Cosmopolitanism in the Anthropocene (with a Postscript on the coronavirus)

By Prof. Miyase Christensen (Stockholm Univesity & Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden)

This is a moderated version (see Postscript at the end) of a chapter published in “The Sage Handbook of Media & Migration” (Sage, 2020). Editors: Kevin Smets, Koen Leurs, Myria Georgiou, Saskia Witteborn & Radhika Gajjala.


In early 2019 it was announced that Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old Swedish climate activist, had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thunberg originally gained national and international fame with her (then) solo climate-protest outside of the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm, a protest that grew in fame to the point where it developed into the ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement and the genesis for tens of thousands of student ‘strikes’ worldwide. The question, for some, was what Thunberg’s environmental protests had to do with peace. The answer can be found in, among other places, Africa where disputes over access to water along the Nile continue to escalate (with the threat of military intervention). In addition, and just a few days after Thunberg’s nomination, a cyclone hit the African countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, killing large numbers and causing floodwaters in excess of 20 feet, destroying 90 percent of Mozambique’s fourth largest city, Biera. Thus, the concept of ‘peace’ cannot be separated from nature, as we witness both military conflict and humanitarian catastrophe in the Anthropocene (the current geological age marked by human influence on the environment), nor can it be separated from how human impact on the environment shapes migration, mobility and peace.

As Burke (2013) has noted in relation to what he calls the ultimate failure of a ‘moral community’, recent events such as those in north and east Africa are stark reminders of the futility of considering rising global temperatures, resource depletion or natural disasters simply as issues of national relevance:

When states draw on the same water sources, experience a common climate, depend on global prices and currency values, transmit conflict and weapons beyond their borders, and threaten and affect the lives of others far away, enclosed or circular models of moral community — however generous — fail to reflect an urgent reality. It is no longer a matter of deciding whether national interests and global goods must clash, but of honoring the common space of life and death that we have created.
Clearly, in all of these cases — from warfare to famine to human/natural disasters — mobility and migration are central components. It is the purpose of this chapter to offer a discussion of cosmopolitanism vis-à-vis mobility and migration from the standpoint of planetary politics and the Anthropocene, rather than within a global framing. Here, cosmopolitanism and mobility are considered in an integrativemanner in which the material and symbolic aspects can be considered together to open up new cosmopolitan horizons.

A Brief History Of Cosmopolitan Thought

In her 1980 collection of essays, Under the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag wrote a chapter on the Bulgarian-born writer Elias Canetti, who was taken from Austria to Britain in 1938 to escape the incoming Nazi regime. Canetti, described as the ‘son of a family of wandering Sephardic Jewish merchants’ and inspired by Goethe, wrote of his experiences in war-torn London. Sontag saw the connection between Canetti’s personal history, his writing and his connection to cosmopolitanism, and wrote of him:
He has, almost by birthright, the exiled writer’s easily generalized relation to place: a place is a language. And knowing many languages is a way of claiming many places as one’s territory. Canetti has the privilege and the burden of understanding, Jew that he is, the higher cosmopolitanism. (Mitgang, 1981)

Sontag continued by writing that a great deal of Canetti’s works point toward the importance of ‘how to pay attention to the world’ and that, in his work, ‘there is no doctrine’. Of course, the very form of cosmopolitanism that Sontag ascribed to Canetti — the fluid, exiled Jewish artist able to adapt and understand multiple cultural contexts — was the same form reviled by Stalin in the late 1940s and early 1950s Soviet Union. Employing the term ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ (originally used in 19th century Russia against Jewish writers), an anti-Semitic campaign to smear Jewish intellectuals was put into action in which their loyalty to both party and nation were questioned.

The flexibility and utility of the terms cosmopolitanand cosmopolitanism — there were, after all, only 30 years between the pejorative Stalinist use and Sontag’s celebration — speak to the long, rich (and often problematic) history of the terms. The concepts of cosmopolitanism and the cosmopolitan have, in various iterations and for various political and social ends, been woven into the intellectual history of humankind: from early Chinese Confucianism, to the ancient Greeks to Stalinist Russia. Ancient Greece is perhaps most famous for what was clearly not a cosmopolitan political and social project, namely evident in the political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, in which men (and only men) swear their allegiance to a specific city (‘polis’) and its inhabitants alone. This essentially anti-cosmopolitan ideology — where sharing or collaborating with those who resided outside of polis was frowned upon, and where the only foreigners with whom one could/should interact were those already living within the walls of the polis — was juxtaposed by the philosophy famously attributed to the Cynic Diogenes, a 4th century BC resident of Sinope (now part of the Black Sea region of Turkey) who, when asked where he came from, answered: ‘I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês)’. This philosophy was then adapted by the Stoics and crystalized by the philosopher Hierocles who envisioned Stoic cosmopolitanism in the form of concentric circles with the human mind at the center, expanding outward to encompass family, extended family, local community, wider community, country/nation and, at the outer edge of the circles, the entirety of the human race. The goal, Hierocles posited, was to pull these various circles inward, thereby making the human, the national and the local issues of the person and the mind.

The ‘citizen of the world’ position taken by Diogenes was later adopted by intellectuals such as Thomas Paine. While in Paris in the late 1790s, Paine argued that, although not French by birth, his opposition to the execution of the deposed king Louis XVI — Paine claimed that capital punishment was inhumane and that the former monarch should be exiled — should be taken seriously because he was a ‘citizen of the world’. As Lamb (2014) writes, there is perhaps no political thinker in the post-ancient era that is so closely associated with the philosophy originally espoused by Diogenes. Lamb (2014: 638) notes that Paine regularly points out the ‘universal validity (and falsity) of moral and political claims’ and that their ‘evaluation can never be confined to one particular national, historical or cultural context’. In a famous line from his pamphlet Common Sense, and in the spirit of universalism and inter-connectedness, Paine (2003) unwittingly presaged questions related to environmental degradation and the Anthropocene when he wrote, ‘the cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind’. At almost precisely the same time as Paine was writing Common Sense, Immanuel Kant published Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch(1970) in whichhe outlined his ideas for a program of global peace to be enforced by national governments. In addition to a list of articles intended to eliminate warfare, three additional articles were included to ensure that peace and stability could be maintained with the third of these directly related to cosmopolitanism: ‘The law of world citizenship shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality’. This ‘Cosmopolitan Law’ was an addition to constitutional and international law and was predicated on the belief that human beings have inalienable rights as citizens of earth and not just as citizens of states.

What this brief history of cosmopolitanism shows us is not only the flexibility in how the term has been used, but, also, how the conception of being a ‘citizen of the world’ tends to dominate the epistemological framing of being a cosmopolitan. This is a citizenship that is on the surface dynamic, but ultimately static and rooted in time. Interestingly, however, it was the original proponent of cosmopolitanism, Diogenes, who provided the most forward-thinking and radical conception of the term. For Diogenes, cosmopolitanism was more than simply the acceptance of ‘the other’, it was about active (rather than theoretical) participation in dissent: to challenge prevailing wisdom, to question power, to expose excessive consumption and greed and to live a life free of material possessions and waste. The ‘anti-elite and anti-institutional notions of belonging and citizenship’ held by Diogenes and the Cynics were in opposition to the more conservative Stoic tradition (Delanty, 2012: 3). It is this conception of cosmopolitanism that is perhaps most useful when considering the relationship to the Anthropocene and environment as it foregrounds the long-term, temporal impact of human action (and inaction) rather than focusing on short-term impact. For example, Marxist notions of dominating nature and expanding production to benefit workers were geared toward an ultimately cosmopolitan end: the erosion and collapse of nation-states and the emergence of a classless, humanitarian society. Yet, this end is untenable and can result in the destruction of earth if no governed tightly and sensibly. In the subsequent sections, how cosmopolitanism must embrace not only a philosophy of inclusion, but one of dissent and activism in the face of radical environmental change, will be addressed.

Cosmopolitanism in the Mediated Anthropocene

How might we conceive of a cosmopolitan vision connecting the concepts of the Anthropocene and migration within the more radical tradition of Diogenes and the Cynics? One way to start would be to challenge the ways in which media and communication studies have traditionally addressed questions of cosmopolitanism and the media. To date, the mediated ‘cosmopolitan vision’ has usually been discussed within the parameters of consumption of various forms of representation: from popular culture to news (Robertson, 2019). Such a focus, however, runs the risk of reducing media ‘consumption’ to the act of reading, listening or seeing. It doverces the acts of producing and purchasing media hardware from the act of absorbing representation. This conception also ignores what Parikka (2012; in Christensen & Nilsson, 2018) described as the ‘dirty matter’ produced in modern society. This matter includes the chemicals and minerals required for the production of contemporary communication technology hardware: chemicals and materials that are mined in predominantly poorer nations, with catastrophic environmental effects. In addition to the devastating consequences of the extraction of these materials, there exists similarly devastating environmental consequences for the disposal of the same materials. Cultural imperialism studies (e.g. Boyd-Barrett, 1977; Schiller 1976; 1991) addressed the ‘core-periphery’ relationship between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations, yet reduced the material that would flow back from core (wealthy nations) to periphery (poorer nations) to media/cultural products (TV programs, films, music). This analysis, while canonic and highly insightful, overlooked the extent to which the discarded hardware of media, including vast quantities of toxic material (in the case of, for example, computers), are also dumped in poorer nations, again leading to environmental degradation (Christensen & Nilsson, 2018: 271–2).

In relation to the Anthropocene and migration, therefore, a radical cosmopolitan perspective must take into account the material impact of the consumption of media hardware upon the environment, and the potential of that consumption to contribute to the conditions that lead to forced and involunatry migration. This follows the longitudinal perspective, embraced by Diogenes, within which all stages and all forms of media ‘consumption’ — from the mining of the materials required to produce media hardware to their eventual disposal in the form of e-waste — must be considered for a truly radical and holistic cosmopolitian understanding of media consumption. This is what Parikka (2012: 97) termed ‘media-natures’, which would be used for the study of the ‘continuum between mediatic apparatuses and their material contexts in the exploitation of nature’.
In media and communication studies, notable perspectives and empirical analyses have been produced over the past few decades. Yet, we have probably just begun to scratch the surface in terms of the potential of cosmopolitan thought. As a result of media and communication studies being the off-shoot of various other disciplines (for example, Literary Studies in the US), as well as being periodically ridiculed in popular press as ‘Mickey Mouse Studies’ in the UK not so long ago, there has, at times, been a tendency to defer to dominant paradigms of thought and research, and not to develop new, radical, progressive theory (related to, for example, issues of central importance to the earth on which we live). It is telling that many of the strands of theory and thought that were perceived as marginal to media and communication research — such as environmental humanities — should, in truth, be at the heart of media and communication studies. It is only this form of thinking that will enable media and communication studies to take the steps required to address the relationship between, for example, the Anthropocene and media consumption. In concrete terms, Peters (2015: 2) has argued that we should ‘conceive of the media as both nature and culture’.

One connective tissue between this new form of theory and research, the Anthropocene and the theme of migration, is that of geo-politics. The traditional conception of geopolitics has been one of ‘the world’ or ‘the global’, yet we need to move beyond these concepts and embrace the notion of planetary politics. Along these lines, Elden (2013) suggests that we think of a ‘politics of the earth’ rather than a ‘politics of the global’. This meshes well with Burke’s (2013) cosmopolitan notion of ‘honoring the common space of life and death that we have created’. Of course, migration is one part of geo-politics and so a cosmopolitan vision should go beyond moral, ethical, legal and representational notions, and develop a more holistic understanding within the framework of the Anthropocene. As Christensen and Nilsson (2018: 272–3) write: ‘bringing in geopolitical perspectives (makes) visible the planetary scale through addressing questions of geographic interplay as well as the human scale through an emphasis on politics and power (such as colonial legacies and contemporary dynamics of subordination)’.


In this short essay, the goal has been to stimulate thought on the relationship between cosmopolitanism, migration and the Anthropocene, but to also consider how media and communication studies can and should adapt to contemporary planetary environmental conditions. The Nobel Prize nomination given to Sweden’s Greta Thunberg was presented as a starting point to consider how climate and peace are interconnected. Thunberg’s Swedish nationality is a good place to end. As has been well documented, Sweden has, per capita, taken more refugees than any other country in Europe and far more per capita than countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia. Much has also been made of the fact that a majority of these refugees have come from war-torn Syria and, just over a decade ago, from war-torn Iraq. The destabilization of Iraq, and the political and military vacuum that followed, contributed to the formation of the Islamic State (IS) which, in turn, led to the de-stabilization of Syria. Sweden’s intake of refugees and immigrants from these nations has a direct relationship to the Anthropocene: the US bombing of Iraq in the early 1990s and the US/UK invasion and occupation of Iraq that began in 2003 were both efforts to secure US and European access to oil. Thus, it can be reasonably argued it was the excessive demand for oil and petroleum products that contributed to Sweden’s considerable intake of refugees from Iraq and Syria.

How does this bring us back to cosmopolitanism and academic research? To take the case of media and communication studies, the analysis of, for example, the representation of migrants from Syria or Iraq has usually defined these groups as fleeing conflict or war. Less common (if at all) is to define them, ultimately, as victims of a hyper-consumption fuelled by the media that cover them, politicians who use them as pawns and media consumers who now read reductionist stories about them. Thus, framing refugees and migrants as the effects of specific conflicts bypasses deeper global environmental and consumption issues in favor of discourses of war which absolve the reader (and researchers) from personal responsibility.
Cosmopolitanism has usually been framed as a question of space, and empathizing with those from other places. What it rarely has been framed as, however, is a question of empathy and engagement across time. As history changes, the work and activism of Diogenes reminds us of the need to think of cosmopolitanism in temporal terms, as our actions today will have effects many years down the road.

Postscript, March 2020

Given the issues raised in this chapter, the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is a stark reminder of how those who work within the field of Media and Communication Studies (and academia in general) would do well do consider how our own professional practices are often at odds with the (admittedly laudible) egalitarian and pro-social framework within which a great deal of research is conducted. Earlier in this piece, I noted how the technology hardware used in the media industry, and by academics, make a significant contribution to environmental degradation: a fact that often goes without comment in political economic and social analyses of the “impact of media.” By the same token, we might ask how and why these same technologies that, at the very least, allow for instantaneous visual and aural communication over great distances — technologies used on a daily basis in so many other areas of our work — are suddenly abanadoned in favor of highly damaging long-distance travel for events such as academic conferences. That it takes an outbreak like COVID-19 to stop these practices, even in the face of existing overwhelming evidence of the damage caused by things such as air travel, speaks to the chasm between much academic rhetoric on progressive practice and action.


  • Boyd-Barrett, O. (1977). Media imperialism: Towards an international framework for the analysis of media systems. Mass Communication and Society, 116–135.
  • Burke, A. (2013). Security cosmopolitanism. Critical Studies on Security, 1(1), 13–28.
  • Christensen, M., & Nilsson, A. E. (2018). Media, communication, and the environment in precarious times. Journal of Communication, 68(2), 267–277.
  • Delanty, G. (2012). Introduction: The emerging field of cosmopolitanism studies. In G. Delanty (ed.), Routledge handbook of cosmopolitanism studies. (pp. 20–27). London: Routledge.
  • Peters, J. D. (2015). The marvelous clouds: Toward a philosophy of elemental media. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kant, I. (1970). Perpetual peace: A philosophical sketch(Vol. 1991). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lamb, R. (2014). The liberal cosmopolitanism of Thomas Paine. The Journal of Politics, 76(3), 636–648.
  • Mitgang, H. (1981). Cosmopolitan in tradition of Goethe. New York Times, 16 October. Available at:
  • Paine, T. (2003). Common Sense and Other Writings, ed. Gordon S. Wood (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), xxi–xxii.
    Parikka, J. (2012). New materialism as media theory: Medianatures and dirty matter. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 9(1), 95–100.
  • Robertson, A. (2019). Media Cultures and Cosmopolitan Connection. In G. Delanty (ed.), Routledge handbook of cosmopolitanism studies. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Schiller, H. I. (1991). Not yet the post-imperialist era. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 8(1), 13–28.
  • Schiller, H. I. (1976). Communication and cultural domination. White Plains: International Arts and Sciences Press.

Examining nature and society through urban infrastructure (NATURE)

by Timos Karpouzoglou

With funding recently received from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, a new 3-year project has been launched at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment.

In the project NATURE, we are an international team of researchers that will be looking at an all too familiar term these days but with a slightly different angle. As researchers, we are increasingly exposed and concerned about the challenges of nature, for instance its role in society and the way ecological concerns are creating a new form of discourse—some would even say an anxiety—about the future of societies. In other words, we see the connection of nature and society as becoming re-thought, and, perhaps more than before, intertwined with the everyday practice of living and imagining our world.

This new rewiring of nature and society poses a set of interesting questions and dilemmas for the critical scholar of infrastructure. For over a century, infrastructure planning has been heavily influenced by modernity; and, in particular, an engineering ideal of universal, uniform, networked infrastructure materialized in those such as grid electricity networks, water and sanitation networks and other similar large socio-technical systems (Furlong 2014). However, we believe that we are witnessing a set of processes that vary globally but, at their core, are about embracing infrastructure heterogeneity. Discourses focusing on resilience in infrastructure planning are also increasingly influential in directing attention to a different way of thinking about the role of nature and society as part of infrastructure (Karpouzoglou et al 2019). In cities like Guwahati, India, the importance of natural ecosystems such as wetlands can be viewed as heterogeneous infrastructure for flood mitigation of the Brahmaputra river (See Figure 1). Hence, in our study, we place special emphasis on exploring the role of ‘heterogeneous infrastructure configurations,’ a phrase that aims to capture the diversity of infrastructure which we are witnessing today (Lawhon et al. 2018).

Figure 1: Wetlands along the Brahmaputra River, Guwahati, India, photo credit, Sumit Vij.

During the project’s three years, we seek to widen the perspective of nature and society by considering different components of modernity, specifically, modern ideas of infrastructure and of nature. We are inspired by work that describes the notion that technology (and sociotechnical systems) carries values and ideas which are built into the artifacts by their designers and system builders and co-created by users (Akrich 1992). In other words, even if infrastructure is often conceived as a technological endeavor—it is never purely technological.

Central to our methodology will be narrative enquiry (Sinclair 2002). In other words, by focusing on the storytelling practices of socio-technical regime actors such as engineers and planners in the cities of Stockholm (Sweden), Guwahati (India) and Kampala (Uganda) we will attempt to bring to the surface potentially unaddressed narratives of nature and society. We will also experiment with creative techniques, including the use of boundary objects (e.g. photographs, toy models of different kinds of infrastructure) that will help structure and prompt respondents to explore unspoken ideas. By means of organizing a public exhibition in the Stockholm area, we will explore the role of the arts as a medium for communicating new ideas about infrastructure.

NATURE Research Team

Timos Karpouzoglou, Division of History of Science, Technology & Environment, KTH, Sweden
Pär Blomqvist, University of Mälardalen, Sweden
Mary Lawhon, Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability. University of Oklahoma, USA
Katarina Larsen, Division of History of Science, Technology & Environment, KTH, Sweden
David Nilsson, Division of History of Science, Technology & Environment, KTH, Sweden
Sumit Vij, Public Policy and Administration group, Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands


  1. Akrich, M., 1992. “The De-scription of Technical Objects.” In Wiebe Bijker and John Law, eds., Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, pp. 205-224.MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Furlong, K., 2014. “STS beyond the ‘modern infrastructure ideal’: extending theory by engaging with infrastructure challenges in the South.” Technology in Society, 38, 139-147.
  3. Karpouzoglou. et al. 2019. “Unearthing the ripple effects of power and resilience in large river deltas.” Environmental Science & Policy.
  4. Lawhon, Mary, David Nilsson, Jonathan Silver, Henrik Ernstson, and Shuaib Lwasa. 2018. “Thinking through Heterogeneous Infrastructure Configurations.” Urban Studies 55 (February).
  5. Sinclair BJ., 2002. “Narrative inquiry: more than just telling stories.” TESOL Quart, 36, 207– 213.

Visiting the Cosmos: Science Fiction in the Gallery

by Caroline Elgh Klingborg, Curator, Bonniers Konsthall

Last fall, I brought a group of researchers and guests from KTH’s Division of History of Science, Technology, and Environment to the exhibit I curated for Bonniers Konsthall, entitled Cosmological Arrows: Journeys through Inner and Outer Space.* Their curiosity in the powers of science fiction and speculative fiction by way of research and teaching (for instance, the course Science Goes Fiction) sparked engagement and conversation, for which I’ve been asked to contribute my thoughts behind the exhibit. As I see it, we are living in a world where we are facing countless ecological, technical, and political challenges. The state of the world is an apparent and important part of the public debate where researchers, activists and other engaged people want to create visibility and change. At the same time, there also seem to be a growing sense of powerlessness, especially among young people, that it might be too late to save our planet. Since we are facing all these challenges together as humans and more-than-humans living on this damaged planet, we need new forms of interdisciplinary knowledge and new forms of collaborations. And here we can turn to the arts.

During recent years, we have seen a growing number of exhibitions and art projects—internationally and in Sweden—that evolve around the state of the world and our present future. Nearby subject areas such as science fiction, space, co-habitation and the more-than-human have interested an increasing number of artists in recent years. Themes like these have been featured in international exhibitions such as Gravity: Imagining the Universe after Einstein at MAXXI in Rome, Is This Tomorrow? at Whitechapel Gallery in London, Tomorrow is the Question at ARoS in Århus, and—not least—May You Live in Interesting Times curated by Ralph Rugoff for the latest Venice Biennale. In Sweden, I need to point at exhibitions such as The non-human Animal at Uppsala Art Museum, Sensing Nature from Within at Moderna Museet in Malmö and Animalesque and Art Across Species and Beings at Bildmuseet in Umeå. It is distinctly clear that visual artists, curators and art institutions feel the need to engage with the rapid technological, ecological and political changes the world is going through—and to rethink the definitions of nature, agency, materiality and what it means to be human.

Caroline Elgh Klingborg, curator, of Cosmological Arrows. Photo by Cecilia Åsberg.

Climate researchers like Keri Facer has spoken about the arts as something we will need more of in the present future and that art can teach us about experimental thinking and how to live with some uncertainty. So, from various disciplines, there seem to be an openness and wish for interdisciplinary collaborations to bring forward new perspectives on human and more-than-human forms of co-habitation. Some of these perspectives were brought forward in the exhibition. The exhibition was shown during autumn 2019 and assembled a group of artists—Allora & Calzadilla, Lee Bul, Agnieszka Brzeżańska, Debora Elgeholm, Johannes Heldén, Anna Hoetjes, Jone Kvie, Lawrence Lek, Caroline Mesquita, Brittany Nelson, Lea Porsager, Larissa Sansour, Arseny Zhilyaev and Asya Volodina—who are all interested in science fiction and humanity’s conception of the cosmos. In keeping with our own time, my intention for this exhibition was to highlight how visual artists are using space and the genre of science fiction as an imaginary laboratory that forms the basis for discussions of today’s ethical, moral, existential and political dilemmas.

Sofia Jonsson poses with Lee Bul’s, Civitas Solis II, 2014. Photo by Cecilia Åsberg.

Cosmological Arrows showed the connections between contemporary art and science fiction, and how this rather new relationship can contribute to new ways of thinking, being and acting in the world. In the preface to her science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018) writes about how she uses science fiction to do leaps of imagination. Le Guin does not believe that her work as an author contributes any kind of evidence-based research into how the future will look (because no divine or visionary prophesies come from science fiction) but instead describes reality and the time in which the book is being written.

This reading was also appropriate for the artworks presented in Cosmological Arrows. The exhibition clearly showed that science fiction does not constitute an escape into another world. Rather the exhibition highlighted and illustrated an intricate interplay between reality and fiction in which science fiction became a tool for testing and conceiving of various historical, contemporary or future scenarios. Even if the works presented were (rather dystopian) portraits of our time—and dealt with our reality on the only planet that is habitable (as far as we know today)—the conceptual worlds that the artists can create with the help of science fiction could perhaps offer us a certain understanding of or preparation for what might await us in the future.

