Courtesy of Mona Caron/350.org

May 12, 2021

GUEST ROOM | We Need More Art In the Fight Against Climate Change

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I’ve spent a lot of time filled with paralyzing anxiety when thinking about climate change. Most of the time I feel pretty hopeless about the future — we just aren’t acting fast enough, or coherently enough, to prevent this catastrophe. I also spend a lot of time wondering what I, little old me, can do about it – is there actually anything I can do? I’m not majoring in science, or medicine, or law, or government — I’m an artist. I know that art can “move” people, but I want to move people to action. But can art really move the world?  

We know that art is powerful if we just look back on history and all around us; can you think of a single successful political movement where art and visuals were left absent? The term  “artivism,” the collaboration of art and activism, was developed in 1997 when a group of East Los Angeles Chicano and Chicana artists gathered with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, in support of anti-war and anti-globalization efforts. The Zapatista movement is still supported by the arts through murals that mark the landscape of Chiapas, calling for Indigenous rights, sovereignty and freedom.  

 Symbolism is so important when mobilizing behind a cause; the Black Lives Matter fist has become so embedded in cultural iconography that we tend to forget that an artist designed the logo. Activists continue to use art as major parts of their protests today – the Line 3 Enbridge pipeline expansion, which would violate treaty territory of Anishinaabe peoples, is currently being protested across the Great Lakes region.  Indigenous Water Protectors continually use artist renditions of a black snake, representing perpetual colonialism in the form of a poisonous pipeline – cultural iconography and other imagery illustrates the peoples’ inherent and historical rights to the land along with their continued fight against that infrastructure that it violates. 

Artists and artivists continue to do the essential work in pushing these resistance movements forward, and I would argue that we need more of them. 2021 marks 125 years since 1896, when Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first predicted that changes in the Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could severely alter the surface temperature of the planet through global warming. 2021 also marks 42 years since 1979, when we had arguably collected all relevant data needed to understand climate change today – and yet humanity continues to fall short of steering our collective future into a safe zone. As most of us have seen, facts and proof about climate change are not very good at moving individuals towards action.  

Data and science surrounding climate change are often inaccessible, jargon based or so doom-filled that people quickly disengage or feel hopeless, hampering any chances of action from taking place.  Visuals are easier to process and can often get more across than a detailed report, and art has the capacity to engage pathos and tap into the human condition in a way that facts and figures rarely do. In fact, data visualization is a necessary tool in science and has become essential in aiding the general public to better understand the severity of the crisis. When it comes to climate change, we need people to be moved in order to take action – luckily, art is pretty good at accomplishing this in inexplicable and creative ways.

Art is for everyone, and as artists, we have a gift – so let’s use it. There’s no better time than this very moment to offer your time and skills as a creative. 350.org, a leading climate advocacy organization, has some wonderful  resources for artists of all levels looking to get involved with activism; among them is a link to the Center for Artistic Activism, with a mission of helping transform “the practices of art and activism, helping activists, artists, organizations and foundations be more effective and affective in bringing about social change.”  No matter how creative or uncreative you think you may be, I urge you to reach out and volunteer your skills towards any climate change campaign. We need more than just the BFAs in AAP to do this — we all have something valuable to contribute to this cause, because we, as young people, all have a stake in the future we inherit.  

Resources to get started today:

https://art.350.org/resources/

Matéa LeBeau is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She can be reached at mll273@cornell.edu.