How can we stop the world from burning?
For many years, I responded to that question as an environmental advocate.
In our fight against climate change, my colleagues and I employ hard-edged tools such as legislation, policy, and litigation—all informed by science and real-world impacts on people and nature.
But as the Anthropocene accelerates and our time runs out to set the world on a more sustainable and equitable course, I have come to recognize that these tools alone cannot change the world fast enough to save it.
Today, I believe that advocates like me must join forces with artists, writers, and musicians whose work reaches millions of people, touches hearts, changes perspectives, and shapes our culture.
I say this because we are in an unusual predicament: The scientific case on climate change is now clear and undeniable. The policy solutions we need are now obvious, and the technology to implement them, largely in hand.
And yet, as escalating climate impacts ravage communities around the world, the largest carbon emitters, including the U.S., have not risen to the occasion to solve the crisis—and the grip of the fossil fuel industry is as tight as ever, pushing us down a path of self-destruction.
Unfortunately, many of us still don’t see the rising cost that climate change is inflicting on people everywhere, or realize that we have the power to alter the course of this unfolding crisis, or grasp that the solutions actually lead to better health, better jobs, and better livelihoods.
Those of us who do accept the reality of climate change nevertheless mostly go about our business as usual, repressing climate anxiety, grief and shame, and ignoring imminent peril.
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In other words, many of our attitudes about and responses to climate reside beyond reason, wrapped up in personal psychology, partisanship, and identity politics, impervious to logic and evidence.
Clearly, we need new ways to communicate about the Anthropocene, new perspectives and modes of persuasion that help people see the urgency of our situation, but also that seed hope and inspire action.
I often reflect on a turning point in my children’s worldview. Even when they were quite young, I spoke to them about the environmental challenges we face and the solutions I worked to implement. They listened dutifully, but my wonky monologues fell flat.
Ultimately, the story of the Lorax touched my children’s hearts, awakening them to the environment, igniting their curiosity and passion about protecting our natural world.
Ultimately, a society’s laws and policies change, because the hearts and values of people change. And art, in all its forms, provides a direct route to people’s hearts, regardless of culture or background.
The environmental movement needs artists and writers of every stripe just as much as it needs lawyers, scientists, and activists.
Because we need to reach people on an emotional level. We need to transport them; help them drop their defenses, identify with others who may be very different; open their minds and hearts to new ideas and possibilities; and illuminate the way forward.
Good stories, poems, and essays have always had that power.
This new world we inhabit, the Anthropocene, is hard to fathom. The speed and scale of change are disorienting. The stakes are now too high to ignore. The future of humanity—and all life on Earth—is in our hands. We need to reset our relationship with nature—so that we appreciate it for its intrinsic value, as well as its connection to our health, economy, and communities.
In recent years, progressive organizations of all kinds have come closer together, realizing that the problems we work to solve intersect and compound. Collaboration increases our odds of success.
The same is true across disciplines: poets and scientists, essayists and environmental lawyers, storytellers and policy experts. Working together, we stand a better chance of steering away from catastrophe in the Anthropocene and toward the light.
Manish Bapna is the president and CEO of NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). NRDC is the generous sponsor of Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue, for which this essay was the preface.
This is an extraodinary perpective thanks !
This is spot on. The arts reach us in ways that no policy paper, spreadsheet or philosophical treatise possibly could. The arts speak the actual language of nature: the qualitative, sensory and emotive experience from which we (and all living things) weave our values and meanings. But we can’t make our ecological art withour embodied contact with the greater-than-human world. If we can let go of our human narratives and actually listen to what the living world is saying, we might find that it can teach us what we need to do. Then our art will be sourced in the greater web of life, and we can move from protecting nature or appreciating nature to actively participating in nature as part of her self-sustaining processes.
Great article. Manish says it so well. Thank you!
Yes, stories, art, performance, music grip us in inexplicable ways and evoke change. That is why I started a public humanities site to showcase how people express their relationship with water via a particular art form.
The Art of Water shares the sentiment that art matters.
