The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Climate Change and the Arts

How can we make people care enough about the problem of climate change to demand the types of responses we know are necessary?

The first Climate Gathering earlier this year brought a diverse and international group of scientists, academics, business people and campaigners to Ballyvaughan in Co. Clare to consider this question. The venue was an art college and the discussions took place in gallery spaces hung with the work of art students and visiting visual artists. A handful of artists and cultural practitioners were also deliberately included in the mix of participants. The idea was to engender a mood of creativity, to encourage people to approach the climate problem from different angles and to abandon the language of their own discipline in favour of a more universal discourse. The artists we included had valuable insights to contribute to the conversation.

The intention was not specifically to address the role of the arts in responding to climate change. However the surroundings and the presence of artists such as Martin Hayes, the renowned fiddler, inevitably prompted many participants to consider this question. They felt at first hand the direct emotional grip artistic expression can exert on an individual and began to wonder whether this provided an answer to the question the climate policy community is always asking.

One of the participants, Professor Andy Hoffman, Director of the Erb Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan and an authority on the sociology of climate change, put the question in this way:

“Among many things, one notion that has emerged for me is the importance of connecting with the Arts: poets, musicians, writers, painters, etc to translate climate change for lay people through their medium.  Only when climate change has personal and salient meaning will people take an interest that will create change.”

Accordingly this angle has been identified as one of the threads from the Climate Gathering that merits further thought and action. Of course the idea of connecting with the arts is not new: campaigners and policymakers have long understood the potential of the arts to raise awareness and build support. Politicians and other policy communicators know that artists have the power to connect with people on a deeper level than even the most carefully honed political or advertising campaign, let alone dry statements of scientific facts.

In terms of climate change, the arts could be particularly important to imaginatively bridging the temporal and spatial distance which separates our actions from their consequences. Scientific and political communication must be couched in uncertainty, particularly when dealing with the more distant effects of climate change. As another Climate Gathering participant noted, today’s emissions will contribute to impacts many decades into the future: how do you get people to take action now to stop something bad happening in sixty years, when you can’t even tell them with certainty what those consequences will be? Visual communication of information can certainly help, for example this site (the Environment Nexus) attempts to harness the power of the visual through infographics, videos and other media to connect people with complex policy information in an appealing format. However authors, poets, filmmakers, and other artists and storytellers can go further: taking advantage of artistic licence to transport readers or audience members directly into possible futures, or to make them feel closer on a personal level to people in faraway places already dealing with the consequences of climate change.

Given the awareness of the power of the arts, and the essential role for imaginative expression in making the consequences of climate change real, why then is our culture not more suffused with artworks that grapple with this defining issue of our age? In 2005, Bill McKibben asked, “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” These questions remain valid today.

Of course that is not to say that there is no current art that engages with climate change. It is relatively easy to compile a long list of artistic and cultural projects with a specific climate theme, such as those mentioned in thisblog post by Adam Corner of the Climate Outreach and Information Network. There are a large number of individual artists who personally care a great deal about the issue and attempt to address it in their work, and there are publicly-funded initiatives to foster this type of creativity, including the European Union-funded Imagine 2020programme.

It is much harder, however, to instance art works that have reached into the wider public consciousness as profoundly as the scale of the issue seems to demand. Many forms of artistic expression by their nature will only ever reach a limited audience, but great popular art forms such as films, novels, music and even plays provide few examples of resonant works engaging with climate change as a big issue of the day. McKibben suggest a few reasons: the problem is too big, the urgent crowds out the important, the heroes and villains are not drawn clearly enough, there is already no prospect of an unqualified happy ending. This might explain, for example, Hollywood’spatchy relationship with the issue.

Film documentaries, lying on the border between information provision and artistic expression, have of course played an important role in climate discourse. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought the basic propositions behind climate change to a large audience in a direct and accessible fashion, even if it undermined its central thrust by ending with an anticlimactic list of “personal” actions audience members could take to help stave off future catastrophe. Documentaries can also put before us the stories of those already being affected by climate change. For example last year the German MEP Ska Keller produced a short film called Climate Changes Migration which was shown at the opening of a hearing in the European Parliament on the impacts of climate change on migration. Of course this approach doesn’t in itself resolve the problem of perceived distance: we are still apt to see such documentaries as dispatches from faraway places.

So how could we improve on this apparent absence of climate in mainstream cultural expression? The UN has specifically entreated the Hollywood community to engage with climate change. At a special event in Los Angelesin 2011, Ban Ki-Moon told an audience of filmmakers and movie industry players, “You have power and influence to send to millions and billions of people around the world.” UNFCCC head, Christiana Figueres, told them, “We need you to make it sexy and cool to bring about the energy revolution that has to happen.”

It’s hard not to cringe a little at this last appeal. However, if the commercial world didn’t believe that Hollywood had the power to make their products and services “sexy and cool” they would not spend so many billions ensuring they feature within film narratives. There is certainly a logic to this “product placement” approach and the Grantham and ClimateWorks Foundations have funded the Climate Change Storytelling Initiative to provide advice to filmmakers on how to dramatise real impacts of climate change and to positively portray environmentally sustainable choices and lifestyles. However it is questionable if this approach can mobilise the real power of the arts or if it is just an extension of an advertising-based public communication model.

A more interesting and possibly more productive model is to integrate artistic expression, and particularly storytelling, into the movements advocating for change. A movement which claims not to be advocating for change might provide some inspiration: The Dark Mountain Project explicitly weaves the arts into a manifesto of a social movement, although it protests that it is not an activist or political organisation, and specifically states that it is not “seeking to use writing or art to ‘save the planet’ or stop climate change”. It could be viewed purely as an art project, in that the only output it promises are stories and other cultural expressions. However it is founded on an assertion that the roots of the social, economic and ecological crises we face “lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves”. In this sense it acknowledges the political utility of narrative and by implication the political import of its activities.

Those of us who don’t necessarily share Dark Mountain’s view that collapse is inevitable and in some ways desirable might still learn from them. The stories we tell ourselves do matter, and these stories are told through artistic expression at all levels: mainstream popular culture, the rarefied peaks of “high” culture, local and community-based artistic activity. Rather than telling artists what stories we would like them to tell, however, we should perhaps be learning from artists about how to tell our own stories.

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

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