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Environmental imaginaries and storytelling

Reimagining the world to create a more just and sustainable future
How people collectively imagine the relationship between humans and the environment plays a critical role in shaping actions.

Environmental imaginaries and storytelling are vital tools in understanding and communicating the current environmental crises, and in helping to reimagine better futures.

This theme seeks to investigate, and in turn tell the stories of, environmental transformation and the experience of environmental breakdown that will give voice to under-told stories and open up new possibilities.  

We aim to:

  • Bear witness to the experience of those facing environmental breakdown and disaster.
  • Understand, document and analyse the different types of imaginaries and stories that are circulating about environmental futures and the experience of environmental breakdown.
  • Reimagine environmental futures through stories and storytelling to foster more just, creative and inclusive futures. 
  • Identify and raise the profile of transformative visions in order to realise and replicate them.

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Sydney’s 2009 dust storm and Lismore’s 2022 flash floods have been immortalised by photographic images testifying to the widespread damages wrought by severe weather and unpredictable natural disasters. Images remain powerful, persuasive tools that impact how the public understands what is happening to the environment and how they can contribute productively to combat these effects. The “Climate Imaginaries” exhibition will educate the public more broadly about global images used to describe the climate crisis and how visual literacy can be marshalled to sway public opinions.

The exhibition will explore the visual coverage of diverse climates and environments that have transformed how debates have been positioned in the public realm. This includes:

  • iconic images like the Earth as a blue marble
  • radical images that challenge public perceptions of environmental crises
  • controversial images which have spurred conservative perspectives
  • popular images that abound in media and policy.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2023 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

Contributors: Dr Jennifer FerngDr Daniel Ryan

Listening to the Earth is a project focused on listening, connecting, and understanding our environment through the medium of sound. The project will deploy a speculative process to the discipline of listening via the design of unique instruments that listen. The goal of the project is to engage with environmental concerns through the medium and metaphor of sound.  

With sound at the core of the project, sound becomes not only the object of enquiry, but a medium of dissemination and discourse unto itself. In addition to textual outputs including an article, key outputs of the project will be sound-based creative work including performances, recordings as well as the listening devices themselves as sound installation pieces.

Additional outcomes will include a creative symposium, workshop and showing to leverage discourse, collaborators, and partnerships within and beyond the university as well as funding applications to arts and research agencies. 

This project is supported by SEI’s 2023 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

Contributors: Dr Diana ChesterAssociate Professor Damien Ricketson

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How can we uncover, understand, elevate, engage, nourish, communicate, and implement a range of climate imaginaries that will better support just action in the face of a climate changing world? This project brings together broad, experienced, multi-disciplinary teams from across the global north and south to explore different and intersecting imaginaries that are shaping how diverse communities are already acting in response to climate-altered futures.

The central goal of the Climate Imaginaries project is to produce knowledge, multimedia communications and praxes for how writers, artists, humanities scholars, and social and natural scientists can more effectively collaborate to build climate imaginaries that will support just transformations and adaptations. It will explore and synthesise the different dimensions across which social imaginaries are constituted through the arts, social and political practices and scientific modelling. 

The project is driven by an insistence on understanding whose stories are told, the multiplicity and location of different imaginaries, and the many methods adopted to learn about and communicate imagined futures. We are particularly interested in 'banished' or 'marginalised' knowledges and knowledges from below, a capacious understanding of imaginaries from across discipline and methodological innovation. 

Contributors: Professor Danielle CelermajerProfessor David Schlosberg

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The climate emergency poses a crisis of imagination, which poses a crisis for action. The problem is that the dominant imaginaries of stability, rescue and doom fail to empower communities to develop forms of life capable of ethically sustaining themselves and beings other than humans as destabilisations intensify. A fourth imaginary, one holding out the possibility of relational, community-building and ethical forms of life under radically climate-changed conditions is, however, already incipient in the work of communities creating different sustainabilities, systems and material flows.

Working across three sites in Australia and India, this project will amplify these grounded and transformative imaginaries; network communities involved in transformative action and enhance their capacity to communicate the systematic character of their approaches, and equip people to develop community-led systemic responses and produce effective communications about transformative projects. Fieldwork will draw out narratives about communities’ practices and the processes they have undergone to develop, sustain and adapt them. Working with communities and youth fellows, the project will produce stories via short films, community radio, artwork and written narrative. It will disseminate them across traditional and social media, targeting communities seeking to address climate-driven destabilisation, policy-makers and NGOs.

This project is made possible with the generous support of the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation.

Contributors: Professor Danielle CelermajerProfessor David Schlosberg, Genevieve Wright

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Bushfire stories are important resources. They reveal how people directly and indirectly understand and experience bushfires and their general ideas about the environment. These ways of seeing inform how people act toward both. Notably, recent bushfire inquiries have emphasised local and individual action, responsibility and knowledge as the way forward for preparing and navigating future fire seasons. Bushfire stories can also enrich our approaches to the complex and contested issues surrounding Australia’s fire seasons.

