Arts as Antidote

Thinking about climate change and other perils….

In what could either be construed as an insistent reality check or a form of perverse punishment, I chose to read both the report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the WWF Living Planet Report 2018 in the same week.  While to all appearances I remained my usual calm outward self, my interior self was shouting almost continuously “why aren’t we all running through the streets shouting about this? Where are the town meetings? Why isn’t this the primary topic of conversation whenever we run into anyone?” I suppose the answer to this is manifold; one the one hand the sheer banality of every day survival demands that we continue to bring in the mail, get our furnaces tuned up, have our snow tires mounted, plant our spring bulbs, and make that Thanksgiving shopping list.  The alternative is to give in to solastalgia (the distress caused by environmental change or loss of home due to environmental disaster) or pretrauma (the traumatic imagining of future catastrophe). It’s telling that new forms of mental illness are emerging in the face of the unthinkable (but we MUST think them) consequences facing us if we do not shift course dramatically.

If, like me, you feel the urgency of the moment but are also, like me, in a state of puzzlement about how to move forward in response to this world-historical situation, I want to make the case for the arts as perhaps the most profound vehicles for transforming consciousness and provoking action.  Concurrent with my distressed reading of these new reports, I had the good fortune to attend a number of arts events that injected my soul with some rays of hope, the inspiration to believe that there is a critical mass of humans forming who are alert to the necessity of change at a level that encompasses our understandings of what it means to be human, of how to remember ourselves as deeply interwoven with the web of life, and of our responsibility to each other and to the rest of the planet.

First was the Feverish World conference at the University of Vermont, a gathering of artists, scientists, activists, educators, feminists, inter-species communicators, indigenous leaders, and multiple combinations and permutations of the above to pose such provocative questions as:

  • How do we prepare for the anticipated feverishness of the next 50 years, likely to be exaggerated by climate change, massive pollution, wars over resources, deforestation and desertification?
  • How might we overcome cultural fractures, and build bridges between “coastal elites,” populist movements, and the growing global “precariat” – refugees, climate casualties, Indigenous Peoples, and victims of toxic sacrifice zones?
  • More specifically, how can we draw on the creative imagination of the arts, the wisdom and critical insight of the humanities, and the know-how and know-what of science and technology to develop practices for collective coexistence and even flourishing in the climate-destabilized world of our likely future?

The affair was an explosion of multi-sensory experiences: visual art installations, musical/experimental soundscapes, straightforward lectures, ideas flowing, hearts opening, fires lighting.  The visionary behind the conference was Adrian Ivakhiv, professor of environmental thought and cultural studies at the University of Vermont.  You might enjoy his blog, Immanence (I especially appreciated his recent manifesto, “A Time for Eco-Revolution”).  I have been immersed in his newest book, Shadowing the Anthropocene, a call to “engaged Anthropocenic bodymindfulness.”

Then, in a different key, a benefit concert to support local efforts for racial justice and social change at the Engine Room in White River Junction, the performance group Climbing PoeTree. All I can say is WOW! Co-creators Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman are multi-talented poets/musicians/artists/healers/peaceful revolutionaries – in other words, hard to categorize.  Their own words express their passion and their vision better than I can: “Creativity is the antidote for violence and destruction. Art is our most human expression, our voice to communicate our stories, to challenge injustice and the misrepresentations of mainstream media, to expose harsh realities and engender even more powerful hope, a force to bring diverse peoples together, a tool to rebuild our communities, and a weapon to win this struggle for universal liberation.” In ways powerful and profound, they articulated the connections between the terrible damage we are inflicting on the Earth itself and the continuing injustices our species perpetrates upon itself in the form of racisms, sexisms, etc.  In their dynamic performative way, they are the antidote to our solastalgia, to our pretrauma, in that when confronting the most perilous, pressing issues of our time, they strive to bring beauty, healing, and inspiration in through their art.  All I can say is don’t miss them if you have a chance to see them.  And check out their poetry – here’s my favorite: