What Can We Do? A Roundtable on Climate Change and Creativity

Haley Mellin gathers specialists across industries and mediums to discuss a simple question: what are we going to do about the environment?

by Haley Mellin
Apr 5 2020, 6:28am

Climate change is real, whether or not people accept it. The moment to acknowledge that it’s happening is long gone, and instead, we are beckoned to take concrete action. GARAGE gathered some of the most influential thinkers in the fields of art, design, literature, and the sciences and asked them the most pressing questions at the beginning of a new decade, including: Just what are we going to do?


Yves Béhar is a Swiss designer, entrepreneur, and educator. He is the founder and principal designer of Fuseproject, an award-winning industrial design and brand-development firm. He resides in San Francisco.

Klaus Biesenbach, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and formerly of MoMA and MoMA PS1, has throughout his career integrated environmental concerns into his curatorial practice. He resides in Los Angeles.

Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author. He is the author of Drawdown, a New York Times best-seller on climate solutions based on science, and is currently working on a new book called Regeneration. He is based in Marin County, California.

Dr. Thomas Lovejoy is a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. He coined the term “biodiversity.” He is a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and received the Blue Planet Prize. He is based in Washington, DC.

Dr. Haley Mellin is an artist and land conservationist. She supports the conservation of large-scale terrestrial landscapes for climate, biodiversity, and reproduction purposes. She resides in Marin County, California.

Calla Rose Ostrander is a strategic advisor dedicated to the well-being of people and the planet. She specializes in climate-change and agricultural policy, science communications, and movement building. She is based in Boulder, Colorado.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the new book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast and, previously, Eating Animals. He teaches creative writing at New York University and is based in Brooklyn.


Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan - The Harvest, 1982. Copyright Agnes Denes, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Haley Mellin: This is a roundtable conversation on climate, conservation, and creativity. It gives us a moment, at the beginning of 2020, to discuss: “What can we do?” What is the engagement between art, climate, and conservation? What are the creative ways that we are thinking about, experiencing, and being active in this dialogue?

Jonathan Safran Foer: I wrote my book We Are the Weather not as a scientist or an expert of any kind, other than an expert of my own experiences, as each of us is. I was feeling an increasing frustration or sense of shame about the chasm between my knowledge about climate and what it was I was doing in my life.

As I have spoken to audiences, I have tried to figure out how much more information about climate change is necessary. Is it a question of presenting more information, presenting information that people already know in a different, hopefully new way? Or is it a question of storytelling or the tone of the conversation? Five to 10 years ago, ignorance was a much bigger problem, and now it seems to be a psychological question, having to do with, as I say in the book, actually believing the things that we intellectually know.

I consider the role of the individual in this problem. What are the things that we can do? Or, do more than make us feel that we are off the hook? What are the things that can have an appreciable effect on the world and may, in the process, shape the culture, shape the marketplace, and, ideally even, shape new legislation? I actually relied to a large extent on Paul Hawken’s Drawdown when I was thinking about this and doing my research.

Paul Hawken: I'm similar to Jonathan in the sense that I'm not a science creator, I'm a science consumer. I'm a journalist and I'm attentive to the language we use and whether it is effective, ineffective, or even counterproductive. We've known how global warming works for over a century. Given the gravity of the situation, I’m curious as to why 99% of the world is disengaged.

The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has done an extraordinary job on the science on climate; it is probably one of the greatest science endeavors in human history. The science is solid, but the communication can be improved. We have tried to motivate people by warnings, cautions, and apocalyptic projections, and we know from neuroscience that this makes people numb. I strongly feel that if you are going to talk about the probability of what is going to go wrong, you must talk about it in the context of possibility—otherwise people will turn away. It is a human problem that is looking for a human solution, and therefore it does involve the art of communication, gathering, and coalescing community. It is important that we collaborate, and we be a “we.” We have a need to make the prospect of the solutions beautiful.

Klaus Biesenbach: I'm much in agreement. I became a curator because of my schoolteacher while I was growing up in Germany. When I was studying in fifth grade or sixth grade, I had a teacher who would further his learning in Joseph Beuys's master class. Joseph Beuys, a toweringly influential figure, was a groundbreaking artist and a cofounder of the Green Party in Germany. He declared that everything we do is a creative act and a political act. He would say which apple you buy is a political decision. If you bring a plastic bag or if you bring a cloth bag to the store, it is a political decision. He completely exhausted himself with an art project where he planted 7,000 oaks. Art has always played an educational role and a revelatory role in this conversation. Understanding from Beuys means that you are responsible for creating your own environment and future, and you always have to reflect on this responsibly.

