We talked with Newton Harrison, eco-artist and cofounder of the eponymous Harrison Studio, during his recent stay in Prague, where he was scheduled to speak at the American Center on the topic of climate change and possible mitigation strategies. The interview quickly turned candid and Newton left little room for half-full interpretations of our world’s state: things are bad all over.
Vít Bohal: Since 2007, you have been running the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, “a freestanding education and research center” based out of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Your conception of climate change as a Force Majeure is definitely very interesting – where Timothy Morton’s popular definition of climate change as a “hyper-object” is more oriented towards the ideal object of climate change, the study of the Force Majeure seems to be more oriented on the dynamic of flows and frontiers, mapping the synergy of various forces which work together to threaten the human. What is the Force Majeure for you and how does the Center approach it through its praxis?
Newton Harrison: The Force Majeure is simple: it’s a tsunami. Oceans are rising, the sixth extinction is happening. We began counter-extinction work about ten years ago, after reading Paul Ehrlich’s proof of it. He wrote a book on extinction where he pointed out that extinctions were happening ten years ago at a rate of hundred times normal, and that this would accelerate. And it has. So the Force Majeure is a force of our own creation. It’s a self-suicide operation. The waters rise, the heat touches all life, all surfaces, further increasing heat, and the resulting extinction reduces all life. So we see these three forces co-entangled as a Force Majeure, and we take the term from legal language, which holds that a force majeure is one that happens like a tsunami – all contracts are broken and nobody is to blame. We of course set out to redefine that: everybody is to blame. We would hold that the most important work to be done is the counter-extinction work, and it is the work of everybody. We are nearing the tipping points when our continued existence is at stake.
So the basic question is, why all the denial? Second question is, how did we go about empowering the oil industry and all associated industries, including the chemical industries and the fertilizer industries which overproduce ammonia to a degree that engenders another tipping point? We allowed all this to happen. And now that we know better, we’re still not changing.
How did the Harrison Studio develop such a conceptual framing for the current environmental crisis?
In 1969 and 1970, after Rachel Carson and a whole lot of other stuff came out into the open, Helen and I decided to split a professorship and do no work that did not benefit the ecosystem. We took the position that the kind of work we had in mind had to be done by both a man and a woman. Our feminism, which you could call eco-feminism but it’s not quite that, believed that across the whole world women of all colors, even white, were repressed in one way or another and were not part of the discourse on how the world shaped itself. And the act of suppressing half of the intelligence of the world virtually guaranteed that we would go very, very wrong. All of our work begins with this. Our feminism is based upon that. The repression of females is so counter-ecological, and actually counter-human and sets up all the personal problems that come with it – the glass ceiling and all that. Basically subtracting female sensibility, intelligence, wisdom, and psyche from the overall happening of all the events in the world guarantees what we call the Force Majeure’s action.
You seem to equate the dynamics of petro-capitalism and of the resulting Force Majeure, which it has unleashed, as solely the doing of the male spectrum of society. How do you understand this connection between petro-capitalism and patriarchy?
Capitalism is fundamentally counter-ecological. Nature doesn’t charge a profit. Nature is rich by virtue of energy from the sun. And it works basically with photosynthesis which brings forth many things. I believe that capitalism must cease. It will self-destruct, but whether the human will survive its self-destruction or not is an open question. If it does, then the society which the Force Majeure group will propose is based upon redundancy, and based upon mama crab. I’m going to tell you a crab story.
In 1971, we failed to make catfish mate for a big exhibition in London. We got very famous for stupid reasons. But we decided to solve the problem: we found crabs and decoded their mating behavior and were the first artists to ever get an oceanographic grant. The most interesting thing about our whole operation was the mating. Suddenly, the female crab has 3 million eggs on her belly. It’s called the egg mass. And typically, maybe 30 crabs live from that. That is one crab for one hundred thousand eggs. So where does the rest go? They’re redundant, and many other species make use of them. That is where our wealth should be coming from, from harvesting the life web itself and by the act of harvesting to preserve the system. All other species do this in some form or other, except us. We eat up the system. It’s called extraction.
