Women and men pollinate fruit trees in Sichuan. When transferring pollen by hand using long bamboo sticks with chicken feathers, they will never be confused with honey bees. They’re way too awkward. To match the work in a single beehive, it would require a workforce of fifteen hundred people. Still, they continue. They have little choice. The trees need to be cared for to bear fruit, and pesticides have decimated local apiaries.
The human pollination of fruit trees in China is an example of “climate care” – the timely topic of 2021 Vienna Biennial – and the tools used can currently be seen at MAK, the city’s famous Museum of Applied Arts. Describing climate treatment as “a new way of thinking and an ideal starting point for developing a common future for our planet Earth that goes beyond the human”, the curators are rude in their call to action: “Our exhibition aims to inspire all visitors to to become climate caregivers themselves. ”
Although the thinking is new and the tools from Sichuan are of newer construction, the conceptual foundation of climate change is deeply rooted. The curators rightly acknowledge this by including books and ephemerals from the past. Published in 1971 with a picture of the Earth from space on the front – and enthusiastically embraced by the environmental counterculture – The last Whole earth catalog is the most relevant of these historical sources.
The Last Whole Earth Catalog and the editions that came before and after it have been described as predecessors to the World Wide Web (or “kind of like Google in paperback”, as Steve Jobs said in 2005), but the best characterization is found in the slogan: Access to tools. Increasing practical guidance in grassroots ecology with instructions for mail order-supplemented self-sufficiency, the catalog was that kind of resource 21St. century farmers in Sichuan would appreciate – and their improvised tools for pollination would have been good fodder for Stewart Brand and his fellow editors, who might as well have approved many other things that could be seen on the two-year-old. For example, in a recent project titled The New Age of Trichology, the designer Sanne Visser shows how recycled human hair – a massive amount of which is buried in landfills every year – can be easily spun to make dog leashes, bottle holders and bosun chairs.
From this perspective, climate treatment is equivalent to taking care of the environment by making the most of resources to reduce waste and tackle the double bond of industrialized manufacturing and industrial strength pollution. While producing a platinum blonde bosun chair may not save the world, it can just lead to eco-frugality as a lifestyle. Perhaps trichology could even be a binding force in a subculture of ecological responsibility. Practiced by using tools that avoid heavy industry, people have the potential to become environmental cautious.
But Whole earth catalog also presented a more direct ecocentric point of view that can be immediately seen on the front of each issue. Photographs of the blue marble and the so-called “overview effect”, which inspired people, at the same time evoked the vitality and fragility of our plants. In other words, The Whole Earth Catalog was not just a manual to help people take care of the climate by being careful in their personal habits. It was also a manifesto that went people to fit about planetary climate.
The Vienna Biennale also addresses this aspect of care. One of the most famous recent examples is a graphical representation of climate change as a series of vertical lines depicting global warming over time as the predominant color shifts from blue to red. As was the case with the blue marble, the origin of these “heat streaks” is scientific. Climate scientist Ed Hawkins designed them to quickly visualize the complexity of environmental conditions. And like the photographs from Blue Marble, their main intended function was outreach. In fact, they were even, like Blue Marble, featured on the cover of a magazine and decorated the September 21, 2019 issue of The Economist.
The Biennale offers many other views of the changing environment. These range from images that testify, such as Thomas Wrede’s painting scale, showing the Rhône glacier melting away under protective blankets, for polemical devices such as The Clock, a digital clock that counts down to “climate catastrophe” in the tradition of Doomsday Clock, which has been maintained by That Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since 1947.
Despite the fact that the Vienna Biennale is to inspire a generation of “climate passers-by”, the curators do not dwell much on the most effective ways of doing so. Like The Whole Earth Catalog, the exhibition is most impressive for its wide range. This is possible in a room as cavernous as MAK. However, a two-year period does not last forever, and MAK cannot possibly accommodate the number of people needed to develop “a common future for our planet”. The exhibition can therefore ultimately be most productive as a clearinghouse for evaluating what tools – practical and metaphorical – are needed to change the planet’s mindset.
What is most evident is the need to analyze the many meanings of care, how they relate to climate action, and how climate action relates to the broader issue of environmentalism “beyond the human only”. It seems plausible that caring for the climate can be evoked by exposure to a global warming infographic or close-up of a disappearing glacier, that caring for the climate can evoke climate care through practices such as hair recycling, which can modestly reduce one’s CO2 footprint and could even have a real impact on greenhouse gas emissions if enough people become less wasteful in all aspects of life. This is the underlying logic of The Whole Earth Catalog.
Far less obvious, however, is how this trajectory can lead to a mindset beyond the only human, a transition necessary to promote ecology at a systemic level. Even the pollination routine in Sichuan seems insufficiently backward. Although the people may perform ecosystem services in one way – the typical perception that ecosystem services are performed by non-human species turns to our merit – the fruit trees have only been favored because humans will be favored by the fruit. The action is not generous. It’s pragmatic.
One of the few participants in the biennial who evokes an alternative relationship with nature is the artist Adrien Missika, whose practice includes watering weeds in cities during drought and washing their leaves when they are covered in soot. Missika has supplemented these activities with instructions for others to perform the same actions, making it clear that they constitute more than just theater.
His position is predicted to some extent by another canonical work in the historical part of the biennial – the 1976 LP for houseplants with the title Mother Earth Plantasia – but it remains frustrating marginally in the field of environmental activism wider. This may be because it lacks conventional applicability. It does not provide factual information or appeal to voters. Nor does it do or demonstrate anything that is demonstrably useful to humans. On the contrary, Missika helps the enemy – the weeds that invade our tame human habitat – and deliberately disrupts our system-versus-them. In other words, his work incorporates care into the feeling of empathy.
Perhaps empathy for other life and for our planet as a living system is the next stage of enlightenment after caring for the climate and is rare because it represents a rare state of mind. But it is at least as reasonable to believe that kinship with other species must come first, as a prerequisite for taking care of the climate and a preface to take care of it.
In the half century that has passed since The Whole Earth Catalog was first published, the vast majority of environmental activism has followed its lead – moving many aspects of the whole earth’s counterculture into the mainstream – yet environmental conditions have only gotten worse with each passing decade. The alternative tradition of Mother Earth Plantasia has hardly been introduced into mainstream culture, although it has philosophical resonance with the quincentric ecology at the core of the traditional ecological knowledge that ordinary society has put on the side.
Perhaps climate treatment should begin with a caring relationship between humans and other living beings. Perhaps if it did, there would be no need for human pollinators because the Sichuan honey bees would still thrive in symbiosis with the trees.