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One of the most incisive and cogent writers I know on climate justice is Mary Annaïse Heglar, publications director at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a prolific essayist. She wrote a piece in Wired in April 2020 in which she offers a compelling answer to that anguished question about the climate crisis: “But what can I do??” Her answer, basically, is “do what you’re good at.”
She gives various examples of what that might mean, but she offers a few extra words of encouragement to artists. “The artists I spoke to,” she writes, “lamented the fact that they weren’t engineers or scientists or some other type of ‘expert.’ But as I told them, it is not their job to design the policy plans for rapid decarbonization, to decide which coal plants to shut down first, and what exactly to replace them with. We have people on that. As the writer Toni Cade Bambara once put it, the role of the artist is to ‘make revolution irresistible.’”
That is a tall order. How do you make revolution irresistible? Novelists and feature filmmakers create vivid projections of the apocalyptic nightmares we’re in for—unless we change our ways. Sadly, dystopian visions seem easier to summon than utopian ones, but sometimes our storytellers also help us imagine futures full of possibility and beauty. Meanwhile, documentary filmmakers horrify and/or inspire us by presenting the facts on the ground. Photographers create images that give visceral testimony to the world’s beauty as well as to the realities of loss and destruction that climate change has already wrought. All of these artists play a hugely important role in persuasion, education, and awareness-raising.
What about other artists, though? What might dancers, musicians, and sculptors contribute?
Well, I found a few interesting examples. This is by no means a comprehensive or even representative list. It’s just a random sampling. But it’s suggestive, I think: art has the power to weasel behind our defenses, awaken us emotionally, disturb the smooth surfaces of our certainties. We desperately need the science and engineering folk, of course, but climate change is not merely a technological problem. We also need people who speak to our spirits, jarring us, propelling us into new relationships with each other, the earth, and God.
The [Uncertain] Four Seasons
My favorite artistic endeavor so far is this wild effort to alter Vivaldi’s beloved Four Seasons for a new age. In order to “humanize climate science and climate data so that we can connect more with people,” a group of designers, communicators, musicians, composers, and software developers took Vivaldi’s score and made alterations based on some mysterious algorithm—nothing I read ventured into any technical detail—that translates “projected environmental changes into musical changes.”
Not only that, but they figured out a way to custom-alter the score for every orchestra in the world, adjusting the music based on climate projection data particular to each region. In the Australia version, for instance, “missing notes reflect declining bird populations, and the summer storm is more intense and prolonged.” This version was premiered by the Sydney Symphony on Jan. 12, 2021. You can listen to excerpts here.
I have a recording of the whole piece, and I find it both wonderful and distressing. Familiar major-key passages sour into minor. Rhythmic skips and missing notes throw passages askew and off kilter. Harmonic progressions peel off course. The effect is melancholy and anxious at once, yet the whole thing retains a haunting musical integrity.
The composers/programmers used data from the IPCC’s worst-case scenario for 2050, based on models in which the world makes no concerted effort to address climate change. That explains why the Shanghai version of the piece is nothing but rests on a page. It’s silent, since in a worst-case scenario, there is no Shanghai in 2050. It’s under water.
Song of the Prophets: A Requiem for the Climate
For a more uplifting orchestral experience, you can view a performance of Song of the Prophets, commissioned by the Chineke! Orchestra and composed by four Black British composers. Chineke! showcases black and “ethnically diverse” professional musicians in the UK and Europe, and they partnered for this project as a fundraiser for the UK organization Christian Aid.
The piece features four short movements whose titles any good Calvinist could predict: Creation, Ruin, Recovery, Redemption. I found the music quite lovely, especially the moments featuring folk instruments from Kenya, Bangladesh, and Nigeria.
The orchestra performed the piece in St. Paul’s Cathedral last month. Be warned: the video alternates between the orchestra’s performance and testimonies from people connected with Christian Aid. If you stick it out, you can hear former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams give a spiel at the end.
A Call to Life: Variations on a Theme of Extinction
Are you insufficiently bummed about species extinction? Probably. Then you should watch this stunning performance piece by nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore and pianist Rachelle McCabe. The piece interweaves readings from Moore’s writings with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme from Corelli.” It’s a one-hour, unforgettable exercise in healthy, appropriate lament and “ferocious hope.” (Great for a church group discussion.)
Bonus option: Read this fascinating essay by Josh Parks on experimental composer John Luther Adams, whose “compositions mimic the rhythms and relationships of the natural world and invite us to consider it closely.”
What about dance? I discovered this intriguing piece by choreographer KT Nelson, developed for the San Francisco-based ODC/Dance Company.
