need to push beyond it. Focusing on images that give us insight into planning future cities – with climate in mind – he reflected on the Google images of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘unsustainable density’ that have become familiar to us over time.

Furthering an exploration of urban landscapes and climate, Dr Jamie Wang, a researcher from the department of Gender and Cultural studies, presented images of Supertree Grove in Singapore, a collection of 50-metre-high trees with winding observation decks, that embody a future climatic imaginary. These images were further reflected in the images from Solarpunk3 texts that I presented – the utopic images of a future in which the problems the climate crisis engenders have been solved. I asked how images of Solarpunk futures might subvert current climatic and social imaginaries and how they might inform transition to new, just, climatic, and social imaginaries.

The images that sociologist Dr Blanche Verlie reflected on brought us to the here and now. Verlie reflected on images of lived experiences of being stuck inside, contending with mould during a La Niña summer. These images highlighted that, contrary to apocalyptic climate fictions and films, that often default to depicting climate change as apocalyptic, acutely, and suddenly felt, climate change, for some, is, and can be experienced as slow and frustrating, boring even.

Finally, Professor Dirk Hovorka presented a blank image that reflected how, in his discipline of Business Information Systems, the ‘environment’ is usually completely absent, noting that, “only in a very small domain of ‘Green IS’ is any aspect of the natural world visible.” He highlighted a central problem as he explored the manner in which tech companies and those working in Business Information Systems often present the natural world as a tabula rasa that humans can create, manage, and control in any way people like, explaining that technology is granted God-like powers to alleviate any crisis.

Over the course of the workshop, we reflected on the power and importance of visual literacy and attending, more closely, to the images that powerfully shape the worlds we inhabit. Fundamental to generating new climatic and social imaginaries is better understanding the dominant imaginaries that have led to and currently perpetuate the climate crisis.

Images constitute imaginaries, and they can be seen as portals into them. The Drawing Climate workshop illuminated that reflecting on images of climate can assist researchers from multiple disciplines in gaining critical insights into the dominant social and climatic imaginaries of our time.

1. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003), 23.

2. Jennifer Ferng and Daniel Ryan, Drawing Climate: Visualising Invisible Elements of Architecture, (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2021).

3. Solarpunk is an emergent genre of fiction and an art movement that is driven by the following questions: what does a just ecological future look and feel like? And what steps do we need to take to get there?

Freya Grace MacDonald is a Doctoral Fellow at SEI and a PhD candidate in the Department of English at The University of Syndey. She is a research assistant engaged with projects in SEI's environmental storytelling and environmental imaginaries research cluster. And her interdisciplinary PhD research elucidates and explores the relationship between Environmental Imaginaries and Contemporary Environmental Fiction in Australia in the wake of the 2019/2020 Black Summer Bushfires. Follow her on Twitter.

Header image: Landscape with mountains and a lake and a dried desert via Shutterstock, ID: 2113527779.

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