Researchers say emotion, imagination needed to reach people in ways information alone cannot
When Omar El Akkad wrote his 2017 dystopian novel American War, about a second U.S. civil war after land loss due to climate change, he considered it a “deliberately grotesque” view of a possible future on a degraded planet.
But just three years later, the Egyptian-Canadian author says his climate fiction — or “cli-fi,” as the genre is sometimes called — doesn’t seem so fictional anymore.
“The world that I’m describing is not as far away from the real world as it was when I started writing this book,” he said in an interview with Laura Lynch, host of CBC Radio’s What on Earth.
While it’s hard to know what effect any one work has on the audience, creators — from authors to filmmakers to visual artists — are making a case for their role in tackling climate change: to engage people’s emotions and imagination in ways that straight data just won’t.
“Film … has the capacity to move people in a number of ways simultaneously … intellectually, emotionally, viscerally, all at the same time,” said filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal in an interview with Lynch.
“Using that medium to open up that consciousness, to move people in that way is our goal. Whether it works or not is another matter.”
Art has ‘a fundamental role’
There’s a lot we don’t know about what kind of communication truly engages people to take action on climate change, and it’s unlikely to be one-size-fits-all.
But one approach that researchers have repeatedly shown doesn’t work is the so-called deficit model or the idea that people will change their behaviour related to some problem — say, the effects of smoking — if only they had more information about it.
Values, beliefs and emotional context are all key, said Diego Galafassi, a Stockholm-based visual artist and sustainability scientist who has studied the use of art in moving people to adopt more environmentally sustainable practices.
“A lot of our actions and behaviours derive from this imaginary dimension of our existence,” he said. “This is where the arts play a really fundamental role.”
Last year, Galafassi did a residency in Montreal where he worked on a “mixed-reality experience” called Breathe. Combining performance and augmented reality, this immersive project set out to convey how human breath is connected to the broader living world, as a way of showing how dependent we are on the environment.
The challenges associated with climate change “are of such a magnitude that we cannot approach them only as technical problems, as something we could fix only by changing some policies,” said Galafassi.
He said art can be a powerful way to convey the complexity of the problem and “close the gap between what we know and what we actually do about climate change.”
‘It’s very hard’
There is not much data about the ability of art to change people’s behaviour, but those who have looked into it say that art — no matter how profound — has its limits when it comes to persuasion on this topic.
While art can be a catalyst for change, it’s not guaranteed, said Laura Sommer, a Norway-based researcher who has studied how art can change attitudes about climate change.
“It’s very hard … generally for artists to create something that connects with people and is really changing something. It’s not that every artwork can do it.”
In 2015, Sommer was part of a research team that tried to pinpoint what kind of art would spur people to change their behaviour.
They studied reactions to 37 artworks in a climate art festival that ran alongside COP21, the international climate conference that eventually led to the Paris Accord, in which countries agreed on steps that would limit global warming this century to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.
The team then had nearly 900 spectators respond to a questionnaire on their perception of the works, which was summarized in a study co-authored by Sommer and published in 2019.
Reactions to what Sommer called “activist art” clustered into different themes: “the comforting utopia,” “the challenging dystopia,” “the mediocre mythology” and “awesome solutions.”
What the researchers found was that only three of the 37 works — the ones grouped under “awesome solutions” — were rated as effective in motivating behaviour change.
This included an installation that looked like a wall full of flowers, “but when you got closer, you could see it was plastic lids that were upcycled and turned into something beautiful,” said Sommer.
Another was an installation on the Seine River depicting a blue whale, where people could walk into its belly and read about biodiversity loss.
“It was, on the one hand, showing something exciting and amazing about nature but also showing the human effect on nature [and] showing what could be done,” said Sommer.
The solution problem
But that leads to a fundamental question: Is art’s role to provide answers?
One of the most prominent works about climate change in recent years is Anthropocene, a collaboration between photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier.
The film and photo exhibition vividly captures how we have exploited sites around the world — from the Great Barrier Reef off Australia to potash mines in Russia — to fuel our consumer-oriented lifestyles.
The work is epic and visually stunning, but Baichwal said “there was criticism that [Anthropocene] wasn’t strident enough about what people should do.”
Baichwal acknowledged that with any environmental art, “there’s a danger … that people won’t take away what you want them to take away.”
In the case of Anthropocene, “all we want is an opening up of consciousness about the fact that these places of extraction and waste that exist all over the world are directly related to our everyday lives.”
Galafassi said that art is not really meant to provide all the answers, which is why it cannot be a panacea for the problem of communicating the severity of climate change.
Art is “a space where we can ask these very difficult questions and explore things in a more open-ended way and not be committed to solutions,” he said.
“The artistic process has its own way to get to questions and perhaps new questions, deeper questions. It’s really a way to grapple with the complexity of these issues that we have.”
El Akkad says climate change and related issues are so encompassing, art dealing with them will cease to be a genre.
“If you are in a creative endeavour, if you are in the business of trying to describe the messiness of human life, you are not going to be able to ignore that aspect of it,” he said.
“This is going to impact everything.”
With files from Lisa Johnson