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Climate Change and the New Cultural Environmentalism
Alex Steffen, 21 Apr 05

Bill McKibben (who's a nice a guy, and whose writing I generally admire) has written a fine essay asking why we haven't engaged culturally with climate change:

Here's the paradox: if the scientists are right, we're living through the biggest thing that's happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don't know about it. It hasn't registered in our gut; it isn't part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas? Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS in the last two decades, which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect. I mean, when people someday look back on our moment, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperature. But they'll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.

The only problem is, a bunch of us have been engaged in thinking creatively about the climate, the planet, and our relationship to both for a while now.

Where, Bill asks, are our singers, our playwrights, our artists and poets? They're all around us, unacknowledged, undiscovered, and, until recently, unmissed by old-school environmentalism, which sometimes seems to think that the works of Gary Snyder and Ansel Adams are the last we'll ever need.

Certainly you don't get a lot of Viridian art in major environmental magazines; Sabrina Raaf's carbon-sniffing robots adorn the lobbies of no major national environmental groups, as far as I know; despite the efforts of groups like Sustainable Style, you'd be hard-pressed to find the "think green, wear black" attitude of ecological consciousness and urban art smarts at the average enviro board meeting. In general, I'd argue cultural environmentalism of the mainstream form has been facing backwards for a couple decades, lost in dreams of Ecotopia.

The new cultural environmentalism is here, and it's stylish and high-tech, smart and post-modern, neo-biological and urban, prosperous and design-focused, worldchanging and every bit as green as the old.

Pardon me for ranting a bit, but there are great young creative talents wrestling with 21st Century green ideas all over the place: Natalie Jeremijenko? Amy Youngs? Hehe? Heather Ackroyd? The whole environmental art crowd? Designers like STATIC and Front? Speculative fiction, like Bruce Sterling's work or Nicola Griffith's Slow Riverthe list goes on and on and on...

We have only to look.

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"We only have to look" - the key caveat, I feel. Bill McKibben's point makes sense from the perspective of relatively passive consumption of culture. If you just go by what you generally absorb in an ambient way, sure, climate change and other giant issues like it only really have The Day After Tomorrow going for them.

The idea of wanting to, and having time to, seek out culture is alien to many. The debate then becomes: should we be pushing more of these issues into the dominant spoon-feeding culture? Or is engendering a more participatory, active culture part-and-parcel of the change in perspective we're trying to acheive? I'd go with the latter, even though, as we know, it can be one hell of an uphill struggle. Well countered, Alex.

Posted by: Gyrus on 22 Apr 05

Yes. We always have only to look. There's an infinity of things to see. Culture is the filter that determines what we'll see when we look. What is important enough to notice? Today, one species has become a dominant planetary bio-geo-chemical force. Few find this as important as, say, the Michael Jackson trial. McKibben's point exactly.

Posted by: David Foley on 22 Apr 05

Hmm – seems to me Alex that you missed Bill M’s point. Cool green design that works isn’t the same thing as outrage or upset at a global industrial-economic system that is killing the world... and it doesn’t necessarily stimulate the massive consciousness change necessary for evolving a civilisation that will not (continue to) do itself in. Bill’s point, it seems to me, is that knowing where to look shouldn’t be an issue. Art, or whatever, should be impacting us up front, over the top, with a sense of urgency that is commensurate with what we are actually doing.



Posted by: Andrew Gaines on 22 Apr 05

He did miss the point. Emotion is what is needed to give us motion. Like Michael Meade's or Camille Paglia. From the gut, by the gut and for the gut. Most of us are too addicted, too distracted and much too cool for this irration, the ration of ire that we need to push out.

Stop eating the junk. Pass the (unpasturised) sauerkraut and kefir from raw milk eaten from more complete soil foodwebs. Culture the gut first. Put the goddamned sugar thru the kombucha first.

Posted by: kim McDodge on 22 Apr 05

I don't hear Bill advocating for outrage, Andrew. I hear him saying we need a culture which feels our changing climate and emperiled planet in its gut. There's not a much more effective sign of that culture being here than people incorporating cultural artifacts about the environment into their very lives.

