It seems we have a difficult time paying enough attention climate and extinction crisis. This is because the causes move slowly and are not subject to the flashy drama that can distract us from the 24-hour news cycle. The Netflix recent film Don’t Look UpIt cleverly captures our inability focus on and collaborate to combat a common danger. To change this, we must develop a “slow memory” that can help us care about and act on slow change.
Humans can cope with catastrophes by recollecting them individually and collectively. Climate change is the biggest threat. It deserves the same attention that our great-grandparents gave to survive the threat from the second world war. Today, most of us actively recall and work against the things that led to that conflict – fascism, discrimination, hatred, economic deprivation – and we have coined the phrase “never again” to encapsulate the idea that remembering the past entails taking responsibility for the future.
Maurice Halbwachs, a French sociologe, was one of the founder fathers of memory research. He was born a century ago. Arguments were made thatCollective memory provides a framework for understanding the past and enables a group of people to negotiate its values. We tend to think of history in terms of specific dates, events and people, and so public commemoration mostly represents these in anniversaries, in plaques showing where “stuff happened”, or in statues. This is “fast memory”, an easily accessible repertoire of rituals of remembrance. Modern states – democratic and authoritarian alike – have whole departments devoted to Management of fast-memory.
The problem with climate change is that it does not lend itself easily to fast memory: it is not caused by a clear set of definable events or actors, and responsibility for it lies with many different people, communities and economic, social and colonial processes – many of them in the distant past. It is also not possible to reverse it by short-term, concerted efforts or heroic actions.
The threat of climate change is a serious issue that must not be ignored. This can only be achieved if we have an emotional and not just intellectual relationship with the planet, its future inhabitants, and it. How can we understand “never again” in relation to human-made environmental devastation?
The present has been shaped over time by gradual change
Slow memory – a concept I have developed in collaboration with colleagues as part of an EU-funded project – would mean creating space and time in our fast-paced lives to recognise that the present (and future) is shaped by gradual and creeping transformations, like the decline in bee populations or the disappearance of The rainforest.
Slow memory means that we can’t remember the past as it was and allow other species to be included in it. Brighton activists do this annually on November 30, when they gather to remember lost species in a funeral rite. They describe it as “a space for exploring stories about extinctions, that also acknowledge and pay proper attention to the related human experiences of injustice or oppression.”
We don’t need to start from scratch in order to create slow memory. As Joanne Garde Hansen, and other colleagues have demonstrated in their work on Flood memoriesCommunities that have experienced environmental change over time have developed ways of remembering. However, these are often forgotten or ignored. Such practices have left traces in community archives and family storytelling, and finding them requires us to “slow down” and rethink what, who and which source matters.
It’s a good place start to learn from older people or those living in marginalized communities about their attitudes and how they respond to change. This “slowed down” course of action in the face of danger may seem strangely devoid of predictable outcomes, but clearly our ever-accelerating drive for fast solutions has been part of the problem so far.
How to develop slow memories
Another avenue to develop “slow memory” is to use familiar techniques of commemoration to call attention to a slow-moving threat. This is the most impressive type of effort. Eden PortlandA proposal to convert a former mine to a memorial space and build an epic above ground monument to remember the species that have been lost and elicit an emotional response.
The memorial will be constructed on a cliff at the Isle of Portland, south England, in a Unesco world heritage region called the Jurassic coastBecause of the rich variety and fossils found there. These fossils are nature’s way of commemorating past inhabitants of our planet, but the traces in the rock have not been recognised by humans as a call to action.
At Eden Portland, enormous sculptures of the white rhino, the Yangze dolphin and other extinct animals will give the victims of poaching and habitat destruction a face and make “fast memory” work to remember slow devastation.
Conventional commemoration – the monument – will thus be used to foster the emotional bonds between human and non-human species that are indispensable to persuading our politics to act now – before it is too late. What we need is myriad small and large projects of this kind of “slow memory” to evoke a fundamental shift in consciousness about climate change.