Climax thinking, illustrated (Sherren, forthcoming in Energy Impacts: A Multidisciplinary Exploration of North American Energy Development, co-edited by Jacquet, Haggerty and Theodori)
We recently learned that the collected volume manuscript that began with an NSF-funded workshop at Ohio State University in 2017 has been accepted by the publishers (Social Ecology Press & Utah State University Press) for release late 2019 or early 2020. My sole-authored contribution to that collection, From climax thinking to a non-equilibrium approach to public good landscape change, is a theoretical culmination of a few years of work in hydroelectricity and coastal landscape change. Climax thinking uses a ecological analogy (i.e. climax in succession theory) to explore resistance to landscape transitions like those needed for renewable energy, coastal adaptation or urban densification. Feeling like your landscape has reached its ‘climax’ state is a powerful illusion, and leads those with means to push landscape change to those without. Three dimensions of the pathology are described and some possible ‘cures’ presented, hopefully leading to a non-equlibrium approach to landscape so we can meet the challenges ahead.
As so often happens when I read fiction, I am startled by links to theory. So it was when finishing up Rachel Cusk’s 2003 The Lucky Ones (p. 97-98) last week, a perfect microcosm of the fiction and injustice of holding landscapes in privileged stasis as described by climax thinking:
Ravenley had no pub or shop, no car park or playground, not even a telephone box. Superficially, it had not changed in a hundred years. The world beyond it sustained this appearance in the way that a life-support machine sustains the sleep of a dead patient. It was a costly process that had no purpose beyond the consolation of certain feelings. On the other side of the hill different standards obtained. Electricity pylons marched across grey, cluttered fields. Housing developments rose bloodily from the earth. Roads and roundabouts, petrol stations, landfill sites, industrial estates and shopping centres, all at different stages in a cycle of decay, gave the impression of something injured, something mutilated perhaps beyond repair, but for the time being at least independently alive. Cars issued discreetly from Raveley’s well-tended properties, ascended to the horizon and disappeared, to return again later, freighted with food and fuel. These properties, so unmarked, seemed like embodiments of pure emotion. Detached from their material shame, with no discernible edge of need, they gave the impression of housing lives in which fact was recessive and feeling predominant, in which feeling might have attained the status of fact, and become the moderating force of daily existence.
Our in-house SRES Legacy Scholarships will be offered again in 2019, and I have pitched in a project called, Last one in, shut the door: Understanding local experiences of urban densification. It is one of up to 8 projects available to high-performing Canadian students who are thinking early for our next MES intake. A short description of my pitch follows; get in touch if you think you’re a good fit:
Most of us now live in cities. Experts advocate for more compact urban forms, rather than sprawl, to improve carbon footprints, as well as cultural vitality, economic activity and public health in cities. Compact cities are more walkable and have more effective public transit, and the numbers of people working and sleeping there are boons for businesses and cultural institutions alike. For most cities to become compact requires the densification of existing neighbourhoods. Like renewable energy, densification goals are often supported in general, but support weakens upon application. Locals often fight to maintain the status quo in the face of densification developments. The success of those residents depends in part on their social position. This research will explore the local experiences of urban densification planning, using case studies yet to be determined and the emerging concept of ‘climax thinking’, to identify social leverage points for urban transformation towards sustainability.
Typical St. John’s streetscape with its cheering paintpot effect.
Thanks to the organizers of Coastal Zone Canada 2018 last week in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where our NRCan project Making Room for Movement was launched. We ran a back-to-back special sessions to introduce the project and explore its conceptual and practical foundations, with presentations from SMU PI Danika van Proosdij, MPlan student Matt Conlin, Dal Planning prof Patricia Manuel and I. Postdoc Tuihedur Rahman and I put together a presentation on social aspects of nature-based coastal adaptation, as well as some of the conceptual foundations of this concept, proposing climax thinking as our experimental frame for the work to come. Despite an incredibly hot room, thanks to unseasonably warm conditions for Newfoundland, attendance was strong, in the presentations (below) as well as the subsequent workshop session. It was wonderful to be among practitioners, consultants and public servants as well as academics for a few days to explore the challenges along coasts.
Hot ticket: question period at the Making Room for Movement special session.
It was also special to have the opportunity to explore The Rooms at the Tuesday dinner event, including the wonderful Newfoundland Gallery and Museum. I rounded a corner in the gallery and was faced with a great portrait of my grandmother’s uncle, Captain Bob Bartlett by Margaret Fitzhugh Browne, and was also moved by the map of the taking of Demasduit, drawn by the last Beothuk, Shanawdithit (her niece), images of resettled island outports (right) and struggling livyers, and the brave young members of the Newfoundland Regiment in WWI.