Meant to evoke human feelings about living amid a climate crisis, the piece is named for a navigational term, “dead reckoning.” The idea is that we’ve lost our reference points when it comes to caring for each other and the earth. We don’t perceive well where we’ve been, so we can’t find our way forward either.
The piece embodies “forgetting and remembering, taking and relinquishing responsibility, accumulating indifference and practicing care.” I don’t often go to dance performances, but I would definitely sign up to see this one if I could.
What Future Do You Choose for Miami?
Mural artists seem to have plenty to say about climate change. This Miami project combines a mural with an “augmented reality” app to help viewers imagine a disastrous future, in which Miami succumbs to ocean rise, and a more hopeful one. The idea for the project came from local high school students.
Here’s another mural example, this one in Austin, Texas, created by Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz and Kimie Flores. They used thermochromic paints, so that the images change when the temperature rose above 77º F. for example, in hotter weather, creepy bird carcasses appear. It’s sort of like the charming climate change mug I have at my office, the one with a map of the globe on it. Every time I fill the mug with hot tea: oops, there goes Florida and Indonesia again.
It’s a neat-looking sculpture, but it also… makes sound! Artists Michele Koppes and Susie Ibarra created public space sculptures called “sonic waterfall installations.” Ibarra used recordings of melting glaciers to create captivating audio compositions, laced with human music and animal sounds from the same regions. The idea is for people to come near the sculptures and bathe “in these disappearing water rhythms.”
Like a number of these projects, this one combines aesthetics and craft with hard science: field research, data, and technological mastery. The two current installations launched last October in Vancouver, Canada, and Millbrook, New York. They were supported by a TED initiative called Countdown, whose purpose is to “champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis.”
Crochet Coral Reef
So far, we have neglected the textile arts. Well, how about a knitted coral reef? Sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim, Australia natives working through a wildly creative place called the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles, have undertaken a massive, participatory crocheting project: they’ve made a reef.
The designs enact, in yarn, the way that coral reef creatures actually develop. It has to do with something called “hyperbolic geometry.” The sisters, along with a few core contributors, simulate “living reefs using techniques of crochet to mimic in yarn the curling crenelated forms of actual reef organisms.”
The resulting work has been exhibited all over the world. One critic described it as “gorgeous, absurd and socially productive.” Even more wonderful, the artists have invited people from all walks of life to contribute to “satellite reefs.” Over 10,000 people have joined in creating perhaps the world’s largest artwork.
Coral reefs are crucial to ocean health, biodiversity, coastal stability, and 500 million people’s livelihood. Right now, about half of the world’s reefs have experienced major bleaching, thanks to ocean temperature increases and acidification. By 2050, we could lose 75 percent of the world’s reefs. We can’t crochet reefs back to life, but maybe the embodied act of mimicking their brilliance and beauty can inspire people to take actions they wouldn’t otherwise bother with.
I really love the idea of greenscaping, which is more of an architecture/urban planning trend, but it certainly involves artistry. Singapore is the innovator here, with “green building” mandatory since 2008. New developments have to incorporate plants: on roofs, up walls, in elaborate garden structures. Meanwhile, the city pushes ambitious green goals for older structures, too. Singapore’s network of parks and public green spaces aim to create ready access for everybody to growing things. At one park, “supertrees” act as vertical gardens and solar power generators. And they’re beautiful.
For more examples of gorgeous “green walls,” check these out. I can’t imagine how these are maintained. I have a hard enough time with my yard, and that’s mostly horizontal.
Good art is generative: it generates questions, further thought, extra-rational responses. It stirs creativity in others. Addressing climate change will require irresistible revolution, and that will demand our whole selves—emotions, imaginations, strength of spirit and will—to shift our lifeways and cultures. Artists will continue to be crucial collaborators in that cultural work.
Great stuff, thanks.
So Good. To answer the question in your title: Yes. The battle against the climate crisis isn’t so much a technical one. We scientists measure the progress and predict the course and give tactical advice. But the energy to sustain the battle is rooted in that part of us that the artists touch.
Debra, thanks so much for this post! One of ongoing debates in the climate science field for the last 20 years (at least) has been the role of scientists in communicating climate science to the public. While I think it is important for scientists to communicate with the pubic, many scientists don’t do all that well in that area. While communication abilities can be enhanced by training and practice, some limitations are simply related to personality and gifts. We scientists need the help of artists, writers, and educators to convey the extent and urgency of the problem we face and to encourage movement towards solutions. The examples you cite give me hope.
By the way, here is a short audio created by a couple of my colleagues to represent the record of increasing carbon dioxide concentration (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y45Mm-EHcxs). Recently, a climate scientist created a “Show Your Stripes” page that allows you to visualize climate warming globally and at regional locations (https://showyourstripes.info/).
And here I have been feeling that I wasted my life. Seriously, thank you for lifting my soul.