“I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change because when people think climate change, they think maybe it’s going to rain more or something like that. It’s much more extensive a change than that because when you change patterns of where it rains and how much and where it doesn’t rain, you’re also affecting just about everything.”—Margaret Atwood
Now that 195 nations have agreed to limit C02 emissions into the atmosphere, the trajectory of our collective attention can shift from whether or not our global climate is changing to how we as a species can mitigate and adapt to the effects of this change.
Northern Lights.mn is ready and excited to embrace this shift. After all, artists have been beating the environmentalist drums for decades—from Agnes Denes’ Manhattan Wheat Field—A Confrontation (1982) to Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991) to Natalie Jeremijenko’s ongoing Environmental Health Clinic.
Climate change is a potent, chaotic brew of interconnected, disparate, fluid, evolving, long-term consequences that form an attenuated chain of cause and effect over millennia that is almost impossible for any one person to fully comprehend. From industrialized C02 production to extreme weather events to sea levels rising to water tables dropping to massive migrations and a sixth extinction, climate change seems to imbue every aspect of daily life with the threat of chaos.
We believe, however, that climate change is so much more than the science and even so much more than the critical actions that must be taken to mitigate the worst-case scenarios of rising temperatures. Climate change is also a justice issue. It is about the way resource use in the global north effects the global south, which relates directly to complex issues of power and privilege. Through its causes and effects, climate change fundamentally challenges us to think about and act upon what it means to be human.
For the next two years, Northern Lights.mn, through our programming for Northern Spark, will present the work of artists under the rubric Climate Chaos | People Rising. In collaboration with local communities and organizations we’ll reinforce the trajectory of moving from a chaotic overload of information and issues to an uprising of action and activities. Artists’ voices and visions will help turn a sense of powerlessness and overwhelmment to concrete actions anchored in a realistic and hopeful map for the future. Along the way, we’ll explore the concept of Anthropocene, not just as a geological indicator of human influence but as a philosophical prompt for how we want to be in the universe.
In our exploration of Climate Chaos | People Rising, we will focus on a number of broad themes intended to build from current science and provide space for questions and contemplation. These themes are posed as verbs—activities—and each has an associated set of keywords. Of course the borders are porous.
Theme #1: Move
“We can think of human-induced climate change as accelerated landscape migration. The movement of carbon induces a cascade of attendant motions, leading to rapid landscape change at scales we can perceive and experience. Every decade, biomes migrate approximately 3.8 miles toward the earth’s poles; spring events, such as the flowering of fruit trees, occur 2.5 days earlier. Water melting near the poles redistributes itself throughout the oceans. Rising seas and powerful storms transform and relocate coastlines.”—Brett Milligan
Keywords: transportation, migration, extinction, change, deep time, adaptation, resilience, rewilding, phenology
During the recent COP21 climate change conference in Paris, renowned architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and their collaborators presented a compelling data visualization, Exit, based on an idea by Paul Virilio, which argues that 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change and related events in the coming decades. This mass migration is how we traditionally think of the effects of climate change.
With climate change, whole villages and small nations are displaced by severe weather incidents; by irreversible, incremental increases in sea level; by drought-exacerbated conflict. Entire populations must alter their migration patterns or die. Bark beetles have chomped across 46 million of the country’s 850 million acres of forested land simply because they can overwinter now and “migrate” across seasons. But not all populations can move or adapt as fast as climate-induced changes. They will become extinct, on the largest scale since 65 million years ago.
Brett Milligan extends the idea of migration to the movement of the (biomass) landscape itself, not just at the tectonic level. What is unheralded about this landscape migration is that it is starting to be on a scale that we can perceive. How can we use this local, phenological knowledge to abet global change?
Under climate change, movement of people, of animals, of flora, of the weather—of the landscape!—offsets the natural order into historically unnatural places and seasons. Shifts in the space-time continuum are no longer science fiction or even “cli sci.” They are the present and our future, and regardless of how successful the human race is in halting emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere, for the next hundreds of years of the anthropocene, movement is baked in. It’s a seismic shift in the faultlines of civilization. How will we, human and otherwise, cope, adjust, die off, and prosper?
Theme #2: Nourish
“Some influences stand out like a landmark and leave a traceable legacy with evident heirs. But the most profound influences soak into the cultural landscape like rain and nourish everyday consciousness. Such an influence is likely to go undetected, for it comes to seem the way things have always been, the natural or even the only way to look at the world.”—Rebecca Solnit
Keywords: food, water, consumption, waste, sustainability, sustenance, health, microbes, malnutrition, poison, deprivation, starvation, hospice, love, joy, spirit, mother
Species move where they can obtain the nourishment they need in order to survive. In the moment, these may be “invasive” species. Over time they may become cherished. How should our food and water systems and habits adapt to maximize nourishment? What is fair for other species? What is just on a global scale?
