During the late 1990s, while my brother, Cameron, was assistant director of Mountainfilm, I was a regular. So I’m excited to return after more than a decade’s hiatus, and it’s fortuitous that the word in the air this year is “wilderness.” Cameron wrote his senior college paper on the Wilderness Act, perhaps inspired by a class we both took with the legendary philosopher-turned-environmental-historian Bill Cronon. Cronon taught us how our mental concept of wilderness and nature affected how we manifest ourselves on the landscape, whether we were conscious of it or not.
The year was 1988, and climate change wasn’t yet on my radar. In fact, it was just stepping onto the public stage. The IPCC was formed that year, and Jim Hansen gave his now-historical first testimony on climate change before the U.S. Senate. A year later, Bill McKibben published the first book on the subject for the general public, The End of Nature, in which he pointed out the surreal realization that an untouched nature wasn’t possible anymore, now that we’ve changed the air.
In the intervening years, things have, well, changed. Last year, just a few weeks before my twenty-fifth reunion, CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere passed 400 ppm. We’ve set the atmosphere back 2 million plus years to a different geologic epoch. We talk daily and matter of factly about the ice cap melting and measuring carbon footprints, while bemoaning humanity’s tendency not to take action until the consequences are obvious — when they are dire and already upon us.
Echos of Cronon’s class are as relevant as ever when it comes to climate change, not just for the profound challenge to our idea of nature it implies, but also because those ideas shape our response. Perhaps this is seen most clearly in the way our concept of nature as a symbol of virtue results in an incredible overemphasis on what individuals can personally, virtuously, do to “save” it. This, unfortunately, comes at the expense of focusing on systematic changes. We can see it play out in the public conversation, the vitriol of the political spat, right down to neighborly tensions over SUVs versus Priuses.
Conceptual metaphors in language unrelated to nature also shape our actions. Think about the dominant conceptual metaphor: “Change is motion.” We speak of climate change as “speeding up,” having “momentum,” and are even so bold as to suggest the goal is to “stop” climate change. For substantial natural changes a big rolling boulder comes to mind. Our general call for mass behaviour change is, in a way, an organizational principle that is a natural entailment of this metaphor. We can conceive of “stopping” climate change because we can imagine the boulder coming to rest.
The truth, I daresay, is more complex — a bit more sobering, too. A better metaphor might be a big wave. In fact, truly wrapping our head around it may require taking the advice of the great Donella Meadows to “be unattached in the arena of paradigms.” She was speaking about leverage points in systems. But I think what she was getting at was that in order to see complex systems truly requires a profound act of letting go: “It is in the space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.” And isn’t that the current challenge? To have an impact on the situation on a millennial scale?
One of the roles of artists is to look at things differently. So, when I, as climate artist, look at the current global event, I don’t see a “problem,” for which there are “solutions.” I think civilization has a “situation,” or, as the kindred souls at the Dark Mountain Project put it recently, a “predicament.” It doesn’t imply solutions; it implies evolution. I don’t see a bunch of individuals not changing behavior. I see a civilizational organism metabolizing the earth’s stored energy. I see hundreds of millions of years of the earth’s stored photosynthesis risen up and animated at once in the form of a sort-of-industrial meta-being. With a big sugar pile that no one can guard. That’s not a problem that can just be solved. It, perhaps, implies a different sort of response.
For this reason, I like to talk about climate art as an art and a philosophy. The art is to come at the situation from a different angle. The philosophy, well, that’s a longer conversation...
Considering wilderness at this moment may be about softening our focus on time. The wild being in me is haunted by the images David Breashears showed us years ago in the Sheridan Opera House of the Himalayan glaciers’ dramatic deflation. Living geology passing before our eyes. To find the wild in ourselves is to find the dignity of humanity from that time when the energy efficiency of our body was our advantage on the shelterless plain. With that dignity, be present and bear witness. See the eons of time dissolving into the air and melting before you, and marvel at the responsibility and excitement of being alive on the planet at this moment.
Carter Brooks is an artist and philosopher of climate art whose work explores how humanity and civilization will evolve in a rapidly changing world. He was selected as one of the first 50 presenters of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, and in 2006, he co-founded Climate Earth, Inc., to provide Fortune 50 companies a systematic approach to understanding the impacts of the entire corporation. Brooks' work will be exhibited at Mountainfilm in Telluride 2014.