The University of Arizona

Arts Help Bridge Climate Change Data into Meaning

August 3, 2012
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Earlier this summer, I volunteered at the 2012 International Conference on Climate Adaptation  hosted by the University of Arizona. The conference focused on how, now that we recognize that we live on a warming planet, our species might adapt to and live with the effects of this warming.

I wandered through the conference as an outsider—a writer surrounded by scientists, academics, and policy makers. I was interested to soak up information from those on the front lines, those that measure, implement, quantify. I learned about water policy in Israel; municipal programs in Quito, Ecuador; drought in the Colorado River Basin.

I learned. I wrote down lots of information. I scrawled the names of studies to look up later on the internet. At the end of my first day, I went home with a notebook full of notes; the notebook landed on my desk, in a pile of similar notebooks full of similar notes. I wasn’t sure what to do with all this information. What purpose did it serve me? Did it offer a new depth of understanding, a new way to look at the same problem—that is, how our species will come to terms with this change we’ve wrought upon the planet, how we might mitigate its causes and adapt to its effects?

In recent years, popular thought surrounding climate change clusters primarily around two narratives, some version of “shame on you” or “woe is me,” to use the vernacular of New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin. Humans have squandered our planet and humans must pay the price for this negligence; we are all victims of some great “other,” some malevolent corporation or government policy.

It is hard to resist the pull of these narratives, especially given the preponderance of alarming evidence that the places we live are going to change, and in a big way. It is perhaps only natural to feel anger at the forces that changed it, and helpless at the magnitude of the change. But what then? How do we understand this evidence, and continue to live?

I took a break from the conference to walk through a 100-degree Tucson afternoon for a cup of coffee, and returned to attend a panel, organized by Christopher Cokinos, professor in the English department at the University of Arizona. Six writers, photographers, and visual artists convened to ask: Can the arts help us adapt to climate change?

“We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are,” says writer Anne Lamont. “Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so little. But we do.”

As we collectively face the prospect of an uncertain climate in a warming future, how do we make sense of who we are? It is not something to be measured or quantified; this making sense is something to be told, communicated, and the arts—narrative and visual—cohere meaning in a way that measurements simply do not. The stories we construct will be what bring us together, enabling us to act and adapt as the uncertain climate of a warming future comes to fruition.Photo Credit: Megan Kimble

I realized, as I sat in the surprisingly full audience at this panel, that my struggle to apply the information of this conference was indeed a struggle we all share, most especially those of us who don’t live and work in the quantifiable. Scientists tell us what they measure, and we are left to apply it to our own lives—to assemble meaning from fragments. There is information, and then there is understanding. If we don’t understand what’s happening, how can we possibly adapt? Art—stories, movies, photographs, music—translates the information of measurement into the understanding of our everyday lives.

The week before the conference began, I had been reading about the Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of marine litter—mostly plastic—that swirls in an eddy roughly the size of Texas. It seemed to be getting its fifteen minutes of climate change fame this summer, as mainstream media swerved away from the melting ice caps and towards our cohering plastics.

Learning of its existence, of the plastic components that break down into smaller and smaller polymers but never entirely disappear, was troubling, but academic somehow—distant from my life. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a trailer for the documentary film Midway that this faraway swirling mass became relevant. On Midway Atoll, a collection of three islands in the North Pacific nearly 2,000 miles from any mainland, filmmaker Chris Jordan has captured how this plastic mass intersects with life—with the thousands of birds that use the islands as migratory resting points. “Do we have the courage to face the realities of the time?” he asks. “And allow us to feel deeply enough that it transforms us, and our future?”

The difference between art and science is the difference between feeling and learning. It is art that will help us feel deeply enough, in the face of these swirling eddies of information, to gain the courage to act and transform—to mitigate and adapt. 

It is the very telling of stories and creation of art that will bring us together into a collective force that might, finally, have the power to change the course of who we are in the greater world—that will dictate how we fit in among the sheep lice of this planet. By changing our narrative, how we understand ourselves among this catastrophe we’ve wrought on the planet, we might find the courage to adapt to the realities of our time.