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An atlas of loss, grief and hope

4 min read

An atlas of loss, grief and hope

“We’re up to our necks in an emergency”, Christina Conklin tells me during a zoom call. The artist and writer has just published a book co-authored by Marina Psaros, which reveals the finer details of the emergency and what we stand to lose. “The last time we had 420 parts per million”, Christina says, referring to the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the earth’s atmosphere, “seas were 50-80 feet higher.” While the predicted rise for the end of the century is far lower than this, many places will certainly find themselves up to their necks… in water.

But don’t switch off yet.

“It’s really easy to get stuck in fear and sadness.” Marina told me in an earlier call, “Yet the very reason I wrote this book and why I do what I do is to get myself out of that sad place. Turning that into hope and forward motion is what’s been really helpful.” Each chapter of Marina's and Christina's book ends with a “future fiction”, inspired by the solutions that already exist and that can begin to get us out of this mess. If we work together.

“I’m asking people what are you good at, and what do you care about? Put those things together and go and become active in some sphere.” - Christina Conklin 

The Atlas of Disappearing Places is a reality check, a call to action and a beautiful, briny, hopeful, piece of art. The maps inside the book are made from a giant sheet of seaweed that Christina hauled into her studio near San Francisco bay. Though “completely supple when wet”, once dried out, the seaweed can be painted on. Using special ink and plenty of data, she has illustrated the impacts felt by the 20 locations described in The Atlas. As well as the impacts they will feel in the future. 

Japan risks losing one of its key cultural heritage sites. Puerto Rico is under attack from increasingly severe storms. A shift in the El Niño pattern threatens to unravel the tightly woven net connecting “pig farmers in China, with prenatal yoga instructors in LA, with commodities traders in New York City”, as Marina puts it. 

At the heart of all this is the ocean. “Most people are just really not that familiar with oceanic processes or that climate change is actually having an impact on the oceans” Marina adds, “or that the oceans have taken up almost 2/3s of the heat that has [already] been generated!” To help make this relatable to readers, the authors imagine the ocean as a ‘body’ that is fighting to stabilise symptoms like fever, chemical imbalance and trauma. This gives the artwork an extra dimension, as dried seaweed can look a lot like flesh or skin. The maps, like tattoos of traumatic events. Christina sums it up: “I love that I used a product of the ocean to illustrate a crisis in the ocean.”  

She has long believed that “we’re bound together (in) one interdependent, interconnected web of being.” If the earth suffers, the chances are that we will too: “the losses are intimately tied.” Christina and Marina clearly feel that interconnectedness, especially to the ocean. 

Marina, who is named after the sea, grew up listening to her father’s stories from the navy. These inspired her to explore the ocean for herself, “I was really into scuba diving and for me it was love at first sight (...) I wanted to be a mermaid, basically”. The area was full of life - from seals to octopus. There was no plastic. “I had no idea how privileged I was”. 

That hit home after moving to Hamburg. During trips to the mediterranean, she saw “how crowded and littered some of the beaches can be.” But then she started to see the potential for climate solutions. Hamburg is a deepwater port that experiences powerful storms and is destined to be partly submerged by 2060. Rather than fight the inevitable, the city has decided to live with it. One area, Haffen City, is a total success story. Marina explains:

“They made a floodable structure… (with) bioswales: natural areas that are not pavement or concrete, where floodwaters can be soaked into the ground.” Electrical systems were built into the first floor to avoid blackouts and “in all the floors where they anticipated there would be flooding, the windows are several panes thick.” German ingenuity, she says, spurred her on to become a sustainability expert. The recent tragedy in Western Germany seems to indicate that even this is not always enough. 

Throughout our conversations, the word “depressing” bubbles to the surface several times. So does “hope”, “resilience” and “change”. “I’m asking people, well, what are you good at, and what do you care about?” Christina says, “put those things together and go and become active in some sphere, everybody has something they can offer.” It seems that more people are working to provide that “something.” 

“It's exciting.” Marina reports, “community groups can use many of the same tools and technologies that larger organizations do to get the word out, get organized, share best practices, and move the needle.” She says that community actions are “critical” to change. We can all become part of something small, that is doing something big: “it's also nourishment for the soul to know that others are working hard and fighting alongside you for a better world.”