Art of Climate Change: telling stories to understand the future

The Guardian on Sept 24th, has an article by Robert Macfarlane The burning question, which argues that writers can play a crucial role in helping us to imagine the impact of climate change, but to date there is a gap of literature on climate change that reduces the ability of people to envision possible futures and consquently make better decisions today.

From the article:

Contemplation of the situation on Banks Island prompts a broader question about the relationship of climate change and language. Where is the literature of climate change? Where is the creative response to what Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has famously described as “the most severe problem faced by the world”?

Cultural absences are always more difficult to document than cultural outpourings. But the deficiency of a creative response to climate change is increasingly visible. It becomes unignorable if we contrast it with the abundance of literature produced in response to the other great eschatological crisis of the past half-century – the nuclear threat.

The authoritative bibliography of American and British nuclear literature runs to over 3,000 items: it includes Ian McEwan’s oratorio “Or Shall We Die”, JG Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, Martin Amis’s Einstein’s Monsters, Raymond Briggs’s When The Wind Blows, as well as work by Edward Abbey, Ray Bradbury, Upton Sinclair, Neville Shute. This literature did not only annotate the politics of the nuclear debate, it helped to shape it. As well as feeding off that epoch of history, it fed into it.

There is nothing like this intensity of literary engagement with climate change. Climate change still exists principally as what Ballard has called “invisible literature”: that is, the data buried in “company reports, specialist journals, technical manuals, newsletters, market research reports, internal memoranda”. It exists as paper trail, as data stream. It also exists, of course, as journalism, as conversation, and as behaviour. But it does not yet, with a few exceptions, exist as art. Where are the novels, the plays, the poems, the songs, the libretti, of this massive contemporary anxiety?

…what frightened the Victorians was the universe’s passivity to human action, whereas what frightens us is its reactiveness. But it is clear that Victorian worries at Heat Death, and the prospects for life on a cooling Earth, led to a great cultural output, which partly debated the science and partly dramatised it. “Imaginative figuration and scientific inquiry,” wrote Gillian Beer, in a fine essay on the subject, “operated in inseparable co-operation with one another.” It is a “co-operation” which has not happened in our period.

Bill McKibben made a similar arguement in April 2005 an article in the online environmental magazine Grist.

While Kim Stanley Robinson is an exception to this argement as mentioned here earlier.

Alex Steffen responds on Worldchanging in Climate Change and the New Cultural Environmentalism – where he points out a lot of other exceptions to this arguement.

Steffen writes:

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 River: the list goes on and on and on…

A summary of all these articles would be that there is in fact climate change art, but compared to the amount of art addressing other big global problems – there isn’t much and it would be great if there were more.

I’d love to hear about more art that addresses climate change. If you know of any good art please leave a link or a desciption of it in the comments.

-update Oct 2 –
In an interview about science fiction writer JG Ballard, science fiction writer (and design professor) Bruce Sterling thinks that soon climate change fiction will emerge

…My suspicion is that in another four to five years you’re going to find people writing about climate change in the same way they wrote about the nuclear threat in the 50s. It’s just going to be in every story every time. People are going to come up with a set of climate-change tropes, like three-eyed mutants and giant two-headed whatevers, because this is the threat of our epoch and it just becomes blatantly obvious to everybody. Everybody’s going to pile on to the bandwagon and probably reduce the whole concept to kindling. That may be the actual solution to a genuine threat of Armageddon – to talk about it so much that it becomes banal.

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