Re-Envisioning Climate Change Through Art by Marcus Moench

You know, there needs to be passion. There needs to be art. If we can’t tell the stories that will change the world, we can’t change it. So, this is one of my newest tools for climate communications. For talking about resilience, for changing the nature of dialogue, what we think about, how we connect with people. Who am I?

My background is as a scientist. I was introduced as a scientist. I formed an international organization. We’ve worked across Asia, Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand, areas like that. We also work here, and we’re looking at what people are doing to help themselves, to respond to disasters, to adapt to climate change, to adapt to the things that affect people in their daily life. That’s who I am. My brother, who I’m collaborating with, a potter. But I think there’s something a little deeper there. We both came from a family that believes that it doesn’t matter what you do. You can do anything as long as you change the world and that’s a passion for me. The idea that we can create different forms of dialogue, connect people so that they can understand what resilience means, what the ability to adapt to something big like climate change is.

“A gas pipeline was backed into by a backhoe, it cracked open, gas poured into the creek, caught fire”

That is something that is a passion for me. We started to pull together a collaboration to say, “How can we tell this?” He’s a potter, but it’s something deeper than that. He tells stories with his wheels, he tells narratives, and the idea was to pull this together to tell the narrative of the threat, but also something about the solution, something that is artistic and playful, but that is also real, grounded in things people do, things they can do to create change. This was the first wheel my brother made. It was following a pipeline disaster in Bellingham, Washington. A gas pipeline was backed into by a backhoe, it cracked open, gas poured into the creek, caught fire. The two or three kids fishing in the creek, an 18-year-old, a friend of his neighbor, were burned to death. He thought there needed to be a way to tell this, so his art has evolved, as you can see on the screen. This is the first one he did, but it was telling the story of the pipeline disaster, and since then, he’s made another wheel to tell the story of the creek’s recovery.

In a nutshell, that’s what we’re trying to do using this. What’s the world I live in? The world I live in is full of reports and papers. I have contributed on things to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Those reports are read by another emu. There are five or ten people who read the details of all of it. It doesn’t communicate to everybody and it doesn’t give that tangible sense of what we can really do. But the ideas that we’ve put into these, these actually are grounded. They’re grounded in beauty and ceramics, which is static, but is mobile as a story, but also grounded in real change, what people actually can do in response to things that are often very daunting. I don’t know how you feel, but when I look at climate, I often feel tremendously disempowered.

What am I supposed to do? These governmental, the global processes, are distant, intangible, very difficult to connect with. The meanings generate political divisions. But on the other hand, there are many things that I see from my work where people are doing things. When I look at the grand narrative, emissions and climate, there’s very little I can do. But when I begin to look at the details, when I begin to say, “if I have a fear of falling, the way many people often do in the world, what else can be done?” This is the kind of narrative that has to be changed. So, as I look at it, I go through the elements of the threat. I see things like groundwater overdraft. I’ve lead the groundwater review for India at one stage in my life. There’s tremendous over-pumping. It’s the same in California. You get in the image, art can tell a picture in a way that a picture can’t. This is a well in Southern India, ten by ten meters square, a hundred meters deep, eighty more wells in the bottom: totally dry.

“About 90% of the people there have raised their houses by one to three meters”

What can you do about that? This is the type of thing that we hear fear of regularly: flooding, disaster. That narrative is one that is often locationally grounded in specifics. If I showed this picture everybody would think, “It’s India, that happens all the time,” but on the other hand, I was standing on my porch in Boulder a few years ago, and it felt the same: tremendously disempowering. But in India, Northern India, where I’ve worked in the Gangetic basin, about 90% of the people there have raised their houses by one to three meters. It’s not rocket science, and they’re actually able so that they’re not losing every asset every year. That’s a huge change, it’s incremental, and it’s been made by people who are individuals doing it, acting in the space that they have.

