The thin green line

The thin green line is a conceptual representation of our relationship with nature I have developed since visiting Antarctica. I explain it below:

scott_base_joh_0100Scott Base is a wonderful place. More than a mere shelter from the harsh environment of Antarctica, it has a special culture among its personnel, both ‘permanent’ and the transient scientists and others like myself and Warren.

Literally, you can step from the friendly, pleasant 18° comfort of the base, through an industrial fridge door, into the potentially killer conditions outside.

This tiny separation between civilisation and wilderness, literally a thin green line because Scott Base is painted a fetching green colour (Chelsea Cucumber to be exact), really got me thinking about our broader relationship with nature.

The thin green line: It protects us, it connects us.

Historical context

If we think about our relationship with nature is it useful to look back at it in a historical context. Obviously, early humans had an intimate relationship with the environment, just another animal trying to survive with little or no barrier between us and nature. This relationship slowly changed as we grew smarter, our numbers increased, we cultivated crops, domesticated animals and built ever more complex habitation for ourselves. However, the biggest leap forward came with the industrial revolution in the late 1700s.


William Wyld Manchester, JMW Turner and Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg exploring the romantic notion of wilderness

In two lectures as part of the Victoria University Antarctica Online course I did, Dr Leon Gurevitch explained his take on this relationship with wilderness in terms of its representation in the arts especially the romantics.

From my perspective, the urbanisation enabled by the industrialisation increased the size of the barrier between us and nature. No longer were we protected by the walls of our homes and the clothes we wore – now we had cities with complex social systems, networks or roads, gaslighting and infrastructure. For the first time the wilderness was somewhere you travelled to … perhaps to visit on holiday for example. The thin green line thickens.

Contemporary representation – the thick green line.

In a contemporary context, the divide between civilisation and wilderness is now massive. Cities now sprawl covering all traces of the natural world bar carefully cultivated green spaces. Transport networks cross the globe enabling us to literally cross the globe without setting foot outside the urban environment. The thin green line has become so thick that it can be perceived not as something we live within. It has become a separate place altogether.

Wilderness is now a distant place, somewhere we can drive to in our houses on wheels or a place the scientists and adventurous visit. We can view, consume and travel the world via the internet. And, in this fast-paced world we live in, nature seems a bit slow*.

With this, much of the western world has become distanced from it’s impact on the environment through consumption of resource and generation of waste. Food miraculously comes packaged ready to go. Waste goes down the drain or disappears from the roadside in its own hermetically sealed packaging.

And why not? So what? Our domination of nature is complete … or is it?

The Kaikoura earthquake not long after our return from The Ice highlighted how fragile our infrastructure really is. When transport links, power etc is cut, the “just in time” lifestyle we live in becomes a liability and we are suddenly exposed to nature. Perception is not always reality. Nature still holds the cards even if we are kicking her hard. As some of the scientists told us at base dinner one night “The planet will be fine … it will be us that will pay the price for climate change”


Views from within the thin green line at Scott Base

The thin green line in Antarctica

And so back to Antarctica. At Scott Base, things have been taken back basics. Outside the door, nature can be as extreme as it gets and the micro-society that is Scott Base has evolved in response. All of the systems that allow life is reliant on personnel conforming to strict rules and looking out for each other. To quote what Professor Ian Hawes told us when we interviewed him in Antarctica  “You’re never closer and more intimately hooked up with people than you are in Antarctica because you’re always as a team, you’re always working in close quarters”.

I found this refreshing. A hierarchy was there but with a focus on keeping the community alive. Many of the people we interviewed commented on how fantastic it was to sit down for one of the communal meals and chat to an amazing scientist or visiting delegate as just another human.

Use of resource is closely monitored because if nature stops a plane coming in then food stopped coming in. All freshwater is made by desalinating saltwater – a complex process so all water use is monitored. Waste is also strictly monitored and controlled.

If only the rest of the world could think and behave more like this.


The concept forms: A diagram from the studio whiteboard

As a device to communicate

So how will the idea of the thin green line manifest itself in #60shadesofwhite project outputs? As I write this I am still not sure. Warren and I are very committed to communicating it’s message but it may be that it is more of a underlying thematic and/or something we talk about when the work creates the opportunity to speak to its audience or the media.

We keep telling ourselves: It’s not necessarily about the work itself … it’s about the conversations, thoughts and actions the work provokes.

This standpoint was very clearly proven during the Kermadec Project when the greatest impact for the cause came not from the superb artwork itself but from the artists talking to the public, media in interviews, panel discussions, floor talks and school workshops.

I can definitely see the thin green line becoming a thematic tool to make people think about how urbanisation may be distancing them from their affect on the environment. It’s nothing new … just a twist on an old message but with work and luck, it will open the door to a more considered approach to our collective Kaitiakitanga role on the planet. 

But let’s see … I did take a series of photos looking out the windows of Scott Base and the landscape beyond. Maybe they will evolve into something?

The line between order and chaos

The term thin green line has an obvious complementary relationship with“The thin blue line”  a badge used in the UK as a mark of respect for fallen police officers/staff. However, it also represents the thin line between order and chaos. It was popularised by a 1988 American documentary film “The thin blue line” by Errol Morris . The term has evolved to refer to the police, typically in the context of maintaining order during unrest.

In 2007 Australian Park Ranger Sean Willmore made a documentary film called The Thin Green Line, filmed across six continents and nineteen countries, interviewing and filming the lives and stories of park rangers. In the wake of the film Willmore  established not for profit foundation by the same name to support rangers on the frontline, including the International Ranger Dependency Fund which supports the families of committed rangers who have lost their lives, or rangers who have been severely injured in the line of duty. (Source Wikipedia)

The Thin Green Line is also the title of a book in the series by Retired U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Agent Terry Grosz.

Many think the roots of these  various terms originate from The Thin Red Line – a military action by the British Sutherland Highlanders 93rd (Highland) Regiment at the Battle of Balaklava on 25 October 1854

*When we compare the nature documentaries of 30 years ago with the likes of Documentary Channel or National Geographic channel we can see new form of ‘docu-drama” evolving – faster paced, hyped narratives, dramatic soundtracks and with slick production values. Is this a manifestation of documentary formats changing to survive in a media landscape where the viewer’s attention span is reduced and self-interest dominates. More and more algorithms decide what news we consume based on our viewing history and the bias of advertisers and corporates. How are we exposed to anything new?