‘UNLESS’ is more: Space to Breathe and the power of storybook activism

Greenpeace UK, Tension in the Air, 2017, Somerset House, photo: Gabi Gershuny

Greenpeace UK, Tension in the Air, 2017, Somerset House, photo: Gabi Gershuny

‘Like all the best stories, Mary Poppins teaches and inspires us. She’s an invitation to search for our best selves, and a reminder to care for those around us - especially children.’ Mel Evans, Greenpeace

It was about time us Londoners found some Space to Breathe. After a week on high alert for air pollution, reports of rising respiratory problems, and headlines begging protection of pupils, the brief exhibition that occupied Somerset House’s River Rooms over the 28th and 29th January was a welcome chance to creatively discover, explore, and discuss our concerns. And who better to help navigate our airborne predicaments? Floating above the Bank entrance and greeting visitors was Mary Poppins, back to protect the city’s young, and luckily she’s got company. 

Part of the Greenpeace installation Tension in the Air, Mary was initially flown outside of Parliament to pressurise action from politicians when only six days into January the UKbroke its legal air pollution limit for the entire year. This time she joined Space to Breathe, a weekend of creative action in response to the crisis, commissioned and produced by Cape Farewell and cultural producers Shrinking Space, in partnership with King’s College London’s Environmental Research Group. Accustomed to the coal smog in 1910’s London, Mary with her magic bag seems well equipped to tackle our own set of toxic pollutants. As a familiar and powerful symbol to ease our engagement with complex environmental issues, she joins an emerging stable of storybook modes and characters enjoying a similar revival.

 “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, 1971

 “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax, 1971

At the end of last month, Climate Change was published as the first edition in the new Ladybird Expert series. Continuing on a more serious route from their wildly successful Books for Grown-Ups - pastiches of the iconic 1960s and 70s series - the publishers are tackling our so-called “post-truth” era with a range of expert informed introductory guides. Climate Change - written by Prince Charles together with former executive director of Friends of the Earth Tony Juniper and climate scientist Emily Shuckburgh – is a 48 page digest of the chore facts, events and potentialities, illustrated evocatively with watercolour scenes of past and present realities, and future alternatives. As with Mary, the marriage of the brand’s nostalgic and“much-loved imprint” with expertise from leading figures makes the relatively intractable subject accessible and informative.

Another old tale summoned more recently to meet the challenge was an early environmental classic by Dr. Seuss, The Lorax. The protagonist, and the books namesake, was called upon just last week by Dartmouth professor of Mathematics and Computational Science Dan Rockmore, in pursuit of a leader for climate activism at the outset of Trumps muzzling efforts on the USA environmental agenda. Penned almost 46 years ago, the creature was the spokesperson for the Truffula trees during an eerily prophetic industrial deforestation led by the relentless Once-lers. Amidst the scant remains of ‘smoke smuggered stars’ and ‘bad smelling sky’, the Lorax leaves a small pile of rocks inscribed with one word, “UNLESS”. Hanging on this last shred of hope in our own period of ecological uncertainty, Rockmore pleads that ‘We Must all be the Lorax’.

'The New Nationalism, 'The Economist, illustration by David Parkins, 19th November 2016

'The New Nationalism, 'The Economist, illustration by David Parkins, 19th November 2016

“The real power of myths lies in their capacity to become self-fulfilling prophecies: they create our reality as much as they describe it.” Alex Evans, Open Democracy

There’s been a great deal written recently on the power of stories within environmental advocacy and campaigning. Most pertinent is a recent book by Alex Evans, adviser to Tony Blair on poor-world economics, and co-organiser of a UN climate-change summit. Brief but hard-hitting, The Myth Gap advances his theory that the key to all successful movements is powerful, morally gripping narratives. He attributes the relative success of COP21 in Paris (compared to Copenhagen), as well as that of the 2016 Trump and Brexit campaigns, to one common determining factor: robust story-telling and myth-making. Our once rich, myth-centred culture has given way to literal and scientific-based knowledge, leaving room for dangerous “anti-myths”; ‘you are what you buy’, ‘collapsitarianism’, and nationalism. To counter these, as we recalibrate at the start of 2017, it’s essential that we ourselves become myth-makers and storytellers, ‘drawing good conclusions’ from tales gone by, or creating new forms of collective storytelling that reposition ourselves, both present and future.

Within the realm of visual art, this message is particularly powerful and resonant. In the brief range of examples touched upon here, we are seeing an encouraging return of familiar storybook modes and characters being repurposed to facilitate engagement with contemporary climate issues. In its emergence, this trend introduces great potential to develop an existing encyclopaedia of forgotten wisdom and symbolism. It paves creative space to find new ways for anchoring shared values, narrowing political divides, and tightening diverse communities. Perhaps more powerfully, it provides a wellspring of inspiration for constructing new stories. Here too, we're beginning to see exciting experimentation, particularly in the fields of digital animation and virtual reality.

“The Virtual Reality experience inspires us to imagine how individuals can transform and de-carbonise their city…” Exhibition guide

Space to Breathe offered a promising display of these approaches. Whilst Mary Poppins harnessed new power from stories of old, the first installation inside the exhibition was a stimulating taster of the potential for invention of new tales. A collaboration produced by Cape Farewell, Shrinking Space, pioneering Virtual Reality & Immersive Content studioHammerhead VR, and the King's College Environmental Research Group, Energy Renaissance was an immersive experience transporting the participant into a post-carbon Strand, just outside of Somerset House. Following the journey of a luminous girl with an eco-Midas-touch, the streetscape was transformed with her every skip into lush greenery and renewable energy technologies. It demonstrated the impact and potential of individual behaviour and actions in realising this prospective utopia and in doing so, viscerally motivated us to consider how our own stories might be rewritten to achieve the same.


Space to Breathe was part of Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility commissioned and produced by Cape Farewell and Shrinking Space, in partnership with King's College London's Environmental Research Group.