The arts can make us feel more connected to the climate change agenda
In his most recent book Being Ecological philosopher Timothy Morton describes the current discourse on climate change as being in “ecological information delivery mode” - heavy in “factoids”, accompanied by a “guilt-inducing sermon”.
He believes that deluging readers with scary facts about global warming is counterproductive. It “inhibits a more genuine way of handling ecological knowledge”. To understand the true gravity of the current situation we need “to start to live the data”.
Morton's words do ring true. Who hasn't experienced feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and even fearful in the face of climate change data? Then how do we, as he suggests, "live the data"? How do we understand and experience it in such a way that we feel moved to act?
It seems there is a communication link missing between the raw data and our understanding and ability to connect to it. Could this missing link be art?
Do you remember Medusa, the monstrous woman in Greek mythology? Medusa was a Gorgon, with such a terrifying face that no mortal could gaze upon it without dying – the reptilian face, the poisonous hair dripping snakes. A person who looked straight at her would turn to stone.
And isn’t this the danger, that when people look straight into the face of the desperate truths of our time, they are turned to stone? Their hearts are hardened. They are unable to act. Joyless, inhumane, immobilized, they freeze into business-as-usual, as if they had no choice.
Enter the hero Perseus, who carried (along with his winged shoes and his magic scythe), a beautiful reflective shield. When he held the shield up and caught Medusa’s ugly image, here was Medusa — transformed, but not transformed. Revealed, but not represented. Revealed. Revealed! And Perseus, seeing her in an entirely new way, faced her reflection boldly, and cut off her head.
What is this reflective shield that can show us the danger without turning us to stone? What can open our hearts, without breaking them? What can replace paralyzing fear with a new vision of what is beautiful and possible? What can break the bonds of lies and denial? What can allow us “to see, to sing, to welcome with courage and grace and imagination, whatever asks entrance into our lives”? The words are from the poet, Jane Hirschfield.
The answer, of course, is art, this magic reflective shield. In a time of climate change, ecological collapse, and social transformation, art allows us to see hard truths without being destroyed by them, but rather lifted and heartened.
Let us celebrate the artists who have set aside their ordinary work and stepped up to do the work of the moment. Let us be those artists. Our work may be inside or outside the gallery and concert hall, in the streets, in the halls of politics and power, in the new street theaters of creative disruption. These are the voices of writers, the genius of dancers, the vision of artists — all the power of words and story and image that can help us escape finally from the narrow self-interest of our economy, the catastrophic vision of our future, and the paralysis of our age — and imagine a way forward.
Numerous artists are creating phenomenal work (some displayed here, click the links below the pictures to read more). Musicians, sculptors, poets, dancers, painters and filmmakers are creating art that moves, awakens and transforms us, that sparks our creativity and encourages us to act.
Regretfully, encounters with art of this kind are not everyday experiences for most of us. Too often the art is tucked away in galleries, museums or theatres which many do not find accessible, attractive or simply don't have time to go to.
And while art about pollution, rising sea levels, melting ice, ocean plastic and endangered species is essential... At the same time we need art, and stories, about the possibility of a better world, about the solutions - and the people who are working to implement these.
During a symposium at this year's Mountainfilm festival artist Favianna Rodriguez did a Google image search for climate change. It turned up with a list of charts and graphs, which she believes do little to move people to action. Watch her demonstrate in the video below.
With her art, Rodriguez wishes to show human-centric, on-the-ground realities of climate change - of the people who suffer, the people who profit, and the people who can get us out of this mess. Resilience.org was present at Mountainfilm and had a chance to sit down with Rodriguez.
Here's an excerpt from the interview:
Q. What do you think is wrong with the imagery we often see around climate change?
A. I would like to see less images specifically about the traditional view of nature. For years, for decades, for centuries, many of the spaces of nature just have not been accessible — or have been only accessible to a limited few, mostly elites, mostly white people. So to use imagery that doesn’t invite all of us to participate is a mistake. Images can both expose a problem and they can also inspire solutions, so I want to see solutions that are about human action.
Q. What’s an example of some of those images?
A. Looking at where some of these places of oil extraction are, like East Los Angeles, they’re places where communities of color live. Show what it looks like for kids of color to grow up facing asthma or not being able to breathe. Asthma has affected them so much that they spend time in hospital beds.
Those are the images that we need to see, in addition to the images of who is in the gears of the machine that is propelling climate change. At the end of the day, it takes people to make this machine function. And those who are most vulnerable and who are pushed aside by very racist policies in our country are the ones who are working the most toxic jobs, the ones bearing the brunt of how we get our energy.
You also need to have the people who are in closest proximity to the earth and what she’s experiencing. It means indigenous people. It means farmworkers. It means people who are working the land — who are not the same people who are making climate policy.
I think it’s going to lead to a transformation, but it’s also going to increase the participation of people of color. Because frankly, when I go to climate conferences or conferences like Mountainfilm, I see predominantly white people sitting down to talk about climate change. It’s unacceptable. It’s totally unacceptable.
Q. So I’ve heard you speak about how art can change culture. What’s a specific example of visual art that fueled such a shift?
A. For me, something very memorable is the People’s Climate March, which was organized by artists, the People’s Climate Arts collective. What was fascinating was that there was a narrative to the way the march was structured. So indigenous people, immigrants, communities who are being impacted by rising water were in the front.
We created a studio where we could all work and make cultural products that reflected the world that we wanted to see. We were not just making art about carbon. We were not just making art about oil. We were making art about solutions. We were actually using symbols of migrating animals, like the hummingbird or salmon or the monarch butterfly, to show that is all of our right, including creatures, to migrate. We had the creative tools to create the narrative of a climate movement that we are really seeking: one that is intersectional.