The science is in: climate change puts our entire civilization at risk, and scientists warn us that we only have 12 years to avoid a global catastrophe. Global warming has become the defining issue of our times, and it’s up to all of us to solve it.
And yet it seems most of us are still in a state of denial and are not doing enough to fight this climate crisis. A majority of Americans now think global warming is happening, but only 40% think that their own lives will be harmed by climate change, according to a recent Yale study.
Our main challenge is psychological: we are irrational creatures, swayed by our emotions, we don’t care much for facts, and our cognitive biases discount this urgent threat. Because we don’t feel the effects of global warming in our own lives, we assume it won’t happen to us and we don’t make the radical changes needed to turn this crisis around.
How can we help people overcome this psychological challenge and take climate action? Can creativity, playfulness and human connection make a difference?
Throughout 2018, I tried to answer those questions by organizing or participating in a series of art and activism events about climate change.
Here are a few that inspired me, because of the creative ways in which they engaged people to take climate action.
Earth Day 2018
I started this quest by co-producing Earth Day 2018 in Mill Valley last spring, hosting an afternoon of art, music and talks about protecting our environment, with hundreds of participants of all ages. Our community celebration featured the Art Float for Social Change, young singers like Emma Spike and the Twinkling Stars, musician Reed Fromer, informative speakers like Mark Squire and Crystal Chissel, young activists from the Marin School of Environmental Leadership, and environmental partners like Drawdown Marin and Sustainable San Rafael, to name but a few.
People told us they really enjoyed this event, its creative energy, and the combination of entertainment, information and community. Survey responses show they liked the art, music and meeting people the most, and also liked the partner tables and speakers. The majority of participants thought the event helped build a community of activists, promoted environmental causes, welcomed young people as citizens and helped each of us take action.
So this mix of art, information and personal connections seems really effective for stimulating personal and collective climate action. Kudos to our lead partners Eco Warriors of MVCAN, Good Earth, Tam Makers and Tamalpais High School for making this wonderful event possible!
Later in the year, I joined a number of other climate events that also broke new ground, each taking a slightly different stab at combining creativity, community and activism. Here are some of my observations, photos and videos of these promising innovations.
Art and Activism at the Climate March
Climate action took center stage in the Bay Area this September, as tens of thousands of people joined the inspiring Rise for Climate March in San Francisco, to coincide with California Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit and thousands of affiliate events.
All around San Francisco’s City Hall, climate activists created some of the largest street murals ever made, covering five blocks of city streets with dozens of colorful scenes illustrating possible solutions to global warming and inspiring us to fight for climate justice.
Each mural was designed by a different community group, and painted on the ground in large 35-feet wide circles, with washable tempera paint. For example, the Sierra Club’s mural invited us to “Keep close to Nature’s heart”, while the UC Berkeley student mural asked that we bring on the light (“Fiat Lux”). See more mural photos in my Art and Climate Action album.
Everyone was welcome to join and it was a sight to behold. Participants ranged from veteran environmentalists to young activists, with very diverse backgrounds, coming together from all across California and beyond.
This wonderful blend of art, music and activism brought us closer together and engaged us to challenge our leaders to cut back on fossil fuels. Kudos to art director David Solnit and his team at 350.org for guiding the creation of these murals and many of the signs for this march — inspiring a diverse community of citizens of all ages by showing them how to make climate art.
Coal + Ice
A stimulating combination of art, science and politics took place at Coal + Ice, an amazing multimedia installation and event festival, held in September 2018 at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco.
Curated by Susan Meiselas and Jeroen de Vries, this large-scale exhibit visually traces the trajectory of climate change — from coal mines and the burning of fossil fuels to the melting Himalayan glaciers, rising sea level and extreme weather events — showing the costs of climate change through immersive images, videos and thought‐provoking events.
Coal + Ice featured the work of over 40 photographers and video artists, such as Gideon Mendel, who took moving photos of flood survivors in their homes, waist deep in water (see photo above). His “Drowning World” collection of submerged portraits explores the personal impact of climate change within a global context.
Clifford Ross’s monumental “Digital Wave 9” featured dramatic, computer-generated videos inspired by hurricane waves, displayed on two 18 x 18 foot LED walls. This pioneering artwork was mesmerizing and offered a powerful visual reflection on the impact of global warming (see video).
The Solutions Zone (shown above) displayed interactive exhibits about solving climate change, created by our friend Nancy Hechinger and the Humans Of Tomorrow design team at NYU ITP. Solutions on display included an algae globe that lights up when you breathe your CO2 into it, as well as solar silk and a playful waste recycling activity, all spread out in a bright room filled with natural light, plants, and optimism. View more photos and videos of our visit in my Coal + Ice album.
This amazing space was also used to host a wide range of events, including seminars, panels, symphony and opera. One event was an fascinating talk about Art, Activism, Activation on Wed. Sep. 5th, featuring conversations with artists and activists from #Dysturb, Magnum Foundation, and CultureStrike, discussing how art and culture can engage people to take climate action by reaching their hearts, not just their minds.
Another stimulating talk was the Long Conversation on September 9, featuring some really interesting speakers, such as Stewart Brand, Orville H. Schell, Peter Schwartz, Alexander Rose, Paul Hawken and many more leaders from the arts and sciences, discussing what our world may look like thousands of years from now.
