Ruth Tauber

Ruth Tauber

On Shaping Metal

– What making sculpture can teach us about the climate crisis. 

When I was a child, my mother made a milestone. It is a sculpture wrought of metal, an arch topped with an inverse arch and four cormorants made from old chain, standing on the pavement outside of Kvaerner shipyard in Govan, Glasgow. It’s still there, passed by workers beginning or ending their shifts every day. I visited it with my own children this summer.

When she was commissioned to make the Govan Milestone, my sister and I were bit older than my girls are now, and mum was newly divorced and living in a half-built steading on the side of a wind-blown hill in Aberdeenshire. 

Now, she is a seasoned expert at creating public art out of metal, knowing which contractors she will need to ask for what, and exactly what role an engineer should play when it comes to making sure sculptures can stand up and withstand drunken adults and curious toddlers. 

During the making of the milestone in the summer of 1994, her artistic vision was singular, but there were technical glitches along the way. The one I remember most vividly was that the sheets of copper that she had ordered to create the curved mass of the milestone were too thick. Instead of 3mm solid copper, they were 5mm. That error had a consequence that shipbuilders of Kvaerner would probably have spotted right away, but early career sculptors have to learn the hard way: while it is possible to manipulate sheets of copper using hammer and heat when they are 3mm thick, at 5mm, it is considerably more difficult. She tried, but it did not work. So, at the last minute, she had to re-order the right thickness of copper sheet from Germany. The knock-on-effect of this measurement mishap and the delayed materials meant the deadline was closer than planned when she finally had metal thin enough to be beaten into shape. The window of time until the lorry arrived to take the sculpture to Govan could be measured in hours rather than days. Our neighbours and friends stepped in to help, pulling an all-nighter to get the sculpture finished in time. My sister and I were put to bed in the loft of her studio, and I recall lying there, listening to the familiar voices of people from the glen and the sound of hammer and heat on copper. 

As I lay awake last night, I thought it was an appropriate metaphor for the enormous challenges we are facing right now, and the ever-reducing window of time during which we need to make change. 

Last night, a vivid dream woke me first, then a murmuring child and a headache kept me from returning to sleep. But you know what? Despite the headache and worries about a difficult meeting I will have later today, my brain went off on one, yelling ideas at me, and sorting through some of the content I have drowned it in lately to reshape ideas into something new. A story idea was born. A missing scene in my novel landed like a well-formed jewel in my consciousness in the middle of the night. After a few weeks of what I like to call fug, I finally got out of bed at 6am and grabbed a notebook to scribble down the ideas before they disappeared in the cacophony of the day. 

Today, I sit in Sweden in my layers of Merino wool, as world leaders are gathered at COP 28 in Dubai. I think and I write, and they talk, and hopefully, listen. Many brilliant minds are gathered there, and some of the answers we need are there too, but old power structures and that greatest of human weaknesses, greed, keeps us from giving the climate crisis the attention it deserves.

In Dubai it is 28°C.  Here, it’s -6°C outside, yesterday was -12°C. A fog descended last night, freezing moisture into crystals on all the trees. The world outside my window looks so sugar-coated that my mouth waters when I look at the trees.

That the world is heating feels like cognitive dissonance, but it is not. We know what is going on and yet the journalistic tactics of shock and awe are not working. Some of us had thought that perhaps the pandemic could signify a reset, a change in direction, a move away from rampant consumerism and flagrant misuse of resources, but it feels a lot like we have gone back to business as usual. The other day, I heard some radio presenters discuss a new product – a gadget that rings an alarm when the water in the Christmas tree stand runs out. What a time to be alive.

But we haven’t returned to business as usual though, have we? I certainly haven’t. I had a second child right before Covid and I cannot sit back and do nothing as politicians squander the time we have left to make the necessary changes. I have taken to the streets with my kids and the protest group Mother’s Rebellion, no longer worried that a member of senior management at a company I work for will see me. Now I hope they do see me, and I hope they ask me what motivates me to march, singing, with other people who are demanding our political powers act. 

It’s been a turbulent year of two for me. In my professional life, I am willing to admit that the advent of Chat GPT and the enthusiasm from some colleagues in tech about how this would change everything, brought on something of a personal crisis. To be fair, it was a crisis that has been brewing for a while, as a change of country pushed my career in a direction I wasn’t entirely happy about. But this isn’t about my crisis, which is tiny in the face of the one we all face. What my crisis has taught me however, is that I am more certain than ever that the human thinking brain is capable of so much more. 

Our brains can pull us out of this mess. 

Remember the pandemic? You recall those meetings where everyone stood outside, two metres apart while dealing with whatever administrative task that required discussion, whether it was running a housing association or waiting in line for medical attention. Human development did that. Not an AI assistant. The robots can help with the donkey work, they have an enormous potential to lighten the load and to help in certain situations, but human brains are needed to have creative ideas. To think, review, understand and agree on a path forward. 

This crisis that we are all in, the climate one, can only be solved if we demand it. We must bash at our systems like my mother and her neighbours did back in 1994. We must apply hammer and heat to our creaking democracies to build the future we want to see. We need a strong vision of that future too. I don’t want to rely on fossil fuels to take my kids to school or visit my relatives. I want clean air and circular systems for food and fashion and other necessities that reduce waste to a minimum. I want my children to be able to live in peace, enjoy the incredible diversity of nature, and never at the expense of other children’s quality of life.

Just like my mother, all those years ago, enlisting the help of everyone in the glen in order to get the sculpture finished and on the back of the lorry to Glasgow, we must all bash at the metal of the systems we are living in, demand change, and retrofit or replace our systems so that they can fit within planetary boundaries. We must all work for a better future in this magnificent place we call home. 

Ruth Tauber
Ruth Tauber

Ruth Tauber is a Scottish-Swedish writer who has had non-fiction published by Caught by the River, Sidetracked Magazine and The Scottish Book Trust. She lives in Stockholm and writes about people, place and the natural world.