In an age of humans, can the arts save the planet?

William Turner, Rain Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway (1856)

The rapid decline of the global environment is an inescapable fact. The Earth’s major oxygen sources, coral reefs and rain forests, are disappearing along with the species that live in them. Atmospheric carbon is rising precipitously and one in a hundred year storms are becoming the norm. As the planet warms and forests are removed for bio-fuels and tropical oils,, semi-arid regions are becoming deserts. A floating island of plastic trash the size of Europe (and growing) is floating on the Pacific, the breakdown products of which are contaminating the fish on which many societies depend. Species are being sent extinct through wildlife trafficking to fuel the burgeoning demand for exotic pets and traditional medicines. And the list goes on.

indonesia rainforest action network
Mass destruction of rainforests in Indonesia mirrors activities across the globe. Photo: Rainforest Action Network (2011)

While the sum total of these activities isn’t known, the decline is progressing. We’ve now arguably passed the point at which we can change our behavior and make things right again. So, despite some recent wins like the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, it may be too late to bring the world back to a state that will sustain our great-grandchildren as it does us. And they’ll be hopping mad (although most of us probably won’t be around to hear them complain).


The summation of human impact on the Earth has been neatly packaged in the concept of the Anthropocene, or “The Age of Humans”. It is a proposed new epoch in which human activity is so pervasive and profound that our effects will be detectable in the geological strata millions of years ago (assuming, of course, anybody is there to look). A year ago, I presented a talk in Japan at a conference on the topic hosted by the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. I’ve just come back from their follow-up symposium on this, at which I gave a public lecture introducing the topic as it applies to natural history museums.

While preparing the material I began thinking of a talk I gave a couple of years ago about the power of the arts (broadly speaking) having a role to play in changing people’s attitudes and behavior around stewarding the global environment. It’s a big job. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, writer John Ruskin and painter William Turner tried and failed to make lasting inroads into changing public attitudes around declining landscape values in northern England, although writer Rachel Carson brought about the end of use of DDT in the United States with her book Silent Spring and the influence on public awareness of filmmakers like Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough is undeniable.

Sailors clean a beach in Diego Garcia.
DIEGO GARCIA (Sept. 14, 2012) One-hundred and thirty service members and residents of Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, clean up trash at Barton Point, 2012. (Photo: Eric Pastor, U.S. Navy 120914-N-XY761-109)

Campaigns such as Earth Week, Earth Day and even Earth Hour sit beside a host of other initiatives the missions of which are to encourage people to clean up the coasts, save the dolphins or the koalas, recycle or plant trees. Whatever the content, the common thread is to use their time or their personal choices to buck a growing trend of global environmental degradation. Societies like Greenpeace and WWF are asking for the same thing, but hope you will give them money so that they can take action on your behalf to save the planet. The messaging they all use connects you personally with the state of the world.

Sea Globe by Max Liboiron (2014). This series of sea globes are genuine New York City souvenirs. The plastics came from the Hudson River in south Brooklyn, and the rocks are made of bituminous coal from in a landfill that closed in the 1930s at Deadhorse Bay, which now resides underwater at high tide, also in south Brooklyn.

There are also many very fine artists who care deeply about environmental causes. Artists like scholar and activist Max Liboiron. She is an Assistant Professor in Sociology and Environmental Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland and her academic work focuses on “how invisible, harmful, emerging phenomena such as “slow” disasters and toxicants from plastics become apparent in science and activism, and how these methods of representation relate to action”. Arguably, the works artists create combine a reflection of their own connection with nature, at the same time engaging with the viewer to send a message encouraging them to see things the same way.

Without this outpouring of creativity society would undoubtedly be the poorer. But is it effective? Certainly for the multinational nonprofits it works for them, as they keep growing. Artists keep doing what they believe and, if they’re successful, they sell their work sufficiently to keep doing it. However, it’s difficult to see the trends in environmental health and think that art, or in fact, any messaging focused on personal choices is going to make much difference.

Individual choices, as important as they may be for democratic freedom, are insignificant in the face of industrial pollution. In fact, individual love of luxury and its promotion are two of the most important reasons we are in the state we are. Switching to eco-friendly light bulbs in your living room (even everybody’s living room) isn’t going to arrest the carbon footprint of a planet. And, sadly, we’re careering past the point of “every little bit helps”. While it’s true that our collective conscience stopped the use of hydrocarbons in aerosol, the multiplicity of environmental issues, and their interaction, means a holistic treatment of this “wicked problem” is necessary. There are now simply too many issues to be solved with recycling plastic bottles into more plastic bottles.

So where does this leave us? Try as I might I can’t see how things aren’t going to change for the personal lives of our descendants. We can no longer think in terms of a fix, quick or otherwise. I am not the first to suggest that the lives of human beings in the not-so-distant future will be about adapting to an environment that is utterly changed from what we know today. I can’t say if that adaptation will be about survival on a war-torn planet stripped of clean water and arable land, or if they will be learning to live with some rapidly developing new technology that allows our continuance in relative affluence. Either way, the lessons that we have to impart today may be next to useless in tomorrow’s world.

And it is here that I think the arts will make a huge difference. Even today, we are moved by da Vinci or Bach in a world that they themselves would not understand. Art connects us to our history and the collective experience of being human. In a future that is today unrecognizable the artistic outpouring of the past, as well as the art that is yet to be created, will tie us together and make the world a little less unknown.

And that has to be a good thing.

One thought on “In an age of humans, can the arts save the planet?

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  1. A thoughtful piece, Eric. Art can be a significant driver of change, but only if the public is receptive. Unlike the ’60s (when art and media were still shared experiences and played a big part in stopping the Vietnam war, exposing Watergate, and expanding consciousness across the planet), the public’s receptors are overloaded with a firehose of infotainment with little or no context. Art — and therefore awareness and perspective — is best appreciated by the educated, and that might be our biggest deficit. The work you and your museum colleagues do to curate what’s important, add context, commentary and color, and educate the public is truly valuable, and among our best hopes for change the matters.

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