I have read that our cities are fast-forwarding evolution. If this is true, integrating holistic, regenerative biological systems into urban landscapes will fast-forward ecological recovery.
I currently live in the heart of Houston. Located on the far east side of Texas, the city is an important migratory pathway and covers 600 square miles of what once was the coastal prairie. One of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the entire US, less than 1% remains of this prairie system. Houston, projected to double in size by 2050, plays an impactful role in the continent’s natural systems that once protected and nurtured the region’s ecology, soaked up rainwater, cooled the planet, and stored carbon. Due to its location, Houston’s landscape practices impact life on land and in the waters throughout the Americas. In August 2017, Houston received almost 52 inches of rain in a matter of days. Unfortunately, with the city’s current landscape practices and policies, Houston’s rainwater no longer soaks into its soil, and its insects, flowers, birds, and the Gulf coral reefs are disappearing. Ironically, the coastal prairie is now just as much an environmental desert as my early home in far west Texas.
A few years ago, as I was developing my project World of Hum, I began to see my work in this city as an opportunity to have a positive impact on the environment – I now focus my artistic work to holistically reimagine Houston’s landscape, return the carbon in the air to the soil, support wildlife, reduce water run-off, and support flood control. Inspired by M. Thomashow, who writes, “Record natural history to the collective memory so that it is no longer endangered knowledge,” I develop “Endangered Knowledge” works, in which I am researching the natural systems in Texas’ ecological history that build soil health and cool the planet. I am reseeding how we see urban landscapes to propose the holistic restoration of biological balance — awakening urban consciousness to our kinship with living systems and restoring what is lost. Through sculpture and printmaking, my work has always incorporated time and movement. Adapting these processes, including organic and living materials and social sculpture, I create new methods to develop narratives that inspire holistic urban land regeneration, extending our time on this planet. I believe that widespread environmental change begins with envisioning (and making visible) the wisdom already inherent in the natural world.
I believe Houstonians—transplanted in this important migratory pathway, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the entire US—have the unparalleled ability and opportunity to lead an urban holistic, regenerative landscape movement. My charge is to inspire their action.
Fine artists should have been mentioned here as well!
I wholeheartedly agree with you. As a writer who is attempting to persuade people to care about environmental issues, I sometimes write essays that are so dark they depress even me, the one who wrote them. When that happens, I try to revise my tone, but to keep the message clear. Once I shared an essay with a friend, “On Doing One Thing” – it was published in Elephant Journal in revised form, but I wanted to reach a wider audience – and my editor friend told me, “You don’t want to offend anyone.” I was shocked to learn that she cared more about pleasing people than about doing the right thing. So, as an experiment I revised the essay and read it at a literary reading. I asked the audience to raise their hands if they felt it was too harsh; no one did. In fact, the audience response was so positive: my essay, they said, inspired them to go home and begin doing one thing of their own to reduce carbon emissions. We must say hard things. I won’t stop trying to reach a wider audience, but I have to be more careful not to alienate readers…this is the test of truth.
Not especially insightful and much is left out. Climate change is a symptom of overshoot–too many humans consuming too much. As a species we are eating the Earth, not just cooking it. Changing our trajectory does include culture change, emotional change. There is nothing new in recognizing that art can do that. Narrative film, in particular, can do that. Think of Star Wars after four plus decades still going strong. Like westerns of the 50s, it’s a simple morality tale, with black hats and white hats. Unfortunately it’s just about people and leaves out issues of justice for other species.
What Bapna also misses is the need for a new mythology. A new vision of the future. A vision that recognizes humans are just one species among millions and not the center of the universe. Conservation is not just about us. It is about justice for all species. Perhaps its that lack of a new vision that explain conservations poor cultural showing. No music like the US civil rights movement. No community like liberation movements. We lack boldness
Thanks for this piece. I fully agree. There is no more tangled problem than climate change, and it requires all hands on deck and a holistic approach. We have to get better at communicating what is happening by reaching people through the media they are most likely to consume.
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