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Arts In a climate crisis, artists have a duty to speak up – but what should they say?

Illustration by Wenting Li

From Bluffs Park on Galiano Island, you can watch the ferries chug through Active Pass, making their way between Galiano and Mayne Island. It’s the kind of view that takes away whatever breath you have left after the climb, that makes you fall head-over-heels in love with the land. How lucky we are to be here, to live in this part of the world, the author Michael Christie and I said to each other on a fine June afternoon.

But, in time, the conversation turned a little darker.

“These were alive, both of these,” Christie said, as we paused at two red cedars on his driveway. They weren’t any more. Then, a little further up, we encountered a tangled mass of trunk and dry, leafless branches – no longer standing but lying down, as if having surrendered. “Sorry, tree,” he said.

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Author Michael Christie stands under a dying red cedar tree.

Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

Galiano is about an hour-long ferry ride from Vancouver, and it’s where Christie started building a house for his family in 2013.

Clearing the driveway required a first for him: cutting down a tree. He borrowed a chainsaw, YouTubed some videos and got to work. When he was done and saw the tree’s growth rings in that stump, “it hit me that I was looking at time, at a map, a record of history, that began before I was born.”

The seed had been planted for Greenwood, Christie’s new novel, and the reason for my visit. Unlike most of the author interviews I do, this one focused a lot less on the literature and a lot more on the issue that has become what I would term a justified obsession.

As Greenwood opens, it is 2038, 10 years after the Great Withering – a wave of fungal blights and insect infestations that take down the world’s forests, triggering economic collapse and social chaos. A small island off the west coast of B.C. is one of the few remaining places in the world where trees still exist. But then, some of those start showing signs of distress.

Reading an advance copy of the book this spring, a realization sliced into me as I did the math: My son will turn 20 in 2028. From 20 to 30, the decade during which I was getting an education and backpacking through Europe and falling in love and starting a career, he would be fighting for food and air in Christie’s eerily real-feeling future.

As the book moves back further and further in time, I paid particular attention to the 2008 section, where one character, Willow, works to “halt the ongoing genocide of the great heritage forests of the Pacific Northwest.” Ongoing genocide.

“I think there should be a new word for climate-related despair,” Christie, whose children are now 10 and 6, told me in the airy, wooden home that he built. “Because I feel it more and more. I read books to my kids about animals that may not exist by the time they’re 25.”

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Michael Christie's novel Greenwood is set in a future where the mass deaths of forest has created global chaos.

Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

I, too, have grown increasingly freaked out about the kind of world we are making and leaving for our children. It is this – my justified obsession – that has taken me, over the past few months, to Galiano and many other places, both geographic and psychic.

Last year, I was standing in my kitchen one morning listening to the news, and it felt like the opening scene for a dystopian film: California was burning; B.C. was recovering from the worst wildfire season on record; a federal party leader (fringe, but still) was questioning the science of climate change; the most powerful politician on the planet was making inarticulate, imbecilic remarks. And still, I made pancakes. Just another day on Earth.

Despite the urgency of climate change – the climate crisis – it feels like humanity is dragging its feet. I am increasingly astonished at the lack of engagement on this issue. I also feel powerless. Sure, I carry around my reusable coffee mug, I discourage my son from using straws and I recycle and compost like it’s nobody’s business (“saving the planet, one toilet paper roll at a time” is my standard line). But what kind of difference, really, can I make?

I was voicing my feelings of helplessness to a friend when he pointed out that I write for a living.

Yes, but about the arts, I said. Go look around, he suggested.

I did. And what I found was encouraging – and terrifying.


Michael Christie and Marsha Lederman set out into the woods of Galiano Island.

PHOTO: JACKIE DIVES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL ��� ILLUSTRATION: WENTING LI


The science is irrefutable: the world as we know it is rapidly transforming due to human activity. Last October, a staggering United Nations report explained that we have 12 years to reverse things or we are in for a climate catastrophe, with a significantly higher risk of droughts, floods, extreme heat and mass poverty. (A more recent estimate by one of the world’s authorities on climate change suggests we have 18 months to turn things around.) Another landmark UN report out in May said that one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction. And a new UN report out this month tells us the world’s food supply is at risk.

