Urban Geographer Stephanie Wakefield on Climate Change: "This Could Be Our Opportunity"

How do you plan to adapt to the rising tides?
Photo by maxstrz / Flickr
How do you plan to adapt to the rising tides?
If you're a Miamian, chances are you've embraced climate change as fact (or live in an ideological bubble). The evidence is all around, and it forecasts rising sea levels, warming temperatures, changing wildlife patterns, and increasingly volatile storm seasons. While the majority of Florida voters seem content to elect officials who deny this now-obvious science in favor of short-term profit, many Dade County denizens live with the effects of climate change every day.

There's also near-consensus among scientists that climate change is almost entirely our doing. Man's relationship with, and effect on, the natural world is one of the overarching questions guiding Stephanie Wakefield's research and practice as an urban geographer. And her predictions are, well, pretty bleak.

"While it is possible that today’s political leaders, businesses, and associated institutions could create a few 'Super Venices' supported by seawalls, pumping systems, and ecologically resilient infrastructures like oyster reefs or reflooded wetlands," Wakefield begins somewhat optimistically, "it's almost guaranteed that such cities would be dedicated to preserving spaces for the elite — making sure Bulgari bags are on the shelves — while most everyone else bears a kind of diminished existence, increasingly bearing the brunt of rising seas, infrastructural disruption, and so on."

If that sounds depressing, well, it is. But Wakefield isn't without hope.

"If we ask instead 'Is our current political system capable of producing a desirable or livable outcome for humanity?' the answer is probably no," she continues. "That being said, I think that despite all rhetoric to the contrary — that we’re helpless, isolated, powerless — regular people have the incredible capacity to adapt and thrive."

In Wakefield's view, this adaptation and reworking of societal structures is key to the project of sustaining humanity. "Ultimately, this could be our opportunity to stake out entirely new possibilities for ourselves and each other."

But how much time do we have before it's too late? Wakefield admits that a complete reversal might be impossible. "My suggestion that we are living in the ‘back loop’ of the Anthropocene (the geological age where humans have been the dominant influence on the planet) means that we have already crossed various tipping points, but that in doing so, everything from social practices, technologies, and truth to plants, animals, and places have become shaken out of their normal frameworks." To Wakefield, the apocalypse isn't some eventual deadline for humanity, but a gradual erosion of things we take for granted.

However, it also brings plenty of opportunity for innovation and radical thinking. "The time for this is now, and we need to get the process rolling in a major way. In terms of scale, many solutions or adaptations are going to be hyperlocal — they might not make sense in other environments — while others are undoubtedly going to require complex global cooperation," she explains. "Fundamentally, this is going to be a vast experiment, wildly imaginative and democratic in nature. It’s something that has to happen but something that many of us also really want."

The practices Wakefield outlines in response to humanity's current position on the "back loop" run the gamut from fitness to farming to art. "I think it's already happening in incredibly popular phenomena like CrossFit, natural movement, street workout, mindfulness, manifesting, biohacking. From one angle, these practices could seem like small individual acts of self-improvement, not up to the task of large-scale change," she acknowledges, but she insists solutions are varying and innumerable. "I don’t think it will lead to one single path for humanity, but millions of them. Can suburban neighborhoods turn lawns and backyards into minifarms and workshops? Can we become inhabitants and protectors of the land as opposed to people just moving through a backdrop? Can we imagine a whole civilization in experimentation mode, in the back loop?"

Wakefield says there is already good work being done, and more to come. "The changes we need are going to be deeply transformative, but that doesn’t mean they won’t draw on what exists now or traditional practices and behaviors. You see a lot of interesting experiments out there of people already becoming back-loop creators. Open Source Ecology and similar groups are trying to re-create essential technologies for a new civilization, putting them back in the hands of common people by designing them to be more easily produced and repaired. A lot of stuff in the fitness world is trying to get us in touch with the amazing capabilities of the human body and mind, and in the process redefine the limits of human potential. As Greg Glassman might say, a lot of people need and want to become more than desk-sitters."

She goes on to note the value of an exploratory attitude in our current era. "Ecology teaches that one of the most important things to do in a back loop is accept that we are living in a situation of the fundamentally unknown. This means facing our insane reality experimentally rather than reducing it to old frameworks and rubrics. Artists – take Elise Duryee-Browner’s recent essay ‘American Goodness’ for example — are really good at doing this. The experimental audacity called for today can also be found in Elon Musk’s mad scientistry, Joe Rogan’s vision-questing, or the music of someone like Chronixx who is rooted in tradition but making something cross-cultural and positive in the now."

Part of the reason Wakefield is giving a talk at the ICA, an art institution, has to do with erasing old boundaries. We're all in this together, and we'll need one another to arrive at the solutions that will drive humanity forward. "Whether we’re artists, scientists, construction workers, or Instagram models, it’s time for all of us to experiment together in diverse combinations of people and practices, across old boundaries," Wakefield insists. "Audacity and love are the keys."

The Back Loop: Experimentation in the Anthropocene’s Unsafe Operating Space. Lecture by Stephanie Wakefield, as part of the Art + Research Center’s Summer Intensive. 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 15, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 4040 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-901-5272; Admission is free with RSVP.