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The Fragile Paradise

Craig Dalzell – 2nd December 2021

(Photo: Craig Dalzell)

I spent my holiday last week visiting my partner’s family in rural Germany. It was a lovely, peaceful trip despite concerns there about rising Covid rates and some last minute chaos coming back into the UK due to botched announcements in response to the Omicron variant (I returned on Sunday but was only told on Tuesday that I didn’t have to self-isolate and that I had effectively wasted £80 buying PCR tests that – as of the time of writing on Wednesday – still haven’t arrived) and my first encounter with new post-Brexit border controls (which involved having to explain to a German border guard that while I had already purchased a return ticket, it was currently in the possession of my wife who was in the EU Citizens’ queue).

While we were in Germany, we took a day trip to the Gasometer Oberhausen – a former gas storage cylinder in the heart of the former industrial heartland of the Ruhr valley, now converted into an exhibition space. The current exhibition is Das zerbrechliche Paradies – The Fragile Paradise – an exhibition about the climate emergency and the impact of humanity on the planet.

The bottom level of the gasometer leaned heavily into the “paradise” theme. A circular arrangement of various biomes – desert, rainforest, ocean, urban etc – and photographs of the landscapes, plants and animals found there. Many of the photos you’d probably recognise from other sources and some are particularly famous.

(Photo: Ellen Dalzell)

Once you’ve settled in to the wondrous beauty of the Earth you move up to the second floor where things take a bit of a thematic turn with a semi-ordered scattering of photos of ravaged ecosystems, poached animal corpses, maps of global shipping and infrastructure lanes and illustrations of solutions like urban farms and sustainable transport.

(Photo: Ellen Dalzell)

I’ll be honest, the second floor isn’t as dismissible as the above might suggest – photos of suffering animals and people hit as they always should – but the whole floor plays more as a bombardment to the senses and emotions rather than a coherent narrative of “fragility”.

There is one corner (well…one segment? of the gas cylinder that looks at the industrial hellscape of the post-war Ruhr and how the decline of the sector has resulted in a massive scheme to restore much of the area to nature. I’d love to learn more about that deindustrialisation process, how “just” the transition was for the 30,000 workers of the area and what parallels, comparisons and contrasts can be drawn with Scotland’s own deindustrialisation in areas such as Ravenscraig. If anyone can point me towards any good resources, please let me know.

I wonder if that theme of “changing landscapes” would have worked better than the otherwise isolated snapshots of the floor. Be it “Before” and “After” shots of melting glaciers or urban encroachment into rainforests or, like the Ruhr segment, shots of rewilded areas, motorways turned into parks and cycle lanes or the actual impact of some of the technical solutions presented in the exhibition.

(Photo: Ellen Dalzell)

My overall impression of the exhibition was that it was perhaps a decade or so out of date. It gave the impression of still trying to convince people that the climate emergency was happening rather than trying to work out how to solve the challenges it raises. As a planet, we’re well past the point of deciding if action should be taken and even some way past the point of debated what kind of action should be taken. We need to start solving the climate emergency and we need to be doing it at scale. The entire planet needs to undergo a system change no less profound as the one that the Ruhr valley has undergone over the past century.

I completely understand that this art exhibition was perhaps not for “me”. As an environmental activist, I’m already convinced by its message and as a policy campaigner I’m probably already well ahead of the bleeding edge of the list of actions that need to be put in place – even compared to many other environmental activists. If the average member of the public isn’t as completely enveloped by climate science and politics as I am that’s probably a reflection on my strange life rather than anything derogatory about anyone else.

But I worry if, given the timescales involved now, the average member of the public can’t be pulled up to where we are any faster than exhibitions like this one would. As with Robin McAlpine’s impressions of COP26, I wonder if even the people on the inside really “get” what the climate emergency actually means. If that’s the case then the “average member of the public” doesn’t stand much of a chance of understanding how much their lives will have to change (for the better – if we do things right) over the next few years and decades and that will compromise democracies like Germany and Scotland as they seek the political will and capital to make those changes.

This isn’t, I must stress, the fault of the public. Instead, it’s on us in the environmental movement to ensure that our message is heard and absorbed. The fault, if there is any, lies not with the students – but with the teachers.

2 thoughts on “The Fragile Paradise”

  1. The point about “ the teachers” is a brave comment as much as it it is a relevant one.
    Many folks like myself are not qualified or experienced enough to get involved in activism
    Personally I read as much as I can but am losing faith in politics as an answer with COP26 being sadly disappointing
    So…I hesitate to get more involved and do more than just read Commonweal emails as I doubt I have the necessary skills to contribute

    1. Alisdair McKay

      Can I recommend a subscription to Permaculture magazine which has led me to a vast array of what is already taking place from many different angles across the globe

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