Want to feel panic on a regular basis? Set a Google Alert for “climate change.” (“Flesh-eating bacteria cases rising due to climate change, doctors say.”)

When my friend told me to go look around, I found more than facts, though. I found art. Works of art examining this issue on a deep and meaningful level that may have the power to change minds and provoke action. And so I wondered: After all the information we have received from scientists, and all the warnings from politicians (well, some of them), is it possible that it will be the artists who can save us? If the science hasn’t registered, if the economics haven’t resonated – both of which have been laid out in chilling clarity – maybe the arts can be the planet’s white knight.

I think about being a teenager and being absolutely fixated on nuclear war – a terror that came to me not by reading the newspaper, but in large part via contemporary works of art: the films Testament and The Day After; John Wyndham’s novel The Chrysalids; the atomic bomb-themed second track of U2’s War album, Seconds (“it takes a second to say goodbye”).

For all of their cringey faults, Band Aid and Live Aid made me aware of the famine in Ethiopia, and Sun City woke me up to the apartheid issue in South Africa. “That is fiction and drama’s power; is it can make ideas visceral and emotional,” Christie says. Feelings, not facts, drive people to act.

Or, as Jeff Bridges put it when I spoke to him about this, “Artists, man. They have tremendous things to kick in as far as the health of our planet. God, absolutely. From music to paintings to movies – everything.”

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Shephard Fairey's mural Earth Justice in downtown Vancouver shows the planet at the centre of a flower, held by human hands.

PHOTO: JIMMY JEONG/THE GLOBE AND MAIL • ILLUSTRATION: WENTING LI


It was a work of art that first set off my own personal alarm bells.

I picked up Omar el Akkad’s novel American War in 2017 and was presented with a near-future in which planetary devastation has sent Americans to war with each other.

The world the novel depicts is a hellish one – and the trajectory from here to there felt very possible to me.

There’s a scene early on, in 2075, when six-year-old Sarat, who lives in Louisiana, finds in the remains of a fishing net a soggy old book called The Changing Earth – filled with maps of the world, past and present. “The new maps looked like the old ones, but with the edges of the land shaved off – whole islands gone, coastlines retreating into their continents.”

Beaches disappear, climate refugees – “the coastal displaced” – are forced to haul their families and whatever possessions they can into the centre of the continent.

Omar El Akkad's novel American War imagines how environmental collapse and opposing views about how to fight it trigger a new civil war in the United States.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail, handout

This description haunted me, even this summer as I drove past monster houses in Richmond, B.C., on a flat road separated from the Fraser River by only a grassy dyke that can be conquered in a few human steps.

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Then I watched as Shepard Fairey – best known as the creator of the iconic Obama “Hope” poster – erected a 20-storey mural Earth Justice on a downtown Vancouver office building. The work – Fairey’s tallest – depicts the planet as the centre of a flower, being cradled by human hands.

“Art can break through predispositions and not just preach to the choir,” Fairey told me, saying he considers what he does a mixture of sugar and medicine.

I thought about the masses this mural is now preaching to, a few blocks east of Stanley Park, on a main thoroughfare where countless cars emerge from the rain-forest refuge and bunch up in traffic on their way into the city.

In a giant shopping mall in Burnaby, I sought out five colourful, life-size sculptures of at-risk Canadian wildlife – made by Ocean Sole in Kenya from more than 6,500 upcycled flip-flops. It did not make me want to buy shoes.

Online, I discovered Canadian artist Benjamin Von Wong’s spectacular projects, such as Mermaids Hate Plastic, for which he photographed a model dressed as a mermaid against a sea of 10,000 used plastic bottles.

“The work is a paradox,” the Toronto-born, Montreal-raised artist told me from San Francisco, his current home base. “It’s really beautiful but it’s also really tragic.”

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There’s a question Von Wong asks in one of his behind-the-scenes videos, which are as vital to his artistic practice as the photographs themselves: “How do you get people to talk about something that is ordinary, ugly and boring?”


Watch: Artist Benjamin von Wong demonstrates how his ‘Mermaids Hate Plastic’ art project came together.


