John Muir – Earth Planet Universe

Outdoor Exhibition now at Dunbar Battery

John Muir and humanity’s 21st century challenge 

This exhibition – John Muir – Earth Planet Universe – is one of a number created by the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace over the years. Previous exhibitions have focused on Muir himself, for example as a writer or a geologist. This one is different. We wanted to look at Muir’s legacy and his role as an environmental activist and campaigner and his relevance for our situation today. We quickly came to see that in this time of climate crisis and biodiversity loss, Muir had a lot of important things to say. He wrote in one of his journals in 1875, “Pollution, defilement, squalor are words that never would have been created had man lived conformably to nature”. Our original aim for the exhibition was to show how one individual, John Muir, changed the world and how he directly or indirectly influenced others to do the same. Muir himself was influenced by others before him and had read the books and papers of Alexander von Humboldt, the amazing 18th C polymath and explorer. Muir’s best known quotation is “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” and is reminiscent of Humboldt’s idea that “In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation”. Muir loved and was influenced by Robert Burns: he carried a book of his poems with him on his first walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico and records that he sang them all the way, no doubt including “ I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion Has broken Nature’s social union. An’ justifies that ill opinion Which makes thee startle At me, thy poor, earth born companion An’ fellow mortal” from ‘To a Mouse’.

John Muir – a Gude Fechter amongst many! 

The exhibition also highlights some of the many individuals and organisations which have been inspired by Muir to continue to fight to save the natural environment and its diverse ecosystems, understanding Muir’s determination that “The battle we have fought for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong”. Among these are Theodore Roosevelt, whom Muir persuaded on a course of action that established 148 million acres of National Forest, 5 National Parks and 23 National monuments. Others like Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt movement and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate said – “It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.” Of course it is impossible for a short exhibition like this to provide the level of detail merited by the many others active today such as David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, who increasingly highlight that the moment of crisis has come and demand that we act now.

We all share the same planet… 

We want the exhibition to show how climate change is directly linked to wellbeing, prosperity, fairness and a sense of community – for people here in our area of Dunbar and East Linton and for others across the world. We want to explore how to address the challenge of the climate emergency but not to become fixated on the problems, rather to imagine what kind of future we want. We began to understand how the wide range of existing community-led activities, which embrace social, environment, education, food growing and food poverty and many more, not only make our areas the places that they are but are essential to their future. Our aim was to showcase and make connections between these groups and activities and to inspire others to get involved. We have good foundations to build on with clear links to contribute to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals – which are ‘a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere’. However, since we started out in 2019, Covid-19 has changed everything and we have not been able to produce and install the exhibition at the Birthplace on the High Street as planned in April 2020. But the pandemic has also provoked us to reflect on the parallels between what are both global, existential crises.

Covid has shown our ability to change – we cannot keep pushing the planet’s boundaries 

Even though climate change appears to be a slower, more long-term health threat than the current pandemic, we will need an equally rapid and even more sustained transformation in our ways of life and in our economic, political and social structures to prevent irreversible damage to our planet and to us. As Marc Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England recently said – “We can’t self-isolate from climate change”. The pandemic can help us to understand the ties that bind us on a global scale, the fragility of our economic systems and how vulnerable they leave so many people.

It has been interesting to see how relevant many of the themes being explored in the exhibition are also relevant to Covid-19 – for example, the greater impact of both crises on the poorest and most marginalised people in the world. Both crises present an opportunity to reflect on what is actually important for our wellbeing and the sort of future we want. Muir understood this well and wrote .. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are not only useful as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life”. from **Our National Parks by John Muir, 1901 He understood that nature is not a commodity, a source of raw materials for our economic needs, but an essential element for our mental health and spiritual nourishment.

The pandemic has also shown us how people and communities can naturally come together quickly to act for the wellbeing of all, as Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary to the UN Convention on Climate Change said – “The Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed humanity’s instinct to transform itself in the face of a universal threat and it can help us to do the same to create a liveable planet for future generations.” As individuals we can make a difference but we can make a hugely greater difference by changing the systems which are failing people and poisoning the planet. We need a just transition away from a mindset that nature and her resources are there for our material consumption to one which see us and our wellbeing as part of and dependent on nature.

What If….we tell a new story of a future where humans and the environment flourish together? The exhibition was always intended to be a catalyst for a series of events and activities in collaboration with other local groups. So we are collaborating with Sustaining Dunbar to ask “What If?” questions to spark people’s imaginations for a positive vision for the Dunbar and East Linton ward area in the context of the climate emergency and the need for a just and equitable community that values wellbeing for all.

So the exhibition is just the beginning and the ‘What If?’ project has emerged and evolved and is journeying towards its goal to inspire a plan for community- led action for Dunbar and area to be ‘a home to thriving people, in a thriving place while respecting the wellbeing of all people and the health of the whole planet.’

The question “What If?” is inspired by Rob Hopkin’s 2019 book ‘What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want.’ Much earlier in her inspiring 2005 essay, To Love the Marigold, Susan Griffiths reflects – “No one can stop us from imagining another kind of future, one which departs from the terrible cataclysm of violent conflict, of hateful divisions, poverty and suffering. Let us begin to imagine the worlds we would like to inhabit, the long lives we will begin to share, and the many futures in our hands.”

**Our John Muir – Earth Planet Universe exhibition has now been installed in the wonderful outdoor **venue at the Battery at Dunbar Harbour. There, we hope that many people will be able to visit, read and be inspired to get involved – all in a beautiful Covid-safe environment where John Muir himself would have explored during his boyhood in Dunbar!“When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures.” John Muir, The Story of my Boyhood and Youth

Liz McLean: Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace

November 2020