The Learned Pig: Art in a Deteriorating World

“In the era of not yet, barely daring to guess of how soon,” wrote Welsh-British writer Horatio Clare about the melting sea ice, the planet’s air conditioner, in his book Icebreaker, published less then two years ago. Now the scientists dare to guess, and red lights on the control panel are blinking – too soon. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned we have twelve years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people, and continuous extinction of animal species. Since 1970, humanity has already wiped out sixty percent of animal life on earth. It is called the sixth extinction. Do we realise it?

“Though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” asked Bill McKibben, American author, environmentalist, and activist, in an essay What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art in 2005. “We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?” Unfortunately, McKibben’s voice sounds worryingly urgent even fourteen years later. Or more than thirty years later: in 1988 he wrote The End of Nature, the first book for a common audience about global warming.

Do artists, writers, and musicians have a responsibility to give us new languages and tools to actually do something about our deteriorating world?

“Point of no return”, “urgent change needed”, “extinction domino effect”, phrases collected from last month’s headlines sound like a broken record to many. As if climate change was just a tedious trend, a sad emoji, a fleeting hashtag. Scientists desperately wave their hands, like tiny people with tiny voices, while those in charge continue to stomp like deaf giants, leaving carbon footprints all over the planet. Can artworks, books, poems, plays and “goddamn operas” help scientists to be heard, I wonder?

Besides, is it just a choice or rather a responsibility to do something? “Responding to the ecological crisis is certainly the moral imperative of our time,” says Justin Brice Guariglia, American artist and activist known for his large-scale photographic, sculptural and public works that address ecological issues. Like keeping a promise or telling the truth, or not hitting anyone in the face – other examples of moral imperatives.

I started to send out letters to artists, writers, philosophers and scientists and asked them one question: Do visionaries – artists, writers, musicians, – have a responsibility to give us new languages and tools to actually do something about our deteriorating world?

Artists David Bramwell, Justin Brice Guariglia, Olafur Eliasson, Antony Gormley and Jonathan Meese, writers Jay Griffiths, Caspar Henderson, Dahr Jamail and Barry Lopez, poet Craig Santos Perez, philosopher Graham Harman, and scientist Peter Wadhams wrote me back.

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Photo above: Antony Gormley, Another Place, 1997. Cast iron, 100 elements. Installation view: Cuxhaven, Germany. Photograph by Helmut Kunde, Kiel. Copyright: Antony Gormley