While more people are aware of the reality of climate change than ever before, for many it remains a remote concept. But art can engage people emotionally where the fact-and-figure heavy warnings about the present ecological crisis may fail to connect, say young artists working on climate action.
"Through creative means, we can tap into people in a different way," said Maren Kathleen Elliott at a symposium called Young Arts and Culture for Systems Change at the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts on June 26. "Popular culture, popular opinion, and how the public is feeling about issues is so shaped by the media that we consume: the books we read, the podcast, the show, the documentary."
Art can also break through the despair that can be paralyzing, she suggested.
"This dichotomy between wallowing and taking action, I wonder if they're not separate things but just stages that we go through," she said. "If we shut ourselves off from those emotions, there's a numbing effect. And if we just pretend everything is fine, that doesn't lead to action. There's a balance between honouring the weight of it and honouring the reality of it, and being open to the issues around climate change and climate justice or injustice."
The symposium brought together young artists and culture workers to share art and performance focused on climate change, and to talk about how their disciplines can be used to engage people in the push for a just and equitable energy transition. Alongside Elliott, the panel included Emele Neufeld, Breanna Barrington, Jason Romero, and Riley Tenove, who work in a range of mediums and represent various cultural perspectives, but were unified in using their work to process the emotional burden of looming ecological collapse that saddles younger generations.
"You care about the environment. Horrible things are happening. Should I sit and wallow? Or should I try and do something?" said multimedia artist Barrington. She said she has been trying to use her own work as an advertisement for aligned local initiatives doing environmental work, such as Shrubscriber, which provides free trees for schools and community projects.
Dance can convey complex concepts in non-verbal ways, potentially connecting with people in a way that climate science – or climate reporting – frequently don't, said Romero. Still, creative mediums have the potential to be misinterpreted or not understood at all by the audience.
"With creating a dance about climate change, my biggest thing or worry is accessibility," he said. "What if this anxiety, this fear, has compelled me to create more about climate change, and I get up there and do some cool moves and no one understands what it's about?"
The symposium was sponsored by Energy Futures Lab, an Alberta-based collective focused on developing solutions for a low-emission and socially equitable energy transition.
Throughout the afternoon event, the conversation returned to technological solutions to climate change, and how inspiration leaps back and forth between the worlds of art and science, fostering innovations that precede a sustainable culture not yet formed.
"These inspirations are important," said Tenove. "Because we have a problem in front of us, and like any problem you get stuck. And you just can't seem to think ahead or around it and to see a path. We sometimes need to do these weird things and express ourselves or listen to other people's expressions just to find a path."