Visiting the exhibit, from left to right: Caroline Elgh Klingborg, Jesse Peterson, Myra Hird, Sabine Höhler, Sofia Jonsson, Silvia Thomackenstein, and Janne Holmstedt. Photo by Cecilia Åsberg.

I am sure we will see more of these perspectives and initiatives within the arts during upcoming years. The genre of science fiction has gained new relevance today and its themes and images bring together artists, film makers, writers and academics—bridging the gap between art, popular culture, activism and academia.

*The exhibition was accompanied by a publication with the same name. The book contains texts by Caroline Elgh Klingborg, Jerry Määttä, Mahan Moalemi, and Cecilia Åsberg, as well as short stories by Aleksandr Bogdanov, Ted Chiang, Karin Tidbeck and Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. and artworks by Agnieszka Brzezanska, Allora & Calzadilla, Anna Hoetjes, Arseny Zhilyaev & Asya Volodina, Brittany Nelson, Caroline Mesquita, Debora Elgeholm, Johannes Heldén, Jone Kvie, Larissa Sansour, Lawrence Lek, Lea Porsager, and Lee Bul.

Author Bio: Caroline Elgh Klingborg is a curator of contemporary art. Her work explores interdisciplinary processes and collaborations across different fields of research. In exhibitions and publications, she has brought forward the meeting between visual arts and fields such as speculative fiction, environment, new materialisms and truth. As a curator at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm she has recently curated the group exhibition Cosmological Arrows. Journeys Through Inner and Outer Space and Dora Garcia´s solo exhibition I Always Tell the Truth. Caroline Elgh Klingborg collaborates with The Posthumanities Hub and is also a guest lecturer at Stockholm University´s Curating Program.

Field Report: Contributing to the Museum at Esperanza Base*

Context: Kati Lindström, a researcher at the Division, is currently in Antarctica as part of the CHAQ2020 Argentinean-Swedish expedition. Further reporting on this project is accessible through the researcher’s website, Melting History. As part of the expedition, she lead the curation of new posters for an exhibition at one of the southernmost museums in the world.

by Kati Lindström

How to design an addition to a museum that you have never been to? A museum that is among the most austral ones in the world, where you cannot go to think, rethink, measure and measure again? Where you do not know the light conditions and where you can only guess from the photographs in what context your contribution will be displayed. A museum that, in addition, is managed by military officials in the capital who, if they have ever been to the museum, where not here in the recent years; a museum where the managing personnel changes every year as the Base inhabitants go back to their posts in Argentina and new ones flow in. And consequently, a museum, where objects are seldom removed or rearranged. And last, but not least, how to do it in a period of time when there are millions other and more urgent practicalities that need to be solved before the upcoming expedition?

These are some of the challenges that our team faced when preparing our small contribution to the museum at Esperanza base. Resulting banners were handed over to the head of the Base, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Nahueltripay, during a festive ceremony on Friday, January 31st. The part of the 2019-2020 overwintering group of the base that has already arrived (the second half is scheduled to arrive in coming days) lined up in a formation to the backdrop of a breathtakingly beautiful Esperanza Bay, filled with smaller and bigger white ice floats. Short speeches were given by Walter, Pablo, Dag and Kati after which everybody could take a look at one of the four banners that was already set up in the museum.

From the left: Dag Avango, Kati Lindström, Lieutenant Colonel Walter Nahueltripay, Pablo Fontana and Captain Arnaldo Aníbal Ramos with the banner on the scientific significance of the Nordenskjöld expedition in front of the museum. Photo: Daniel Mansilla

So how did we solve the above dilemmas? It is almost impossible to find one-two original objects that would narrate the intricate story of the 1901-1902 Nordenskjöld expedition. Besides, the base already contemplates with one of the biggest original artefacts left by the expedition: the stone refuge built by Andersson, Duse and Grundén. What other super-object could relate the story better? The best solution, given all the circumstances seemed to be classical information banners that could be set up on empty wall space. The result were four gigantic banners: one on the history of the expedition, one on its scientific relevance, a longer explanation of the Historic Sites and Monuments (HSMs) of the Antarctic Treaty and last, but not least, a banner on the Argentine Antarctic explorer Gustavo Adolfo Giró Tapper. The banners are bilingual and were printed in Buenos Aires with the support from the Swedish Heritage Board. Kati and Pablo extend their thanks to Lize-Marié van der Watt for her contribution to the HSM banner and flawless English, IAA researchers Andrés Zakrajsek and Matías Belinco as well as Cristian Ortiz-Villalón for their help.

Kati Lindström at the shop where the posters were printed. Photo: MasCopies

At the time of writing, February 2nd, we are waiting for a helicopter to fly back to Marambio base where we are still hoping to work on Penguin Bay and Larsen Cairn before heading back to Rio Gallegos and Buenos Aires. Because of the change in icebreaker’s schedule, Paulet Island will have to wait until the next occasion. With all the boxes in the work plan ticked for Esperanza, we leave for Marambio with an immense gratitude to Esperanza base’s friendly crowd without whose help none of it would have been possible.

