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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.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I’m not exactly sure if what I want to say is thank you, but thank you. I understand the feelings of your students, but somehow cynicism feels like a poison we can ill afford. I also find it unhelpful to not lean in some ways on the “magic” elixir of scientific discovery. The truth is, when we look at all the options for mitigation and maybe a pulling back from the devastation we have caused in creation (for us more than the planet, at least our ability to live on it), we need all of them, and therefore, we need public and private money investing in all of them.
    One other thing we don’t often discuss but should prepare ourselves for. The actions we take in our efforts to address climate change will also have consequences. We likely have little choice in the matter, but meddling with creation, in whatever way is necessary to address the mess we’ve caused will present its own challenges. This does not mean we should give in to doomism. On the contrary, it means we need your students all the more, and we need to support them in their work, so that they don’t give in to cynicism. Thank you for your work.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Rodney. I agree that cynicism is a poison, albeit an attractive one and that should be resisted. I am a committed supporter of bringing our best science to bear on the climate crisis alongside art and religion and commerce and every other human endeavor. McKibbin’s point is that the magic bullet is unlikely to be there in any of one them and that its a false hope that believes otherwise. Your second paragraph: Right on!

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    Tim, there’s a temptation to say your words are thoughtful, but that’s really namby pamby faint praise for a provoking message. Instead, your words make me think. They often do. Thank you.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    I am ever grateful for you, Tim. And I trust that your students realize the blessing they have in being with you.

  • Mark Kornelis says:

    Perhaps my logic is weak, but just knowing that there are people like McKibben, Heyhoe, and yourself (wasn’t familiar with Mann) that understand as well as any the situation we’ve created yet are also able to maintain a grip on their faith helps me to not fall into despair. For that, I’m deeply grateful for your contributions in this space. I was also relieved to learn of the protective glass.

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