Butterfly Effects

How can arts organisations respond to the crisis of a changing planet?

‘Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary’ by Rafael Saldaña. (CC BY 2.0)

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

It’s a cliché that arts organisations are forever keen to attract more young people into their audiences. Within the ranks of today’s youth are the core supporters of tomorrow.

We’d also like the think that the arts can help young people to navigate life’s biggest challenges. But what should arts organisations do when today’s youth has a future that, in some key respects, looks to be considerably worse than now?

During a summer of heatwaves and widespread wildfires, a new climate change report has made headlines by outlining the scenario of a ‘Hothouse Earth’. It’s the latest in a long series of scientific warnings to bring sobering clarity to what is surely the defining issue of our time.

But it may not seem so defining in our day-to-day lives. Like most people, I tend to focus on more manageable and tangible worries. I might feel guilty about taking the occasional flight, or tell myself that being vegetarian means I’m helping the planet. But I also know that meaningful action on climate can only come with large-scale forces too – international agreements, legislation, technological innovation.

The implications of the issue can leave us feeling overwhelmed. But what I’m interested in is how the arts can best prepare for, and respond to, the radical changes that are already happening to our planet. These will increasingly affect the lifetime of today’s young adult.

I encourage you to read the report. It’s not overly long, and is mostly comprehensible to a layperson. And what it forecasts is an increasingly dynamic, disruptive and dangerous phase of human history.

Furthermore, the changes the report calls for are dizzying in scale – all the more so coming from the measured arena of science. What is required is ‘a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies’.

In other words, combatting climate change is not just about switching from fossil fuels to solar and wind. It’s about storytelling, and how we perceive our place in the world:

Human societies and our activities need to be recast as an integral, interacting component of a complex, adaptive Earth System.

And perhaps this is where the arts have a role to play. I don’t think the arts can be instrumentalised to solve problems, but – to steal a line from Tom Stoppard – they can nudge the world a little. They can help to shape to our sense of collective self.

Back in 2015 I wrote about John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a modern orchestral work partly inspired by climate change, which has achieved remarkable popularity.

From Mendelssohn to Frank Bridge, a lot of music about the sea has reflected our inner human drama, through contrasting its stillness and storms. But in Become Ocean we hear nature instead as a huge, gradual process. The music slowly rises and falls across 40 minutes – a vast formula playing out. It immerses us in a mesmerising logic, one terrifyingly indifferent to our daily obsessions.

The implicit warning, as this vision fades away, is that we’ve unleashed new energy into this system. From Miami to the Maldives, rising seas now imperil millions. We really have become ocean.

Admittedly, I’ve always been fascinated by natural processes, big and small. I named this website after a botanical term for an arrangement of berries or flowers, which was used by Edmund Rubbra to title the first movement of his piano concerto. That beautiful work starts with the branching of startlingly spare arpeggios, before blossoming into a series of bright and elaborate episodes.

But what’s clear from the report is that complex natural processes should be everyone’s concern. The composer Arlene Sierra has returned to such themes repeatedly. Her recent Nature Symphony reworked ideas from a previous composition for piano trio called Butterflies Remember A Mountain. This was inspired by the annual migration of the Monarch butterfly, some populations of which overwinter in central Mexico from as far north as Canada. Remarkably, this feat is achieved over several generations – the butterflies lay eggs along the way.

‘I took very fragmentary, tiny fluttering ideas and put them in a big cyclical, migratory form’, Sierra said in an interview with Rheingold. But she is clear that her artistic fascination with nature also carries a warning:

I don’t see how anyone living today can fail to realise the urgency of what is going on with the natural world and what we human beings are doing to change things. I have a little boy now […] and I’m so conscious of how different the environment is from when I was a child.

The meteorologist Edward Lorenz once noticed that tiny changes to his weather modelling resulted in remarkable differences in results. He famously commented that a butterfly wing might well lead to a tornado, and this popular notion of a ‘Butterfly Effect’ went on to be a key principle in chaos theory. It’s something that appeals on a human level, allowing us to marvel at the mysterious interconnectedness of the world.

