By Nicole Kang Ferraiolo and Jodi Reeves Eyre
Humans are at the heart of the climate crisis. We are by no means the only species or entities that will face its dire effects, but our current geological age is called the Anthropocene for a reason. We caused this crisis, we will suffer its consequences, and it’s contingent on us to find and implement solutions.
Even when the effects of the climate crisis are narrowed to their threat to cultural heritage and information resources, the stakes are staggering. One study found that in the Gulf and Atlantic states, a one-meter rise in sea levels could cause the loss of over 13,000 recorded archaeological sites, as well as 1,000 sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. An analysis of select UNESCO heritage sites in the Mediterranean found that over 95% of them would be at risk by 2100, with many already vulnerable. A recent piece by CLIR’s President Charles Henry references another article by Tara Mazurczyk, Nathan Piekelek, Eira Tansey, and Ben Goldman, which found that 98.8% of US archives were likely to face at least one climate risk factor by the end of the century. Digital resources are similarly threatened: a study found that over 1,000 internet nodes (e.g., data centers and other hardware facilities) and 4,000 miles of land-based fiber optic cable may be underwater in as little as 15 years.
As individuals who value history, knowledge, and the preservation of human memory, we will grieve these losses, already well underway. As professionals in this field, we also have a responsibility to critically evaluate our grief and how we choose to respond. What does it mean to mourn the loss of monuments, artifacts, documents, or data when people are losing their homes, communities, food sources, and lives? Are there approaches that also support other mitigation and adaptation needs, rather than competing with them for limited resources? Climate activists seek to infuse conversations about the climate crisis into all elements of life, with the understanding that meaningful action is impossible if the climate is relegated to a separate domain. Similarly, it helps no one to segregate the cultural heritage and information fields’ responses to the crisis from those of other communities. We have an opportunity to approach the work ahead in a way that centers people, in which the very act of preserving the past makes communities more resilient to the present and future.
Information Spaces as Resilience
In an episode of 99% invisible, the podcast described social infrastructure researcher Eric Klinenberg’s experience working with a team of designers tasked with thinking about responses to Hurricane Sandy:
“One day Klinenberg was taking one team around a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and they had an idea for something called a “resilience center.” This resilience center was going to be a nice building staffed by welcoming personnel and was going to have all kinds of special programming for kids, and access to Wi-Fi and computers. What they didn’t realize was that they were basically just describing a library, which offers all of those same resources.”
Shared information spaces—including libraries, museums, and archives—are essential in holding communities together, fortifying them against disasters, and in some cases, even keeping people alive.
Even absent physical building space, memory institutions and repositories play an important role in community resilience. Writing from her perspective as a descendant of holocaust survivors, Victoria Herrmann has described memory and preservation work as essential to long-term recovery from trauma for displaced peoples. She fears that “severing social ties, dislocating local knowledge on how to absorb shocks, and weakening cultural practices like food, faith, and music—practices that could be vital in building friendships in new hometowns if they were preserved—all erode the adaptability of individuals and social safety net of communities. ” As many as 143 million people may be displaced by the year 2050 as a result of the climate crisis. As more people find themselves uprooted, immigrant, refugee, minority, indigenous, and community-based archiving initiatives will provide important models for preserving community connections, culture, and scientific information. (Some examples include: Murkurtu, Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels, SAADA, Documenting the Now, Shoah Foundation, BMRC, and Densho, among many others.) The climate will not affect all people equally, and the poorest and most vulnerable communities are likely to face its most devastating consequences. As we wade deeper into the crisis, it will only become more important for our field to strengthen its commitments to social and environmental justice and prioritize equitable, respect-based partnerships between information institutions and communities.
Information and cultural heritage institutions must consider our role in mitigating the crisis. Establishing models for conducting our work sustainably will be paramount. We must also recognize that we are facing the greatest collective action problem the world has ever seen and have a responsibility to remove barriers that could impede the flow of information necessary to solve it. This is intimately connected to the conversations our professional community has been having for years about open access, open knowledge, breaking down silos, bridging connections, and federating data. Now more than ever, openness and connectedness are moral imperatives.
In “CLIR’s Mission in the Era of Climate Disruption,” President Charles Henry describes CLIR’s decades-long dedication to preservation and access and makes a long-term commitment to responding to what may be the most pervasive and pernicious challenge in human history. Central to CLIR’s current response is an evolving initiative, Pangia: an open, interoperable, advanced quantitative environment that will preserve and make reusable digitized cultural and scientific knowledge, essential to addressing the climate crisis. Pangia will be guided by the principles of indigenous data sovereignty and prioritize ethical preservation of the most vulnerable cultures while providing a unique environment that promotes urgent interdisciplinary research and discovery.
CLIR is committed to bolstering communities through its existing programs. We’ll continue to reflect on meaningful approaches to the crisis and how our actions can have the greatest impact. Meanwhile, we will use our platform to support and amplify the work of our professional community; if you are engaged in efforts to mitigate, adapt, or shed light on climate disruption, we want to hear from you (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
We hope you will join us in centering communities as we work toward solutions, so we can collectively weather the climate crisis with greater resiliency.
Nicole Kang Ferraiolo is CLIR’s director of global strategic initiatives. Jodi Reeves Eyre is CLIR’s program officer for postdoctoral fellowships.
This is the second in a series of posts examining climate disruption and its implications for the work of professionals in the information and cultural heritage community. Read the previous post:
CLIR’s Mission in the Era of Climate Disruption, by Charles Henry