This project will collect and archive community stories about Australian bushfires on a publicly viewable website called Bushfire Stories. This archive will serve as a valuable platform that enables people to tell their stories and be heard. It will provide an online space to express, engage with, and understand diverse experiences of bushfires – including those not necessarily covered in the current mainstream reporting on bushfires. This archive will also inform our research into how communities understand, experience, and narrate bushfires.

Contributors: Associate Professor Thom Van Dooren, Dr Blanche Verlie, Dr Scott Webster, Dr Fiona Allon

This interdisciplinary environmental humanities project focuses on the proposed raising of the Warragamba Dam wall to explore the role of narrative in analysing and responding to socio-environmental controversies. It aims to develop new resources for enhancing community understanding and involvement in these complex issues, utilising narrative to enable responses that are creative, inclusive, and just.

This project is funded by the Australian Research Council (Discovery Project 2022-2025). 

Contributors: Associate Professor Thom van Dooren

These times of rapid ecological change are revealing the complex and multifaceted affective attachments people (human and non-human) have to their environments. This collaborative multidisciplinary research program considers ecological emotions, feelings and affects, and in turn, their effects on the world.

It explores questions such as: how (i.e. through what mechanisms) do people feel their environments? What common and unique feelings are people having in these times of ecological destruction? How do social, cultural, economic and political forces shape the ways different people feel? (How) do such feelings, including emotions like fear, despair and anger participate in social transformation and act as motivations to initiate change? How can we best respond to these feelings – as individuals, as communities, as academics, as societies?

The project considers the multiple geographical (embodied, local, global) and temporal (past, present, future) scales of ecological feelings; their social and political dimensions; and the relationships they emerge from and contribute to. We seek to develop rich accounts of experiences, scholarly reflections on the cultural implications of these experiences, and tangible policy recommendations.

Common themes include climate grief, eco-anxiety, hope, mental health and wellbeing, activism, community, denial, and resilience.

Contributors: Dr Blanche Verlie, Dr James DunkAssociate Professor Paul RhodesProfessor Anik WaldowProfessor Danielle CelermajerDr Jo LongmanProfessor Rosemary Lyster, Associate Professor Dalia Nassar

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Clinical psychology is ill-equipped to respond to climate distress, given the focus on personal pathology and cognitive models, rather than affect that relates to external, ecological events. We are now at a critical time in planetary history where the climate crisis is undeniable, and where eco-anxiety is becoming an almost universal experience. This is particularly the case in young people, who face the reality of a lifetime of severe and devastating climate events.

Headspace is the country’s leading mental health service for young people, aged 12-25, but as yet has no consistent approach to climate distress. Initiated by Jordan Koder, member of the Youth Advisory Committee at headspace Camperdown for this purpose, the aim of this project is to support a group of youth advisory leaders in headspace to develop a set of resources for headspace clinicians.

Using the methodology of Youth-Based Participatory Action Research, a qualitative research method that allows the development of practice through an iterative process of youth-led consultation, action and review, members of headspace Youth Advisory Committees will collaborate with members of the Sydney Environment Institute to develop a set of written, video and seminar-based resources for clinicians.

These resources will focus on the following issues:

  • How is climate distress being experienced by youth?
  • What interdisciplinary knowledge is available for the understanding of climate emotions?
  • How might this be integrated with traditional clinical approaches to distress?
  • What are the critical issues and approaches that young people want clinicians to acknowledge and include in their practice?

This project is supported by SEI’s 2022 Collaborative Project Fellowship scheme.

This project is part of the Ecological emotions, feelings and affects cluster.

Contributors: Associate Professor Paul RhodesDr James Dunk, Jordan Koder 

Profound barriers still separate humans from other species, and from the planet – semantically, affectively, practically. But new lexicons and glossaries seek to describe a world which seems to have outgrown the words we once used, and we need to listen more closely to the way language is being used to articulate the present moment.

New words are proposed to mark a geological epoch: anthropocenetechnoceneplantationocenemanthropocene. The language, like the epoch, is contorted and violent, but there are more elegant names: cthulucene, eremocene, the age of loneliness. In a plethora of new dictionaries, lexicons, and glossaries, language is gathered to give form and texture to these imagined epochs. Here there are words of clarified grief and dread but also words of hope, drafted from different languages and histories to find and steady ourselves in the spiral sweep of post-industrial, post-local, post-human time. These words seem to thrust down through space and time to find the places we fear are lost or fear to lose. Some are ancient, holding intimacies born of long practice and habit, now recovered and collected as passwords to other lifeworlds. Others are new words to express and realise new scientific findings or philosophical aspirations: solastalgiabiophobia, omnicidesymbiocene.

In this collaborative project we aim to map the power and limits of language to collapse time and space and to guide us into futures which words themselves bring forth.

To share your thoughts or to join us, please contact Jamie (james.dunk@sydney.edu.au).

This project is part of the Ecological emotions, feelings and affects cluster.

Contributors: Dr James DunkProfessor Anik Waldow