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Are Artists the Ultimate Environmentalists? - Conservation

Are Artists the Ultimate Environmentalists?

Today’s post launches a new partnership between Conservation Magazine and Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment


By Bill Chameides

Some say there is a collective unconscious; a cache hidden deep within all of us that  contains all human experience from the time our forebears first stood erect to view the world as sentient beings to this very moment. An infinite treasure of memories, if we could find the key to unlock them.

It’s a fanciful notion. Were it true, I would want to channel the moment when a human being first saw a work of art. I imagine hunkering down in a smoky cave to the sound of whimpers and grunts and giggles. Looking up, I see in the flickering firelight a person scratching lines on the cave wall. They’re just lines, nothing more, until, suddenly, those seemingly random marks coalesce into an image. Perhaps it’s a picture of the bison, deer or bears we hunted that day.

As crude as people today might find such drawings, my caveman self is filled with awe. I not only see the animal, I smell it. I hear its grunts, and maybe my heart quickens a bit from memories of the day’s hunt. And in my mind’s eye I contemplate the day’s failures and celebrate its victories.


Cave art. Photo by Jeff Walker (Creative Commons)


The Power of Art

What is it about art that transports, astonishes, inspires? Its power to move us is almost as remarkable as the work itself. Every day, the images, sounds, and smells of the so-called real world literally surround us and assail our senses. Yet we tend to go about our lives consumed by day-to-day struggles and routines, oblivious to the marvels that abound. But then an artist comes along and interprets this very same world — through images, music, a story, a performance — and suddenly we are moved. Engaged. Really powerful art can change lives. (See here and here.)

Asher Durand

Certain nineteenth century American artists who reveled in nature’s beauty are given credit for inspiring the American preservation movement of the late 1800s. Among these artists are the Hudson River School painters like Asher Durand, whose “Kindred Spirits” is pictured here. Are artists the ultimate environmentalists?


Art and the Environment

Little wonder, then, that artists, whose work beckons us to contemplate and experience the world around us, have played a unique and important role in marshaling people’s energies to steward and protect the natural world. The artists of the Hudson River School and their spectacular landscapes, along with literary philosophers and Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and poets like William Cullen Bryant, are given credit for inspiring the American preservation movement of the late 1800s, which among other things, gave birth to our national parks system.

Earlier in the century, the Romantic poets in England, like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had sounded a similar note of sympatico with the natural world. Just check out John Keats’s take “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” or take a walk through William Wordsworth’s field of daffodils to get a sense of how nature inspired, delighted and sustained them.

Back in the United States, in the early 1960s, the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign set out to “dramatiz[e] how … pollution [was] hurting the environment” and to underscore that it was people’s responsibility to help stop the harm. While the campaign made inroads into raising people’s consciousness over the ensuing decade, it was not until the “crying Indian” ad featuring Chief Iron Eyes Cody became the campaign’s centerpiece in 1971 that the campaign really hit pay dirt, transforming, in the space of a few years, a society of profligate litterbugs into one where folks thought twice before spoiling the landscape. For me and, I suspect, many of my fellow baby boomers, the crying Indian was more than just an entreaty not to litter. In a short time it became an indelible, transformative mental image that informed a lifelong environmental sensibility.

The Power of an Image

And then of course there’s the “Blue Marble,” the 1972 photograph of Earth taken from space as Apollo 17 hurtled toward the moon. This earth-changing image came about from a small act of rebellion — though they had been instructed not to take any photographs at that time [pdf], the astronauts were so taken with the crystal clear view of our lonely planet* that they captured the image anyway. While that might have given the NASA mucketymucks a bit of heartburn, most would say they made the right decision. If there is a collective unconscious, then that photograph of the Earth as a finite ball alone in an ocean of space, profoundly hit a nerve in our collective worldview. It forced us to confront the fact that we are a single people adrift on a singular planet.

Many believe that this image (and its counterparts, see also here) helped spark the modern environmental movement, which led to, among other things, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, arguably the two most important and effective environmental protections in the United States. The photo also came to symbolize Earth Day, the annual celebration that sprung to life two and a half years before the photo came into existence. And it propelled the work of environmental nonprofits like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund, giving these groups whose raison d’etre is environmental stewardship, a visceral and lasting touchstone.

Science and Art

The photograph’s impact on the scientific community was also profound. There was a new appreciation for the connectedness of all things terrestrial, of the need for interdisciplinary study of the Earth from a global perspective.

If technological and scientific achievements had made that picture possible, it was our innate artistic sensibilities that informed our reaction to it — that moved us on a visceral level and that has propelled the Blue Marble and its related images to the status of an icon.

As so much of the modern world shows us, the power of a symbol cannot be underestimated. And in this highly technological age, reminders of the natural world are a necessity. As the novelist E. M. Forster remarked in “Howards End”:

“What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives? … Haven’t we all to struggle against life’s daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion? I struggle by remembering my friends; others I have known by remembering some place–some beloved place or tree–we thought you one of these.”

I’m a firm believer in the power of art to slice its way into our collective unconscious and compel us to see the world as it really is and to come together to preserve and steward that which is irreplaceable and beyond value.

In these pages over the next several months, I will wax scientific and artistic over the intricately intertwined subjects of art and the environment. The two link past, present and future and connect us to each other and to our common experience and heritage. I find it a fascinating subject to explore (see here, here and here). Join me.

You know, “only connect.”


End Note

* For the profound effect space travel has had on astronaut’s view of the environment and planet Earth see www.overviewinstitute.org.


Bill ChameidesBill Chameides is the dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. His research focuses on elucidating the causes of and remedies for global, regional and urban environmental change and identifying more sustainable pathways forward. He has authored or co-authored 140 peer-reviewed papers and eight books. He also blogs at TheGreenGrok.com, ScientificAmerican.com, The Huffington Post, the University of Minnesota’s digital magazine Ensia, TheEnergyCollective.com, and National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge blog. Visit Bill’s blog TheGreenGrok and keep up with him on Twitter @TheGreenGrok.