Abandon all hope, ye who study climate change: Mosaics about candour, heartbreak, and hope

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

For anyone even half listening to what scientists are saying about climate change, it’s evident that the picture is pretty bleak. Rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, increasingly acidic oceans, disappearing glaciers, wild fires, flooding, pests and diseases…and the list goes on and on.

Yet despite the high stakes and the urgency of the challenge before us, those advocating for climate action are told to keep the messaging positive and not to be Debbie Downers lest people find that offputting. When a scientist occasionally dares to give us some straight talk, he or she almost inevitably gets labelled an alarmist and is publicly discredited simply for speaking frankly and truthfully. Take, for instance, the case of climatologist Jason Box, who experienced a great deal of backlash in response to his tweet: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.” So great is our denial that scientists are being forced to build increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models in order to produce results that are palatable to political decision-makers. (Side note: You really should read this article about model assumptions by David Roberts, my favourite climate and energy blogger. It was one of two articles this year that scared the crap out of me, the other article being this one about self-reinforcing feedback loops.)

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

The near-apocalyptic future scenarios, the pressure to put a positive spin on even the most terrifying research findings, and society’s continued willful ignorance and inaction in the face of climate change create somewhat of a perfect storm (or perhaps a perfect superstorm is a more appropriate term in this age of climate change) for an increasingly common phenomenon among climate scientists: “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” The term was coined by forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren to describe the mental anguish caused by anticipating and preparing for the worst, long before it happens. Slowly, and against convention, scientists are bravely beginning to speak out about their frustration and worry and the emotional toll that their work (and society’s collective response to it, which is basically a shrug and a “meh”) takes on them. Is This How You Feel?, a website that collects handwritten letters from scientists in which they honestly and heartbreakingly express how they feel about climate change, is one really excellent example of this.

So far, throughout my climate change series, I’ve tried to keep things from sliding into sky-is-falling territory. The blog posts are factual, with a hint of pessimism, but usually countered with some light-hearted humour. And the mosaics themselves are not aggressive or confrontational. They are, on the whole, rather inviting. But there’s always been a nagging question in the back of my mind: is it right to make something beautiful about a subject that is so ugly? I waffle on that. The answer I am comfortable with lies somewhere in the range of “It depends” and “Yes and no.” Do you try to draw people gently into a conversation? Or do you unsettle people and make them uncomfortable? I have largely (exclusively?) done the former.

"We're screwed!" -- I can't resist a lame joke

“We’re screwed!” — I can’t resist a lame joke

But after reading about the personal challenges that scientists are faced with, I knew I had to get just a bit darker, even if only briefly. And so, the idea for the three small mosaics comprising “Shouting into the wind” was born. The materials choice began with a single rusty screw (“We’re all screwed,” I said to myself, jokingly), which became a few carefully chosen pieces of rusty metal, and to which I added coal and shale to represent some of the climate bad guys. And then one small line of gold in each piece, as a glimmer of hope. The mosaics are intentionally small and thin. I didn’t want them to have as much of a presence as the other pieces in the series. Not because these dark days and their emotional turmoil are unimportant and should be swept under a rug (they are very real and important and should be openly acknowledged), but rather as a nod to the fact that the overwhelming message from society to scientists is to not talk about our climate reality openly and bluntly.

May these three mosaics serve as a reminder to us that scientists shouldn’t have to censor or sugar-coat things because we can’t handle or refuse to accept the truth. They aren’t making dire predictions and electing to be harbingers of doom and gloom just for the heck of it. It’s not a question of beliefs or some elaborate attention-grabbing scheme, it’s a question of fact. By making scientists tell us what we want to hear, or by ignoring or ridiculing them when they speak frankly, we are placing a great burden on their shoulders, as they are forced to watch us continue down our self-destructive path, their hands effectively tied, their mouths muzzled, and their hearts breaking.

"Shouting into the wind" climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Shouting into the wind” (2015), 6″ x 5.25″ each — rusty metal, coal, shale, 24-karat gold smalti

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2 Responses to Abandon all hope, ye who study climate change: Mosaics about candour, heartbreak, and hope

  1. Helen Miles Mosaics November 4, 2015 at 10:37 am #

    This is excellent, if sobering, reading. I quite agree with all your points and think you have done a brilliant job at ‘drawing people gently into the conversation about climate change’ through the strength and beauty of your mosaics. I had the crap scared out of me by reading Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker who wrote a terrifying three part series on the issue about eight years ago which remains with me all these years later. In the unlikely event that you havent come across her, here is the link to her twitter account: https://twitter.com/elizkolbert. Good luck with the exhibition.

    • Julie Sperling November 4, 2015 at 11:55 am #

      Thanks so much, Helen! Yes, Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction” is on my list of things to read. One day I will finally get around to it! Maybe I should just start with the New Yorker series :-)

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