Ecological Homeostasis (Photo Essay)
After the assembly had made the Deluge sweep over …
Ziusudra, one of mankind, still lived! …
From that time we swore that mankind should not have life eternal.
The sole exception to the new doom of mankind is the survivor of the Flood, who is made immortal.
— Andrew George, Introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh XLV
The darkness of ecological awareness is the darkness of noir, which is a strange loop: the detective is a criminal. In a strong version of noir the narrator is implicated in the story […] We “civilized” people, we Mesopotamians, are the narrators of our destiny. Ecological awareness is that moment at which those narrators find out that they are the tragic criminal.
— Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology 9
“Ecological Homeostasis” is a photo essay developed from my video installation, Noah/0.2 degrees, which first exhibited during Performance Studies international (PSi) #25 in Calgary, Canada in 2019. The photo essay interweaves narratives about temperatures for humans and the planet to comment on the delicate balance of their natures (both lack elasticity and adaptability) through a composition of performance texts, video stills, and an audio track. It juxtaposes the story of a whale who swam for two weeks with its dead calf in its mouth with a narrative about the significance of 0.2 degrees to the human body and the planet.
The raw footage of Noah/0.2 degrees includes recordings of whales underwater, a video documenting a person’s flight from the deadly fires in California in 2018, and recordings of a seashore. The photo essay “Ecological Homeostasis,” based on this video installation, presents the first minute of the audio and a series of stills capturing whales, the ocean, and images of a devastating fire juxtaposed alongside the texts of the poems in the two narrative tracks of Noah/0.2 degrees. These texts, positioned together but on opposite sides of the page, appear in two colors. One has hues of blue, the other red — colors associated with signifiers of temperature (e.g. faucets have red or blue markings to identify hot or cold water sources, respectively).
The poems, color-coded and positioned on either side of the page among the images, are intended to be experienced simultaneously, like a multimedia performance, by the viewer, who will take in both stories and the images as they scroll down the page. Some viewers may choose to read one poem first and then scroll back up to read the other; they may view the images first and then read the poems, or look at the images at the end. Even then, due to the scope of the visual field, their minds would absorb at least parts of the other two narratives in each take due to the aesthetic constellation of the essay’s elements.
The first poem tells a futuristic story of a dream about the whale and her baby. The second poem speaks about the significance of a change of 0.2 degrees to physical states and processes of water, the planet, and the human body. The critical changes caused by such a small difference in the temperature of ecosystems, the planet, and the human body is the main metaphor in “Ecological Homeostasis,” representing the connection between the human populations and the nonhuman species most vulnerable to climate change and related social justice matters.
A Difference of 0.2 degrees
Humans have long lived with the awareness that a small change in their body temperature deserves concern and attention. The concept that a small difference in the temperature of the planet warrants an immediate response has a shorter history, but has become a topic of intense discussion. Some of these conversations, transferred into popular discourse, were adopted from the documents and debates put out during international meetings calling for action, such as those by the United Nations.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s extension to the commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, adopted with the 2012 Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, ended in 2020. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in Japan in 1997, failed in its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming, largely due to its ineffectiveness in establishing “significant norm changes in countries with respect to reducing emissions” considered partially caused by “the exemption of developing countries” such as China and India, and the “United States refusal to ratify the agreement” (Napoli 184). During the UNFCCC’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in December 2015, after two weeks of negotiations in Paris, all 197 members of the UNFCCC entered into a new environmental treaty to address climate change and its catastrophic consequences: the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement, superseding the extension to the Kyoto Protocol, similarly aimed to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. However, this time, the UNFCCC’s action plan had more specific goals: to limit the global temperature increase to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius in this century (“What is the Paris Agreement?”). The following year, 2016, was the hottest ever recorded (“Global Climate Report”). The need to reduce greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, had never been more urgent.
Climate Action Tracker (CAT) — an independent scientific analysis provided by the joint efforts of Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute — keeps track of initiatives towards what it refers to as the “1.5°C Paris Agreement goal,” citing the treaty’s requirement that the countries party to the agreement collaborate to bring greenhouse gas emissions to zero by mid-century. CAT discusses the progress in the definition of the goals, starting with what the analysis calls the “Cancun 2°C goal” in reference to the Cancun agreements UNFCCC adopted a year after the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which discuss the below two degrees Celsius mark as the temperature increase goal of the century (“Conceptualizing”). Special Report 1.5°C (SR1.5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change) asserts that the difference of these few fractions of a degree between less than 2°C and 1.5°C will be consequential to limiting the dangers of climate change (Global Warming of 1.5 ºC). In other words, the Paris Agreement established that the UNFCCC’s previous goal, limiting the temperature increase to 2°C, would not prevent the dangerous catastrophes that further climate change will bring and that the fractions of a degree — 0.2, 0.3, 0.4 — between 1.5°C and 2°C would become vital to avoiding mass extinctions.
One of the parallel narratives in “Ecological Homeostasis” focuses on the significance of small changes in temperature to our and the planet’s equilibria. Normothermia, or normal human body temperature, is 36.5 degrees Celsius. More than 0.5 degrees lower or 0.7 degrees higher than that is considered abnormal and indicates illness or another issue. Only 1.5 degrees lower, a tipping point, indicates life-threatening hypothermia. In other words, our bodies exhibit very little elasticity in this regard. Through constant feedback that travels through our bloodstream to our brains, our bodies automatically regulate various activities we perform without volition, such as breathing, to maintain our bodies in this range. “The range between high and low body temperature levels constitutes the homeostatic plateau — the ‘normal’ range that sustains life. As either of the two extremes are approached, corrective action (through negative feedback) returns the system to the normal range” (“Homeostasis”). If our hypothalamus fails in this process of homeostasis, our lives can be in grave danger, or end.