Making the Best of It, by artist Marina Zurkow, is the umbrella concept for a series of regionally site-specific pop up food shacks and community dinners that feature a climate-change enabled (and often unwanted) edible indicator species, in order to engage publics in tastings and conversation about the risks of climate chaos, our business-as-usual food system, and the short term food innovations at our disposal.
For Making the Best of It: The North, commissioned by Northern Lights.mn, Zurkow, sociologist Valentine Cadieux and architect/artist Aaron Marx will work in conjunction with climate scientists, educators, students, foragers, chefs, and community leaders and members to create food and conversation events over the course of Climate Chaos | Climate People.
As climatic unpredictability becomes more common, the primary factor that must change is our mindset. This affects our own behavior as well as our capacity to pressure the larger systems in which we live. Some causes can and must be changed, while some long-term symptoms must be adapted to. We need to practice and adopt adaptability.
Theme #3: Interconnect
“If we look at society as a whole, one of the great challenges is the lack of a feeling of interdependence: to trust the politicians, to trust the finance sector, to trust the scientists who work to fully understand climate change and how to deal with it. So trust is a major issue. And cultural production, if it is not marginalized into some kind of experience economy, is fundamentally trustworthy. It’s the strongest parliament of our times; it’s creativity.”—Olafur Eliasson
Keywords: local, community, nation, society, collective, network, systems, indigenous, earth, noosphere, divine, relational, empathy
Gaia. Spaceship Earth. The Mesh. The idea of interconnectedness has many names, but whatever your particular belief system, the events of climate change and its chaotic chains of causality make interconnections unavoidable. El Niño in the Pacific has a powerful connection to December tornadoes across the southern United States. Livestock production in the Midwest is interconnected with ocean acidification and coral die off along the Great Barrier Reef. The Syrian conflict is not disconnected from drought. In the age of climate change, you don’t just think about it, acting locally is measurably globalized. Way, way into the future.
We are interested in boundary-connecting projects, whether it is a collaboration between scientists and backyard phenologists, an artist and a particular demographic community, or communicating with non-human species. Each of these increases our potential for empathy, which increases our potential to act for the collective good, even if that collective is on the other side of the world or millennia into the future.
Theme #4: Perceive
“Climate change is just too big to grasp all at once. It is like Kant’s thing-in-itself — we cannot access it directly. We can only grasp it by way of metaphors and narratives that give it some linkage, some anchor, in our own lived experience and values. The timelines, the causal chains, the systems dynamics involved, they are not suited to our cognitive and affective machinery. We bounce off.”—David Roberts
Keywords: Measurement, phenology, data visualization, deep time, ways of seeing, uncertainty, instability, change, transformation, loss, patience, persistence, perception, perspective
Modern science and contemporary technology have allowed us to know, for example, the chemical composition of the atmosphere millennia ago, before recorded history, through analyzing ice core samples. We know through experimentation and observation that CO2 will last in the atmosphere for centuries, and we can postulate its effects for our great, great, great, great grandchildren. Yet there is great uncertainty at the heart of our knowledge. We live in a fluid, interconnected, dynamic system and specific results are hard to pin down with certainty. We know the Greenland glaciers are melting, for example, but how much and how fast? This is complex and interdependent with a host of other factors.
People need facts to make informed decisions, but it is stories and culture that change our behavior. Artists create connection points to issues that may seem tired or impossibly contentious. We follow them in through beauty, wonder, and curiosity and quickly find ourselves engaged in a complex issue seen differently.
Theme #5: Act
“…maybe climate change—and, really, the whole global environmental crisis—is … one of these deep problems that, if we engage it in a serious way, changes us. Maybe we need to become different people in relation to the natural world. And maybe that isn’t such a wildly utopian thought: that becoming different people is something that humans do, in wrestling with deep problems.”—Jediah Purdy
Keywords: responsibility, politics, civic, public, personal, justice, conserve, reclaim, sustain, geoengineer, expectations, believe, act, hope
There are actions we can take to prevent the extraction of fossil fuels. There are actions we can take to conserve and preserve our water supplies. There are actions we can take to eat more responsibly. There are actions we can take to mitigate and alter the human-centeredness of our worldview in a universe where climate change affects every species, everything. These are actions we can and should take, individually and collectively.
There is no solution, however, to being human. Only questions and choices we can chose to act on. To rise to.
Climate Chaos | Climate People uses the extraordinary energy of the all-night of Northern Spark to introduce us to the work of dozens of artists engaging climate change issues and urging us to act. In the year between Northern Sparks, we will work with these artists and numerous community partners to present workshops and film screenings, discussion forums and community dinners, radio programs and knitting circles as a means to enact our engagement. Join us.
Steve Dietz, Artistic Director, Northern Spark
Sarah Peters, Associate Director, Northern Spark