Can art and imagination spur climate action?

November 24, 2022

We have been warned about the changing climate and its negative effects on humanity for quite a few years now. Even though science has always stressed the urgency of these interconnected and complex social and ecological crises, human and political action seems to be lacking. Studies show that our moral judgment is not equipped to identify climate action as a moral imperative, which limits our motivation to act. This is caused by the lack of identification with and empathy for future generations and people living farther away. In order to stimulate action, we have to find a way to bring to life a faraway global abstract issue in local and moral intuitions.

Art and imagination might be effective tools to make these issues less abstract. For example, a Dutch Design Week artist exhibited an art piece that used real-time data on earthquakes to move the water in a transparent installation. This makes natural disasters that happen elsewhere more tangible. Another example is the Our Time on Earth exhibition in London, which used art installations to portray human interconnectedness with worldwide (natural) ecosystems. This exhibition tapped into the hopefulness and optimism of many visitors, thus motivating them to take climate action. In that sense, art and imagination can be tools to stimulate, rather than our reason, a more intuitive response to this complex and multidimensional crisis.  

Burning questions
  • Can art and imagination create long-lasting awareness or is this merely a temporary effect?
  • What other factors, besides an increase in emotional involvement, are needed to stimulate climate action?

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The Machine
Category: Objects
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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About the author(s)

FreedomLab Fellow Vivian Elion is an Advisor for Regional Approach at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). In this role, she supports provinces, municipalities and entrepreneurs in adopting national sustainability policies concerning construction, the environment, and society. Vivian studied Global Business and Sustainability at Erasmus University Rotterdam, specializing in sustainability tensions. During her tenure at FreedomLab, she developed the Deep Transitions Framework into business services.

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