Top 5 Uses of Environmental Art

Bill McKibben’s 350.org hopes to stage “the largest piece of public art in the planet’s history.” From Australia to Egypt, Spain, and Canada, groups will be creating images that are visible from space. The question is: with an issue like climate change, is art enough?

“We've got to try,” says McKibben. “Art, like religion, is one of the ways we digest what is happening to us, make the sense out of it that proceeds to action.” He’s not the first to recognize this. Artists have tried to command the way we see the environment for hundreds of years—some have had an incredible impact, but many more have failed spectacularly. We’ll have to wait and see if McKibben’s event fares, but here are my top five uses of art in environmental activism:

  1. Sierra Club Photography, by Ansel Adams: President Roosevelt couldn’t experience the great outdoors the way his distant cousin Teddy Roosevelt had. So Ansel Adams worked with the newly formed Sierra Club to create breathtaking panoramas of various landscapes, sending them to the president. His work helped earn Kings Canyon a national park designation and made conservation a potent political issue.
  2. An Inconvenient Truth, by Davis Guggenheim: The fifth-highest grossing documentary of all time single-handedly made climate change a household name. Since its release, over 15 climate change bills have been introduced before congress. Although it got everyone thinking, it failed to spell out many solutions. Al Gore’s contribution also politicized the issue, making compromise difficult.
  3. The Day After Tomorrow, by Roland Emmerich: A big-budget film with an activist bent that succeeded at making greenhouse gases terrifying. Unfortunately, it was listed as one of Yahoo! Movies’ Top 10 Scientifically Inaccurate Movies. It may have been visually striking, but now millions of people are waiting for the next ice age before they buy electric vehicles.
  4. “Saltwater,” by Julian Lennon: One of the first big-hit songs about the environment. Julian Lennon—Jon Lennon’s first son—wrote about a dying planet long before global warming was something we took for granted. It’s no “We Are the World,” but it’s a good start.
  5. Captain Planet: It got people to think of the planet as Gaia, a living organism, and it spread complicated environmental matters across episodes. More importantly, it was full of solutions, little things that young people could do to improve the environment. It’s a bit more complicated now, but who wouldn’t love to see Captain Planet tackle climate change legislation?
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