Confession here. Early in my undergraduate career at Calvin College (now University), I became disenamored with my choice to declare a Biology major. As a young guy, I had a reputation for being good with my hands, able to build stuff and sketch, and I thought I had an eye for art.
I took Professor Boevé’s art history and Professor Jensen’s introductory studio art classes and loved them. I considered an art major, but ultimately didn’t switch because I didn’t think I could make a living. I tripped over a bit of cowardice and a bit more lack of imagination.
I rarely visit art museums but when I do, and especially when I am unhurried, familiar senses emerge. Senses I know from unhurried time in a local prairie or woods. It feeds me and I’m deliberately vague here, because the descriptors I know only corral and confine.
Professor Boevé taught me that for Van Gogh and some of the Impressionists, color and texture and even physical qualities of paint were at least as important as image, but experience made me understand. On approaching a Van Gogh painting, image disappears and the painting moves and pulses with the sculptural depth of brush strokes and blending colors in accretions of thick paint. I’ve stood at arm’s length and resisted impulses to reach out and touch the surface. An urge that made me a little surprised the museums even allowed me to stand that close.
On a visceral level it hurt, literally a hollow dull pain in my chest, when I first saw video of young climate activists throwing tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting in London’s National Gallery.
In the aftermath, climate scientists and activists debated over whether that kind of activism was productive or not. Simplifying, one side argued that the shock would offend people and damage the cause of getting people and decision-makers to address the urgent need to fight climate breakdown. The other side argued that typical methods (protests, petitions, etc.) aren’t working and that escalation was required given the consequences we face.
To be truthful, there was a bit of theater here. The painting (and others that have been used in a similar way) was covered in protective glass and therefore undamaged, and protesters knew this.
The subtext is, of course, desperation. A state of despair. As I write, there are disruptive civil protests occurring around the world. In Munich, thirteen scientists are still in custody after staging a protest in a luxury car showroom. They include mathematicians, physicists, environmental scientists, computer scientists, biotechnology experts and engineers in environmental protection and telecommunications. Note the solidarity across scientific disciplines.
This is a real anxiety, especially among young scientists. I had my grad student lab read a paper entitled “The Role of Life Scientists in the Biospheric Emergency: A Case for Acknowledging Failure and Changing Tactics” as a way of prompting discussion about the intersection between science and activism. The first comment derailed the discussion. A Ph.D. student offered that she didn’t see the climate crisis getting addressed in her lifetime, that she was resigned to watching the world slide into chaos and loss during her career and lifetime. She was not alone, and our discussion explored that dark space. I know young people who have chosen not to have kids. This is the flip-side to youthful activism and it’s probably worse.
Bill McKibben’s newsletter this afternoon considered a “magic” hope, an acknowledgement of the climate emergency but then a sunny expectation that something, a new technology or a free-market juju or some other thing, will prevent the damage and disruption that scientific consensus sees on the horizon. McKibben writes that this sort of hope is dangerous because it refuses to take the magnitude of the problem seriously enough. And I am reminded of Debra Rienstra’s piece about Christians using a breezy piety to avoid facing their responsibility and culpability for the climate crisis.
What then? Examples for me are climate scientists Katharine Heyhoe and Michael Mann and McKibben himself. The three of them understand and communicate the dire dimensions of the climate emergency with candor and careful fidelity to emerging science. They famously war against “doomism” and offer hope rooted in hard work, persistence, and intelligent and stubborn activism. Heyhoe and McKibben are public about their Christianity, which helps me hold on as well.
And still my students’ comments haunt me. I am aware that every conversation with a grad student is really about their future – the next academic milestone, the dissertation or thesis, the graduation, the first job…this despite the looming threat of climate breakdown. I am aware that the hopeful path between chasms of despair on one side and detached nihilism on the other is a knife-edge narrow one and becoming more so. The only integrity is to walk it with them with courage and imagination and pull them back when they wobble.
But that’s where we are.
Sunflowers photo: Wikimedia commons – Photo by Szilas at the Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition in Budapest, 2013 Public Domain.