Not waving but globally drowning

When did Stevie Smith’s drowning man realise he had been much too far out all his life? Just as the waves lapped over his head the final time, as his final breath bubbled up through the chill water?

We are a drowning world. Arctic ice is diminishing year by year. If it all undergoes a phase transition, London would be entirely submerged, and all the levees in Holland wouldn’t save the Netherlands. It’s D-x, but we don’t know xxactly which breath we are on – not quite our last, not yet.

We chatter about it.

Arctic Ice Chatter on Twitter
Arctic Ice Chatter on Twitter

We run campaigns for action about it, increasingly galvanised by activity online – think The Future, Occupy, 350.

But despite all this chatter, we do little to ameliorate climate change. While some flat out deny climate change, they are just a vocal minority. Most of us know that our actions – burning fossil fuels, deforestation, consumption of resources, global trade, flying – all add together to a future global catastrophe. Yet we fail to act – both in global policy decisions, and in our daily lives. Life now is too good to want to change it for the sake of tomorrow.

There is an unseen consequence to our online activity. Computers use power. Making them requires mining, fabrication, shipping. Communications cost carbon. According to the comically named Tweetfarts: “The energy it takes to send a tweet generates .02 grams of CO2.1 With 500 million tweets sent daily2, a total of 10 metric tons of CO2 are emitted per day.”

It can’t be denied that the online chatter raises awareness. The next step is action, for if we fail to act, isn’t all this activism actually adding to the problem rather than helping fix it?

Water is key. Not only is it an impending threat, it is also ironically also a diminishing resource. Alongside the threat of submersion, London faces a drinking water crisis of gargantuan proportions: by 2050 the city will be 350 million litres of drinking water in deficit – if it’s not already an urban sea bed. And water itself – or at leas our use of it – adds to the problem. In 2009, five percent of US carbon emissions were down to treatment, transport and use of water by humans. That’s the equivalent of 62 coal-fired power stations.

Tiny icebergs float in a bath. Tiny people huddle together as the ice retreats under their feet. Some will certainly drown. Those unfortunate enough to be on the smallest iceberg are the first to go.

The melting is now inevitable, but there may be a chance to slow it down, buy a few more precious minutes. Their fate scrolls above them. Like Tinkerbell, if only enough people make enough noise their existence might be saved – for just a little while. Maybe long enough. Show you care.

Floating. Floating. The sky was blue, the waves lapped around his toes. Life was good, no need for change. The current carried him further, the tide rose. Perhaps if he’d realised sooner he might have swum ashore.

Making icebergs is the tip of the iceberg

I’m thrilled to be the artist for The Enlightenment Cafe’s New Atlantis show. It’s set in the near future, with humanity on the verge of a water crisis – just my cup of tea!

“The year is 2050, Miami has been abandoned due to rising sea levels, water austerity is hitting a drought-ridden London hard and the CEOs of two major energy companies have been imprisoned for historic climate crimes. Presiding over these developments is New Atlantis, an organisation set up to guide Humanity through the most pressing issues of the 21st century, from Climate Change to protection of water resources.

But there are those that would stand in the way.”

I’m making a multimedia artwork for New Atlantis’s HQ at The Crystal in London. It involves icebergs – well, miniature icebergs – and the internet…

NA Sculpture_bath_2

Ultimately, the icebergs will be made in silicone moulds that I’m going to supply to the ice-wizard Ben Lishman at the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, who will be making a stock of frozen bergs – 3 icebergs per show – in the UCL Ice Rooms. I’ll be delivering the moulds next week, so I’ve been making them over the last week and a half.

First, I made the iceberg from clay:


Then I made a mould out of silicone. I did this with the invaluable help of Ben Palmer, a prop-maker and animatronics engineer for films like Inglorious Bastards and Alien versus Predator. He has been incredibly helpful and ever so kind in sharing his wealth of expertise with me around mould-making and fabrication.

Once the mould was made, I took it home and added crushed ice and water.


photo 1-2

Made an iceberg

photo 2-2

Populated it with a little person and a car

photo 1-1  photo 2-1

And watched it melt

Iceberg melting #2 from Kat Austen on Vimeo.


Now I’m onto the next 2 iceberg moulds

photo 1-3

Although I left them overnight and they cracked in the cold, so I’m patching them up before taking them to Ben Palmer’s workshop to make the moulds.

photo 2-3 photo 3-1

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed in the small 3D illustration above that there are lots of people on the floating icebergs. Making those is the next step, along with simultaneously continuing to program the modules that will scrape the internet looking for activity relating to water. Then I’ll be programming an arduino to operate a tap, and then it’ll all come together. Watch this space…

There’s one issue though – the ice is melting rather quickly. I’ve spoken to the marvellous and knowledgeable Alan at Ice Creations and he suggests supercooling the bathwater, possibly using dry ice (ooh chemistry!). So I’ll be doing some tests with that asap.

Designing for the Droplet water flow metre

We are heading for a global water crisis – and we know it. I’m not going to hammer the point home here, as there is a ton of background info out there about why it’s important to reduce unnecessary water usage, from rainy London’s counter-intuitive drought through massive subsidence in California from overuse of groundwater to the environmental and geopolitical challenges of the Middle East’s water shortages.

So, I’m working on a quantified self/ citizen science project with tech-for-social-impact company iilab alongside engineer Sam Carlisle to develop an open source water flow metre, Droplet, that allows users to easily monitor the amount of water coming out of their faucets and showers – and maybe even their loos – and, if they so desire, to share it with a community of similarly interested individuals to gather usage data and see how monitoring – and a device that interacts with you in real time – can change water usage.

We are particularly focussing on collecting shower data, as this is an area where most of us can easily reduce our water usage without compromising on hygiene. And we’re making the device open source so that people can hack it and come up with their own wonderously creative forms of feedback to the user in real time.

One of my favourite ideas for realtime feedback is a series of sardonic audio recordings triggered by specific levels of water usage. So, if you end up using a vast amount of water, you might end up hearing a depressive recording of Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning [you can hear a recording, along with a load of other great poems, here – though it’s not as depressive as I’d like for Droplet].

Anyway, here’s our first meeting working on Droplet – I’m taking the IT idea of a sandpit rather literally here 🙂 – making the most of the gorgeous spring weather.

Kat and Sam C courtyard