On February 29, I attended a screening of the 1992 film BARAKA to raise funds for Wildlife Victoria after the devastating bushfire season.
The date is special because it is a leap year and according to Google, this is a lucky year with a spirituality website suggesting, a year “when energies are higher and filled with enthusiasm, optimism, love and compassion. It is a great year to search for spiritual wisdom.”
And considering Australians are facing a climate catastrophe, a coronavirus outbreak, the aftermath of a horrific bushfire season, ongoing drought, and poor economic outlook, luck is much-needed and wisdom always worth seeking – spiritual or otherwise!
It would be nice to have a competent government that fostered optimism and enthusiasm for the future but achieving that needs work and an early election! Meanwhile, if you are not a climate denialist and you believe in social justice like me, please keep raising your voice in whatever way you can.
I saw Baraka a long time ago, but the advertised conversation scheduled after the film captured my attention because it was about “designing the future with hope and humanity” – two principles omitted from many concrete jungles we call cities and media full of gloom and doom.
The film, like a good book, needs to be absorbed and savoured in stillness. It’s like an epic novel or saga with layers of meaning to be digested and reflected upon.
Deep concentration – not a quick glance or speed read – the MC asked us to relax, be drawn into the music and visuals, ‘be still, absorb, listen and watch … be in touch with emotions and senses, enjoy a transformational experience.’
The lights dimmed, the film rolled, I became completely immersed in the visuals and incredible soundtrack. The atmosphere calm and comfortable in the recently renovated Capitol until ironically, someone turned the air conditioner up or forgot to adjust it to the vagaries of Melbourne’s recalcitrant summer.
Luckily, the film was almost over and it was panel time so the discomfort wasn’t too much of a distraction.
It was then the turn of the two presenters to provide the promised hope and information. To represent the current generation’s ideas for tackling the climate emergency.
To offer man-made solutions to man-made problems.
BARAKA – Ron Fricke’s Guided Meditation On Humanity
A breathtaking journey across 25 countries on six continents, Baraka is a sublime reflection on the beauty and the chaos of the world. The film brings together spectacular imagery with no plot, actors, script or narrative, transcending nationality, identity, place and time. The result is a meditative panorama of our natural and human landscapes – a visual survey made all the more urgent and affecting given today’s climate emergency.
As much a technical masterpiece as it is a conceptual one, Baraka was shot entirely on 70mm with a custom-built computerized 65mm camera. Taking 30 months to complete, with over 14 months on location, the making of the film was a feat within itself.
Baraka quickly became a cult classic for its unique non-linear, non-narrative approach to documentary and its astonishing footage that jumps from the elating to the disturbing. The awe, harmony, destruction and rebirth of nature merge in cycles. Ultimately we are looking at humanity’s interconnectedness and our relationship to the environment.
When writing, the importance of techniques such as metaphor and simile are important to improve poetry and prose, and so it is with a film. A picture replaces a thousand words especially if revealing a powerful metaphor, and there were many in Baraka.
Music to evoke mood and soundtrack using percussion to great effect are important aspects of cinema and in Baraka, it kept pace with the sweeping and varied scenes of the natural world and cities. Percussion and natural ‘noise’, especially when industrial scenes of production lines, manufacturing and mining activities filled the screen segued seamlessly from panoramic or close-ups of mountains, oceans, deserts and green plains.
Superb cinematography and editing drew us into each scene. Memorable close-ups of the faces of animals and humans, the zooming into the natural and human world’s rhythms.
Time-lapse photography provided scenes of people commuting on foot, by train and car before switching to herds of animals, marching insect lines…back to the expressions on the faces of train travellers in Tokyo … reminding me of writing poetry on peak hour trains to and from the city…
Have We Forgotten the Value of Stillness?
