Taking on the Overwhelm – Ecoliteracy in the Arts


Purls from the Undercut  GIF   sucrose series Niamh Cunningham 2020 









“What is the pattern that connects?”

Exploring the cultural dimensions of sustainability is a vast subject. Recently have I been introduced to the work of systems thinker the late Gregory Bateson.  Learning about “the pattern that connects” was his life’s work. He was preoccupied with why humans frequently behave in ways that are destructive of natural ecological systems. He asked questions of holistic structures such as how does it work? what works with it? what are the relationships? how does it learn? how does it think? how does it interact? In the documentary produced by his daughter Nora Bateson “An Ecology of Mind” we see how Bateson liked to look at a thing from different angles, twist it around endlessly so as not to get stuck on a singular line of thinking. If we don’t search for this pattern that connects, in our global culture, in our educational institutions, we are likely to break it and when that happens Bateson said “you necessarily destroy all quality.”


“The planetary emergency we are facing is a crisis of culture” said Dr Cathy Fitzgerald who presented the online course ‘Essential ecoliteracy for creatives and art professionals’.   I first met artist -researcher Cathy twelve years ago in my home town of Carlow, Ireland. Her course is packed with valuable resources, video links and readings.  Fellow artists, educators and policy makers from all over the globe met on the weekly zoom meeting ,  using the material for that week we explored ecological insights that promote paradigm shifts.  The rest of this blog will touch on only a few highlights from this course.


Purls from the Undercut (16.7.5.a) sucrose series Niamh Cunningham 2020

At the beginning of the course Cathy took us through some terms such as


The Holocene : Since the last ice age 12000 years ago the earth has experienced only small scale climate shifts.  However we have drifted from the Holocene since the Industrial revolution and are now currently in the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene : Our current era  is where humans dominate climatic, biophysical and evolutional processes at a planetary scale.    

The Symbiocene : This term was  coined by Glen Albrecht which hints at more symbiotic relationship,  where  life thrives through interrelated mutuality between many species and we can affirm the interconnectedness of life and all living things. Albrecht also said that he saw art as a meme for the Symbiocene.

Glen Albrecht is author of the book Earth Emotions where he defines other words for our new world such as solastalgia, soliphilia, (Please see link at end of this blog for more )


To support people on the enormity of the work ahead one of the modules included psycho-, social and physical supports and practices. Every module had a ‘mind-body coherence’ session, a physical and mental exercise with Veronica Larrson. I also learned unexpected things like why ‘compassion’ was far more important to practice than ‘empathy’ from eco philosopher Dr. Nikos Patedakis.


As part of the copious resources, links and readings which were packed into each weekly module I encountered environmental activist, scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology author Joanna Macy.

‘That knife edge of uncertainty illicits from us our greatest creativity and courage, we need to live with sufficient realism and dignity to know that we are living with that knife edge of uncertainty.’

Putting our interconnectedness, our courage and intelligence to good use she speaks of the shift of an industrial growth society to a more sustainable civilization. That knife edge of uncertainty feels all the sharper now as we work our way through the Covid 19 era.

Purls from the Undercut (16.6.30.a) sucrose series Niamh Cunningham 2020

We also studied the UNSDG’s Sustainable Development Goals. (This module propelled me onto another online course called “Planetary Boundaries” for which I am currently learning. I hope to write an overview blog on that experience later.)  I came across an interview with Scientist Susanne Moser who also presented a positive picture for these overwhelming times and claimed one good reason to get out of bed in the morning is that we haven’t tried everything yet. “Having done miserably at communication, having done miserably at policy, having done miserably at market responses to climate change, this gives us a ton of hope because we could do so much better’ (earthisland.org)



The week we looked at Expanded Earth Ethics we considered the work of the late Scottish barrister  Polly Higgins. Ecocide is the missing piece of law to assist in reframing a system to avoid business as usual. Higgins is author of the book Dare to be Great. The term Ecocide is likely to have first appeared at the time of the American war in Vietnam. Cathy took us through some of the ideas behind the book Moral Ground edited by Kathleen Dean Moore.  We then looked at the Earth Charter. Systems thinker Fritjof Capra described it as a declaration of 16 values and principles to create a sustainable, just and peaceful world.

We then explored how others expanded their ecological art practices such as Newton Harrisons’ ten minute video Apologia Mediteranneo an evocative apology to the largest inland sea. On our final week participants presented our own socio eco practices to the group, learning a little bit more of the people who had been raising questions during the previous weekly sessions. After two weeks I am still reviewing many of the readings and links on the course referencing the renowned and also the less known movers and shakers in the world of ecological thinking and eco-social art practices.  



I would highly recommend this online course for artists and creatives and policy makers who wish to inform their practices / educational programs and policies.  


Here is a link to Dr Cathy Fitzgerald courses site



This is a blog by Dr Fitzgerald expanding  on some of the topics above 



Purls from the Undercut (16.7.5.a) sucrose series Niamh Cunningham 2020


The artwork for this blog is part of the sucrose series. The image is based on a waterfall outside Shawan, Sichuan, when visiting with other artists working on the early stages of a sculpture project in ‘Hong Fangzi’ October 2019. 



Note  my practice “Memory Palace of Trees” continues with upcoming tree story about Su Dong Po’s family residence in Meishan.