Esperanza’s personnel with the CHAQ 2020 members. Photo: Daniel Mansilla

*Thanks goes to the research team for allowing us to reblog Kati’s post.

Vunidogoloa: What Can We Learn from Climate Change Relocation?

by Giulia Borsa, Researcher

We are the victims of a planet that is warming and ice caps that are melting, pushing sea levels higher and swamping the land that we have traditionally occupied. 

Commodore J.V. Bainimarama (Prime Minister of Fiji)

Because of climate change, many people around the world face serious consequences, including the threat of losing their homes. One of the most serious inhabited areas now under threat is the nation of Fiji. By discussing the case of the Fijian village Vunidogoloa, we can  see the tangible effects  now facing thousands of communities that are being displaced worldwide as a result of our burning planet. In addition, we can learn about the current best practices of community-based relocation.

The story of climate change, though widespread, is not common, and, in many ways, must still be told. The gases in the earth’s atmosphere regulate our climate. Nevertheless, the vast majority of global transportation systems and industries rely on burning fossil fuels which increases the proportion of some gases in the atmosphere.  For instance, agriculture and meat industries release high levels of carbon dioxide and methane. These gases are responsible for trapping ongoing longwave radiation in the climate system. Through such artificial augmentation (by human activity), the natural greenhouse effect becomes stronger and the earth warms. As a result, forests and oceans that have acted as “sinks,” absorbing part of the emissions of greenhouse gases have become “full.” Their capacity to absorb industrial emissions has failed due to various effects such as acidification, warming and pollution. Consequently, climate change now leads to a global warming of the layers of earth, oceans, a change in precipitation patterns, the melting of glaciers, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and frequency of extreme weather, namely storms and heat waves.

One of the locations most impacted by this changing climate are small islands. Regardless of their location, small islands are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Due to their limited size, their natural and socio-political resilience to weather natural hazards and external shocks is much lower than other countries, exposing them to greater risks.

Leaving Vunidogoloa

In the case of Fiji, the country is witnessing the worst impacts of climate change such as sea level rise, warmer temperatures, ocean acidification and intensified ‘El Niño’ patterns (interaction of the oceans and atmosphere modifying temperatures). This intensification of weather events due to climate change implies higher risks of drought and floods, endangering drinking water resources. Indeed, due to coastal floods, the incoming saltwater has destroyed crops, augmented water- and food-borne diseases and endangered the nation’s coral reefs. Such an impact on the ecology of the islands and health of its people is further exacerbated by extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones and heat waves, that have caused injuries and illness namely vector- and water-borne diseases as well as augmented the risk of malaria and dengue fever.

Vunidogoloa was the first Fijian village to experience the impacts of climate change. Located on the island of Vanua Levu, the village was composed of 26 houses in which 32 families lived. Starting as early as 2006, floods and erosion caused by both sea-level rise and increased rains, started to become stronger, reaching homes and destroying crops. The situation was getting worse every day, with water coming in and taking the land away progressively. The mangroves that used to cover the whole coast were absorbed by the sea. Some houses were, in the words of the headman of Vunidogoloa, “like ships in the water.” The community feared for their children, suffered from agony and experienced the worst consequences on their land: crops destroyed, scarcity of drinking water resources, fewer yields from fishing and endangered access to roads. It ceased to be the idyllic spot it used to be decades before.

In order to manage the risks and impacts of climate change, the village undertook several adaptation action programs. Several of the homes most affected early on were moved using Vunidogoloa’s own resources. They also petitioned the Japanese government, who funded the construction of a seawall to protect from sea-level rise and inundations. However, this ended up being more harmful afterwards. Water that breached the seawall could not flow back unobstructed to the sea; the seawall actually exacerbated flooding.

Broken seawall. Tronquet, Clothilde, From Vunidogoloa to Kenani: An Insight into Successful Relocation, found in The State of Environmental Migration.

Progressively, the severity of floods and erosion made relocation the only hope for the citizens of Vunidogoloa. Considered a last resort, relocating the village seemed their only remaining hope. Hence, the villagers asked the help of their government in 2006. Unfortunately, steps towards a relocation plan were not taken until 2012, when the National Summit for Building Resilience to Climate Change was held. From the beginning, the relocation process was driven by equality concerns and based on consultation, consensus and participative decision-making process. As a result, 30 identical houses were built in accordance with the villagers’ choices, which treated all residents equally. Counting with the works of qualified volunteers provided by ILO (Edwards, 2012), the own villagers and unemployed people, a more sustainable concept of residences was promoted. This included the insertion of solar panels and natural system of draining water. In 2014, the relocation process started, transferring the villagers from the coast to a nearby location (also in Cakaudrove Province) further inland and at higher altitude. The residents named their new home, Kenani, from the biblical word Canaan, meaning promised land.

