The world is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, and we urgently need good ways to address it.
Fascism is on the rise, new infectious diseases keep cropping up, and we’re on the verge of environmental collapse: how on earth could art possibly save us? The arts are may be nice distraction, but if we want to be actually saved, surely what we need are better leaders, better policies, and people who are willing to listen to science.
But then again, that very thought raises a question: how do you get people to listen to science? And some might say the best way is by engaging their emotions and imaginations—which is exactly where the arts come in. OK, maybe Game of Thrones isn't going to make people start reading Scientific American. But could something like Don’t Look Up—a movie where people ignore an environmental disaster literally hanging right over their heads—encourage people to stop denying climate change?
Maybe. But the trouble with didactic movies like that is that they often tend to be... bad. For those of us who had mixed feelings about Don’t Look Up, the Rolling Stone review was delicious: it said the movie isn’t “funny, or insightful, or even watchable. It’s a disaster movie in more ways than one.”
You might still say that doesn't matter: after all, if it saves the world, does it matter if it's bad art? I mean, what are our priorities here? But the problem is that it isn't going to save the world. Most science-deniers aren’t going to watch it in the first place, and even if they happen to stumble upon it, they’re just going to feel insulted. At the end of the day, it’s only going to preach to the converted.
An advocate of didactic art could maybe appeal to a third group: not climate deniers, and not climate change activists, but fence-sitters. People who accept that there's a problem, that is, but who simply won’t get off their duffs to do anything. As Blaise Pascal once said, "Toutes les bonnes maximes sont dans le monde; on ne manque qu'à les appliquer"—every good principle already exists in the world; the only thing lacking is the will to put them into practice.
So perhaps these lukewarm fence-sitters are the crucial target audience; perhaps climate art could help galvanize them into action. And it would do so not by persuading them to believe something—after all, they already accept the science!—but instead by getting them to feel something. They would end up not just grasping climate change intellectually but also connecting to it on an emotional level.
Again, maybe—but with a lot of climate art, the emotional impact is not so much galvanizing as devastating. After watching Don't Look Up, I imagine my fence-sitter curled up on the floor in a fetal position, sobbing into their locally-sourced popcorn. How much good will that do for the environmental movement?
We can at least imagine climate art like this giving us the strength to continue in our struggle, by reminding us that we are not alone. (Nobel-winning poet Louise Glück once said, beautifully, that some of the best poetry “becomes our companion in grief, our rescuer.”) And climate art can also help us imagine our way to a better future. There's some interesting climate utopia science fiction out there, like Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge, where people get it together, fight climate change, and build a realistic utopia. (I did say it was fiction.)
Action on climate change cannot stop at fiction, of course, but maybe it can start there. Maybe we need a vision of the better world we’re fighting for. And maybe great artists are the people best equipped to come up with such visions.
Maybe we won't need climate art if enough people run for office, develop new technologies, move away from fossil fuels, and take legal action against polluters. But then again, maybe people won't do any of that unless they are able to channel their feelings about the climate; and that, in the end, is why we need climate art. At least, that is what our guest—Professor Harriet Hawkins from the University of London—will argue. Stay tuned!