Encyclopedia Britannica’s article on homeostasis immediately sets forth the critical nature of this biological process as a matter of life and death:
Homeostasis, any self-regulating process by which biological systems tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are optimal for survival. If homeostasis is successful, life continues; if unsuccessful, disaster or death ensues. The stability attained is actually a dynamic equilibrium, in which continuous change occurs yet relatively uniform conditions prevail. Any system in dynamic equilibrium tends to reach a steady state, a balance that resists outside forces of change. (“Homeostasis”)
Any small change — fractions of a degree — can amount to changes in other critical states. Like our bodies, more than seventy percent of Earth is water in multiple different states: solid, liquid, gaseous. Though they share the same nature, ice, water, and vapor serve different purposes. With changes in temperature, this substance becomes and does so many different things. For instance, when its temperature drops enough, it freezes, and kills the life inside it by too dangerously lowering its normothermia — perhaps also preserving it as it is forever. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will not allow passengers to take 0.2°C water (more than 3.4 ounces or 100ml) with them through security at airports in the United States. However, if the same water is brought down from just 0.2 degrees to 0° Celsius, they will allow them to take the ice it becomes (“Ice”). The transition between these states and forms happens through changes in the temperature of the environment.
At the time I was developing Noah/0.2 degrees, I had been aware of the UNFCCC resolution during its Paris meeting but was not considering the focus on fractions of a degree of global temperatures of the legal document. I was building the work on the more commonly discussed consequences of temperature changes, such as its effect on oceans and arctic ice, species endangered, and the relationship between the wider ecosystem and our individual ecosystems — our bodies. This work was also influenced by my broader research focused on the technologies of the body.
I read the entire agreement as I continued my research. While putting together the photo essay and writing this piece about it, I was struck by the literary focus of the document. It reinforced the core ideas of my series of multimedia performances and installations at the intersection of ecology and social justice, especially Noah/0.2 degrees, which appeared among works thematically focusing on elasticity as a broader concept at PSi #25, as well as “Ecological Homeostasis.”
The Paris Agreement, a treaty about managing climate change, talks about humans. Many items of the articles of the Paris Agreement discuss the consequences of these dangers to vulnerable populations:
Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity[.] (1)
In other words, it establishes the goals of the treaty as life-saving measures for the most vulnerable populations, recognizing these populations as the most affected by issues of equity and poverty, especially those living in developing nations. The goal of the treaty then is to increase elasticity of these groups and habitats facing imminent existential threats.
Performance Studies international (PSi) defines elasticity, the theme of the 2019 Calgary meeting, as “the adaptability and plasticity of networked connections, and although elastic tissue has a snapping point, it is far more resilient than inflexible materials” (“Theme”). The Paris Agreement outlines efforts to increase flexibility, adaptability, and resilience, echoing similar language, for example:
Article 2 Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production … Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilient development. (2; emphasis added)
Article 7 1. Parties hereby establish the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal referred to in Article 2. (5-6; emphasis added)
Every item and subsection of Article 7 of the document expands on adaptation measures to increase flexibility, adaptability, and resilience — that is, elasticity — in order to achieve this critical temperature goal. The document lays out the aims of the global initiative to achieve this goal on the basis of equity and to eradicate poverty through a:
[…] gender responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, […] guided by […] knowledge of indigenous peoples […] taking into account the needs of developing country Parties, especially those that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. (6)
The document establishes the critical truth that our and other (nonhuman) species’ endurance on the planet depends on limiting the rise of its temperature and protecting vulnerable populations by increasing their elasticity in response to the consequences of global warming.
Through the metaphor of homeostasis, the regulation of body temperature, “Ecological Homeostasis,” too, shows that our environmental concerns emerge from individual struggles, and that the health of our social habitat (the planet), and our mental and physical health, are interconnected.
“Conceptualizing the Paris Agreement long-term temperature goal.” Climate Action Tracker. https://climateactiontracker.org/methodology/paris-temperature-goal/. Accessed 1 June 2020.
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by Andrew George, London: Penguin, 2003.
“Global Climate Report—Annual 2016.” NOAA National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information, Jan. 2017. https://ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201613. Accessed 15 May 2020.
“Homeostasis.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://britannica.com/science/homeostasis. Accessed June 10 2020.
“How is Today’s Warming Different from the Past?” NASA Earth Observatory, 3 Jun. 2010. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/GlobalWarming/page3.php. Accessed 20 May 2020.
“Ice.” Transportation Security Administration. https://tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/items/ice. Accessed 17 April 2019.
Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
Napoli, Christopher. “Understanding Kyoto’s Failure.” SAIS Review, vol. 32, no. 2, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1353/sais.2012.0033.
“The Paris Agreement.” UNFCC. https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/paris_agreement_english_.pdf. Accessed 1 June 2020.
“Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). https://ipcc.ch/sr15/. Accessed 1 June 2020.
“Theme.” Performance Studies International 2019. https://psi2019calgary.com/about-psi-25. Accessed 19 May 2020.
“What is the Paris Agreement?” UNFCC. https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement. Accessed 1 June 2020.