As we face the future of life in the Desert Southwest, it can be hard to fathom what our world will look and feel like given the complexities and uncertainties of climate change. Ecologists, hydrologists, and climatologists are developing predictions of what this place will be like as our climate becomes warmer and drier, with precipitation coming in different amounts and at different times of year than historically common. A challenge arises, however, when this science-based information needs to be relayed to the general public, to groups who may or may not be scientifically inclined to the point where they can absorb this information and take away an understanding of what it could mean for our future. So we are looking for innovative ways to communicate the science that’s available and what it indicates the future will hold. This is where we hope that art will inform and guide the conversation.
Initially our idea was to pair a prominent scientist who studies some aspect of climate change with an artist. We envisioned these two individuals meeting, discussing the scientific work being done, and the artist then taking what he or she learned and rendering a creative interpretation of that science and what it may predict for our future. After much hemming and hawing and working with collaborators on an approach that met everyone’s needs, the prevailing idea emerged to hold workshops where land managers and fire scientists interact with artists who then create works to be included in an exhibition. We are certain that the process and the outcomes will be amazing– and are looking forward to seeing how artists interpret and convey the message of climate change and fire on the Colorado Plateau.
We also want to stress that fostering relationships between artists and scientists is an important aspect of injecting more science and concern for the impacts of climate change to the public dialogue. In an effort to do that we’re doing a pilot project of pairing an early-career artist with a graduate student in the field of environmental science and policy to see what happens.
In essence, we are asking ourselves and those who participate in this project: “what will the future of the Southwest look, feel, smell, or sound like?” While there will certainly be troubling aspects of the art inspired by these predictions, we also foresee an element of hope or optimism. The future look and feel of the Southwest is sure to be different, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything will go to hell in a handbasket (although that is a distinct possibility). We don’t want to contribute to an atmosphere where people feel discouraged about the future and disempowered in their role in it. Our hope is that people who come to see the exhibit will walk away feeling a great sense of urgency to protect the remaining landscapes but not overwhelming grief over the landscapes that have been lost.
This post is the first in a series on using art to express scientific research.