On 8th October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published their special report ‘Global Warming of 1.5 °C’, which gave dire warnings for the future of the planet.
It was made clear that if humanity doesn’t drastically alter it’s practices, Earth would face climate collapse and the extinction of many species – possibly our own.
Thus, as an artist at the beginning of my career, I felt it was imperative for me to be environmentally conscious and minimise my carbon footprint. I can only do that if I first examine how I am entangled in this crisis.
This blog is thus a record of that journey of discovery and how I tried to live in harmony, rather than in competition with, the planet I live on.
When we first went into lockdown, it prompted me to paint the outside wall that I’d been meaning to paint since I moved here in 2013. I took a photo of the wall this weekend and I was struck by how my cat, Mia, was completely oblivious to it (see below).
It occurred to me that animals probably don’t care about art. However, a quick look on the Internet revealed that animals do actually have some art appreciation. All the same, at least where my cat is concerned, she cares far more about food than art.
So taking a leaf out of Marina Zurkow’s book again, I imagined what my cat would have to say about the impact art is having on the climate. For instance, how the consumerism of buying art materials contributes to pollution, which has an impact on her food supplies. Or, on a more personal note, how I can sometimes get so involved in my art that I forget to feed her at her regular meal time.
From this, I concluded that my cat would have a low opinion of art and that, in fact, art would make her ‘hangry’. So no wonder she isn’t impressed with my wall!
I’ve just read a very interesting article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan called Weeds Are Us. In a way, it develops the point I was making last week about having empathy for non-human species – namely, weeds. However, he cautions against it because it once allowed weeds to overrun his garden.
It is something I know myself. When bindweed first appeared in my garden 2 years ago, I didn’t know what it was. I was attracted to the pretty white trumpet flowers and didn’t notice that it’d completely swamped the plant. When I did, I was horrified, pulled it all out and put it in the garden bin. If you know anything about bindweed, you’ll know this only made the problem worse.
The following year, more appeared and, again, I pulled it all out and put it in the garden bin. Only to discover, later in the year, it’d completely swamped the tree at the back of my garden. (I’m not very observant about what happens in my garden). Which I then had to pay a professional gardener to clear for me.
This year, I’m trying to stay on top of it but it is all round my garden and I’m staggered by how much it grows in as little as three days!
Like Pollan, I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t be blasé about weeds. That I have to be discerning about what I let grow and what I don’t. Pollan claims this discernment is culture and that “To weed is to apply culture to nature”.
In fact, he goes further and states that culture is humanity’s best chance at saving the planet. This is true. Whether it is weeds or us or anything else, we simply cannot let destruction reign. We have to nourish creativity in place of destruction, which requires discerning what is good and what is bad. So the future of the planet rests on us having good taste.
I was clearing out the bindweed from my garden this weekend when it occured to me that, in a way, it is like a virus. By that I mean that it is a form of nature which, in seeking to thrive, swamps it’s host, sometimes resulting in death.
There is a fairly obvious flaw in this design: in killing off your host, you threaten your own survival. So you must constantly look for new hosts to replace the old one. Unfortunately, as humanity is discovering, the planet has only finite resources. So, eventually, you will run out and have nothing to live off.
The conclusion then is that it’s better to live in harmony with your host and not threaten it’s survival. But, if you’re used to living in only one particular way, rethinking how to do things is no small task.
So I’m glad I was directed to the work of Marina Zurkow. One of the projects she’s been involved in is ‘Dear Climate’. The project invites participants to think about the crisis from a non-human perspective.
So, to return to my example of the bindweed, how does it feel about killing it’s hosts? Is it sorry or does it not care? Does it perhaps think it’s a nuisance to have to find new hosts to live off?
I found when I tried this exercise, it created empathy. This is the key: how can humanity hope to live in harmony with the planet without having empathy for it?
In the end, I decided the bindweed was sorry. It only wants to live and doesn’t mean to kill it’s host. In this way, I believe it is just like us humans.
In this time of crisis, when normal life has been so uprooted, it’s important to be able to adapt to the changing situation. The same is true for us artists as anyone.
For example, when the Williamson Art Gallery’s Open Exhibition found itself in jeopardy because of the lockdown, they photographed all the artwork and made it a virtual exhibition online.
The Convenience Gallery in Birkenhead is also currently holding weekly virtual exhibitions, and the Brooklyn Art Library are offering daily prompts for creativity.
Then there’s Firstsite – who I’d never heard of before – who have put together a downloadable artist’s activity pack featuring ideas from Antony Gormley, Gillian Wearing, Jeremy Deller, and Bob and Roberta Smith, amongst others.
So, if you’re wondering what’s the purpose of an artist during a crisis, the answer is clearly to be creative and, in turn, inspire more creativity. In a way, we are our own virus spreading creativity!
Which is just as well because without creatives wondering ‘what if?’, how does humanity imagine a better future? One that is not reliant on unsustainable exploitation. One that doesn’t expose itself to a traumatic uprooting of what it was.
Without it’s creatives, how does humanity even design and build what it needs?
Without creativity, I can’t imagine humanity has much of a future at all.
Here in the UK, we are enduring the second week of self-isolation (aka lockdown). I struggle with anxiety and depression even in normal life and this pandemic has just made it so much worse. I really miss my freedom of movement and being able to rely on having sufficient food to live.
I’m sure when things do regain some semblance of normality, we’ll be encouraged to give the economy a boost by spending like there’s no tomorrow – such is the Capitalist way. However, I hope beyond hope, that we don’t return to our consumerist society. I hope beyond hope that we see this experience as a taster of what lies ahead of us if we don’t take the climate crisis seriously.
I’m as guilty of that as anyone. These last few weeks have revealed to me that I’ve been fiddling at the edges. I was treating the climate crisis as something theoretical rather than the reality it is. The climate is in crisis right now. So I need to be making those hard choices right now not sometime or other in the future maybe.
But one person doing that is totally insignificant. So I need to be joining others (Fridays For Future, Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, etc) in putting pressure on our governments to take whatever measures are necessary – whatever hardships are necessary.
We simply have to make our governments fulfill their obligation to look after us. If we don’t, then what future do we have? What future do they have? For the sake of everybody, the status quo cannot persist.