It was a perfect Cape Cod beach day, but for the assembled brainiacs I found myself with in Provincetown, Mass., nothing was more pressing than what was happening in a windowless conference room, underneath a discreet disco ball. It was not ordinary or boring, and while many beautiful works of art were referenced, the subject matter was indeed ugly. These people were there to blue-sky about averting the end of the world.

The weekend conference, Broto: Art, Science & Collaboration, was organized by Ian Edwards, a Canadian journalist turned sustainability strategist who was born and raised in Vancouver and now lives in Provincetown – a town whose fate, if things go unchecked, is to slowly be reclaimed by rising ocean water. (It was at one point in its history a Portuguese fishing colony; Broto means “sprout” in Portuguese.)

Edwards’s hope is to make Broto “the Davos of climate change,” he likes to say, referring to the annual World Economic Forum.

One thing that stood out for me that weekend was a proposal – purposely provocative, I think – issued by a panellist.

“I’m feeling a little combative,” said Lance Gharavi, assistant director of the school of film, dance and theatre at Arizona State University. While individual works of art, “however genius,” may have value, he said, they won’t do the trick. “What we need is for all art to be about climate change,” he pronounced.

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Picking up on that, Craig Altemose, executive director of the Better Future Project, told us about a church official he knows who had advised his ministers that every third sermon they give should be about climate change. Because if they don’t, he said, in 30 years, every single sermon will be about grief.

“I think we are at a point in human history where in 30 years, every piece of art will be about climate change,” Altemose said. “Because our entire world is going to be so dramatically transformed.”

Broto isn’t the only gathering of its kind; artists have been meeting all over the world, often with scientists, to consider their role in the current crisis.

“Can the arts solve climate change?” asked the invitation to a meeting of cultural leaders in Montreal in April. That event was co-organized by David Maggs, artistic director of Gros Morne Summer Music, which this week played host to a three-day “extravaganza of thinking about art, social impact and sustainability.”

In April, Canadian theatre makers from across the country gathered at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity for a summit to launch the National Arts Centre’s Climate Change: Re-imagining the Footprint of Canadian Theatre. Co-led by Sarah Garton Stanley and Chantal Bilodeau, it is looking at how theatre practices affect the planet and how changing climate affects the theatre being made.

Bilodeau, who is from Montreal and lives in New York, also runs The Arctic Cycle, which uses theatre to foster dialogue about the climate crisis.

“The idea that what the arts are supposed to do is either teach us more about the climate or make us feel worse about the climate is so bananas,” Maggs told me in Vancouver, where he lived until recently, doing his PhD and a postdoc in sustainability studies at the University of British Columbia. (Born in Newfoundland, he is now at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.)

The art has to be more than just utilitarian, he said. Commissioning plays that encourage carpooling or songs about depleting salmon stocks won’t cut it.

“The prescriptive agenda is poison to an art-making process and it usually just is really embarrassing for everybody that’s involved,” he said. “It produces bad art and it produces ineffective art.

“So how are we going to take this moment to do it well?”


In London, visitors at the Tate Modern museum walk around Ice Watch, an installation by Olafur Eliasson made of giant blocks of ice.

HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS • ILLUSTRATION: WENTING LI


In a 2005 article titled “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art”, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and one of the leading voices on climate change, wrote: “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?”

Well, they’re here. More and more, we are seeing art that engages with this issue. Since McKibben’s appeal, Avatar and Wall-E became box office blockbusters. We’re watching Our Planet on Netflix and Good Omens on Amazon Prime Video. Rapper Lil Dicky’s celebrity-studded song Earth has more than 174-million views (the clean version an additional 26-million plus). My kid knows all the words.

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And yes, there are goddamn operas, including Auksalaq by Alaskan composer Matthew Burtner, which premiered simultaneously in 2012 in various cities around the world including Montreal. More recently, composer Stuart MacRae’s opera Anthropocene premiered in Scotland in January.

You’ll find works of art about climate change this summer at the exhibitions Fast Forward at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and Open Channels, at the Ajagemo art space in Ottawa.

Still, a survey of most mainstream art suggests we live in a world that is not facing imminent catastrophe. If the arts holds a mirror up to us, as a civilization, it is more than a bit unsettling to find only the faintest reflection of the frightening reality that looms.

