I unmute my mic to say something I don’t know how to say, something I’m afraid to say: perhaps what we need to survive is not only science but also art. To engage not just the mind but also the body, the emotion, perhaps even the spirit. Words that sing and bemoan the beauty and pain; sentences that ask us to not look away from all that is breaking in front of us; poetry that places the fragility of everything at stake within our hands to feel; stories that give us a shoulder to grieve on; indigenous wisdom that helps us reimagine what tomorrow can become.
The fellows nod their heads: this is not a new idea. Art has helped our ancestors survive for centuries. The spirituals my grandparents sang picking cotton; the Harlem Renaissance novels my great aunt read through the Depression; the jazz my uncle listened to growing up in Jim Crow Arkansas. Art gives us the strength we need to endure yesterday and today.
It also invites us to see the everyday beauty we often overlook. Passenger pigeons murmurating in circles above the elm canopy for no reason other than to swim in sunlight. A red tail hawk hunched in the black oak crown as a gray squirrel unknowingly climbs towards him. A migrant monarch butterfly that flew thousands of miles only to rest for a few brief seconds on your concrete window sill.
“Art can’t save the world, but it can definitely change it.” This is the response from French street artist JR when I asked him in November about art’s potential to help people care more, to do for our planet what science and data haven’t been able to. “The way art changes the world,” he continued, “is that it changes the perception you have about that world, about a place or community. And in doing so, you can start to act differently.” He’s one of Time’s Most Influential People, with art projects across the globe: in favelas in Brazil, public housing in Paris, a prison in California, at the Mexican-American border. And yet, he hasn’t done any projects around climate change.
We need artists like JR to tell the story of our natural world. “But his focus is on people,” my friend Waqas says, after chatting with JR at his New York movie premier. “But people and nature can’t be separated,” I respond. Waqas agrees and says he will try to tell the story about both together, through the art exhibition he’s just launched, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
We have to try and it won’t be easy. As if we’re starting over, returning to our most indigenous and ancestral selves. To tell the story of the forest, WS Merwin writes, we will have to learn to speak in a forgotten language. We will have to learn, in the words of an ecologist friend, the “unintelligent wisdom” of the nonhuman community. We will have to learn, as biologist and Potawatomi member Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, the “grammar of animacy”: that we are surrounded by a living world and not just a collection of objects. Learning this language and wisdom and grammar is not straightforward, but we have Kimmerer and Merwin and our ancestors (human and nonhuman) to guide us.
This is not just a call to action for the capital-A artist. We each have the ability to create. In the words of Mary Oliver: “Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” This is a call to uncover that desire. To create whatever it is that gives us joy, hope, consolation, strength. Whatever it is that helps us celebrate (and/or grieve) today. For my parents it’s tending their small garden in Northern California. For my brother it’s writing a script about a Black drag queen trying to make it in Hollywood. For one of my best friends it's creating food products from an ancient Ethiopian grain called teff. For a Public Voices Fellow like Miranda it might be writing about her favorite tree, a hike she loves, her family’s history in a place.
None of these will save the world, but perhaps, as JR says, they can each change the world. Or a world, the ones that my parents and brother and best friend live in. These small acts of creation not only help them grieve and hope, they might also allow them to touch the energy needed to reimagine and recreate a better tomorrow.
Yes, it’s optimistic. But here’s a reality: the opposite of destruction is creation. And in a world falling apart from relentless destruction, we need a paradigm shift towards creation.
Finally, this is also a call to entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Last month, an impact investor wanted my opinion about an upcoming panel he was moderating. He laughed when I suggested he ask about art. “Tell me how I’m gonna make that fly, man?” he said. I tried to explain, and failed. Here’s what I wish I’d said: we need philanthropists to accept that not everything can be counted by revenue and expenses and lives impacted and ROI. You can’t always put a yardstick next to a changed mind. If what we need is a novel mindset, then the tools to get there need to be different. Even our more modern tools, like impact investing and sustainable finance, need to be updated.
“To be native to a place, we must learn to speak its language,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes. We are native to this place. It’s the only home we’ve ever had. It’s time we remember how to speak its language.
Benje Williams is Cofounder of Understory, a nonprofit with a mission to restore forest landscapes, and a writer working on his first book. He has an MBA from Stanford and is a Public Voices fellow with the Op Ed Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. His website is benjewilliams.org.
Photo caption: Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest, installation of 49 Atlantic white cedars in NYC’s Madison Square Park after dying from rising sea water in New Jersey’s 1.1M acre Pine Barrens