Reflections on Art as a Pathway to Effecting Change

This is a guest post from AS IF Center resident Cynthia Reeves, who was the Art of the Climate resident in March.

The biggest takeaway from the first annual ClimateCon held in Asheville March 19-21 was how climate change affects every facet of society—from major considerations such as protecting the global food supply in the face of increasing threats caused by climate change to more minor considerations such as how climate affects day-to-day consumer choices. The conference attendees represented every sector of society—business, government, NGOs, non-profits, the arts—all responding proactively to climate change. I was especially impressed by how many corporations have established sustainability departments not only to burnish their reputations as good actors on the global stage but also to bolster their bottom lines. Participants effectively dispelled the myth that mitigating climate change impacts increased costs. The opposite is true.

The conference, hosted by The Collider, has as its mission to deliver a “collaborative experience with a wide variety of business and science professionals who come together to advance the development of data-driven products and services.” Thus, it wasn’t surprising that the arts were not a significant presence. As a writer whose current work incorporates the science of climate change, networking with scientists, business people, innovators, public sector sustainability professionals, academics, and NOAA and NCEI data managers did provide me with a wealth of information to use in my fiction. Scientific facts alone, however, aren’t enough to convince climate change skeptics; art can be used to communicate on a human scale how climate change affects us all. Translating those facts into “story” and characters grappling with a world in which climate change exists may help motivate a skeptic’s change in thinking.

Cynthia Reeves writing upon landing in the Arctic Circle

Likewise, during my residency at AS IF, I had the opportunity to reflect on art’s role in providing a pathway to effecting change by presenting a talk—“Of Ice Floes, Whale Bones, and Abandoned Mines”—about my experiences aboard the tall ship Antigua as a participant in the 2017 Summer Solstice Expedition to Svalbard (Norway). The Arctic Circle sponsors this artist-scientist collaborative residency. The talk focused on the otherworldly beauty of the Svalbard archipelago and how it has inspired my fiction. As part of that presentation, I had the privilege of screening “Moving Image Study of Smeerenburg Glacier,” a six-minute film of a massive glacier calving set against the quiet, sculptural splendor of an ice field. The British cinematographer and filmmaker Adam Laity—one of my fellow Arctic travelers—created the film from footage and sound captured by him and others as we witnessed this spectacular event.

The talk was a study in juxtaposition: the Arctic’s pristine natural landscape contrasted with the human imprint upon this fragile environment. I wanted to emphasize the positive: that we can preserve this environment. The talk reflected that positivity—but also the inherent contradictions—of life in the Arctic now. At the very least, I hoped for the audience to be awestruck by nature and (possibly) nature’s ability to heal itself. Given the audience’s reaction as the film unfolded—the gasps and wonderment and even tears it provoked—I believe the talk succeeded.

-Cynthia Reeves