But the hard science behind such complex cause-and-effect, when it comes to our own activities, does not so readily appeal. The stern warning of the recent climate report is that global warming may soon lock us into a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway – by triggering natural feedback loops that release further greenhouse gases as the planet warms, escalating climate change beyond our control. Such feedback factors include thawing permafrost and increased bacterial respiration. In the minutiae of field measurements and datasets, the future habitability of our planet lies.

All this considered, I feel it’s important that artistic preoccupations with nature are not seen as a mere subject, genre, or area of personal interest. A nature symphony is a human symphony. The failure to build our lives around the sustainability of the ‘complex, adaptive Earth System’ and our willingness to sacrifice it for short-term gains has brought us to this crisis. As the report forlornly notes:

The present dominant socioeconomic system […] is based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use.

None of this is to say that art works based on purely human relations are any less important. On the contrary, the arts will be needed more than ever in this century to offer hopeful visions of the future under increasingly testing climate conditions.

‘Ruggedisation’ is a word that’s used to describe societies adapting to withstand more extreme environments. Perhaps we could think of the arts as providing a kind of ‘cultural ruggedisation’ – which might be applicable in all sorts of ways.

One likely prospect of climate breakdown is the large-scale migration of peoples from the worst affected areas. As this happens, there will be an ever-greater need for the arts to humanise unfamiliar cultures, to build connections and empathy through exploring difference. Given Europe’s current political situation in this regard, it seem this work can never be finished.

By the same token, arts organisations will need to think about whether they unwittingly contribute to a narrative of historic identity which can be weaponised by those who want to build walls and sow division. As Donald Trump recently boasted: ‘we write symphonies’. For a much more enlightened and forward-thinking exemplar in classical music, we could look to the endlessly collaborative Kronos Quartet. Their recent album saw them pair up with the Malian Trio Da Kali.

Art will need to help us come to term with loss, and imagine what new ways of living might be. It can also act as a humane balancing force to the excesses of tech-utopian thinking, as revolutions in information technology are already shaping our public life in profound and sometimes disturbing ways.

Nonetheless, there is some irony in the fact that this very modern crisis echoes some of our earliest religious stories. The hubris of man meets with retribution from the heavens. But in the earth sciences, looking to the past can help us to understand the potential future. Some processes play out over mind-boggling periods of time.

The title of Butterflies Remember A Mountain is inspired by a hypothesis about a strange diversion in the Monarch migration route, a swerve which occurs as they fly over the Great Lakes. One theory is that an impassable land-mass may have once stood in their way, and that this kink in their journey still remains long after it has eroded.

Has ancient geography left an imprint in the behaviour of an insect? It’s another charming idea. But when it comes to contemplating our own long-term legacy, the outlook is considerably gloomier. What’s more, the climate report makes the case that our collective moment contains a depth of jeopardy that is truly chilling:

[…] we argue that social and technological trends and decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and potentially lead to conditions that resemble planetary states that were last seen several millions of years ago, conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species.

Of course, the science has its caveats and margins for error. And the report notes recent forward steps, such as the Paris Accord. But the imperative is clear: radical changes are needed at an unprecedented rate, while a degree of painful disruption is promised either way. Notions of gradual progress – the stuff of conventional politics and common sense – have become existentially dangerous.

It may be that an arts organisation’s much-coveted young person is better attuned to this reality than a senior arts administrator. After all, an 18-year-old today was a baby when President Bush pulled the USA out of the Kyoto Treaty, and a changing climate is all they know. For their entire life, ominous phrases like ‘warmest ever on record’ and ‘even faster than previously thought’ have periodically surfaced in an ocean of news, while politicians have repeatedly failed to rise to their challenge. 

We are all butterflies in the proverbial tornado, putting new energy into the system. Our world of tomorrow is quickly looking less and less like the one of yesterday, and now is the time for bold visions of a different future.

Tackling and adapting to climate change is undoubtedly a problem of vast magnitude that leads to unwelcome challenges in how we live. But it demands profound thought, care and attention in all aspects of our lives. We need the combined forces of both insects and oceans. No effort can be too big, nor can it be too small.

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Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene can be read here