The essential fact Bill and you miss is that making these things slap people in the face is not the work of artists, it's the work of promoters and producers and publishers -- of the industry which surrounds cultural production in this country, which couldn't care less about the plight of the Innuit or whatever, because they're far too busy suing 12 years olds for downloading music.

If we want greater *impact*, well, that's an organizational choice: we greenies have enormous cultural purchasing power, at least as great as fundamentalist Christians -- let's start buying impact for art that matters.

But to suggest that artists are somehow not producing great stuff is just totally wrong.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 22 Apr 05

"Art about climate" may not yet have found its catalyst into the mainstream, the way ActUP and art about/against AIDS synergized in the 1980s.

Let's recall that the folks behind that movement were not operating in and against the information onslaught we're experiencing today in the developed world. (Which, weirdly, some of the commenters above seem to blame on the artists themselves.)

What's more, the AIDS artists and the activists embraced each other -- survival was really at stake, and they knew it. (And it still is, for millions.) Sometimes they were the same people.

Has environmental activism, **on the whole**, embraced environmentalist art the same way? Looked at much more than the most easily digested and strident, beyond the beautiful to the unpalatable, or used activist skills at gaining the public's attention--their mindshare in the mainstream-- to make that art even more relevant? Have they embraced creative artists and writers as allies in the political struggle the way AIDS activists and artists embraced each other?

Basically: no, they haven't. (and yes, there are individual examples here and there...but big picture: no.)

I posted today about Steve Kurtz and the CAE Defense Fund. Where are the biotech/GMO activists? Are they helping this poor guy and his colleagues, who are on the front line of the new repression in this country, whose work directly addresses the same activist concerns about biotechnology?

Please, point me at it if it's out there.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 22 Apr 05

Ooops, Alex and I posted simultaneously with slightly different takes on the same issues. Onwards...

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 22 Apr 05

poems, opera, literature and contemporary art probably do not register in the guts of the people that we need to change most. it may even encourage unfortunate stereotypes of the urban liberal elite treehugger who sees nature on the weekend after attending high-society gallery openings. looking at voting maps, i wonder if it's that important to persuade the urban centers as much as the rest of the country.

the thing is, ansel adams registered with everyone and people didn't HAVE to search to find it. he communicated at a basic level that didn't require a college degree or lots of money to appreciate. there was no subtext or politics unless you wanted to see it that way. anyone could hang it up in the form of a calendar or pull a print out of a magazine and then see that image every day building a subconscious repsect for the landscape. his work was mass-produced and reached every corner of the country from curators to cowboys. it was accessible and positive which is more than i can say for contemporaries.

in that respect, i'm not so sure there are many of these artists out there even if we look. maybe we could use artists with more honesty that can relate to all people at the most human level. possibly andy goldsworthy, but my rancher uncle would just get pissed off if i took him to see a james turrell peice. too much ego, not enough beauty, and absolutely nothing that touches his world. are the artists today targeting gallery sales, touting their own cleverness, or trying to communicate the human condition?

Posted by: hijiki on 22 Apr 05

In 1914 the fabric of Western civilization seemed to be disintegrating. With the first World War raging, Monet was in his garden painting water lilies. His own son was in the war. The front advanced to within 35 miles of his home. Yet Monet continued to paint the reflections of clouds and willows in the waters of the pond at Giverny.

To a friend Monet confided that he felt "ashamed of thinking about little researches into form and color while so many suffer and die". Although he was old and in failing health, he might have found more immediate ways to express his feelings about the state of the world. Instead, while young men died in combat within the borders of his own country, Monet painted water lilies. And the world is richer for his doing so. Those expansive panels of water, flowers and mirrored sky were probably his greatest and most enduring gift to humanity.

Politics is fast. By definition it is public. Art is slow. And it often begins in solitude. In order to give our best gifts to the world artists must sometimes leave the world behind, at least for a little while.

- John Luther Adams, "Global Warming and Art"

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 22 Apr 05



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