Using the Arts to bring about widespread environmental action

It is time to use the arts to inspire hope on the climate emergency, rather than terror.

Green garden space house painting
Green garden space house painting

Image credit: 'Cottage Garden, in oils. Built by a river just over a stone bridge. A peaceful summers day' by Catherine Kay Greenup (Unsplash License)

Nick Bowett

The arts have been successfully utilised to draw attention to the importance of addressing environmental issues. Focus should now be put on creating art which shows us a constructive way forward. Art can be used to urge us to live in an ecologically sustainable way, encourage us to value nature and show a good way forward in a simplified way. 

Scientific data on the environmental emergencies we face is very dry, so art is needed to communicate the data. Artworks can also inspire people to make pro-environmental decisions by connecting with their emotions. Those who routinely engage the emotional regions of their brains have been shown to exhibit environmentally friendly behaviour. In contrast, those who persistently use the parts of the brain that engage in cost-benefit analysis instead are more likely to take self-centred action. In short, capturing emotions is key to bringing about change.

So far, art has mainly been used to highlight the ecological problems we face, rather than the solutions. Artistic images tell a story, or fire up the imagination in some other way, in a way an ordinary picture cannot. Polar bears on ice caps, skulls with bleak backgrounds, species looking out of place in monocultures and the flailing hands of drowning figures highlight the fact that many are heading towards a perilous future. Disaster movies also serve this function. This form of art is useful because it draws people’s attention to the fact that there is a huge problem with the environment, but more attention should now be put on creating artwork which shows the creative steps we can take to bring about an ecologically sustainable future. For example, Liam Young created a short film called ‘Planet City’ which is based on EO Wilson’s idea that at least half of the earth should be entirely devoted to nature. Positive visions of a future empower people. Put in another way – hope needs to be developed now that attention has been gained. 

Instead of wallowing in despair, artists should ask themselves what a country where the environment is prioritised would look like. Creatives dare to imagine worlds that most politicians are reluctant to consider because they are scared to look beyond business as usual. Illustrations of eco-cities could show viewers how people could live alongside nature. In such illustrations, bikes could be used instead of cars, more food could be grown locally and buildings could be constructed out of wood so that the carbon collected during the growing process is locked away. The mid-term future economy needs to largely revolve around renewable resources so this should be reflected in positive, futuristic artworks. Carbon capture technology is said to hold a key to tackling climate change, so perhaps it is time to draw and celebrate these devices as well in the hope that they will be produced and used more often in real life. Art enables us to bring to life new social realities as well. For example, recycling, and other waste management, specialists should now surely be given additional respect. Getting to grips with how society has to change to accommodate generations to come is highly complex and requires gifted artists to work in collaboration with those who specialise in the sciences and humanities. 

The innocence and beauty of the natural world can be presented in works of art so that we are encouraged to preserve it. Sculptures, paintings, drawings, and so forth, have the power to capture the imagination and make us see nature in all its glory. Natural history programmes often exhibit great photographic art, accompanied by atmospheric soundtracks, but they often focus on the brutal side of nature, stripping us of empathy rather than inspiring us to empathise. Perhaps, more focus should be put on showing how animals are capable of deep friendships and how they empathise with each other, and often other species. For example, elephants return to mourn the dead year after year. Biodiversity is inherently valuable, but it is also valuable to humans because new medicines are discovered by studying little-known plants and animals from biodiverse ecosystems. In fact, nine out of ten of the world’s medicines come from plants. Hence, the demolition of ecosystems will jeopardise human health. 

Eco-fiction that envisages futures that are ravaged by climate change, such as ‘The Drought’ by JG Ballard is useful because it shows what could happen to planet Earth. However, focus should now be put on eco-fiction that shows us a positive way forward so that we can envisage a better future, hence endeavouring to bring it about. A fundamental problem is that humans are hard-wired to just think about people who are around today rather than those who are yet to be born. Fiction gives artists, hence readers, the chance to explore how humanity can evolve to deal with climate change in a more in-depth way than the other arts. Progress needs to be made on the climate and ecological emergencies within the limitations given by the trappings of human nature and the limitations of modern scientific developments. 

Infographics are great at presenting ecological issues in a straightforward memorable way and they can easily be updated to, for instance, show the latest developments in carbon drawdown techniques. The UN makes good use of them, (for example one is called ‘Why is 1.5°C important?’) but perhaps they should make them even more widely available to drum some key messages of our time into people from political leaders to laymen. Most people don’t have time to read large environmental texts or fiction that inspires them to take environmental action, but they have time to look at infographics which provide simplified information. 

The UK has a successful creative economy, largely because, the UK is committed to free expression and English is a widely spoken language. Hence, the UK can greatly shape the world’s response to the climate and ecological emergencies we face. People are sometimes divided into those who like the arts and those who like the sciences, but the older we get the more we realise the arts and sciences are two sides of the same coin. Of course, visionary ideas need to be filtered down to pragmatic solutions, so well-thought-out policies, take us in a better direction. 

Fairytales of endless economic growth, fired up by the exploitation of the earth’s resources, dominate modern day politics. This paradigm contrasts starkly with a sensible vision of the future which sees sustainable economies positioned within a cherished natural world. Ecological artworks that show there is a problem are important, but we need to switch to focusing on imagining constructive solutions, otherwise we are left feeling disempowered. Infographics can be used to explain the current situation and what can be done about it in a simple format so that those who don’t have time to fully comprehend the magnitude of our current environmental problems can come on board.