Baraka is full of juxtapositions – we see Japanese men in a pool following a bathing ritual, crowds of men and women bathing in the Ganges – close-ups of people relaxing, luxuriating in the relaxation and purification of water, not much different to a family of baboons in a hot spring high in the mountains, ice on the baboon’s fur melting crystals as he closes his eyes… his stillness mesmerising.
A Shinto priest surrounded by fast-paced traffic and busy shoppers in Tokyo walks one foot in front of the other, heel touching toe, as if on a tightrope or narrow ledge, snail-paced, a bell in his hand chiming with each slow, deliberate, step, no deviation from the path or the rhythm.
I remember Donne’s poem, ‘For whom the bell tolls… ‘ It tolls for thee…
No drones in 1992, yet the visuals are stunning, probably from a helicopter or aircraft but each vein, artery, vivid colour stands out: of mountains, rocks, snow,-laden fields, trees, shrubbery and humans…
There are painted faces, tattooed bodies, jewellery made from natural items adorning naked or semi-naked bodies dancing and performing rituals indoors and outdoors, in continents across the globe.
The camera visits temples, mosques, synagogues, churches – and most of those performing the rituals or leading the service are male (has the power balance changed?).
In a Buddhist temple, the maroon-robed, adolescent lamas chant as old women sweep the courtyards and surrounding streets and old men slowly sprinkle oil. I remember visiting Mongolia...
In an orthodox Christian church, an old woman garbed in traditional black sits beside a table of candles, as if in servitude, while the priest walks ceremoniously towards an altar agleam with ornate gold and silver. He stops to pray
… and the camera focuses on another priest in another country, walking through cloisters to kneel and pray by an unadorned tomb …
There are scenes of the Hajj where hundreds of thousands of Islamic devotees make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey connected to the time of Abraham and requiring certain rituals, including walking counter-clockwise seven times around the holy Kaaba.
In Cambodia, we see rows of men in an arc following the lead of a chief/guru with a painted face. He chants and moves his hands and arms in various poses. The men emulate his loud laughs, chants, alternately sitting and standing. Their behaviour is reminiscent of a Maori haka, a ceremonial dance or challenge with vigorous movement, stamping feet, rhythmic shouting and specific facial expressions.
Australian Aboriginal dancers around a campfire sing and act a story after being painted by women who then stand and sway in the background. Females playing a supporting role or performing their own rituals in the shadows mirrored in Kenya and Nigeria…
The film spans 25 countries with a focus on first nation peoples and their connection to the natural world and the rituals that have grown or been created.
The lifestyles of first nation people have been disrupted by industrial development, yet many retain cultural rituals. (Or they did in 1992!)
In South America, tribal children peep from the jungle, behind trees thousands of years old, and wide-eyed watch as a gigantic saw screams and fells trees. We are still destroying the Amazon rainforest at a horrendous rate.
In cities, descendants of those tribes peep through bars in pigeon-coop-sized apartments huddled in ramshackle confusion, on the side of city hills. Children peep through barred windows on the slum buildings protecting them from falling to their death. Families being contained, exploited … still… the cost of the Rio Olympics to Brazil’s poor in 2016...
“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, set off a tornado in Texas?”
Cities – each building bigger than the last…
From caged people to caged birds, automated conveyor belts as thousands of hens lay eggs. From the cruelty of egg farming to chickens, checked, painted, beaks seared, thrown into chutes one by one and suddenly, there are lines of workers, clocking on and clocking off, jammed tightly on production lines…
Like the tobacco factory in Indonesia, women and girls, making cigarettes, one by one, rolling and clipping the tobacco, shaping the cigarette for a well-dressed, suited businessman to smoke as he joins the line of commuters crossing a Jakarta street…
While in India, at Hindu funerals on the Ganges we see funeral pyres, some can afford a decorated raft, others a homemade stretcher on the banks of the river. As the camera zooms in on a smouldering corpse, I steal a glance at the young lad sitting next to me. He’s ten, perhaps eleven and with his dad and is completely absorbed. I watch those grieving on the screen, the charred remains of their loved one and close my eyes for a few moments as tears sting – being a voyeur uncomfortable and sad.
