In September 2010, the ZERO1 Biennial took place in San Jose, California. A symposium kicked off the Biennial. The title of this symposium was “Global Warning.” The goal of the symposium – put on by Leonardo, an international society for the arts, sciences and technology – was to suggest possible roles in which artists can participate in the discussion of climate change. The keynote speaker on the first day of the symposium was Dr. Kathleen Dean Moore. She presented the thesis from a book that she recently co-edited, called Moral Ground, Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. This book is a compilation of short essays that give a variety of reasons why we, as humans, should save the planet. The essays came from scientists, environmentalists, activists, and even President Barack Obama.
Global climate change and art seem, at first glance, like strange bedfellows. Furthermore, why would a symposium organized around the role of artists in climate change invite a University of Oregon professor, who is not an artist, but rather a professor of environmental philosophy, to be the keynote speaker? The answer presented at the symposium was that artists informed about the environment can, hopefully, play a key role in helping people understand the implications of climate change.
The argument that Moore summarized from the book Moral Ground is that we need to leave the planet for future generations the way we found it. The book lays out fourteen sections giving the various different reasons why we should save the planet for the future. In her keynote speech, Moore addressed why she was delivering this message to a group composed primarily of artists. Scientists are doing a good job of developing the data behind global warming; however, the collective behavior required to address climate change will require appealing to the moral conscience of society at large. Addressing society’s moral conscience must be done in more ways than just through presenting graphs and charts to the public. In the essay written by James Garvey, included in Moral Ground, Garvey writes, “Science can give us the facts, but we need something more if we want to act on the basis of those facts. The something more has at least a little to do with what we think is right, with justice, with responsibility, with what we value, with what matters to us.” The problem with scientific facts is that they are easily thrown into a proliferating data pile, to be processed later.
I often consider the question: why should we care about climate change? When I heard the lecture from Dr. Moore, I felt validated. The book argues that saving biodiversity and avoiding environmental tragedies caused by climate change is a moral issue. Are we okay with allowing the wonders of nature to disappear thanks to the lifestyles of those in the developed worlds? Are we okay with allowing those who have barely contributed to the cause of global climate change to bear the brunt of the consequences? These are the questions that the essays in Moral Ground strive to, perhaps not answer, but at least bring up for contemplation.
At the end of the section titled “Yes, because the world is beautiful,” authors discuss art as a way to encourage people to appreciate the beauty in nature. Let artists celebrate the natural beauty of the world: paint sea otters or octopi on garbage bins and blank walls; replace elevator music with broadcasts of whale songs; paint icebergs over advertisements on city buses (as San Francisco has done this to four of their city buses); or, amplify the crooning music of barn owl nests, rather than Frank Sinatra, in the city square.
Pure science alone is not enough of a call to action. This is because science, for many people, is too abstract. They need something more concrete to understand why they need to care. Art can fill that gap. While not the primary focus of Dr. Moore’s book, this is the primary reason why Leonardo asked her to be the keynote speaker at the “Global Warning” symposium.
For many of us, especially those who live in suburbia away from the wonders of nature, it is easy to forget the important role that nature plays in our lives. A sense of wonder about nature must be brought back to our lives. This is difficult to do in a society that puts so much emphasis on consumerism. In developed countries especially, where a majority of the world’s resources are being directed, steps need to be taken to make people more aware of what is at stake so they will try to limit their ecological footprint. In the essay by Vucetich, included in Professor Moore’s book, he says, “Think about knowledge that makes you go ‘Wow!’ Wow, that’s so beautifully complicated…Wow, look how magnificently nuanced…Wow, how astonishingly connected. Wow: to be held in a state of wonder about nature.” This is the sort of response that is needed in order to get people to start thinking about the consequences of global climate change. Artists have often been thought of as being able to spark this “wow” reaction in viewers.
While science makes amazing strides and changes in specialized fields of knowledge, when it comes to translating scientific data into social change, statistics and research articles are not going to cut it. If we continue on the current path, we might be fine for a while. This notion makes it easy for current generations to kick the problem down the road to future generations. I agree with the premise of Moral Ground, that in order to accomplish serious social change, scientists must connect with people’s consciences. This happens oftentimes through religion and sometimes art. Contemporary art has functioned in large part as a cultural critique, and it can remind us of the beauty that we overlook. While art alone will not solve the problem of getting people to change their behavior, artists can help by starting the conversation. As the essays in Moral Ground explain, the conversation must be followed by action.
Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson, eds., Moral Ground, Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2010): 280, 340, and 352.
By Sara Gevurtz