Boring the World to Death

by Paul Hiebert

4 January 2010

The green movement is boring. Should environmentalism become less empirical and more emotional?
cover art

Climate Change: Picturing the Science

Gavin Schmidt

The pilgrimage to Times Square in New York City is most sacred at twilight. People of all sorts from all parts of the world, speaking in different tongues, walk through the outdoor cathedral in reverent silence. Colossal video screens project dazzling colors, which reflect off the gazing eyes of tourists and the windows of taxicabs attempting to squeeze through transfixed crowds flooding onto the streets unawares. The screens are like medieval stained-glass windows, except the images are animated and the electric sun makes them shine at all hours. Logos of banks, commercials for jeans, and trailers for the latest Hollywood film light up the night. You may occasionally hear someone cry out “Oh. My. God.” out of sheer fascination, but at other times it is over a fumbled hot dog.

On the outskirts of this modern spectacle, at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, is an art exhibit. It’s like a leper outside the temple wall; no one notices it.

The project, Climate Change: Picturing the Science, is derived from a book of the same name by Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist, and Joshua Wolfe, a climate photographer. It shows how humans are destroying the earth. Photographs of melting glaciers, shrinking lakes, and drilling rigs pillaging the landscape are fastened to the wall, covering a large section of the Port Authority Bus Terminal building. Accompanying these images are blocks of text explaining climate change, with headings like “Symptoms”, “Diagnosis”, and “Prognosis”. A graph indicates that if we do not act soon to reduce our carbon-emission rates, a bunch of multi-colored squiggly lines will rise higher over the next hundred years than if we did. There is even a large photograph of a punch card, which probably represents something very factual and scientific.

If all this sounds as exciting as a dental clinic, that’s because it is. The exhibit is dull, drab, dismal, and didactic. In comparison with the illuminated citadel of Times Square, the art project is a bitter hermit’s hovel. Times Square enchants its patrons; Climate Change: Picturing the Science is a wall to lean on while waiting for the bus.

What is baffling is that the exhibit is specifically designed to engage the masses. In the words of Schmidt and Wolfe, the show’s aim is to “present the science of climate change to the general public in ways that were both accessible and informative.” Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, who wrote the forward to the book and also directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, which funded the project, claims that “Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe have teamed up to produce exactly what we need. The book is fantastically accessible, it’s beautiful to look through and it opens up in a way that I don’t think exists in any other text.” Other reviews from the book’s website state that the project is for “anyone seeking a layman’s understanding of the science of global warming” (Popular Mechanics). And that “Schmidt and Wolfe ... provide lucid, informative discussions of the key issues in climate science and policy” (Nature Reports Climate Change).

If the exhibit’s intent is to inform the public, we can safely assume that someone, somewhere, has been informed. If the exhibit’s intent is to get the public to care, we can safely assert that this exhibit is a failure.

This is not just a problem facing Schmidt and Wolfe; this is a problem facing the green movement as a whole. The green movement is boring. And it is boring precisely because people like Schmidt and Wolfe do their darnedest to make it as factual and uninteresting an experience as possible.

Why? Perhaps they believe beauty and emotion are distractions from empirical evidence. Perhaps they believe truth is most persuasive when sterilized by technicians in a laboratory. What this exhibit does best is clarify why the movement is not achieving what it should if the earth is, in fact, in its final days.

Overall, the green movement has grown considerably in the past few decades and done much to raise public awareness about our damaging habits. It seems you can’t listen to an advertisement these days without hearing the word sustainability. Just recently, several world leaders met in New York for what New York Times UN bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar called the “highest level summit meeting on climate change convened.” Environmental reform is on the agenda.

But so are drugs, poverty, crime, healthcare, privacy, terrorism, torture, racism, abortion, education, Iran, North Korea, the economy, gay rights, animal rights, immigration policy, national debt, gun control, stem-cell research, the federal budget, dependence on foreign oil, and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The point: environmental issues must compete for attention.

When it comes to competing against Times Square, the green movement is losing. Al Gore is the movement’s Saint Paul, and he has traveled far and wide preaching the bad news via PowerPoint presentation. What Gore lacks, along with Schmidt and Wolfe, is the excitement of buying a new pair of shoes, the passion of a Broadway show, the pull of an adult-video store on a lonely Friday night.

The green movement needs a devoted congregation committed to more than just recycling Pepsi bottles or turning off their television set when no one is in the room. The movement no longer needs an informed public – it needs spiritual converts.

Across the street from Climate Change: Picturing the Science, on the Times Square side, is a billboard for the film 2012, which is about global calamity, the death and destruction of billions of lives. The tagline simply reads in bold white font against a black background: “YOU WERE WARNED.” The budget for the film is reported to be somewhere around $200 million. Why do people willfully pay to see the annihilation of civilization – of themselves – on screen, rather than pay to prevent it? Walter Benjamin once wrote that humanity’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” The earth may expire because the green movement is void of the beauty people crave.

Prophets have been warning us about the end of the world since the beginning. Most people didn’t believe them then, and we still don’t believe them today. If we have not renounced our sinful ways after centuries of urgent appeals, we need to ask ourselves: do we deserve to be saved?

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