That’s not to say that art doesn’t have a role as respite. Give me Russian Doll any day; binge-watching that was a lot more fun than re-watching Anthropocene: The Human Epoch this summer.

But Anthropocene is exactly the kind of art we need right now. A visually spectacular, non-preachy documentary about the impact humans have had on the planet (spoiler alert: very negative), it stunned me on both viewings. The piles of tusks, representing thousands of murdered elephants, moved me to tears.

“This is not a Debbie Downer moment,” Cindy Pease Roe, who makes sculptures with marine debris cleared from beaches, told me at Broto. “It’s a Debbie Downer topic, but I am using my art to teach people about a very difficult subject.”

I have to respectfully disagree. This is as Debbie Downer as it gets. (Or, to use a term my editor coined about this project, it’s a Marshapocalypse.)

As Jay Critchley, another artist who makes work about the environment, put it to me in Provincetown: “The time to stick something on a white wall and look at it is over.”

I’m a rule-follower by nature, but when it comes to this, I am all for an element of protest and dissent. And I think shocking people into action with a depiction of devastation – real or imagined – is called for.

One Arctic Cycle initiative, Climate Change Theatre Action, commissions 50 professional playwrights to write five-minute plays. For CCTA 2019, Vancouver’s Neworld Theatre’s artistic director Marcus Youssef submitted a script for Dust.

It’s 2119, after a climate catastrophe. The funeral industry and Silicon Valley engineers discover that burning human bodies can produce high energy yields. So they go for it. But after they burn through the billions of bodies lost in the environmental calamity, they need more. So farms are constructed where humans are bred for this purpose, kept in small pens, with hands, feet and teeth removed. “It’s dystopian satire,” Youssef says.

Now that’s a play I would watch.

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I see the pitfalls of art that is only doom and gloom, but, for me, exposure to a terrifying fictional future has been the most affecting experience. Being able to see a version of myself (or my child) in the characters has a profound effect, as in American War and Greenwood – and, even more brutally, on the TV show Years and Years.

The family drama set in the very near future is more about political despotism than climate change, but there are casual references to the disappearance of butterflies and the melting of the North Pole. The characters who occupy this world are not buzzing around in flying cars or wearing silver jumpsuits; they dress like us and have jobs like ours and live like us – until they can’t anymore.


In the documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, photographer Edward Burtynsky's haunting landscapes showed how industry has transformed our planet. Here, a phosphor tailings pond is shown near Lakeland, Fla., in 2012. To extract phosphates for fertilizer, thousands of hectares in this part of Florida have been stripped clean of wildlife, leaving phosphate-rich tailing ponds like these where only green algae can flourish.

PHOTO: © EDWARD BURTYNSKY, COURTESY NICHOLAS METIVIER GALLERY, TORONTO • ILLUSTRATION: WENTING LI


It’s easy to dismiss celebrities as not-the-experts on climate change. But you can’t argue with the megaphone that comes with fame. People magazine might not rush to publish an exclusive article announcing a documentary about the Great Bear Rainforest – but when Ryan Reynolds is the doc’s narrator, it triggers an exclamation-mark worthy headline. “Ryan Reynolds’ Latest Project Takes Him Home to Canada – and Surrounds Him with Bears!”

If there’s any question about the power of celebrity to bring attention to this issue, consider the f-bomb-laced rant by Bill Nye (the Science Guy) about the planet being on fire; it has been viewed millions of times.

Or Lil Dicky’s Earth. “Honestly, everybody,” the rapper says in his song’s extremely watchable video, “Scientists are saying that we have about 12 years to turn this environmental crisis around or we’re screwed. What do you say? You guys want to save the world?”

That is a message I want my kid to hear.

Climate change-combating organizations are also harnessing the power of celebrity.

Greenpeace Canada got dozens of Canadian artists – including Neil Young, Pamela Anderson and k.d. lang – to endorse a pact for a Green New Deal.

“It’s becoming painfully obvious every day how atrocious this issue is and how quickly it’s galloping towards us,” Rufus Wainwright, who also endorsed the pact, told me from Berlin.

He says he has gotten flak in the past because of his political views; some people think musicians should stay in their lanes. “But with the climate change debate, I think it’s different,” he says. “The fact that I can reach so many more people with my message, it really becomes a numbers game.”