But what of the crowds of women and children trawling through gigantic rubbish heaps salvaging anything that can be used, eaten, sold, repurposed. They don’t have a choice in lifestyle or of avoiding unpleasant death scenes.
Ragged and dishevelled, the scavengers move amongst bulldozers, smouldering fires and industrial shovels. The scene somewhere in India but it could be the Philippines, Nigeria, rural China… places where reports of populations exploited in this way fill the news cycle.
First Nations sovereignty – the film revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. A combination of approaches will equal climate justice.
We have a climate emergency as Greta and others warn our house is on fire!
Learning to Live on the Anthropocene
Anthropocene – the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
We have created an extinction crisis and must act now. We must accept and appreciate the human impact and population on the natural world and change our behaviour.
Lauren Rickards is a human geographer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University Melbourne, where she co-leads the Climate Change Transformations research program of the Centre for Urban Research. Lauren’s research examines the social, cultural and political dimensions of the human-environment relationship, focused on climate change, disasters and the broader Anthropocene condition. A Rhodes Scholar, Lauren is a Lead Author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report and a Senior Fellow with the Earth Systems Governance network.
Lauren studies how the earth functions and is now starting to dysfunction.
For Australia, this summer of bushfires a stark wake-up call. Fears, scientists thought we had decades to deal with, are here, and we must deal with the crisis.
Here are links to recent articles about the magnitude of Australia’s bushfire crisis:
- The magnitude of Australia’s bushfire crisis captured in five big numbers
Australian summers getting longer
- Australian summers getting longer, winters shorter
- Humanity and nature are not separate
Lauren said, Baraka, made the familiar strange and makes us face up to what we regard as normal. We must start to think differently. We must not accept the view of politicians like our Prime Minister who talk of ‘the new normal‘!
For example, bushfires are now strange and more threatening to generations brought up reciting Dorothea Mackellar’s poem about an Australia ‘of drought and flooding rains’.
‘You live in the bush. You live by the rules of the bush, and that’s it.’ These were the reflective words of Mrs Dunlop upon seeing the blackened rubble of her home, which made headline news the morning after the first, and most destructive, fire front tore through the Blue Mountains in New South Wales on 17 October 2013 (Partridge and Levy, 2013).
While seemingly a simple statement, it goes right to the heart of heated public and political debates – past and present – over who belongs where and why in the fire-prone landscapes that surround Australia’s cities. Bushfire is a constant and ongoing part of Australian history, ecology and culture. The love of a sunburnt country, the beauty and terror of fire, and the filmy veil of post-fire greenness described in the century-old poem ‘Core of My Heart’ (Mackellar, 1908) are still apt depictions of Australian identity today.
Yet longer fire seasons and an increase in extreme fire weather days with climate change add both uncertainty and urgency to Australia’s ability to coexist with fire in the future (Head et al., 2013).
Man has an obsession with fire – in the film we see various religious rituals involving lighting candles, lanterns, bonfires. Purification and burial rituals. There are shots of the sun, moon, stars juxtaposed with the fires out of control on the oil fields of Kuwait, and the explosions caused by bombs.
The foundries, crematoriums, mining and other industrial sites, and cities lit up… but also the horror of the Holocaust gas chambers, mass burials, destructive bombings.
We are able to control combustion, we have electricity because of coal but fossil fuels now need to be made strange.
Our relationship to the military-industrial complex where atomic weapons and stockpiling nuclear weapons are seen as normal must be challenged.
The film depicts soldiers on the Chinese and Russian borders protecting piles of weapons, then pans to row after row of USA military planes…
As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood.
The general notions about human understanding . . . which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture, they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.’
Oppenheimer, quoted from F. Capra, The Tao of Physics.
