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Researching unintended consequences

Exploring the unintended consequences of the industrial revolution

In the first of our ‘behind the scenes’ blogs as part of the Unintended Consequences project, Invisible Flock share their thoughts on research and development…

We have started working together with FutureEverything on a new project that over the course of the year explores the threads between the industrial revolution and the climate and ecological emergency, using Quarry Bank National Trust site as a laboratory for this research. The project is part of Trust New Art, the National Trust’s programme of contemporary arts, underpinned by academic research from the School of Environment, Education and Development at University of Manchester. The lab was planned to open in May and due to Covid 19 has been postponed, but I can’t think of a more relevant time to think about human consequences, unintended or otherwise.

Through a brilliantly insightful workshop with the RoundView team we chart the deep timeline of the earth, in practical exercises mapping out shifts in the atmosphere due to early life forms, rock formations, through to changes in climate and glacier melts, the explosion of biodiversity in the Precambrian era, all the way through to the blink of an eye that represents human presence. Our insignificance and our unfortunate significance blisters this timeline. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but if we imagine that it was 1 year old, then the industrial revolution occurred 2 seconds ago. The modern human arrived on the 31st December at 23.38 but our impacts are everywhere, from the deepest sea beds to the highest mountain slopes.

There has only been one time in the last 800,000 years that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has exceeded 300 parts per million, up until early in the 20th century, when we passed that mark. Since the industrial revolution started, carbon dioxide has risen steeply and we have now passed 415 parts per million, the brink of a dangerous tipping point into an unknown world of unprecedented climate change and consequences across the globe. 

As part of the workshop we map out questions we might individually want to explore through the research as the project continues, I write ‘does it matter that we survive’ and Fraser from the RoundView team puts down ‘unintended or intended consequences?’. I think these conversations are important to have, but they are also really difficult to have. Did the mill owners never question the consequences of pouring dye into the rivers, did the black smoke polluting the air make them not stop to think: perhaps this isn’t such a good plan after all? When the Greg family designed all their windows to face out to the landscape and turn away from the mill, were they completely oblivious to the changes that were being made? They had moved out to Quarry Bank to be near nature and away from the filthy air and streets of Manchester. They could not have foreseen the invisible, massive changes wrought by burning coal and fossil fuels that we are only now starting to understand, (the scale of which is shown in the graph below), but I think on some conscious level the increase in production and materials flowing into the environment would have felt unnatural, disruptive.

Hannah Greg adored nature and you can see this from her diary archives. When they built their new house, they planned for their big bay window to look out over the river and not the mill. I think what she represents to me as we begin this journey is the need to turn and look through the other window.

We talk a lot about hope in our work. How do you find hope in such depressing statistics, such terrible stories? I believe that to find hope, a new radical hope (Gosling 2016) you have to first confront despair. 

It is perhaps not the time to have the Covid-19 conversation, a zoonosis, an animal infection that’s transmissible to humans, or perhaps it is. People are scared, and many are literally risking their lives to keep our species alive and well. But when we look at consequences of messing with ecosystems there could not be a more glaring example. Our urban areas and settlements encroach into previously untouched wilderness areas, bringing us into closer contact with wild animals and their diseases.

Wildlife markets see species from all over, many critically endangered, like the pangolin, wrenched from their natural habitats, stacked in cages, bats next to snakes, and sold for human consumption.

I was listening to a brilliant podcast by Emergence magazine featuring David Quammen this weekend on corona viruses. At one point he touches on the human race as an outbreak population, a species expanding so rapidly (much like the tent caterpillar) and living in such close proximity to one another, we are vulnerable to viral plagues and we will eventually be wiped out. But when the scientist he talks to Greg Dwyer ran the models he says that he thinks  it might not happen, because of one variable, that unlike the caterpillar we have the ability to change the way we think and behave.

‘We can adjust our behaviour. We can consume less. We can pass regulations. We can adapt to the situation. We can do that.’

Now more than ever as we can see things as we once knew them upended.  This feels like an important moment and an opportunity to collectively ask ourselves, what do we want to go back to ‘normal’ and what do we not. Let’s look into the black fog in the other window and think of ways we might be able to clear it.