As Earth Day 2019 comes to an end, there are young people around the world dropping out of their classrooms to go on ‘Extinction Walks’. A sixteen-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, is calling out politicians around the world for their irresponsible behaviour towards caring for our planet, what I have come to call the ‘Mothership’. In Greta’s speech to the Swedish Parliament last year, she said: “This ongoing irresponsible behaviour will no doubt be remembered in history as one of the greatest failures of humankind.” I am hopeful that my grandchildren who can vote will vote and that they will have a loud voice in shaping policy in Canada towards the environment and its protection not the profits of large corporations and their stockholders.
I wear many hats, so to speak, and one of those is as a ceramics instructor at the University of Manitoba, and the other is as a maker. Recently, I have seen other ceramists on various Facebook pottery groups ask if there is anything they can do to help the environment. Some have shown photos of poorly made pots that broke wondering how to repair them while others wonder what to do with all of the work that they cannot sell.
Ceramics has a large footprint, and it is not ‘green’. All the clay and Earth’s minerals (in whatever form we use them – stains, oxides, ready-made underglazes, etc. – are mined. They are packaged and shipped around the world. Responsible management so that none of those materials is either wasted or harm the local water table needs to be considered. Firing. Some regions use fossil fuels to create electricity. We should all be aware of issues related to natural gas and oil. How then to fire our work so that we do not waste those resources? One way, so simple, is to make sure those kilns are full.
I am reminding myself to make sure that the first year students understand fully that greenware (before the clay is fired the first time and then it is bisque ware) can touch other pieces. Just be mindful of weight distribution, etc. But then there is the real question: what is worthy of firing? This is something that only you can answer. But if you make more mugs than you can sell then just fire the ones that are magnificent and worthy of the resources. The plan this year is to cut back further on what my students are firing. They need to learn to be self-critical. We all do! And then there is the question of firing and to what temperature. Wood is a renewable resource. But what about gas kilns, LPG, or oil? How much is saved in terms of cubic use by lowering the temperature of firing from cone 10 to cone 1? I do not know the answer, but I am confident that if we all Googled it, we would find many answers.
As potters and knowing that our planet is in peril, perhaps we need to contemplate what we can do and how we can help others to be productive, create beautiful work while at the same time being more conscious and lowering our impact on the environment. Maybe this year is the time for each of us to stand up and challenge ourselves over the coming year. When I look at my grandchildren, I know that their future, the future of the animals, and our Mothership deserve it.