- atmospheric aerosol loading
- ozone depletion
- ocean acidification
- the equivalent of an atom bomb a week in our oceans
- planetary boundaries transform our approach to growth
- biodiversity loss
- great acceleration of climate change and mother earth becomes deeply unfamiliar
- the threat is here and people already suffering
UN scientists warn that roughly 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction due to human activity. It would be the first mass extinction since humans started walking the earth and has dire implications for the survival of our own species. Already, humans are losing key ecosystem services that nature provides, including crop pollination, storm mitigation, and clean air and water.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
“The IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services comes at a critical time for the planet and all its peoples. The report’s findings – and the years of diligent work by the many scientists who contributed – will offer a comprehensive view of the current conditions of global biodiversity. May 6, 2019
Climate Anxiety Exists Now
Lauren suggests we must:
In Baraka you see people following this path, people meditating, pushing back against some of the technology and damaging changes.
We too must question technology of the future – it may be shiny and bright but not normal – Lauren refers to the common symbol we see of a pair of hands holding up the earth. She challenges that image: Let us remember –
the planet holds us up not us holding up the planet.
We need to pierce the politics of denial. Do not accept climate change as the new normal!!
We must move from the idea of a shareholder to stakeholder, not capitalism but a system where the environment is the shareholder.
I think of the endless debates people have about whether climate change is real and wonder how anyone can still be a climate denialist. Then remember a meme doing the rounds of social media and sigh:
Bio Cities Living Architecture – Beyond Green Design
The next presenter was Dr Ollie Cotsaftis, a post-disciplinary and speculative designer whose practice sits at the intersection of the human evolution, the built environment and the realm of creative biotechnologies.
His research addresses climate resilience and social innovation in speculative urban futures. Ollie is also the founder and creative director of future ensemble studio, the co-founder of Melbourne Speculative Futures—the Melbourne Chapter of The Design Futures Initiative—experiments with new ideas through his visual art practice, and most recently started a column on speculative and critical design for the This is HCD network.
Ollie wants to answer the question – How do we build our cities and stop the concrete working against us and reconnect with nature?
- Bio Cities, Living Architecture – Beyond Green design
- Architecture that is organic
- Architecture that is sustainable
- Architecture that is alive
He referred to information from the Bureau of Meteorology that shows temperatures will increase and have been increasing over the last 110 years. The slide courtesy of the CSIRO, July 2019.
Ollie suggested we Google action architecture climate change for a wealth of information from people who agree the climate is changing therefore so must architecture.
Carbon dioxide causes global warming. Buildings emit almost half of the carbon dioxide in the USA and that has to stop!
One of the most well-known architects of our time, Bjarke Ingels said: “If we can Change the Climate of the World by Accident, Imagine What we can Achieve by Trying”
Bjarke has become one of the most sought-after architects. In 2019 alone, he and his team completed as many as 13 projects, including large-scale undertakings such as Copenhill, a zero-emission waste-to-energy plant. The innovative solution is the first of its kind in the world: utopia turned reality.
90% of Melbourne’s energy is still based on oil, gas and coal. The CBD is very expensive to live regarding energy use. Ollie has been involved in an experimental project to convert a high-rise corporate building into a sustainable residential alternative.
385 Bourke Street – Hope For The Future
385 Bourke Street (also known as the State Bank Centre) is a high-rise office building located in Melbourne, Australia. It is the former head office of the State Bank of Victoria and Commonwealth Bank of Australia. It is located on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets.
The lower levels of the building are the Galleria shopping centre. Major tenants in the building are Energy Australia and Industry Superannuation fund UniSuper.
Photo and this info from Wikipedia
Built in 1983 it had poor energy efficiency. The owners have spent $2.5m for an energy retrofit to transform it into a residential building. The side exposed to the sun had solar panels fitted to capture that energy.
- Panels have been put on the outside of the building’s upper floors facing the sun and are red because that is the colour that captures the most energy from the sun.
