Mapping New Ground? A seminar.

Field visit to Snowdonia  as part of the 'Walking Poets' project.

image by Kevin Greenfield

In the last post, Phil Prentice noted how culture defines everything: from the physical and social characteristics of a place to the intangible cultural practices, which make a place unique. The Cultural Eco Systems Services (CES) have sought to at least acknowledge, and in turn quantify culture in the context of spatial data.

It quantitatively values a number of additional ecosystems which includes the cultural ecosystem services, ‘which give rise to a range of material and non-material benefits to human well-being, but are frequently overlooked in decision making’. It defines cultural ecosystems services as ‘ the individual or shared human benefits to human well-being that arise from the interactions between environmental spaces (e.g. gardens, parks, beaches and landscapes) and cultural practices (e.g. gardening, walking, painting and watching wildlife)’. It goes on to say that culture is not a property of the ecosystem per se, but develops over time through interaction between people, their values and the environment in which they operate. The importance of context – spatial, temporal and socio-cultural is fundamental in the shaping of and articulation of values. Culture and Nature are largely inseparable. Perhaps more pertinently, it refers to the cultural value as in the ‘value to society’, which is passed through art, literature and the media.

The notion of ‘natural capital’ was first mooted by E.F Schumacher in his seminal book Small is Beautiful (1973). The term environmental services was used in 1970 in a Study of Critical Environmental Problems, which listed pollination, fisheries, climate regulation and flood control as critical systems to human dependence on the Earth’s ecosystems. The French philosopher Felix Guattari (1989) had also noted that a new market system, which places value on the ‘profitability in the social and aesthetic sense’ was needed [1]. The development of the eco-systems services as it is now commonly referred to has expanded to include social-economic and conservation objectives. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was a major assessment of the human impact on the environment, called for the United Nations then Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 and published in 2005. The report found, unsurprisingly, that human actions are depleting the Earth’s natural capital which is putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. However, given appropriate policy changes it would be possible to implement action to reverse degradation, if the political will for this exists. The legacy of this report has been the trickle down effect of this shift in thinking to national level. As a result, the UK Government commissioned the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) in 2007, and its initial findings were published in 2011. The ecosystems services states clearly that the natural capital contributes to the economic performance of the nation. However, more importantly it starts to nuance the benefits in broader terms rather than the narrow economic ones.

The UK NEA’s main effect is that any future decisions making will now have to assess the impact on ecosystems, not just imminently but far into the future. The Welsh Government enacted the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which specifically makes public bodies think about the long term impact of their policies and fostering a more joint up approach. The mapping of the ecosystems services thus requires a holistic approach with a longitudinal view, and one in which cultural ecosystems should play an integral role. The cultural benefits of ecosystems are no less tangible and material than other types of benefit. Therefore a broad range of perspectives, methods and tools are required to access and appreciate the full range of cultural ecosystems services. In a follow up study on the Arts and Humanities Perspectives on Cultural Ecosystems Services (CES) (2014) led by Professor Peter Coates, the potential future contribution of participation and creative mapping was highlighted. The report references the artist Iain Biggs’ notion of on deep mapping. Biggs likens the technique of in depth surveying and immersive site-specific practices used by artists, as a ‘essaying of place’[2]. Guattari advocates a move away from the universal to the local; of allowing solutions to develop relevant to their own ecology. This is perhaps best summed up in the slogan ‘think local, act global, a phrase which find its roots in the thinking of Patrick Geddes. Guattari calls it the eco-logic and notes ‘that this new logic – and I wish to stress this point – has affinities with that of the artist’. Thus the rationale of examining the methodologies employed by artists, and particularly considering the mapping strategies deployed, might help to further the discourse of Cultural Ecosystems thinking.

The broader context of Eco Systems thinking can not be divorced from the discourse around the Anthropocene. The biologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene in a joint article with atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000. It defined and described how human activity, predominantly the global economic system, is now the prime driver of change in the Earth’s System. There is ongoing debate among scientists as to how and when to define this new era. The climatologist Will Steffen argues that, “of all the candidates for a start date for the Anthropocene, the beginning of the Great Acceleration[3] is by far the most convincing from an Earth System science perspective. It is only beyond the mid-20th century that there is clear evidence for fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are beyond the range of variability of the Holocene, and driven by human activities and not by natural variability. The impact of human activity on the Earth has not only made significant changes on the planet evidenced in climatic changes, supported by geological findings such as sediments and ice but also in a steep decline in biodiversity (58%) in the last four decades, leading scientists to call it the Sixth Extinction[4]. The Western concept of growth as evidenced in the Great Acceleration, is being proven to be unsustainable for both planet and people. The Great Acceleration trends support the proposal that Earth has entered a new geological epoch. The Anthropocene is thus the new age of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record. Geologists, Earth System scientists and others have keenly contested the onset and the definition of the Anthropocene, and the term itself has not yet been formalised by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. However, despite an exact consensus of its definition and timing, the Anthropocence has been widely used and recognised as a term with which to describe the effects of humans on the planet. It has made its way into a number of other scientific studies and the social sciences, humanities and the arts. The word “Anthropocene” itself entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014, fifteen years after it is generally agreed to have first been used and entered popular culture.

It is from within this context that I organised the Mapping New Ground? Seminar on how artists are engaging with the Anthropocene through practice, theory and policy (30th May 2017). Professor Peter Coates will be joining Prof Harriet Hawkins and Dave Pritchard to discuss Eco Systems thinking and particularly the cultural and artists response, and the methodologies employed within this context. It will consider how artists are both engaging with the broader theme of the Anthropocene and how this might/could/will intersect with the discourse on Eco Systems thinking. The event’s programme can be viewed here. (Due to limited numbers , priority will be given to staff and students from the CDT (Centre for Doctoral Training) from the AHCR Northumbria-Sunderland Consortium). My particular interest, will be the mapping methodologies employed by artists but furthermore how those methodologies might relate to, or engage with the Cultural Ecosystems Services.

I will be reporting back on the seminar in due course.




[1] Guattari, Felix (1989) The Three Ecologies, New Formations, Number 8, Summer 1989, translated from the French by Chris Turner, p145

[2] Biggs, Iain ‘Deep mapping as an ‘essaying’ of place, blog post with notes from an illustrated talk given at Bartlett School of Architecture, 9th July 2010 [accessed 4 September 2016]

[3] The Great Acceleration in turn pays homage to the to the economic historian Karl Polanyi’s phrase the ‘Great Transformation’ (1944). Polanyi put forward a holistic understanding of modern society, which contends that society, the market place and the nation state are irrevocably intertwined. He argued that after the Great Transformation, the commodification of labour and industrialisation and the rise of the nation-state allowed the market economy to develop and thrive at the expense of society. He also noted that the market economy is unsustainable because it is fatally destructive to human nature and the natural world.

Polanyi, Karl The Great Transformation (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1944)

[2] Steffen, Will – Broadgate, Wendy – Deutsch, Lisa – Gaffney, Owen – Ludwig, Cornelia. 2015 The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review. Vol 2(1) 81-98


[4] The eponymous Pulitzer winning book by the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, collated scientific research which brings to the fore the accelerated rate of species decline and very, very (sic) elevated extinction rates, leading scientists to call it the next Great Extinction.

Drake, Nadia (2015) “Will Humans Survive the Sixth Great Extinction?” Nature, 23 June 2015

[accessed 14 December 2016]