Satellite view of Vunidogoloa and Kenani. Tronquet, Clothilde, From Vunidogoloa to Kenani: An Insight into Successful Relocation, found in The State of Environmental Migration.
Houses under construction in August 2013. Tronquet, Clothilde, From Vunidogoloa to Kenani: An Insight into Successful Relocation, found in The State of Environmental Migration.

Adapting to Kenani

But the move to the promised land is not all honey and locusts. Relocation is difficult, with significant economic, social and psychological impacts on those making this journey. For instance, relocating a village is expensive. In the case of Vunilodogoa, the move cost a total of 980,000 USD. The Fijian government paid approx. 740,000 USD, and the community paid out approx. 240,000 USD in the value of the logs used to construct the new houses and taken from Vunidogoloa. For the villagers, relocation was also described as “the saddest event of their lives.” Fijians consider their land as part of their identity, as something belonging to their ancestors and in need of care to ensure its prosperity as a dwelling space for future generations. To lose it constitutes a physical, emotional, and psychological ordeal. Leaving the village led the villagers to make the traumatic decision to exhume the remains of their ancestors. Luckily,  the local church provided the transfer of the burial site. Now, the cemetery is closer and more convenient according to one elder villager.

In addition, resident diets and food practices changed with the move. They started planting bananas and pineapples tops provided by International Labour Organization. Additionally, as direct fishing from the ocean was no longer feasible, a shift to fish ponds was made, with the contribution of the Ministry of Fisheries who provided the fish and prawns. In addition, the relocation project aimed to “improve” the lifestyle of the villagers, providing them with separated kitchens, bathrooms and individual taps for washing. Likewise, access to the hospital is not any longer a challenge thanks to the village’s proximity to the main road.

Such changes affected, in particular, women, the elderly, and children. Regarding women, moving impacted them negatively at the outset. Whereas they used to fish daily in Vunidogoloa, men used to work in the farms. However, in Kenani, the sea is not nearby the village, which means that going fishing would involve an extended period of time.  Thus, their husbands—decision-makers in their patriarchal society—would not allow them to go fishing but rather focus on household labor. This made women more dependent on their husbands to subsist in an early stage. However, as fish farms started to be installed, women were able to resume fishing activities. Moreover, having individual taps for washing allowed women to spend less time waiting at the community tap and socialize with other women or recreational activities such as mat weaving. Likewise, many rural women received empowerment training in solar engineering provided by a female villager who completed a UN Women-funded programme on solar engineering. For the elderly, the new location reduced their movement due to its higher position and terrain. Their social daily activities, walking, going to the church, or visiting relatives, were reduced. Children are now able to attend school daily, as they no longer have to cross a tidal river (dangerous under bad weather conditions) and can use the local bus to get to school instead.

Final Thoughts

In the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) approved in 2012 by the Fijian Government, the report mentions a need for post-relocation monitoring and consultation to identify any long-term issues for relocated or host communities. In an interview, the climate change unit of the ministry of foreign affairs and international co-operation responded that this was to ensure the sustainability of the relocation process for the affected community. However, it remains unclear the consideration of the psychological or social impacts of relocation in such a monitoring program.

Nevertheless, in many respects, relocation has been a temporary lifesaver for this community that—although having contributed very little to climate change—has been severely affected by it. As noted earlier, this process involves losses and damages; yet, overall, the sources I’ve analyzed outline its success. Some former villagers of Vunigodoloa have even defined their lives as “easier” than before. It seems that women were impacted mostly at the beginning of the relocation process. Still, in a source from 2017, the situation of the elderly did not seem to be improved. Hopefully, we all can learn from Vunidogoloa a lesson of endurance. Moreover, may it serve as a call for action to industrialized countries and future decision-makers the timeliness and urgency for addressing the loss, damage and traumas that come as a result from relocating due to climate change. 

Further materials

  • Books
    • Charan, D;  Kaur, M; Singh, P, “Customary Land and Climate Change Induced Relocation—A Case Study of Vunidogoloa Village, Vanua Levu, Fiji” in Leal, W, “Climate Change Adaptation in Pacific Countries” [2017].

Author Bio:

Giulia Borsa is an International Human Rights jurist. Giulia has been working as a postgraduate researcher for the past two years, and this blog entry is the outcome of her collaboration with the project CLISEL – a Coordination and support action of Horizon 2020. She was one of the participant to the Environmental Humanities Training School that the KTH EHL, organised in Naples in December 2018 on “Loss, Damage, and Mobility in the context of Climate Change.” She holds a bachelor’s degree in law from the University Autonoma of Barcelona and an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Oxford Brookes, with a dissertation written on climate change related displacement. She has also been coordinating the division on Climate Change and Human Rights of the International Organization for Least Developed Countries (IOLDCs) in Geneva, and she is currently working at Ecovadis. She has won several awards, including the Ideas that Change the World Competition in Oxford in 2018.