For a science guy, an unlikely ally in climate awareness: the arts

Published Tuesday, October 25, 2016 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

When I was in school, my favourite subjects were math and the sciences – fields well suited to a personality that thrived on facts, data and certainty.  I especially loved physics, the study of matter and energy.

My least favourite subjects were humanities and the arts.  They introduced vagueness, interpretation and other uncomfortable notions that challenged my neat black-and-white views of the world.

But with the wisdom of a few years, I’ve come to appreciate that not everyone sees the world through the frank lens of science.  That’s partly why, despite an enormity of compelling facts and evidence, the significance of climate change and other environmental challenges doesn’t resonate with everyone. 

It’s also why the arts can be a powerful means of representing the environmental challenges we face and conveying the urgency of action.  Here are a few outstanding examples you may want to check out.

Photography: Edward Burtynsky

Perhaps nothing is more impactful or jarring to the senses than a well-taken photograph, and Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky is a master.  Burtynsky has been documenting human impacts on our planet through the lens of his camera for 30 years.  The result?  Thousands of powerful, high-resolution, large-format images that are as hauntingly beautiful as they are disturbing: stark open pit mines, fouled industrial sites, eerily-luminescent tailings ponds and more, taken from small helicopters, drones and an oversized selfie stick.  

Burtynsky’s disquieting photos are on display in galleries, airports and other public spaces around the world.  Themed slideshows can be viewed at www.edwardburtynsky.com.

Music: Daniel Crawford

In 2013, cellist Daniel Crawford and his professor at the University of Minnesota wondered if rising global temperatures might be better understood if presented as sound instead of numbers.  So they took temperature data from the past 132 years and set it to music; one note for each year.  As a baseline, they used the very coldest year in that timeline, 1909, as the very lowest note playable on a cello.

The result is a two-minute composition, “Song of a Warming Planet”.  It begins with a long sequence of deep, resonant notes.  But just before the midway point (corresponding with about 1930), the notes begin to rise in pitch – subtly at first but then (corresponding with the past 15 years) much more sharply.  It ends on a piercing high note three octaves above where it started.

“Song of a Warming Planet” can be viewed and heard at www.tinyurl.com/TempCello.  It is made more impactful by the postscript that, if current temperature trends continue, by 2100 the music will not only exceed the upper limits of a cello; it will be beyond the range of human hearing.

An updated version, “Planetary Bands, Warming World,” features a string quartet concurrently playing the temperature records of Earth’s four distinct climate zones, from the tropics to the poles; it can be heard at www.tinyurl.com/TempQuartet

Sculpture: Isaac Cordal

Spanish street artist Isaac Cordal specializes in creating miniature clay sculptures and placing them in urban environments to draw attention to social or political issues.  In 2014, he created figures representing arguing politicians, placed them neck-deep in a pool of water on a Berlin street and called the scene “Electoral Campaign”. 

But as sometimes happens with art, viewers saw things differently.  The sculpture quickly became better known as “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” and went viral on the internet.  (Is it obsolete with the signing of the Paris Accord?  Hopefully, if good words are accompanied by strong action.)

You can see “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” and learn more about it at www.tinyurl.com/WetLeaders.  Also shown are works from the artist’s “Waiting for Climate Change” series. 

When data won’t do

When it comes to climate change, the math and science are clear – but not to everyone.  The arts can be powerful allies in helping us all understand the severity of the challenge and the urgency for action.  The above examples are just a start; more to come.