They can control their houses, even if they can’t control the global narrative. We look at fire. There were the Australian fires a few years ago, there are the California fires now. It’s a global thing. And yet, the response is real. There are things we can do, and many of them are. If you look in Colorado at the rebuilding, there are changes in the housing design. It’s being driven by individuals, and this is a huge solution space. It’s not solving all of the problems, but it is solving an element, and if we can get individual solutions to emerge, and can recognize them and change our narrative, we can actually create large solution spaces. It’s not going to solve everything, but then we can be open to innovation on those problems that we don’t have solutions for. It’s growing those. The drought issues, you take a picture like this that communicates across Asia. You take a reality like this, it’s California. You take the growth of cities and the tremendous pollution, but there are other ways of envisioning cities.

“If we can monitor, then we can correct what other people are doing”

And here, this is where we get our fear often. This is the idea that we live based on systems, that everything is flowing up from the roots of the tree, and that that’s under tremendous threat. So the idea is to see the problem, but also find the solution, and find that through play, find that through other things. Part of it is being a little reverent about the world we live in. Part of it is playing, being out there experiencing it. Part of it is study, in a playful manner. Being able to understand the migration patterns, the other beings that live in this world with us. Part of it is monitoring and if anything, that’s a dull topic, but it’s an important one. You look at a monitoring station like this, which happens to be Rawalpindi in Pakistan on floods. It seems distant, but that is what empowers us and kids, monitoring things to change. If we can monitor, then we can correct what other people are doing. We can stop people who are filling in the wetlands, stop people who are damming the rivers in places, or address the questions of pollution.

We’ve just heard things about VW, for example. We can also innovate, changing water, looking at energy approaches, community engagement, lots of things like that. This is where we can re-envision our cities. We’ve worked globally on re-envisioning cities and it’s been a collaborative process of many people looking at how you can build resilience in cities. It’s often through those tousand 1% solutions. It’s through people changing design, learning to live with water, telling that story. It’s also through those simple solutions. I talked about people in North India raising houses. Well, it’s happening here as well. If you look up in Lyons where the flooding was, if you look in New Orleans, it’s not rocket science. It’s raising a house, designing it to live with water. This is happening in Boulder.

It’s just a local move; it’s probably not a big solution, but it’s going to keep this apartment building from flooding the next time, perhaps. So it’s innovating. In South Asia, it’s often harvesting water from the rooftops. That’s the same in Australia. It’s recharging the ground water. All of these are part of a mosaic of solutions, and to me, it’s experiencing it, getting out there and being in contact, and it’s telling that story in a way that you can see it, so it’s not this distant cloud of climate change, it’s today’s activities on the ground, things that people can do themselves adding up that can make a huge difference, and then pair down the global problems to a place where they’re much more tractable. So it’s that re-envisioning the systems, remembering that everything we depend on, the food, the energy, the water, it’s not as though we’re going to get rid of old systems. Many of those are needed, they’re essential. But it’s also the slight shift in balance and telling that story.

“Somebody in Germany took a power station and changed it into a playground, and shifted the energy balance”

How instead of talking individually, we can talk as groups. How we can choose to have local agriculture, how we can choose to have local water management, how we can build those pieces that add resilience to society. That’s to me the story that needs to be told because it’s one which empowers people, it’s one which tells people that it’s actually the solution that’s within their grasp not someone else’s. This is something where working with artists has been a delight. It’s not just my brother who I’ve worked with, it’s others as well. This is another; somebody in Germany took a power station and changed it into a playground, and shifted the energy balance. It’s reusing, all of that aggregating upwards. We’d like anyone who’s interested to put in their ideas, because I think the power of art is inspiring. It helps people put in their ideas of what can be done at different levels, and that’s how you build real solutions. So for me, art is a passion, but it’s also a mechanism for getting real change.

If we can’t envision a different future, if we can’t believe in it as hopeful, how can we create it? To me, that is part of the solution. This is a water wheel that my brother also made. He’s at a reception right now for an environmental award in Bellingham based on some of his work around this. The idea of communicating, getting change going, getting people passionate through something that’s tangible. The world is electronic now, and yet, I’m carrying the original word processor, or at least one of them. You know? And my wife would kill me for having the pen in my pocket. It is that tangibility, and with clay, you can touch it, you can feel it, you can move it, and you can take your ideas, put them inside, as the Tibetans do with prayer wheels, and have them accumulate. Those can go out electronically, but you’ve done something physical.