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Bringing the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences Together to Address Climate Change

This blog is a result of the Future Earth Open Network and Future Earth’s Digital and Engagement Editor, Kelsey Simpkins, attending the August 2018 Artists and Climate Change Incubator in New York City. For the past 10 years, Kelsey has worked in the overlap between the environment, the arts, and social movements, and spent the past year reporting on the intersection of arts, artists and the environment in the Arctic while completing her graduate degree in journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Since joining Future Earth in June 2018, she continues to make connections in this realm and develop her own practice as an environmental artist.  

A few years ago, I found myself longing for something I couldn’t find. As a playwright dedicated to addressing climate change in my work, I wanted to meet artists and practitioners from other disciplines who shared my interests so together we could think big thoughts and figure out how to make our work better, more collaborative, inclusive, and impactful. Since I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I created it.

The transition to a sustainable way of life will require a cultural shift. Many of our entrenched beliefs and values in the industrialized West are impeding progress and leaving us ill-equipped for the massive disruptions awaiting us, or already wreaking havoc. But artists can help. Some of the most influential culture-shifters have been artists. Again and again, we have planted the seeds that have led to significant social change. Think of the Women’s Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently, same-sex marriage. These battles were not solely won in courthouses. They were first won in homes and offices and on the street because for years artists laid the groundwork for change that eventually forced the government to take action.

I wasn’t around for the Women’s Suffrage movement or the Civil Rights movement but I have embraced the Sustainability movement as the challenge of my generation. So in 2017, I created the Artists & Climate Change Incubator – a 5-day intensive workshop for artists, activists, scientists, and educators who want to engage, or further their engagement with climate change, through artistic practices. Held every summer in New York City, the Incubator provides twenty participants with the opportunity to reflect on their practice, challenge their assumptions, and interact with accomplished guest speakers from the arts, humanities, and sciences. Previous guest speakers have included Kate Marvel, Associate Research Scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Courtney St. John, Director of Energy Transition at Climate Nexus, and; Branwen Williams, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the Claremont Colleges.

My role during the Incubator is to facilitate the group process; I rely on guest speakers to provide information about specific subjects. Each day is loosely organized around a central theme – Assessing Where We Are, Engaging With the Anthropocene, Expanding Our Definitions, Leaning New Vocabularies, and Dreaming the Future – and features either a presentation or a panel conversation in the morning followed by group exercises and discussions in the afternoon. We cover topics such as: strategies to effectively engage communities in thinking about climate change through the arts; ways to take the arts out of traditional venues to reach underserved populations; how to develop collaborative projects with non-arts partners to achieve specific goals, and; how to energize audiences and create greater engagement with local climate change issues.

Participants of the 2018 Incubator act in a short play developed by fellow participants. Photo: Lani Fu.

I expected most participants to be local and from the arts world but to my surprise they came from all over – US, Canada, France, UK – and represented a wide range of disciplines including activism, circus, environmental sciences, fiction, film, journalism, leadership studies, music, opera, physics, theatre, sculpture, sustainability, and visual arts. (I had to expand the definition of who the Incubator was for as people I never imagined would be interested kept asking me if they could attend.) These multiple perspectives made for rich conversations. We reached across silos, and learned from our guests and each other. After five days, we went out into the world with more tools to effect change, and more potential collaborators to do it with. Afterwards, some of us have remained in touch and a few have collaborated on new projects. We continue to support each however we can.

Building the Sustainability movement will require all of us to work synergistically. To that end, I conceived of the Incubator as a petri-dish that encourages cross-disciplinary curiosity and collaboration, and models on a small-scale what we need to achieve on a large scale. I hope it can help build the momentum we so desperately need for the Sustainability movement to be successful.