- There are plants on window sills, in walkways, on ledges.
Researchers are working all the time to improve battery storage options and rechargeable batteries.
There is a micro bacterial rechargeable battery (MRB) not commercially available yet but in 5 years (just like the development of the OPVs) these could be available and embedded in buildings.
385 Bourke Street has been transformed from a carbon positive corporate tower to a carbon-negative residential tower.
The experiment has proven it is possible to transform energy inefficient city buildings into sustainable alternatives –
- Extension of OPVs
- Cross-section MRBs
- Affordability is an issue and more information will be available during Melbourne Design Week march 12-22, 2020 and on April 24, where there will be a full presentation at the NGV.
Ollie wants us to think of different perceptions. A level of awakening needed and the ability to question how we do things differently. to have –
- Speculative ideas and consider their future
- Speculative visions of the future
How do we move from object and service (a building) the individual to a collective way of shaping the city?
Shareholders should be the community of the city. Even change shareholder to stakeholder, not viewing through a capitalism lens but a system where the environment is the shareholder.
A combination of approaches will equal climate justice
First Nations sovereignty important to recognise – Baraka revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth.
- Inequities revealed in 1992 and still happening today
Environmental and economic problems caused by historical violence inflicted on first nations people – their lifestyle did not cause these events.
- We have to face the enormous depths of problems created by history and recognise it is getting harder to predict the future and impact of technology because change happens so fast
Who moved the earth into this state of catastrophe?
It is a slow emergency on a geological timescale but for us now there is a sense of urgency. Baraka shows the disintegration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the reclaiming of the ruins by nature – through a variety of lens and focus you can lose track of hours and time but you get a sense there is a trajectory we are heading on…
Let’s learn from those who have lived with the earth, let them lead us to repair, restore and be on a better path. In Australia, we must listen to our Indigenous rangers about land management.
An emerging crisis implies a window of opportunity.
Organisations like Wildlife Victoria are helping creatures get through on the short term but also building bridges to an eco future and looking longterm to be positive towards a sustainable future for our wildlife.
In urban settings, we have architects and designers transforming buildings from one function to another. Considering adaptive reuse.
When a bushfire season like the one we have just experienced is so catastrophic, we can be blinded by the vastness of scale which is on the level of global plastic pollution and recycling and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s easy to miss a lot of slow violence to the earth not necessarily making headline news:
- Soil degradation
- land theft from First Nations peoples
- Poisoning of water and land
- Species extinction
Ollie explained the city of Jakarta is sinking – water is being drained from tabletops and the city is drowning and must be relocated. What about the buildings left – will they just rot or will they be reused and repurposed? This is a project to consider under the banner of a speculative future.
- Can we program a building to degrade itself after a certain lifespan?
- Can we adapt buildings to our needs?
Principles and ideas shared globally, not just western canon and ethics which has been a problem when everything is Eurocentric or Western-centric.
When tackling projects, cooperation needed around the world between countries and cultures with shared questions.
- Is this anticipatory?
- What can go wrong?
- What are the different scenarios?
- Have we included everyone and everything to be affected?
- Are we doing it for the right purpose?
- Is it the right thing to do?
- part of the world’s problem is too many design groups are white-centric – we must share principles rather than some grand narrative of design
Greed has led to the Climate Change Catastrophe
How do we go about overtaking and replacing greed and accumulation of wealth as a motivation of the people in power?
- Law must come into it – positive changes can be imposed by regulations and consequences
- Often environmental laws are inadequate but even those must be enforced
- We can funnel channels of greed – eg. You’ll lose money in fossil fuels but make money in renewables
- We must question fundamental ideas – the shareholder model our society uses feeds inequity
- We can slow down economic activity – bigger and faster and more luxurious is not necessarily better
- Change the architecture of our streets to encourage more walking, more sedentary use, more shade, more trees, more places to sit and contemplate, communicate, converse…