All kinds of artists and critics, like T. J. Demos and others, are making a big deal about extraction. Well, so make the big deal. The question is, how do we do a complete flip, and get out of the capitalist box? It looks like we won’t be able to do this in time to save most species.
I’m wondering about this redundancy. It seems that the redundancy of the crab population was predicated on a very limited amount of the crabs actually surviving. The rest of them perished, is that correct?
No, they don’t perish, they are food for others. If you use the word perish, you misunderstand how the ecology works. They perish, but they are food for others. And every species overproduces, including the semen from your own balls.
But if we are critiquing capitalism here, these can be understood as surplus populations who are harvested for the benefit of the system. I think this redundancy becomes an ethical problem when we apply the analogy to people.
That’s from your mind, as ethics is a human invention. We’re way beyond that kind of bullshit. I refuse to have an ethical discourse; we have to have an ecological discourse. We have to talk about the wealth that comes out of the sun and how to harvest it to the benefit of the life web. I won’t talk about ethics.
In your “Manifesto for the 21st Century,” the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure speaks about the gap between the wealthy and the poor and the varied impacts of the Force Majeure on these demographics. You write about the fact that “The rich will continue to do well / Not true for the middle class / And devastating for the poor.” Is there not an ethical statement implicit in the manifesto?
You keep bringing everything back to the human condition. Why? The whole ecosystem is dying and you bring it back to the human condition. I won’t go there.
In that case, I will bring it back to the beginning: what projects is the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure currently working on?
A Force Majeure work would be the following: The oceans rise three meters in due course, the argument is only as to when – is it going to be 110 years or 80 years? Somewhere in there is a 3-4 meter rise. When the ocean rises that much, the Bays of San Francisco become an opening into the Central Valley of California which uses irrigated farming and produces most of the vegetables in the country; at the expense of the rivers, at the expense of the topsoil. Instead, they will be flooded out, and a giant estuarial lagoon will form. If properly harvested and properly nurtured, the estuarial lagoon will produce as much protein as the Central Valley ever did. At the same time, mangroves will come, the birds will come, so a whole ecosystem will form, and a new kind of farmer has to come. The farmer will harvest the crab one time, but he will harvest bottom fish another time, and he will harvest four, five different things.
How does he determine the harvest? The harvest is determined by the overproduction of any species that would endanger the whole. So the act of harvesting preserves and enables the system. If you take too much, the system dies. If you take too little, the system is overstressed. That’s a balance point that pre-literate people understood. The first people of California, the native tribes, they all understood this. We worked with some of them. So why don’t we? Because we were falsely informed and falsely manipulated into believing that money had worth, and that more money had more worth. That money was power and possession of goods was power, and possession of land was power. We’ve been misled here, and we must start inventing anew and simultaneously learning from our ancestors who knew better. The Force Majeure group holds that power by itself is automatically corrupting. And the more power you get, the more corrupt you are, even if you do good things. So that every act of power that we exercise has a rule: if it doesn’t have an act of generosity or an act of love going with it, we don’t do it.
I saw your TED talk from 2015, and you broached the subject of the ‘dictatorship of the ecology,’ but it was quickly dropped. I would be interested if you could speak a bit more about what you meant by that.
The first time we came up with that idea was in 1975 when we were invited up to Milwaukee to be part of their center at the Great Lakes. And we thought: “There’s somebody crazy here – they think they can draw a line on water.” And on top of that, they did draw a line on water on the map. They gave half of the Great Lakes watershed to Canada, and half to the United States. You could see where the United States abused its use, and Canada was much more generous to the ecology. You can see this very easily in the land division process. But independent of that, we came up with the notion that the Great Lakes citizens of that watershed should withdraw from Canada and the United States and form a ‘dictatorship of the ecology,’ and that’s how we came up with it.
