Science, Art and Climate Change

Art attack: why getting creative about climate change makes sense

Bringing scientists and artists together can change attitudes towards global warming. David Buckland demonstrates how to make the cultural shift possible
People walk next to a giant art installation representing a polar bear painted with red food dye at the base of the Langjokull glacier. Photograph: Christopher Lund/AFP/Getty Images
Each of us, sometime and somewhere in our lives, has been profoundly moved by a piece of art; a song, a poem, a book, a painting or a film. The values and desires inherent here become absorbed into our psyche, they inform our response, and are embedded to form the person we can be and the societies we construct.
With this notion Cape Farewell has, since 2001, been collaborating with the world's leading climate scientists and our most influential artists to create a cultural response to climate change. Climate change is a by-product of our over stimulated complex societies. The solution is not complex: replace our energy supply, currently dependent on burning coal, oil and gas, with something a little more sophisticated and environmentally friendly. So far we haven't figured out how to do this.
We believe climate change is a cultural, social and economic challenge, and we have to move beyond the scientific and rational debate to address it. By bringing together artists, scientists, communicators and cultural opinion formers, we endeavour to develop creative 'works' that act as a catalyst for change. Using creativity to innovate, we engage artists, writers, poets, musicians and filmmakers for their ability to evolve and amplify a creative language, communicating – on an emotional level and on a human scale – the urgency of the global climate challenge.
Storytellers, CS Lewis said, "carry meaning in a way that rational truthtellers cannot." "For me", the novelist wrote, "reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition".
We employ the notion of 'expedition' – arctic, island, urban and conceptual – to interrogate the scientific, social and economic realities that have led to climate disruption. Each expedition sets out with a stated objective, a place at which we hope to arrive, knowing full well that the process of expedition will lead to questions not yet articulated. Over the past 13 years we have evolved a methodology to interrogate the future, in the same way that 'modelling' has given the scientific community the capability to map the future truth of climate change. Our expeditions inspire the creation of artworks, disseminated across a range of platforms – exhibitions, festivals, publications, concerts, digital media and film.
Each artist, writer, film-maker, or musician has evolved complex processes of creative production; each carries back with them the experience of expedition; and each engages with the underlying science of the destabilisation and, potentially, the destruction of our habitat. The process of making the artwork, book or film can take as little as a week or sometimes many years, and their skill hone work that moves, transforms, enlightens and hopefully inspires. Our approach gives artists the creative freedom to engage with the global challenge of climate change, articulating a human response, a narrative on the human scale, creating an emotional and powerful story.
We have voyaged eight times into the high Arctic, once to the Andes/Amazon, and recently to the western islands of Scotland. We have evolved from bearing witness to working proactively and in collaboration with island societies already de-carbonising their lives. Nothing is simple, huge sustainable energy complexes disrupt micro island communities who are already having to adapt to current environmental change and potential irreversible damage to their habitat. We need storytellers to tease out meaning and hope.
You don't have to travel to the Arctic to experience environmental challenges anymore as they are becoming visible much closer to home. We are working in central London with botanists and local communities on our phytology project to explore the ecology and medicinal properties of wild plants and weeds common to derelict and undeveloped urban sites.
We are working with the artist Chris Drury, who is inspired by a valley in Dorset where three farmers have gone organic, each responding to both environmental and economic drivers. The archive of the scientist James Lovelock has just been acquired by the Science Museum, and inpartnership with his estate we are creating a Lovelock Art Commission. We are also in the second year of an extensive poetry project working with schools, and commissioning an annual resident poet (this year Sabrina Mahfouz).
Part of our methodology is to work where you can have the biggest impact. In relation to climate change that means working in China, Russia, and North America (where we have a sister organisation in Toronto).
In October, we will host an ambitious four-month climate/culture festival in Toronto, 'Carbon14 – Climate is Culture' at the Royal Ontario Museum, October 2013 – February 2014. The works created for the festival were inspired by our expedition on the shores of Lake Ontario where cultural informers drawn from the worlds of climate science, economics, new technology, politics, eco-theology, and social science participated in a workshop with 25 creative practitioners from Mexico, the US and Canada.
In May 2013 we staged the first climate/culture exhibition in Beijing in partnership with the University of the Arts London. And on our new horizon 2014/15 there will be an expedition and exhibition in Russia in partnership with the Shirshov Institute and Laboratoria.
As extreme weather events affect societies worldwide (as predicted), as greater stress is placed on our economies from floods and drought, we humans seem to engage with ever-greater fantasies of denial. Where is the lever that will throw us into forward motion? Given the right level of investment, we have the technology to create a cleaner, more sustainable future; to achieve this we need to change our attitude and take up the climate challenge as an opportunity and adventure. A cultural shift.
David Buckland is artist and director and Yasmine Ostendorf is researcher and programme manager of Cape Farewell. Follow@capefarewell on Twitter.
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