We can begin to combat our fear and inspire hope by changing the way we talk about climate change. Our current conversation around global warming is dominated by alarming scientific data or individual guilt tripping — neither of which have proven very effective in mobilizing society. If we are to engage a wider audience, we need to lean towards a narrative of opportunity and empowerment. We need to begin incorporating more viewpoints when discussing environmental issues, using languages and values that resonate with different kinds of people. And we need to tap into our activating emotions, making one another feel urgency and inspiration by using stories, descriptive details, and aesthetics to get our points across.
For we are human, after all, not machines. We are motivated by encouragement and positive feedback – not fear and shame. We evolved through storytelling, through rich, sensate narratives lighting up our brains and imprinting information into our memories – not quantitative data[i]. Our emotions make our decisions for us[ii]. Studies (and 40 years of unsuccessful climate
mobilization) show all of this. Knowledge and data only do us any
good if our hearts know what to do with it. As Luke Foglia, an environmental
photographer I spoke with, said, “the solutions should
be the story, not the problems.” To engage each other in
climate action, we need solutions, and we need a story.
To get the right story across, we must begin recognizing and
correcting all the ways we perpetuate our narratives of individualism,
perpetual growth, hierarchies and pessimism in our daily lives. In our
conversations, our desires, our advertisements, our political ideologies,
our inventions. Catching ourselves succumbing to these misconceptions
of reality is how we will begin undoing them. And perhaps I’m biased, but I for one
believe an essential tool in seeding a new narrative lies in the highest
expression of our imaginations – art.
Since the development of modern humanity, art has encapsulated our social imaginations. We see this in cave drawings, reflecting our intimacy with the natural environment; in the architectural and religious images of Medieval art; in the enlightened, humanistic paintings of science and nature during the Renaissance. And now, amidst our fragmented sense of the world and disconnect with reality, our visual art is often abstract and individualized. Popular music is apolitical and obsessed with personal romance. Novels take place in “self-contained ecosystems”, settings defined by orderly, finite locations and time periods[iii].
A New Narrative
Art and Imagination
It's time for artists to recognize their influence on society’s social consciousness, and to create art that reflects the
dynamic, interconnected nature of our world. We must explore what it means to express ourselves in relation to our connections with
other living systems, and to view our individual experiences in the context of a period of reckoning and growth for humanity. We must be true
to the “insistent, inescapable continuities” of space and time and “inconceivably vast animated forces” that define
Earth and the biosphere[iv]. Our art must seed the future we want to live in.
And to keep our art true, we must deeply consider this new understanding with one another, talking it through, questioning it, challenging it, fleshing
out our uncertainties and finding our most genuine embodiment of this new sense of self. As Ben Goldberg, an old jazz professor of mine, once said, artists
are at the front lines of the human imagination, and as this is a “crisis of the imagination” (as pinned by Ghosh) [v], we are “at the heart of
humanity’s struggle”. We must “engage in our imaginations with full force”[vi].
And alas, it is up to all of us to recognize that being human is an art in itself. We are all creative, emotional, collaborative creatures, constantly expressing ourselves throughout our daily interactions. We are all artists, and thus we all need to begin seeding an interconnected narrative in our daily routines if we wish to cultivate a living that brings balance back to Earth. And we need to do it together, embracing the interconnectedness we seek to understand. We each have a critical role in bringing about societal change, and it starts with taking on this new reality in our day to day lives.
[i] See “The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Better” by W. Storr, 2019. HarperCollins Publishers.
[ii] See “Emotion and Decision Making” by J. Lerner, P. Valdesolo and K. Kassam, 2015, Annual Review of Psychology 66, p. 799 – 823. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115043.
[iii] From “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” by Amitav Ghosh, 2016, p. 61. The University of Chicago Press.
[iv] From “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” by Amitav Ghosh, 2016, p. 64. The University of Chicago Press.
[v] From “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” by Amitav Ghosh, 2016, p. 9. The University of Chicago Press.
[vi] From “Ongoing” email chain with UC Berkeley music professor Ben Goldberg, 2020 March 24. Gmail.