Together, these Coal+Ice exhibits and events offered a stunning call for climate action, aiming to amplify the conversation about climate change, masterfully organized by the Asia Society. This visionary, multi-disciplinary production broke new ground in many ways, by touching our hearts and our minds to help us understand the scope of the problem and do something about it.
Youth-led Town Hall for Climate Action
Young activists from Generation Our Climate hosted an inspiring Town Hall for Climate Action in September 2018. They spoke passionately about the current state of our climate and the need for more environmental activism and education. I found them more effective in engaging us to take action than many adult speakers I have heard on this topic.
Watch this video of their full presentations, which I shot and edited so they could share their work with others — as well as develop their presentation skills.
These high school students have testified in front of state, county and city governments, urging them to adopt renewable energy policies and help consumers switch away from fossil fuels. Our own Mill Valley Mayor Stephanie Moulton-Peters has even asked them to consult on our city’s climate action plan.
Speakers included Nick Morgenstein, Milo Wetherall, Mimi Lawrence, Luci Paczkowski and Caroline Schurz, who study in different high schools in Marin — from San Domenico to Tam High and Branson. They were drawn together by shared concerns about climate change and a deep sense of responsibility for addressing this critical issue. Consider making a donation to support their work.
Their free town hall took place at the Mill Valley Community Center on Tuesday, Sep. 4, at 6pm, attracting a diverse group of citizens of all ages. View more photos in our ‘Generation Our Climate’ album, which also include pictures of their protest at the Climate March (see below).
Kudos to their mentors Daniel Heagerty and Donna Rogers Lawrence for coaching them, with multimedia support from yours truly. I volunteer for these young leaders because of their commitment to curb climate change, and to take responsibility for our world.
I think young activists can play a very important role in engaging people to take climate action. They usually speak from the heart about protecting their future, and can be quite effective in getting governments to support good environmental policies. They can also inspire other young people to join our cause — and nudge their own parents to change their ways. 🙂
Recently, I joined the wonderful climate action workshops led by Tamra Peters and her team at Resilient Neighborhoods in Marin County. I am really impressed by this unique program, which supports both individual and collective climate action, combining behavior change, practical information and team interaction in a playful way.
Their free workshops work a bit like Weight Watchers, helping people reduce their household’s carbon footprint by gradually changing their consumption habits and tracking their progress. And they add a creative twist: workshop participants get to work as a team, scoring points together, based on their combined reductions of CO2 emissions. Each workshop team picks a fun name like “Creekside De-Carbonators” (our team’s name), or “Gerstle Park Carbonnaughts” (Tamra’s team, see photo above). Teams from different workshops compete informally with each other for bragging rights about who reduced the most carbon and scored the most resilience points.
But the real winner is the public: altogether, over a thousand people have reduced over 6 million pounds of annual CO2 emissions in Marin. That’s enough to keep an acre of Arctic Sea ice from melting every year — or taking over 800 homes off the grid permanently!
Besides offering a very creative and effective on-ramp for people to take climate action, they now have a large group of trained activists who can coach others to do the same in our area. I hope we can help them scale this invaluable program, so more people can benefit from it.
In December, Tamra and her husband Bill Carney hosted a fun holiday party with community members in their lovely home (see above). We celebrated all their achievements with a wonderful group of environmentalists and activists, who are working hard to help solve climate change in our area. See more party photos in our Resilient Neighborhoods album.
The party also featured sing-alongs with the Freedom Singers, a political singing group led by my climate mentor Marilyn Price, with Greg Brockbank and Wayne Lechner. We joined our voices together to sing classic tunes for a better world, as well as original songs like ‘One Small Planet’ by Dave Fromer. This fun activity is another example of how art and music can engage people to take action, as you can see in these videos of other Freedom Singers performances, and in the Earth Day photo below.
After reviewing all these promising approaches to help people take climate action, I’ve observed a common thread that could be helpful to other groups seeking to fight global warming.
It seems that experiences that bring people together and engage them through creative, playful and rewarding activities can be more effective than the negative messaging of some ‘calvinist’ environmental organizations, who sometimes scare people with too many doom-and-gloom warnings, overwhelm them with too much information, or shame them with stern moral imperatives.
I think this negative messaging is one of the reasons that the environmental movement is having a hard time getting their point across, even if it’s factual, well-reasoned and clearly urgent. The typical disengaged citizen is likely to tune out and recoil in horror as soon as they hear about apocalyptic news or if they feel they are being forced to make personal sacrifices.
As a rule, human beings respond better to positive messages that make us feel good about improving our lives — rather than negative messages that make us feel threatened and overwhelmed by global warming. Most people want something positive to look forward to, like feeling appreciated, saving money, getting a job, or just doing something fun with others. When we see the positive benefits of climate action, we are more likely to do something about it.
So I propose these general guidelines for future community engagement programs. In today’s society, it’s better to use a carrot than a stick, and to reach people’s hearts, not just their minds. Solutions that make it easy for people to connect with each other through creative and community interactions are likely to get a lot more people to act, especially if we give them some form of reward when they do. More on this later. Onwards!