In McKibben’s Toolbox for Cancun, Art Visible from Space

350 EARTH project based on the notion that art gets to people in ways that science doesn’t

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WASHINGTON—Bill McKibben might be an optimist.

But he isn’t delusional enough to think that what he’s billing as the first planetary art show centered on climate change will cause world leaders to suddenly hug, then break into a verse or two of Kumbaya while signing a treaty that slices greenhouse gas pollutants to scientifically recommended levels.

He’s cognizant that the march toward meaningful, binding action on taming carbon dioxide is a painfully sluggish slog.

“Every movement that has ever been successful has appealed to people’s emotions and reason,” the founder of the advocacy organization tells SolveClimate News in an interview from his Vermont home. “It is necessary if we’re ever going to get anything done in Washington or anywhere else. We need to build support to force recalcitrant actors to act.”

The author and activist spoke just a few days before’s Saturday launch of 350 EARTH. Close to 20 nature-based art projects, gigantic enough to be seen from space, will be “broadcast” via satellite the week before environment ministers gather in Cancun, Mexico for the Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 United Nations climate summit.

“I think it’s going to be very powerful,” he says. “Art gets to people in ways that science doesn’t.”

McKibben is a veteran organizer of massive global exercises designed to prompt sweeping action on global warming. And he’s fully aware of detractors who dismiss his enterprises as touchy-feely, do-gooder events that engender plenty of inspiring moments but little in the way of tangible results.

Those doubters, he says, are missing the bigger picture.

“We’re probably the most science-based operation there could be,” he explains. “This is one just one part of our portfolio. When you’re trying to build a movement up and out, you need to come at people all kinds of different ways. I’m glad we’re working in other spheres.”

“It doesn’t strike me that we’re winning this climate battle, so why would we employ only the tactics we’ve employed so far? That doesn’t seem like a terrific idea.”

Preaching to the Choir Isn’t Enough

The trick with McKibben’s newest venture, observers emphasize, is to lure in fresh faces—people leading busy lives who don’t dwell on climate issues obsessively.

Deniers aren’t likely to be moved, and those trusting the science and urging passage of policy are already a base for

“But art does cause people to pause and think for a minute,” explains Sean Gibbons, communications director with Third Way, a Washington-based moderate think tank of the progressive movement. “So the challenge isn’t convincing the folks who already agree with you, it’s reaching folks in the middle who are thinking there’s something to this climate thing but haven’t given a lot of thought to the issue.”

Diane Karp has figured that out. The executive director of the Santa Fe Institute has knitted together a coalition from her region to participate in 350 EARTH.

On Saturday, a stream of New Mexicans will stand in a parched and moribund channel near the capital city holding aloft blue umbrellas, tarps and painted pieces of cardboard to indicate where a vibrant Santa Fe River should be flowing. The river, a shadow of its former robust self, provides up to half of the area’s drinking water.

Art Gives New Mexicans a Unified Voice

“The purpose of an art action is not to fix the river because art will not do that,” Karp says in an interview. “Art has the power to reach the hearts and minds of the people who come into contact with it.

“Rather than write a white paper, we wanted to allow all parts of the community to engage. This allows all of us to take ownership and stewardship.”

For Karp, Saturday’s event is a natural segue after she and a cadre of artists, musicians and poets undertook a months-long effort to immerse local schoolchildren in elemental lessons about earth, air, fire and water.

When most people think about droughts, they conjure up remote locales such as the Sudan and the Sahara, she says. But more and more Southwesterners are startled to realize their own geography and livelihoods are in peril if the dry decades continue.

The water supply to the high-desert Santa Fe River is dwindling and aquifers aren’t being recharged because of severe drop-offs in precipitation and an earlier and less abundant spring snowmelt caused by global warming. Never mind that dams and the reconfiguring of a riparian ecosystem into a concrete channel has been less than friendly to fish, frogs, birds and other aquatic life.

Karp has no doubt that politicians will pay attention to the 3,000-4,000 children and adults committed to participating in what’s titled “Flash Flood: For a Living Santa Fe River.” Incidentally, New Mexico became the newest entrant into state-based cap-and-trade initiatives when its Environmental Improvement Board passed an aggressive measure on Election Day to curb heat-trapping gases.

“This is not about celebrity or one artist’s vision,” Karp says. “We do this in order to support the forwarding of legislation.”

Something has to galvanize people so they are willing to make the commitment to legislative, personal and community change, she said, adding that 350 EARTH “allows us to come together to speak with a unified voice.”

Solar Eagles, Polar Bears and Elephants

The artful transformation of a New Mexico riverbed from brown to blue isn’t all that will be photographed by satellites roaming 17,000 mph about 400 miles above Earth’s surface. Throughout the week, viewers, including those attending the Cancun climate talks, also can watch the spectacle unfold in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Iceland, India, South Africa and Spain.

In Los Angeles, for example, 1,000 people are enveloping themselves in photovoltaic film sheets to form the image of a soaring solar eagle. Vancouver residents will craft two giant ecological footprints while people in Cape Town will feast on a traditional meal cooked on solar cookers positioned to represent the sun. An Iceland artist is creating a polar bear from hundreds of tents at the edge of a glacier.

And in Mumbai, thousands of schoolchildren will swarm into the shape of a pachyderm—to remind climate decision-makers not to ignore the “elephant in the room.”

“I’m an artist … not a politician,” McKibben says. “I have an idea of what gets people involved and interested. This is a very good way to raise attention about particular issues in particular places, and the global issue of climate change that unites them all.”

His large-scale activism began in 2007—the year before he kicked off—with a Step It Up campaign featuring gatherings in all 50 states. Follow-up work parties and political rallies expanded from 5,200 events in 181 countries in autumn of 2009 to 7,400 events in 188 countries last October.

“Now, we’re pretty much out of countries,” he says with a laugh about reaching capacity on that level.

Is Art the Answer? 

That groundwork, however, laid a solid foundation for the satellite art project.

“I’m eager to remind everyone that we live on a planet,” McKibben says. “We’re just a small hunk of rock floating through space. And I think that’s hard for us to remember in day-to-day life.”

While his organization is credited with prompting the Obama administration to follow former President Jimmy Carter’s example and reinstall solar panels on the White House roof, McKibben says he would gladly trade that symbolic victory for solid climate legislation emerging from Congress.

That, he says, would signal the rest of the world that weaning their economies of fossil fuels is achievable.

“I don’t think we’re going to get much out Cancun and nor does most everybody else,” he predicts. “Still, countries are asking, ‘Are we going to wait for the United States or go ahead and act without them?’ We have a moral imperative to be involved but maybe our politics are so retrograde, that might be impossible.”

Ultimately, says Third Way’s Sean Gibbons, time will tell if McKibben’s global art endeavor makes a difference in the climate conversation.

“As he says, there are lots of tools in the toolbox to draw attention to this issue,” Gibbons says. “Not every tool works every time but this one could. We’ll have to wait and see.”

(Credit: for Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada)

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