Josh Kline, "Climate Change: Part One, Domestic Fragility Meltdown," 2019, powder coated steel frame, epoxy resin (countertop), stainless steel, heating panels, soy wax, pigment, plastic bucket, liner. ©J osh Kline. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Calla Rose Ostrander: I find that acts of politics, of how we live with others, are ongoing and evolving just like we are. They are not static choices, as they are so often framed, but when made with awareness, they are creative and full of possibility. Living systems are creative as they evolve. Art is a formal way for us to consider what working with creativity means, and what thinking creatively means, whether that is painting or choreographing a dance or designing a political solution. We need to learn to work with and support that creativity of life in order to participate reciprocally with nature and rebalance the climate. I think that the sooner we acknowledge where we can make changes mechanistically, like to our power grid, the more we can embrace the creativity of living systems and the dance that we have with them.

Thomas Lovejoy: I don't think we'll actually get an attainable future for ourselves or the rest of life on Earth without the kind of inspiration that comes from art. Art has an ability to cut across the chattering cacophony of social media. I would include in that definition of “art” not only human-generated art but the extraordinary beauty that actually exists in nature. You may be interested that, for decades, evolutionary biologists have ignored one part of the origin of the species where Darwin actually talks about natural selection for “beauty.” This consideration has been revived recently by Professor Richard Prum at Yale. He is completely correct that there is an aesthetic choice and aesthetic values embedded in other forms of life and the way aesthetics have informed evolution and what has survived over time. So, that is my little two bits for the moment.

HM: Those are two big bits, Tom. As an artist, I believe that both art and conservation are our legacy for future generations. Future generations will see what mattered to us by what we created, and what we chose not to create. Similarly, our lives are defined by the things we do as much as the things we decide not to do. In my conservation work, after the research, contracts, accounting, and funding, an area remains as it was prior to the effort. The act creates an invisible line around a place, with the general sense of—let this remain as it is. Conservation is a rather zen practice: In the end, you have done nothing. After the work and the effort, the location is no different than it had been for millions of years. You can’t see any change at all. I choose large landscapes to conserve based on what they will communicate forward to future generations about time, evolution, and beauty. This is similar to art.

KB: Earlier this year, I was having this discussion with the artist Olafur Eliasson when I visited his studio in Berlin. In 1999, he photographed 35 glaciers in Iceland, a country where a part of his family is from. This year, 20 years later, he rephotographed the exact coordinates and exact times of those 35 glaciers, and [the] art becomes a quasi-scientific documentation. Because of course, who else photographed these 35 glaciers with the exact coordinates? Art can create revelatory images: It can be both creative and activist. There is transformative power here, from this sort of responsible engagement.

Yves Béhar: To add to what Klaus is saying, I am in full agreement with the idea of the soft power of art and design. People drive culture with their concerns, and hopefully art and design have a role to play ahead of that. I believe, as Jonathan has said in his book We Are the Weather, that people will make personal consumption choices and life changes over time. This is what informs companies and governments to move in a new direction. I also believe that we cannot design progress without government regulation and enforcement.

As a designer, my job is to create the desirability and feasibility for new ways of consuming. My belief is that design accelerates the adoption of new ideas and that design is a forward-thinking medium that is informed by the problems we're facing as a planet. It is designers’ responsibility to address this plight and to bring solutions to the table. To me, there is no doubt that people want to do things differently, but the choice is not always available. Whether it is because of cost, because of beauty, because of the amount of work that it takes to do things differently, designers have a very big role in bringing to life what people wish to adopt as a new way of living and consuming.

Josh Kline, "Climate Change: Part One, Submersion," 2019. Lab hood, glass, urethane paint, light box, reinforced steel, color filter gel, blackout fabric. © Josh Kline. Photo courtesy of the artist.

CRO: One of the wonderful things about art is that it can create a space of beauty and reciprocity where people can begin a dialogue, where we can talk with each other. I know that seems obvious, but it is so often overlooked in our public conversations about climate change. Fundamentally, the life systems on the planet are circular and reciprocal and relational. And so the more that we can think about ourselves in the relational context, the better.

We know the technical solutions for this crisis, we know they're doable, we know it is possible to draw down enough carbon from the atmosphere to stabilize the climate. That's not the question. The question is how do we do it? And that is fundamentally a relationship question. Inasmuch as art is a bridge to building relationships or opening dialogue or creating space to share perspectives, I think it has a huge role to play in creating a culture where we can learn to trust and communicate with each other.

At this point, unless I'm at a climate-change conference, I am rarely talking about climate; I'm talking about the local weather or the big biogeochemical cycles of the planet and about our relationships to these things and to each other. If artists can help us begin to repair our relationships…I know that sounds really soft and squishy, but life is soft and squishy. What does reciprocity look like? What does mutualism look like? What does respect look like? What does a conversation where I tell you a fact and expect you to believe it, what does that conversation look like? What is a dialogue? Where we can see beauty and participate in creating it?

