Making Sense of the Handbasket

Tuesday, October 19 from 7 to 9 pm

Admission is free. Tell your friends.

This roundtable conversation series happens at Vermillion, an art gallery, bar, and neighborhood gathering place at 1508 11th Ave, Seattle ( For more information on the series, call John Boylan at 206-601-9848.

If you want to link to this announcement, you can do so at

The quick summary: Most accounts suggest that the earth is headed to hell in a handbasket. Are we? And if so, can we get a clear enough of a view to take effective action? (Note: the season’s calendar had this month’s topic as “Circus.” That one has been moved back to January 5, 2011.)

The Guests (see guest bios below)

Mott Greene, John B. Magee Professor of Science and Values, University of Puget Sound

Eric Steig, Professor of Earth Sciences, University of Washington

Ellen Sollod, environmental artist

And possibly a fourth guest, maybe an oceanographer

The Story

Long-time followers of this series know that we sometimes bring science into the mix, while still keeping a hand in the arts (our Gravity and Light conversations, for example).

This month we’re back in that direction, talking about ways of looking at the state of the globe, of the natural world.

In the popular media, we get a constant sense that the Earth is headed to hell in a handbasket. But is it? And if so, what does it look like? With the huge amount of data out there, how can laypeople, or even scientists, get enough perspective or clarity to understand what is happening to the physical world? If the world’s ecosphere is in serious trouble, can we make sense of the complexities inherent in that trouble?

I started thinking about this subject as a conversation topic a few months ago after reading accounts of the big rafts of plastic out in the Pacific, in their own Sargasso Sea. The image of tiny pieces of plastic as far as the eye can see is scary, as is the idea of tides of plastic washing up on the beaches of remote islands. But is this phenomenon something that creates a significant threat to the ocean and its denizens? Or is this more akin to roadside litter: unsightly, unpleasant, but not a critical ecological threat? Or could it be something in between? And how can we know without doing a lot of out own research?

Such points of question are legion. Aquifers that are thousands of years old are now being drawn down to feed thirsty and unsustainable cities. What are the implications of that? Animals are losing their ancient habitats as cities grow and new farms are laid out around the world. Can those animals survive? Reports suggest that acidification might have the potential to kill the oceans. Or not? Or is this some that we can even know? And so on.

We’ve invited a couple of scientists (and possibly a third) to join us, along with an artist who has devoted a lot of time to exploring environmental issues. I realize that we will not get a handle on what is happening to the world in two hours. But I am hoping that we can get some insights as to how to look at what’s happening around us, what role arts can play in that examination, and possibly something about communicating scientific concepts in general.


Inscape is the old INS Building south of the International District, now becoming an arts center. This weekend is an open house, with building tours, a look at the studios of the 25 artists who have begun to fill the building, music, and more. Noon to midnight Saturday, noon to 6 pm on Sunday.

My beloved niece, an Iraq War veteran, is working with ( to re-elect Patty Murray. She tells me that the group is hiring field canvassers locally. You can find more details at

Sarah Bergmann’s Pollinator Pathway project is getting very close putting shovels in the dirt. (Sarah was a guest at our “Re-imagining Cities” conversation in April). You can get more information at

And of course, my space opera adventure serial continues at

The Guests in Detail

Mott Greene is John Magee Professor of Science and Values at the University of Puget Sound. A graduate of Columbia University, he completed his PhD in the History of Science at the University of Washington in 1978. He was a recipient of a MacArthur Prize Fellowship (1983 to 1988) and was chosen Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year in 1996.

He is the author of a number of books, including “Natural Knowledge in Preclassical Antiquity” and “Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Views of a Changing World.”

He recently spoke at ACT Theater as part of its MindScapes series on “The Physiology of Imagination and the Aesthetics of Stability.”

Eric Steig is Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, Director of the Quaternary Research Center, Board member of UW’s Program on Climate Change, and one of the founders of the influential climate science blog,  He is co-director of ISOLAB, a state-of-the art isotope geochemistry facility involving research ranging from climate and atmospheric chemistry to geobiology.  Steig teaches geochemistry and paleoclimatology at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.  With his students and postdocs, he uses ice core records from the polar regions to develop time series of past environmental changes as a context for understanding contemporary and possible future change.

Ellen Sollod is an environmental artist, photographer, artist book maker and sometimes writer. She often addresses environmental and social concerns through her public art and studio practice. As an artist working in the public realm, she conceptualizes urban spaces as places for people.  Her work speaks to the identity of place and creates intimacy even when the scale is large. She is interested in creating a balance between broad concepts and the particular–through art that stems from a deliberate process of inquiry and discovery. The work often reveals little known facts or hidden histories and creates layers of meaning. Beginning with the idea first, and depending upon site and issue at hand, her work takes many forms of expression and materials.

Ellen has collaborated with scientists as well as landscape architects and other artists. Her goal as an artist is to arrest us in the moment, making us more aware, physically and psychologically, of our surroundings and our response to them. Social, political, historical and environmental conditions inform her approach. She is an incurable experimenter in media and form. Her work asks questions and gropes for answers with the explicit intention of engaging the viewer in the same kind of dialogue. Ellen has created public artwork throughout the Pacific Northwest and California. Her studio work is included in such collections as Yale University Center for the Book, NYPL Spencer Collection, Microsoft, and others.


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