What does the intersection of art and environmental activism look like? Along with Lina Dib and Tony Day, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University, recently created Fossilized in Houston. Fifteen local artists were commissioned to produce images of species endangered by climate change. These images were then used to create lawn signs and thousands of posters and stickers that are being distributed throughout Houston in a guerilla public art campaign. Each week between March and July 2015, a new species makes its appearance. The goal is “to contribute to an enhanced intellectual and emotional awareness about climate change and the ongoing mass extinction, and hopefully push decision-makers in energy companies, city planners and individual citizens to reconsider collectively destructive yet normative behaviors.”
Where did the idea for Fossilized in Houston come from?
Distantly, it probably came from growing up amidst lots of amazing street art in New York City in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and then later on from my interest in the Situationists. More recently, moving to Houston and teaching about climate change was definitely eye-opening, because in Houston, the “Energy Capital of the World,” you can’t pretend that fossil fuels don’t power our lives like you can in many places. How can climate change be so urgent, yet so absent from daily life? Absence enables avoidance, and avoidance leads to business as usual. Scholars like Kari Norgaard have covered this topic in great depth, and my book Peak Oil is interested in it as well, but I suppose this project is a modest attempt to combat that absence.
Our hope is that the repeated reminders that our images provide, especially when people are exposed to this issue when they least expect it—waiting in line for coffee, driving around their neighborhood, in the bathroom of their favorite bar on a Saturday night—will contribute to the necessary shift in consciousness. It’s emotional, as it should be. Change is never as simple as “x sees this, and does y;” it’s an aggregate, and we’d like to be one small part. But consciousness-raising is only meaningful when it leads to action. The possibilities for action are endless—the nice thing about the scale of the transformation demanded by climate change is that there are lots of things people can do. Ultimately politics is what matters. Citizens of democracies (especially Texans) need to vote differently, and support or get involved with existing movements that are growing in strength. In Houston, for example, there are lots of amazing organizations that are taking on the hard work of opposing extreme extraction and fighting for environmental justice (T.E.J.A.S., Tar Sands Blockade, NoKXL). It’s only when these movements have popular support that the kind of actions required by our historical moment become possible.
If we could equal the campaign financing of all American corporations, we would create our own political party, elect some honest citizens to Congress and the Senate, begin financing the transition to renewable energy sources with the same vigor that the federal government has financed automobility and fossil fuels for decades, and then pass a constitutional amendment for public financing of elections. Less ambitiously, I’m convinced that a massive advertising campaign would have some effect. Corporatism and short-termism are two primary obstacles—the average American see thousands of advertisements each year, and they condition us to think in the short-term and to ignore anything beyond our own satisfaction (and perhaps that of our family and close friends). I might be naive, but I’d like to think that if Fossilized in Houston could regularly purchase billboards, TV air time, web ads, and sponsor radio shows and events throughout Houston it would have a real impact. You wouldn’t convert climate deniers to environmental activists, of course, but you can move people from one category on the spectrum to another—deniers to skeptics, skeptics to believers, believers to people to who support action, and those folks to active citizens and activists. There are a small number of people who just don’t care, for ideological or financial reasons, but most human beings are deeply troubled by the reports they can’t help but notice about climate change, increasingly frequent and damaging extreme weather events, and the ongoing mass extinction. That empathy for other people as well as non-human creatures is always present, but it’s dulled by routine, by social and cultural norms, and by capitalism in its various manifestations. Artists can contribute by not only helping people see that this is an issue which influences them personally, but by nurturing and encouraging empathy. That’s a powerful force for action, and that’s what we need right now, and in the days to come.
Artists are already doing a great deal to portray different aspects of this issue, and bringing that kind of intellectual and emotional awareness to audiences is key. What I’d like to see more people do is what our project tries to do—bring this work out of the galleries, theatres, and art-house cinemas, where it is accessible only by people who seek it out and can afford it, and into the streets.
More broadly, I think we need a revivification of pleasures and satisfactions that have been forgotten in the United States. Advertising and cultural expectations create a desire for a life whose pleasures and excitements are extremely carbon-intensive, based on flying and driving wherever you like and consuming whatever you want. These pleasures are fleeting, don’t make people happy, don’t create robust and resilient communities, and are incredibly ecologically destructive in aggregate. Insofar as climate change is a signal that we need to not only decrease our carbon emissions but transform our way of life, it would be interesting to see artists contribute to a counter-movement that illustrates and explores ecologically sustainable pleasures and virtues. In my book I’m critical of some aspects of James Howard Kunstler’s novel World Made By Hand, but I love the way that Kunstler tried to accomplish this. I’d love to see artists of all stripes take on this challenge.
My students definitely give me hope—the honest and earnest responses they have to learning about climate change and environmental injustice is very inspiring. Websites like yours, and similar networks of scholars, artists and activists, also give me hope. But I also believe that the conventional conception of “hope” is flawed. What it often implies, and means for many people, is that we won’t commit to action unless our desired outcome seems likely and we can feel certain that we’ll have contributed in a direct way to that outcome. If that’s the standard, people will rarely take action. I much prefer Joanna Macy’s idea of active hope—as she’s argued, “passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire,” while “active hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for.” What gives me hope is not so much waiting for the news that everything’s going to be alright, or viewing on social media what others are doing, but taking action myself.