March 1, 2012

Art Is the Answer

Christine Grillo

Christine Grillo

Contributing Writer

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Q & A with Jesse Oak Taylor

A few weeks ago, Jesse Oak Taylor, PhD, visited the Center and spoke about the challenges facing scientists—or anyone—when trying to communicate the urgencies and complexities of ecological crisis to the public.  Taylor is Visiting Assistant Professor of English, and American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow, at the University of Maryland College Park, as well as a co-author of Empowerment on an Unstable Planet: From Seeds of Human Energy to a Scale of Global Change (Oxford UP 2011).  His approach to this question as a non-scientist was refreshing, as were his insights into storytelling and the role of art. Here are some highlights from a subsequent conversation.

What can the arts bring to discourse about science, and to discourse about climate change?

Something like climate change is so heavily politicized that the moment you hear “ climate change”—the minute you hear any argument going in that direction—most of us, me included, immediately start making up our minds and listening for the key words about whatever someone is saying and deciding what side they are on. And then you are deciding essentially whether to agree with them, or disagree with them. The arts are the opposite of that in that they force you not to make up your mind right away—and that’s true of novels, paintings, movies, photographs, any experience of beauty—and forces you to kind of pause, and forces you to not think in a certain way, or at least to think with a very different piece of your brain. And it opens this space where you are willing to entertain ideas that maybe you don’t agree with. It’s one of the reasons the arts have for centuries been able to explore areas of human experience where you certainly didn’t want to go …  It’s been a way of engaging with the unthinkable … The arts open this space where you might actually be able to hear something and not make up your mind immediately, and therefore create common ground and create a kind of shared vision and shared meaning.

You have some strong opinions about the word “nature.”

The word nature is the most complicated word in the English language. And I didn’t figure that out; Raymond Williams has a fantastic essay called “Ideas of Nature” in which he makes that case and talks about all the various things that “nature” can mean and ways in which “nature” often means contradictory things. … One of the real problems over a lot of recent environmental thinking is that “nature” has been invoked as though it existed out there in a very stable way, in ways that are not attentive to the fact that nature is always changing. If there is a nature that exists in any actual way, the best synonym might be “change,” or “process” or something that is always morphing and adapting, even if it appears rather stable at given points of time. And one of the problems with the idea of nature for ecological and environmental thinking and for getting beyond this collective crisis that we have gotten very used to living in, is that it sets nature up as something outside, over there. The thinker Timothy Morton talks about the idea of putting nature on a pedestal, being an act of sadistic admiration, that is akin to the idea of Woman with a capital W, that it is kind of idealized in a way that cannot exist but weirdly sets up the despoliation anywhere that it’s not on a pedestal. So that everything else can get trashed. And that idea of “nature” as separate from the “human,” and that the human is defined against nature, or that nature is defined against the human, is a way of not thinking about the interaction between those two things. So we either need to move to a sense where we are thinking about humans as kind of always already natural, which gets rid of the idea of the human as some isolated thing, or get rid of the idea as nature as something that is separate.

Given the limitations of the human mind, what is an effective way to help people think about ecological crisis?

It’s both a tricky question and an important one. … Our understandings of morality are primarily based on the individual human being the primary actor: I do the right thing or the wrong thing. The problem with ecological crisis is that it doesn’t really matter what I do, it matters what several thousand of me do. I can ride my bike to work or I can drive a Hummer to work, and the amount of carbon I am putting in the air either way or not, doesn’t really matter. What matters is what everybody is doing. And that means that any action—me riding my bike to work—matters more as a kind of communicative action, a kind of performance of riding my bike to work, than in actual material terms, so that if someone else sees, Oh well that guy is riding his bike to work, then maybe it’s possible. If enough of us do it, then maybe there gets to be a bike lane built. It is sort of the ability to do something that then sparks other people to do it, that is actually the more important aspect than my own carbon footprint or what happens to my Coke bottle when I throw it away. It’s this kind of communicative action. I think really the question is one of scale primarily, and I mean scale in both numerical and spatial terms and also temporal scale. … We cannot see on the time scale at which the future comes to us. So we have to find a way of speeding up this process of what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” This sort of slowness of environmental effects that makes them invisible, and there are various things, like people using time-lapse photography of melting glaciers to animate the melting process to make it visible. Which creates a kind of model essentially, which is what climate models in the computer do, but really that modeling process happens all the time in language as we understand the world. Metaphors are models that help us understand how different parts of the world fit together. I view novels as models. And they are models that have four dimensions because there is a temporal dimension to a novel, as you are sitting there reading it, you are moving through it, you are watching it unfold over time. And that is one of the ways in which if you are reading a novel, then there is that literary atmosphere that is working probably on a subconscious level, because you aren’t thinking about the atmosphere, you are thinking about what’s happening to the characters, but it’s there and it’s kind of happening around you, and it provides a way of kind of inhabiting this space, where suddenly you can imagine that process. And I think the same thing happens for that process of trying to imagine aggregated human action. Movies can do it, certainly photographs of different scale. Images of watching all the flights go around the world, it’s very beautiful, this image that looks like lights flying everywhere, it look like fire flies or something like that. But it helps to visualize a system. And often there is a temporal aspect too, they are either sped up or slowed down. So that it encourages people to think in just a little different way about what otherwise they don’t see because it is too familiar, but that helps model that process of aggregation.

Just for fun, let’s talk about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

When I was a kid I had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, and it certainly did speak to me, when I wasn’t thinking about it, on what anyone would consider ecological terms. The great thing about it [TMNT] is that it gets rid of the idea of “nature.” There is no “nature” in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but there is ecology. On the one hand, one could say that the show is normalizing toxic pollution, so that kids say, Oh I need to go find some toxic waste, and roll around in it and I’ll turn into, you know, a ninja. On the other hand it dramatizes this process of adaptation going on all the time. There isn’t this idea of “nature” as totally pristine and safe. … We don’t have this pristine “nature” out there as this stamp to which all of schemes of nature anchor back to.  I think it’s not surprising that climate change and evolution and some of these ideas become flashpoints in religious terms for a lot of people. And often what you have is really religious fundamentalists on one side and deep ecologists who are working from another, similar type of fundamentalist naturism, meeting head on. What we really need is a way of producing meaning beyond that. And I think that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whatever else they do, teach you to live in a post-natural world in a way that still has meaning and coherence.

Related web article.

Here’s a video (4:51) of Taylor talking about grandfather Carl Taylor’s take on Silent Spring: “If it’s a choice between poor people and birds, I’m siding with the poor people.”


  1. Pingback: The Most Important Stories of Our Time: Anthropogenic Climate Change in Fiction (Part 1) – RPR – Root and Press Review

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