The idea was not the dictatorship we talk about when we mention Hitler. We are talking about the dictates of the ecology. What does the ecology tell you to do? How come we don’t listen to that instead of some damn fool politician? However, we couldn’t pursue it further, because we didn’t know enough. We were artists, visionaries, but we didn’t know how to proceed with that insight. We thought we were right, but only some twenty years later did we understand what to do: we have to interrogate the great web of life and listen to it, and become obedient. That is what the ‘dictates of the ecology’ would be. All species that continue are obedient to the dictates of a larger system of which they are part. If they are not, they don’t continue. And we are not, so we probably won’t continue.
I think that many people could read what you’re saying as advocating a reversion to pre-modern methods of extraction and social organization. I am wondering whether you see progressive potentials of tuning into the life web, ones which could be maybe further facilitated by modern technology. Can we nowadays synchronize with the life web without the need to regress to pre-modern forms of being in the world?
If we don’t, we die.
The Center is also active in the region of Sichuan in China, just on the border of the Tibetan plateau. How did you manage get the Center’s projects in China up and running?
There are two China works. The story begins in 1992, when a man named Dr. Robert Livingstone, a really eminent neurosurgeon (he invented brain slicing, for example) dropped in to our studio. We were professors and we were on committees together, and he said to me, “Newton, what do you think about His Holiness’ Peace Park?” Now I didn’t know any Holinesses, and I couldn’t imagine the Pope making a Peace Park, especially on the Tibetan plateau. And so I asked “His Holiness who?” and he replies “The Dalai Lama of course,” and he said “the Dalai Lama is going to like your work,” and I asked “How do you know?” And he replied that he is his science advisor. “Why don’t you write him something, as he wants to do a Peace Park up there?” So I sent the Dalai Lama a poem, which consisted of the last ten lines of our Lagoon Cycle: “The Oceans will rise gracefully…” And the Peace Park has the same type of grace attached to it. The Dalai Lama wrote back immediately because one of his unknown names was Oceanic Consciousness and I had unconsciously addressed him with that. But Helen and I then began an investigation of the Tibetan Plateau and we found the rivers in danger, we found the Chinese getting ready to take too much water from it, we found stress between China and India, we found ecosystems in danger... And so we disassociated from the Dalai Lama, and made our proposals for the Tibetan Plateau. The proposals were ignored by both China and everybody else at the time. Although we eventually re-did them in the form available now in 2005, as we were invited to be in a show honoring the Dalai Lama.
Then we started to do the Future Gardens, and we met a very brilliant Chinese ecologist, thinker, actor named Tang Ya, who was working right at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. And we suggested to him we would do a Future Garden if he were interested and would fund it. It’s moving along, but with difficulty.
What is a Future Garden?
Generally, we deal with big systems. But what is someone to do in their back yard? What can people do that would act to the benefit of the ecosystem? Every place that has survived heat in its historical past will have species in it that have the resilience to live in the now. If you search those out and grow them, then you will be growing a natural replacement with plants and life from the given place, and you’re not bringing in any exotics. You will be growing a replacement ecosystem much faster than nature ever could. In this sense we assist the migration of species through time, but not through space, because the species were already there. It is a radical notion about assisting the migration of species.
So we have three or four Future Gardens going there. At the one at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, about four or five thousand feet from the edge of the plateau, you will find species there that are happily growing in a climate much like up top, but with a +3 to +5°C temperature change. These places are warmer. Tang Ya gathered a bunch of those species, moved them up to a higher place, and we are now testing their resilience. So the Future Gardens say “If you don’t know what to do, plant your own future in the now.” And you can do this: a good skillful botanist and some students and local folk can do it. It’s not exotic, it’s eco-intelligent.
There is a motto for the Center which is “think globally, act globally,” and I am wondering whether there is this vision of the Future Gardens ever becoming scalable?
