Culture and the Climate Crisis: An artistic response to the greatest threat of our time
Social Ecology in Contemporary Culture
Social ecology is a philosophical theory that focuses on the relationship between ecological and social issues. The concept, which was originally introduced by environmentalist pioneer and political philosopher Murray Bookchin, illuminates to the idea that our current ecological problems originate from innate social issues. Simply, what dictates society dictates the natural world.
Social matters include challenges such as homelessness, poverty, economic inequalities, and cultural irrationalities which are believed by Bookchin to be at the core of existing and emerging climate related worries. Environmental concerns such as deforestation, ocean acidification, air pollution and biodiversity loss, can only be appropriately understood and potentially solved when societal hierarchies are examined and answered at a closer and more meaningful level.
Towards an ecologically based society
Ecology is derived from the Greek word Oikos, meaning home and community. This translation has a valuable implication for what an ecologically based society would look like. To help visualise what kind of world this would be, it can be helpful to ask yourself, where do I come from? The answer reveals a root association to your own personal sense of home. Social ecology as the study of home requires this association to ensure a deep love of place.
From an anthropological perspective, our ecosystem is interconnected. The ecosystem where we live and interact with one another as part of a global community affects the way we meet certain challenges. So often, humanity views themselves as separate to nature. And yet, a global community involves so much more than humanity itself; it includes the natural world and all that we belong to, relate to, and ought to fight for. Therefore, the importance of social ecology lies within the conscious choices concerning the direction that society is willing to walk through to meet these challenges through a greater cultural lens.
The role of Art in a Changing World
The role of art is simple, it can influence. Yet in terms of social change, the outcome can be somewhat extraordinary. Art as a product of culture can address climate change in a way that is most effective by tapping into human emotions and engaging the public by inspiring connection, exploring existentialism and challenging one’s conception of the natural world. A number of artists’ works from across the globe reflect this ideal by bridging art and science and challenging one to contemplate how we can frame nature from our philosophical values. This idea of linking interconnectedness and art inspires a compassionate and eco-centric relationship with the environment and supports society in our critical role as agents of change. Notably, this can be seen as a post-anthropocentric approach which alters the traditional world view based around human-centeredness and helps develop positive environmental psychology whilst inspiring justice, action and awareness.
According to Olivia Laing, art has ‘some extraordinary functions, some odd negotiating ability between people, including people who have never met and yet who infiltrate and enrich each other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.’ (The Lonely City, 2016) Romantically and profoundly, Laing reveals how art as a cultural expression can be richly incorporated into a sustainable future and offer a creative outlet to better experience and protect the world around us.
Artists and the Natural World
The Venetian Capital is an area that is susceptible to the imminent threat of climate change. Concerning rising sea levels is a modern day reality for the already sinking Italian city which is experiencing a high frequency of flooding. Celebrated Italian sculptor Lorenzo Quinn, illustrates the severity and fragility of both natural and man-made heritage sites through ‘Support,’ a sculpture characterized by two large ceramic hands grasping the historic building that is the Ca’Sagredo Hotel. Symbolically, Quinn recognizes how humanity has the capacity to create and destroy and utilizes hands to convey authentic human emotion. This statement is mutually alarming and empowering through the allusion to the concept that the fate of human choice to destroy the world, or to save it is quite literally in our hands.
Nick Gentry, a British artist recognized for his social art projects explores technology and sustainability through a series of portraits consisting of used computer disks. The floppy disks used are contributed by the public, which creates a shared connection and collaborative identity for all involved. This approach engages contributors and audiences to challenge their perspectives on a liveable future and what it means for this to be possible. Used and recycled materials promote sustainability in a way that inspires an ethical and responsible way of living and shifts focus on how recovered materials can be strikingly powerful.
1983 saw the well-known artistic twosome Christo and Jeanne-Claude complete the memorable environmental installation known as ‘Surrounded Islands.’ Located in Miami, Florida the dramatic land work art covered eleven man-made islands in a vivid cherry-blossom shade of pink fabric. Comparatively, the duo rarely provide any context in relation to the meaning of their work, excluding Christo’s reasoning ‘we make beautiful things, unbelievably useless, totally unnecessary.’ Yet, the core outcome from this piece reveals a new perspective on one’s relationship to landscape and indeed the complexity of landscape itself. The effects symbolically remodel the prospective areas we inhabit, opening our conception of the natural world and its many possibilities.
Hope in the transition towards a sustainable future
What does this mean for the transition towards a more sustainable future? Social ecology dictates how our ecological future is a social problem that relies on humanity’s interaction with one another and their relationship with the natural world. Social ecology reminds us that our response to this profound crisis is driven by social responsibilities and possibilities.
Our relationship to the natural world is as critical as it ever was, and in order to embrace an ecological society a cultural change is also required. The importance of the role that social ecology plays within sustainable developments and ensuring the safety of the future of the planet, lies within speaking up and recognizing the fragility of our interconnected community of life through creativity, community and art.
German painter Gerhard Richter once stated ‘Art is the highest form of hope.’ His words are consoling, just like art itself which Richter notes, ‘can be comforting, simply because it is beautiful.’ Art cannot halt the pace of a changing world but it has the capacity to alter and change our perspective on life, the world around us and what it means to be human. Cultural effects can help society gain optimism and a basic ecocentric worldview. The ability to move people without using a single word is a crucial element of the creative world which should not be overlooked. An artistic vision that provides hope is imperative in the transition towards a sustainable future.
Here is another blog post by one of our Greenhouse Bloggers, philosopher Hayley Egan: New vs Used: An ecological debate
Feature image by SHVETS PRODUCTION