Actor and musician Jeff Bridges.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Jeff Bridges was preparing for the release of the climate-change documentary Living in the Future’s Past, which he narrated and produced, when he had what he described to me as “a firsthand experience with the whole climate thing.” He lost his Santa Barbara home in a mudslide triggered by wildfires. “We got four feet of mud in our house; wiped our house out completely,” he recalled.

I asked whether he felt an obligation to make art about this issue, given the platform his fame offers.

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“It’s a combination of responsibility, but it’s kind of like love too,” he answered. “My wife comes to mind. I have a responsibility to be a good husband, but it’s also a joy, a pleasure. I love my wife. So doing things in her favour, that’s in my favour, too; it’s makes me feel good." (As if we needed another reason to love the Dude.)

During our conversation, he pointed out that this is not just a fight that famous people should be waging. “Celebrity is one of the arrows in my quiver,” he said. “But we all have something to lend to this [project] of creating a beautiful planet that we’re going to want to hand over to our kids and grandkids.”


Artist Douglas Coupland's art installation Vortex is cobbled together from plastics found in the ocean, as well as a Japanese fishing boat lost during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and found on the shores of Haida Gwaii in 2017.

PHOTO: DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL • ILLUSTRATION: WENTING LI


Even if we’re reaching a tipping point in terms of critical mass, the effectiveness of art as a change agent is another story. Still, I have heard some encouraging reports from artists on the frontlines.

I asked Douglas Coupland about the response to Vortex, his Pacific Garbage Patch-themed art installation at the Vancouver Aquarium.

“Everyone who’s ever taken a kid there in the last year is like ‘Doug, Doug’” – everybody wants to talk about it. “You do any show anywhere it has some effect, but this one really seems to have struck a nerve.”

Striking a nerve with children and youth seems particularly important, since they’re going to be the ones managing this disaster pretty soon.

Von Wong’s team surveyed people at his Strawpocalypse installation, where more than 168,000 used plastic straws were collected to create The Parting of the Plastic Sea. Although 90 per cent of people who saw it said they were previously aware of the environmental impact of plastics, 80 per cent of visitors indicated a change of heart about how they viewed the problem.

Or consider this story I heard from Alanna Mitchell, who turned her book Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis into a one-woman work of theatre.

After a performance at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, she was speaking with an audience member when she noticed an obviously emotional man a few feet away. He approached and asked if he could hug her. “He was sobbing,” Mitchell told me. “And he said: ‘I’m a climate scientist. And I’ve never learned how to talk about this stuff.’”


'Trees warp time' reads a sign on the walls of Michael Christie's writing shed.

Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

In the middle of my climate-art immersion, life – and work – went on. I saw two plays at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, both excellent, but I walked away those nights thinking, “Yes, but climate change.”

And while I ripped through both seasons of Fleabag and didn’t think about the apocalypse even once, I have mostly been consuming art and reconsidering, through a new lens, art that I’d already seen.

The ambiguous apocalypse in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The waters of Venice rising in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Even the fragility of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures, currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery. And Christian Marclay’s The Clock, at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver. What are we ticking toward, I wondered in the dark.

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When I visited Christie on Galiano, on the opposite coast from Provincetown, I noticed a piece of paper on the wall of his little writing shed. “Trees warp time” it says. It’s thumb-tacked next to a window, the view green with trees, everywhere. I imagined Greenwood’s 2038. What will we see outside our windows not even 20 years from now?

I asked Christie that day about his hopes for his novel. He said he would like to resensitize people to the wonder of trees.

I returned home that evening and paid a new kind of attention to the maple tree across the sidewalk outside my house. I turned the hose on it – it hadn’t rained in ages – and I really studied it. I remembered witnessing its planting, after its dying predecessor was cut down by a city crew. I thought about how in winter it sheds its leaves, allowing me a peek-a-boo view from my bedroom window of the mountains – less snow-topped than when I moved into this house just over a decade ago. Today, that maple is flourishing and rich with foliage. And I am more sensitized to it – full of, yes, wonder. For that, I’ll credit the tree, but also the novel, the work of art, that brought it to life for me in a new way.

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