Opinion: The power of the arts to inspire climate action

Friday 19 April 2024

Image shows Dr Jennifer Clarke from Gray's School of Art
Dr Jennifer Clarke from Gray's School of Art, has written in Creative Carbon Scotland, about the role art can play in exploring society's attitudes to treescapes in the UK, and their value to people and the planet.

Globally, the urgency to restore and expand forests has never been greater, as we grapple with the consequences of environmental degradation and climate disruption. Afforestation, the act of planting trees where there were none before, is increasingly recognised as a vital strategy for combating climate change around the world. This is particularly pertinent in the United Kingdom, a country with a long history of deforestation and land transformation, and complex histories of land ownership and management.

In response to this global challenge, the UK Research & innovation, a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), is funding a body of research called the ‘The Future of Treescapes’, with the aim of generating a greater understanding of treescapes in the UK, and their value to people and the planet. What’s unique about this research is that for the first time, researchers like myself are collaborating with artists to create visual and multi-media materials to engage the public and to inform policymakers.

While the scientific community has provided substantial evidence supporting afforestation, the role of artists and designers in this endeavour is equally crucial in my view. By collaborating with ecological scientists and other disciplines, artists and designers offer unique perspectives; not only in envisioning future landscapes but fostering environmental awareness, understanding ecological interdependency, and in this case, the value of forests, in ways that traditional science communication cannot achieve alone, I believe.

Forests provide invaluable ecosystem services, regulating water cycles and supporting pollinators; they are essential for sustaining life on Earth. The necessity of afforestation in the UK stems from various environmental challenges, including habitat loss, soil erosion, and biodiversity decline. Historically, extensive deforestation for agriculture, urbanisation, and industrialisation has left significant ecological scars on the landscape.

Reversing these trends requires concerted efforts to reforest. Afforestation not only sequesters carbon dioxide, mitigating climate change, but also enhances biodiversity, improves soil health, and mitigates the impacts of extreme weather events.  The success of afforestation initiatives hinges not only on scientific knowledge but also on effective communication and public engagement. Herein lies the unique contribution of artists and designers. While science communication aims to disseminate information through factual means, art transcends the boundaries of language and logic, evoking emotional responses, attending to sensory experience, to creative ways to deepen human connections with nature. By harnessing the power of art and storytelling it’s possible not only to communicate complex environmental issues in accessible and engaging ways, but also to reach more diverse, wider audiences, on visceral and conceptual levels.

Collaboration between artists, designers, and ecological scientists offers a fertile ground for innovation and interdisciplinary exchange. This is what our ‘Treescapes’ project aims to do. By bringing together diverse perspectives and skill sets, these collaborations can yield imaginative solutions to environmental challenges, that are, equally, social issues. Through multimedia installations, interactive exhibits, and immersive experiences, artists can provoke thought, inspire action, and catalyse social change. For example, in our project, I am collaborating with artists and designers to work alongside scientists, developing visualise tools, such as heat maps of future landscapes under different climate scenarios, and to transform and translate scientific data and models into sensory, experiential art installations.

We are also collaborating with a museum (the MERL) to work with young people to co-create future landscapes by working with archival materials, and the National Landscape Discovery Centre (The Sill) to work with local farming communities, to pay attention to women’ voices,  helping policymakers and the public make better decisions, and understand the potential consequences of inaction. Such artistic interventions in environmental discourse have the potential to catalyse real-world impact, driving policy changes and connecting people.

My own focus, at Gray's School of Art, is on the integration of art and anthropology, to cultivate environmental awareness and promote inclusive decision-making processes. Anthropology, the study of human societies and cultures, or ‘philosophy with the people in’ as my PhD supervisor Tim Ingold once described it, can provide insights into the entanglement of social, cultural, and historical dimensions of environmental issues. By incorporating anthropological perspectives with artistic work, my aim is to develop forms of participatory practices that can hold and pay attention to the complexities of ecological issues, whether capitalism, colonialism, or inequality, and by engaging with diverse communities, ensure our work resonates with diverse audiences and reflects the complexities of lived experiences.

In the face of unprecedented environmental challenges, the integration of art, science, and anthropology offers one way forward. By transcending disciplinary boundaries and embracing creative collaboration, we hope to contribute to a more sustainable and equitable future for all, illuminating pathways towards resilience, adaptation, and collective action.

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