What Do We Have To Lose?

Archiving in the time of climate change

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Words || Lucy MacCulloch

As a flu pandemic starts to wipe out most of humanity in Station Eleven, the survivors begin to build a museum. It starts out small; a mobile phone, laptop charger, credit cards – everyday items that became obsolete the second electricity and global capitalism fizzled out. It marked a turning point, an acceptance that they were not going to be saved; that what had been normal, what had made up their civilisation, was in the past. That to access that past they would have to find a way to remember it, to explain it and pass it on to their children. 

In early September, the first round of bushfires in what’s predicted to be an “apocalyptic” summer destroyed the historic Binna Burra Lodge on the Gold Coast, originally built as a place for people to stay and enjoy the scenery of the rainforest. And it was not the hurricanes’ Irma and Maria that were the biggest threats to Puerto Rico’s art museums, but the power outages that followed. Unable to turn on any kind of air conditioning system, the damp air and humidity made artworks prime targets for mold and mildew. It was a combined effort of art and museum curators, carpenters and archaeologists, that helped protect the museum, though the restoration work and insurance coverage was estimated to be in the millions. 

(And yes, there were bushfires and hurricanes and floods long before humans started pumping up carbon and methane into the atmosphere at an exponential rate, but climate change has made them stronger and more frequent. Rainforests aren’t supposed to burn. Hurricanes are supposed to move, not just dump tons of water and wind in one place.) 

So why does any of this matter? Should we be prioritising returning electricity to museums after a natural disaster, rather than people? Probably not. But when one of the museums in Puerto Rico opened only a week after the hurricanes, people came. Part of it was a matter of free time – people had no jobs or school to go to, and the museum was one of the few places to have electricity. By all accounts people came, they learnt, and they left smiling. 

We have always returned to the past, albeit often an imagined one, but especially in times of uncertainty. As the parallels between now and the 1930s start to pile up and become more undeniable (a looming economic crash, a blooming refugee crisis, concentration camps), we look to our media and say hey, weren’t chokers cool? I loved that TV show when I was younger; if we bring it back with an older, sadder, fatter cast, I will feel the same way I did before I had to pay taxes, before I was sad. You were sad when you were a child too, of course, but you thought maybe someday you wouldn’t be. 

The past is about culture too. While the burning of the Amazon and the cutting down of the sacred Djab birthing trees in Victoria are not explicitly caused by climate change, they are outcomes of the same systems of oppression and inequality. To paraphrase Jamie Margolin, school striker and founder of Zero Hour, addressing climate change also means reckoning with every injustice humanity (but mostly white people) has committed – colonialism chief among them.  

Of course museums have historically played a major role in the stealing and dissolving of culture. The process of repatriation remains ongoing, with more museums in Germany and England returning Indigenous remains to Aboriginal Elders just a few months ago. 

Museums have also refused to return artifacts on the grounds of protection. Why send such valuable, important relics to places of such unrest, especially in the Middle East where bombs and riots and wars are so common. Indeed, ISIL have always known the importance of destroying cultural heritage, having a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to the archaeological and religious sites it’s destroyed. But the looting of these artifacts centuries ago was always a violent act of colonialism, the keeping of these objects for protection another example of paternalism, especially when it’s the countries saying “no” that are the ones dropping the bombs. 

To record something is less to assign it importance, than it is to acknowledge its importance. 

There are more ways to record history than with just pen and paper, or little plaques behind glass cases. Knowledge has survived for hundreds of thousands of years through oral cultures, not to mention the great monuments that still stand today. In the West, we still tend to value the written word above all else, so there’s been an attempt to play catch-up and try to record generational knowledge in ways we see as more eternal. But traditional ecological knowledge, aka Indigenous knowledge, is valuable and real whether it’s published in an academic journal or not. The science is the same. It would be irresponsible to regard the West’s emphasis on literacy as benign, but a lack of records does not always mean something is lost. The “genocide” of the Indigenous Tasmanians is still perpetuated, but they are alive and have recently begun to retrieve and reconstruct one of their languages. 

Physical media has always been horribly fragile, unforgivably ephemeral. It is one of the appeals of digital media. The Internet has everything – until a domain name goes unpaid for and shuts down, Youtube gets a copyright claim, a streaming site loses the rights, Flickr starts deleting photos or Myspace loses all content uploaded to it before 2016 during a server migration. 

Both seem inadequate in the face of climate change. Entire islands in The Bahamas were almost completely submerged following Hurricane Dorian. What history, physical or digital, written or archaeological, would survive that in-tact? If the British museum won’t send back stolen artifacts back to Egypt for fear of civil unrest what will they do when their storms get worse, when resources shrink and people get desperate? What will happen when land becomes uninhabitable and its culture with it?  Where will it be safe to store history in 20 years, to build our Museum of Civilisation filled with phones and laptops? Is that even what we would want our museum to be? 

It might be easier to accept just how fleeting this whole existence thing is if we hadn’t had such a negative impact. If aliens land in a thousand years, they might see crumbling skyscrapers covered in ivy and littered with some radioactive squirrels. I hope they do. But it’s also estimated that the Earth will take 3 million years to recover from the species going extinct right now, and we haven’t even hit 1.5 °C warming yet. More likely, they’ll find a lot of rubbish, mostly plastic and some nuclear waste. Our planet will probably look more like Mars or Venus than the little blue and green one we think of now due to the toxic gases in the atmosphere. If the history of Earth is a calendar year, humanity’s time on it is equivalent to 11:59:59 on December 31st, but our legacy is going to be felt long after it’s gone. 

Our past is irrevocably linked to our future, and both kinda look terrible when you think about them for too long. But it’s also a privilege to know history and have the opportunity to learn from it. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more. Some we can prevent and protect, but for others, all we can do is mourn. Let us record and remember, however imperfectly, for as long as we can.