Never underestimate the power of an image to connect people to the natural world.
Clouds are amazing. I know. I’ve been studying them off and on for the past 40 years or so. And as a scientist, I am continually stunned and just a wee bit overwhelmed by the array of physical processes that come together in time and space to form clouds. Clouds with their myriad shapes and hues, some peacefully billowing in a bright blue background and others dark and gray and capable of unleashing destructive forces that can blow a house to smithereens or inundate a city with a torrent of water.
The Power of Science and the Power of Art
I suspect I could wax poetic about the physics of clouds for hours, but would never come close to invoking the awe and fascination that a good picture of clouds can. And if you have any doubt, just take a look at the astonishing photographs of Camille Seaman from her TEDTalk Photos From a Storm Chaser. I can tell you that a steady stream of gasps and oohs and the ahhs spontaneously burst from my lips as I viewed her photos. Even for me with my love of science and long-time study of the wonders of the processes that lead to clouds, such outbursts of awe would never be inspired by an analysis of the physics of clouds.
What is it about a human-produced image of the natural world that can inspire and move us so deeply? After all, we can see the real thing almost any time, clouds reside right outside the door or window for all to look at and enjoy. And those can be moving, but, still, there is something special about artistic renderings that are unique and essential.
Art and Environment: A Primal Tradition
I wonder if there is not a deep, primal urge in all of us to depict the natural world, not only in pictures but also in words and music — in all the various art forms. Among the very first works of art we know of are cave drawings produced by humans as far back as 40,000 years ago. And, interestingly enough, a common subject of these drawings was nature. Many were animals, others showed people interacting with animals, often hunting.
Artists: The First Environmentalists
One might say that if environmentalism, at its most basic, is the love of nature, then those cave-drawing artists were the first environmentalists — using art to record the natural world and to somehow connect themselves and others to that world.
Of course there is a long tradition of artists whose work features the natural world as a central theme. Think of Herman Melville, Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, or the artist Paul Gauguin. Others that spring to mind: Homer, Aaron Copland (“Appalachian Spring”) and even the pastoral music by Beethoven and Vivaldi. And of course Shakespeare — check out, for example, the “sweet are the uses of adversity” monologue in As You Like It.
Back on the visual side, it’s relevant to note that the mid-19th century Hudson River School, a group of artists who painted pastoral landscapes largely of scenes from New York’s Hudson River Valley, is generally credited with planting the seeds that led to the birth of the American preservation movement which in turn laid the foundation for America’s modern environmental movement.
Moving the Environmental Ball
Most Americans will tell you they care about the environment. But an appallingly large fraction don’t act on it — they don’t change their lifestyles to lower their environmental footprint and they don’t change their voting patterns to affect sustainable change. In the case of global warming, for example, despite decades of advocacy by scientists and activists for strong, decisive action to mitigate climate change, indifference and inaction persist.
Why? Perhaps it is because we too often only tell one side of the environmental story. Too much of the time we leave it to scientists like me to explain why we need to act on pressing environmental problems. And the story scientists tell is largely an intellectual one. I would posit that convincing people intellectually that action on the environment is imperative is not enough. We need to inspire people, we need to move people emotionally toward action. And that is the purview of artists. In short, we need artists to tell their side of the environmental story.
Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today’s most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or email tedweekends@hufﬁngtonpost.com to learn about future weekend’s ideas to contribute as a writer.