Can art make a difference in the face of dire climate news?

Artists discuss how creative work plays a critical role in breaking through environmental overload.

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Since the time of cave paintings, artists have been translating the state of their environment. There are a ton of bison out there today, one such painting might convey. Archaeologists say this art form is evidence of an evolutionary shift: the onset of symbolic thinking, a marker for the modern mind.

How might those ancient artists have translated the U.N.’s 1,500-page report on the environment that landed last week? “One Million Species Face Extinction. And Humans Will Suffer as a Result,” read the headline in the Washington Post. The accompanying photo showed a beached whale in the San Francisco Bay. “Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Rate,” wrote the New York Times, next to a photo of a sea turtle, its neck disfigured by a piece of fishing rope wrapped tight as a noose.

The news was dire, and overwhelming. It seemed like it should’ve been the primary topic of conversation everywhere, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to read the entirety of the articles. It was too bleak, too frightening, too much. I thought maybe I could approach it in small bites, so I took breaks, which stretched into days.

But pushing the environmental reality off until some future date is what characters always do in the flashbacks of dystopian sci-fi movies (before they grow accustomed to living in underground tunnels). Denial is how we arrived at this urgent climate situation in the first place.

I felt like I needed a translator — a way to approach the information in a more symbolic way. So I looked back to the panel I moderated at the recent Crosscut Festival, which featured local artists working to break through the paralyzing sense of environmental overwhelm. Like many artists whose work is ecologically informed, these creatives are aiming to reach people with a message about climate change that inspires engagement, rather than mental shutdown.

“One of my goals is for people to not feel extremely agitated when they’re thinking about climate change,” said panelist Judy Twedt, a climate data sound artist based at the University of Washington. She recalled the mistake she made when teaching her first class on global warming to a group of undergraduates. “We flooded them with data, in slide after slide,” she said. “We have so much evidence.” But she soon realized the students were overwhelmed. “There wasn’t any space for processing it,” she said.

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