JSF: The same message conveyed in two different ways becomes a completely different story or message. There's nothing particularly new about what Greta Thunberg is saying; she says it in a way that's new. Her presentation, for whatever reasons, reaches people in a way that the same message presented differently didn't. There isn't going to be a silver-bullet story or messenger. There's a reason why the local bookstore has a thousand different novels in it rather than one; it is because different people are reached differently.

If we start with the basis of information that we need to do certain activities less as individuals or as [a] culture, we frame the conversation in such a way that there's two alternatives. If we acknowledge that, for example, animal agriculture is environmentally destructive, and you're a vegetarian because you care about it, or you're not, which implies either that you don't care about it or you don't want to enter into this conversation because of a fear of incompleteness or a fear of hypocrisy. The fear of hypocrisy is so powerful that it persuades an awful lot of people who know and care and want to act—it persuades them that they can't act or shouldn't act.

I have been shocked as I have moved around the country and spoken to teenagers, and to great-grandparents, and to progressives, and to those on the real far right, how being careful about the words that are used and the tone that is used can reveal a hidden agreement and can motivate people who have been reticent about acting. One of the aspects of storytelling is word choice and giving thought to if we're using the best words. Is “vegetarian” a word that's going to encourage people who know and care to eat differently, or is it going to discourage people? What does the word “environmentalist” mean? Are we using it too casually? What if there were a word for somebody who drives less, or was attentive to how much he or she flies? These are the kinds of things that we are now figuring out. I don't know that I would call that kind of decision-making “art,” but I would call it refining the conversation.

Olafur Eliasson, "The glacier melt series 1999/2019," 1999, detail (Krossárjökull). Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2019 Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson, The glacier melt series 1999/2019," 2019, detail (Krossárjökull). Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles © 2019 Olafur Eliasson

KB: Jonathan, when you were talking about coining words, for me, the importance of coining images is similar. Coining of images or acts around climate started early on. I am thinking [again] about Joseph Beuys as an artist—cofounding the Green Party and his civil disobedience, at the time, was unheard of. Artists like Agnes Denes, who made a wheat field within the perimeter of the World Trade Center in the 1970s, and Meg Webster, who transformed part of the museum into a habitat, a pond with plants and animals, for example.

While I was [a] curator at the Museum of Modern Art, there was significant work done with artists and festivals that was directed towards raising awareness for environmental issues. In 2013 we did a large-scale festival, EXPO 1, which was like a World's Fair that thought about climate change and climate emergency. At EXPO 1, Josh Kline curated a show called ProBio, [which] engaged with the context of the human body and technology, with the conclusion that we may survive if we act now. He explored the theme of “dark optimism,” an expression that Kline coined during the preparation of this exhibition. He emphasized that if we don't start moving in addressing climate change, then there is no optimism, there's not even a dark version of optimism left.

YB : I believe in the power of design and creativity to allow people a way to participate, a way to do their part even though their part might not be defined in a conventional way. This does not need to follow the binary definitions that turn people off, such as I’m either 100% a vegetarian or I’m not doing my part. On the contrary, it is about my ability to do something and to evolve my own life and consumption in a way that allows me to contribute. People take action when there is hope and tend to go away from getting involved if the picture is painted in a negative way. As designers, as artists, our job is to help people take the first step, to help people take action within their means and within their ability. This is the central role we can play, and I believe that’s what is required from all of us.

KB: How do we consume, how do we travel, how do we eat? We must change our own unsustainable way of life and know that there is room for improvement. However, if you don’t start to improve, we’re not moving… We have to embrace that there is a need to change, and not everybody seems ready, willing, and capable to act immediately, but everybody has to start somewhere. Accountability is something that is personal.

PH: Greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere are 416ppm as a measure of carbon dioxide only. If you add the other greenhouse gases, including methane, nitrous oxide, and refrigerant gases, the level of greenhouse gases is 496ppm in CO2 equivalence. What does this mean? We don’t know. The rate of increase in carbon emissions is at least 10 times faster than anything detected for the past 300 million years. There is no known precedent. This is one reason it is a climate crisis. We live on terra nova, an unknown Earth , and the idea that we can incrementally solve the problem has long passed. This is what Greta Thunberg and [the] youth are responding to, the SR15 report that came out a year ago from the IPCC, which stated that if we don't reduce our CO2 emissions by 50% before 2030, we are looking at the possibility of cascading tipping points that take us to hothouse Earth, a point in time where there is no need for human beings to keep warming the planet—it’ll do it itself.

The conversation and communication around climate is often very limiting. I feel like we have to think about how to create the conditions for self-organization in the world, as opposed to being right and telling people what to do. We do not have much time for people to figure this out.


GARAGE is committed to ongoing coverage of the global climate crisis. Read all of our Anger Management zine here, and more of Vice's Earth Day coverage here.

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