First of all, scalability is a dirty word. Think about it: all businesses want to scale to make their billions, and that is where that comes from. Nature doesn’t scale. Nature simply occupies the space that nourishes it. So the idea of scalability is a bad idea. However, what you need for the Future Garden is just people to define a place and then begin to take responsibility for what will grow there in the future. So asking whether it could be bigger and bigger and bigger is intellectually flatulent. The idea of multiplying things is probably the reason we will die.
What was entailed in the process of developing the Future Gardens on site at the Arboretum in Santa Cruz?
The head botanist is a friend of ours in the Botanical Gardens at the University of California in Santa Cruz – his name is Brett Hall – but he works with a couple of other botanists. He himself does ancient botany. We asked ourselves whether he could find 10 or 15 species that had the resilience to group and cluster so that new ecosystems would form from it, since nature self-complicates, in a temperature of three degrees warmer, but which might be wetter or might be drier. So he went and found 21 species. We have three Bucky Fuller domes, and one dome is drier, one dome wetter and one dome the same. And then the outside is planted as well with the same 21 species, so it is in fact a nice scientific experiment. But the people who gathered it are the students and the every-day folk. It’s inherently very simple.
Young people across the world are getting mobilized around the idea of climate change, or the Force Majeure, as in the movements Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for the Future. What do you think of these, oftentimes youth-driven, environmental movements?
We wrote a letter to Greta [Thunberg], but I don’t think she got it. She is doing what we have been suggesting, but came at it through her own discoveries, not ours. The letter was generally as follows: “You can holler at the government all you want and tell it to do something, but the government is stupid. It doesn’t know what to do, except increase people’s wealth and repress those who object. And the best of the governments, like the socialist government in Denmark, are good to help the folk who live there, service the hospitals, watch out for the kids – all that human stuff. But nobody really knows what to do about the environmental mess we are in.”
We will soon start twittering for the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure about this and we will be starting to propose what to do. It will be our voice, and we will start to propose. For instance, we are proposing that ‘pre-emptive’ planning is an imperative. Like when the waters rise: if we plan correctly, for the Bays of San Francisco the great estuarial lagoon that forms will be very profitable; but if we plan stupidly it will be an algae bloom for perhaps hundreds of years. So you need to look at the future and see into it, and then preemptively plan. It’s not so difficult once you make the decision. However, making the decision to do so is difficult, because the granting agencies don’t see their profit in that. Their profit is their immediate success. The second source of profit for them is scalability.
What does the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure then see as a viable way into the future?
The imperative before us is to switch resources. To restore the Mediterranean will cost about a trillion USD. To begin with, to handle the drought across Europe, making water-retention landscapes, as we propose, will cost 1.2 trillion USD. If we don’t do that, the waters rise a little bit, the drought goes up to Germany, food production drops 25%, and the population increases 10%. If we do not shift our resource-base, you have a formula for civil breakdown. The oil companies won’t do this, the automobile companies won’t do this, neither will the world’s 100 biggest companies. That’s why I think humanity is going to die.
But one last thing: Helen thought that sometimes miracles happen – that sometimes, something unexplainable or unpredictable happens to the advantage of all. This is not impossible, but I do think it is improbable.
This interview was conducted by Vít Bohal in cooperation with the organizatiosn Art Mill and ArtDialogue o.s.
// Among the leading pioneers of the eco-art movement, the collaborative team of Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison (often referred to simply as “the Harrisons”) have worked for almost forty years with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners and other artists to initiate collaborative dialogues to uncover ideas and solutions which support biodiversity and community development. Past projects have focused on watershed restoration, urban renewal, agriculture and forestry issues among others. The Harrisons’ visionary projects have often led to changes in governmental policy and have expanded dialogue around previously unexplored issues leading to practical implementations throughout the United States and Europe. For more information please visit https://theharrisonstudio.net/ .