Sholeh Johnston is a creative consultant, facilitator and writer passionate about social and environmental change.
I have spent much of the past seven years exploring the role that culture plays in our response to climate change, and the challenges it poses us. Much of my focus was, in the first instance, on what we can do, as individuals, artists and cultural organisations to be more environmentally sustainable. And as I spent more time looking at ways of mobilising people, and making changes to my own habits, I began to notice the undercurrent of deeply personal questions and emotions that taking those actions invited. This intangible landscape of identity and emotion is what culture and art has the capacity to make visible, to unpack and explore, without diluting its complexity.
“Science doesn't tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.”
Flight Behaviour, to me, is one of the best examples of this. It reveals the power of literature to weave a beautifully simple and universal human story about change from a complex web of systems: climate change, rural poverty and politics. It was one of the pieces of art that gave me the most conviction in the importance of culture in times like these - to move us from a place of knowing, to one of sensing, feeling and doing.
The protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow lives in Feathertown Tennesee, trapped in a hard, rural lifestyle and a shotgun marriage with Cub. On her way to a secret rendezvous in the mountains close to their family farm, ready to throw caution to the wind and begin an affair, she sees an orange haze - a "vision" - covering the trees on a ridge not far away. Her vision is soon revealed to be a millions of Monarch butterflies, far from their usual wintering ground in Mexico. A scientist, Ovid, arrives to monitor the butterflies and Dellarobia begins to help out his assistants. Gradually, in her exposure to Ovid's knowledge and frustration with local narrow-mindedness towards climate change, and her own curiosity and intellect blossoming through the work, she realises that her marriage has endured through nothing more than a fear of change and newness.
The backdrop to her personal story is the impact of climate change on the farming community - flooding and rain that has destroyed crops and the family's livelihood. They are not causing climate change, and find it implausible as an explanation, yet they suffer its effects. The book never falls into didactic conclusions or hero/villain archetypes. It presents things as they are, in all complexity, without overcomplicating or drawing simplistic conclusions.
The butterflies adapt, albeit with great uncertainties about their survival, to their new migratory pattern, while Dellarobia leaves cub and returns to college, beginning a new pattern herself, embracing a changed world. A world at the macro level changed by a warming climate, and an internal world changed by an openness to knowledge and the courage to see and act on the truth. This sense of empowerment through knowledge is one that I now realise defines the success of any work that involves change. To know about the big picture problems is not enough; we have to understand the mindsets that underpin them in order to see what is preventing change, and shift it. Ultimately, the book beautifully encapsulates the challenge that climate change posed to me - that to change the systems that we have enabled through our culture, values, choices and behaviours, we ultimately have to know and change ourselves.
Dellarobia arrives at this in her interactions with Ovid, but also in the moments she immerses herself in observing the butterflies.
“This was a living flow, like a pulse through veins, with the cells bursting and renewing themselves as they went. The sudden vision filled her with strong emotions that embarrassed her, for fear of breaking into sobs as she had in front of her in-laws that day when the butterflies enveloped her. How was that even normal, to cry over insects?”
The story made me reflect on my own childhood growing up on an organic farm. I sometimes sit outside my parent's house, looking over the land. I remember the day we moved to the farm - its fields filled only with grass, two modest houses perched on the edges, and then appreciate what it has become - a place teeming with flowers, fruit trees, vegetables, thousands of insects, mamals and birds. It took time, attention, hard work, consistency and love to encourage this ecosystem to flourish. It didn't happen over night. It reminds me that change is a process, not a destination, an idea that I find immensely liberating and motivating. Everything is changing all the time, and every little thing we can do to nudge it towards equity and a consciousness of our environmental context has an impact, however subtle.
“There are always more questions. Science as a process is never complete. It is not a foot race, with a finish line.... People will always be waiting at a particular finish line: journalists with their cameras, impatient crowds eager to call the race, astounded to see the scientists approach, pass the mark, and keep running. It's a common misunderstanding, he said. They conclude there was no race. As long as we won't commit to knowing everything, the presumption is we know nothing.”
Take yourself to a spot in nature. Take a deep breath. What can you smell? Spend time observing everything around you. Take in its diversity. What do you see? Cup your hands around your ears. What do you hear? How does it feel to be so immersed in this place? From this perspective, what are you moved to change?