Posted by: bluelanternstudio | June 1, 2009

What does art have to do with climate change?

About a year and a half ago, I came across a website that opened my eyes. It made me laugh at the audacity of its author, and to nod my head. Yes. This is great.

The site is a compendium of books. Of proposed reading, in fact. The proposer is author Yann Martel (Life of Pi) and the recipient, our prime minister, Stephen Harper (see Every two weeks, Martel personally sends Mr. Harper a book to read. He wants to expand the prime minister’s awareness of the “stillness” required to appreciate the arts (as opposed to the rushing busy-ness of say, running a country—some might say to the ground).

Fast forward to last week, when I again stumbled on a website that gave me pause for its brilliance. Conceived by British artist David Buckland, Cape Farewell recognizes that artists have a role to play in bringing about a change in consciousness about the climate crisis. He says:

Climate change is a reality. Caused by us all, it is a cultural, social and economic problem and must move beyond scientific debate. Cape Farewell is committed to the notion that artists can engage the public in this issue, through creative insight and vision.

Since 2006, the organizers of Cape Farewell have invited prominent artists from around the world to journey to the frontlines of climate change, namely the arctic. While on the expeditions, the artists interact with scientists conducting research in situ and then create their own responses to the experience. Canadian artists who participated in 2008 include Feist and Martha Wainwright. In 2009, Cape Farwell will move outside of the arctic to the Andes where:

artists and scientists will visit shrinking glaciers, Cloud Forests, lower forests, areas of deforestation & the Amazon. The location of the Andes is a new climate tipping point for Cape Farewell, this programme will take Cape Farewell to new territories, open new dialogues and allow new creative expression, all related to the effects of climate change.

 In relation to this next expedition, Yann Martel received an email. In his March 30, 2009, letter to Stephen Harper, he writes,

I had never heard of Cape Farewell, a British NGO, until an e-mail from them popped into my inbox. They were inviting me, thanks to funding by the Musagetes Foundation here in Canada, on a trip they were organizing to Peru. To explain their organization and its objectives, they offered to send me a book and a DVD. I was intrigued and so accepted. What did I have to lose? A few days later, said book and DVD arrived in the mail. I read the book, watched the DVD, checked out their website ( and promptly wrote to Cape Farewell to accept their invitation.

 As you might guess, Martel turned around and sent the book and DVD (Burning Ice) to the Prime Minister. What I particularly like about the letter is the ending:

one thing is certain: our response to climate change cannot be purely political. Politicians have been dragging their feet—you among them—because of the power of the carbon-fuel industrial complex. It is citizens who must move first and art is an ideal way to help them do that. Art wrestles with its subject matter on a level that the individual, the man, woman, teenager and child on the street, can engage with and react to. Once citizens are involved in the vital issue of climate change, politicians will have to follow their lead.

You might as well get ahead of the wave. I hope you are both moved and alarmed by Burning Ice.

Now, Stephen Harper has not yet responded to this latest offering (according to Martel’s blog, his staffers have only responded three times to the more than 50 books and letters sent), but I have hope. Because even if the prime minister doesn’t actually get around to reading any of these offerings, he is surrounded by people who might. Perhaps they get left casually on coffee tables for visitors to browse. Maybe the person who writes the correspondence slips a book home now and again to read after dark. Maybe the person who cleans out the recycling bins and vacuums the floors every evening pauses to read a paragraph or two. Moments of stillness are everywhere. And, as Martel points out so elegantly, it is people, not just select politicians, who have the power to change the world.



  1. Excellent. Inspiring. So simple, yet so profound. Both the art project and book sending project could lead to increased awareness and responsibility — if not in the PM, then in those who get to elect him, or not. Thanks.

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