From renewing the old to inventing the new, artists and designers are creating the materials of our future.
We’ve defined the problem, oh, how we have defined the problems of climate change, habitat loss, plastic-filled oceans, and so forth. Yes, we humans are altering the planet in ways that don’t look promising for our future, or our kids futures for sure. It’s a big call to action. See some of my earlier posts to dig further into the art and actions for climate, plastic pollution or endangered species.
However, sometimes it all seems abstract – 2 degrees celsius global temperature rise – and far away – 2030. How about things you can touch, right now, that are cool to look at, fun to use, feed the soul, and don’t create trash we can’t figure out what to do with? YES! The future is here, or at least the first tiny bits of it. What was once trash is now redefined as “raw material”, and renewable isn’t just for energy, it encompasses ingredients for daily living that grow rapidly (such as bamboo or corn).
Sustainable Materials for a Sustainable Future
I went on a search for new green materials, particularly plant- or waste-based low-carbon options. I found two that are almost poetic in their simplicity, resourcefulness and luster!
Shell Homage: Rania Elkalla
German designer Rania Elkalla created Shell Homage, a new bio-plastic from organic waste – egg shells and nut shells. The resulting material can be used to fabricate a variety of industries from art and interior design to consumable goods and jewelry. The material is also biodegradable so could help eliminate the plastic pollution problem. See more on YouTube here.
Fernando Laposse – Tomomxtle
The Totomoxtle veneer panels are made from corn husks with warm variegated tones. The whole process of farming, harvesting and creating the art and furniture with this material helps preserve heritage corn varieties and boost the economic outlook for the farmers in Tonahuixtla, a small village of Mixtec farmers and herders in the state of Puebla. This is a win on so many levels, good for people, planet and prosperity. This is what we need more of. Great design and art have the power to transform us, our communities, our world.
A low-carbon future also means using less raw materials, and using and reusing them wisely. This set of art and design touches on mining for materials in the waste ends and disposable detritus of our society.
Nick Lopez Studio
Nick Lopez turns reclaimed wood scraps into sinuous sculptures and furniture that are truly greater than the sum of their parts.
Given the plastic pollution problem, turning disposable office stationary items into glowing light fixtures sounds like a great idea. Volivik is the elegant offering from Lucs Muñoz at Spanish design studio En Pieza. Constructed of 347 Bic pens – the elegant eco chic chandelier maintains the expected reflections and sparkle of crystal. Reused clips are used in the structure also.
Averting global climate change will require materials with even more carbon cutting potential – on much larger scales. Art can help build acceptance and excitement for changes in industry, building and transportation. The high tech-low tech materials of DO|SU Studio are some I hope gain ground! Architect Doris Sung seeks to make “passive architecture active”. Sung is developing smart materials, such as thermal reactive metals, that allow building walls or other features to self-manage air flow, shading, or even assembly, in response to temperature changes. See some of Sung’s kenetic and sculptural building materials here.
These are just a few highlights to wet the appetite – for new green materials that can thread through our everyday lives. Let’s unleash the powers of our big human brains, all that renewable energy called creativity and imagination. Let’s make the Anthropocene a turning point, not the end. In a future where the world went on a carbon diet, was it dwelling on what we gave up that made us change, or did we use some of these new materials and methods as inspiration to chart new courses? I’m banking on the latter, and look forward to using my time, energy, and creativity to create, support or promote new eco art, design, travel, food, buildings, transit, and more.
Take a holiday from the “end of the world” as we know it, and explore art that shines a light on solutions for a sustainable future.
2019 included the launch of The Art of Sustainability, and began my curation of a plethora of amazing eco-inspired art. But the news and the messages throughout the year also often contained too much “doom and gloom” for the holidays. So for the Christmas-Channukah-New Year-New Decade holiday season, I decided it was time for a positivity infusion. The Art of Sustainability December 2019 and January 2020 feed focused on art celebrating solutions for our sustainable future. Project Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, Edited by Paul Hawken served as my prompt to seek out art exploring the strategies highlighted in the book. Like wine and cheese, for almost every top sustainability strategy, there’s art to go along with it, from Wind Turbines to Trains, and Educating Girls to Forest Protection. OK, I’ll admit, I haven’t seen art about Refrigerant Management (yet)*.
Let’s assume we ARE going to have a future, a bright green, shiny, amazing one; how did we get there? Maybe we tried some of the ideas highlighted in these artful visions.
The heartening thing is that these works shed light on just a few of the types of solutions that we need to create a sustainable future. The technologies, materials, and methods for our planetary salvation exist, with more are coming online every day. The key challenge is us. To save ourselves, both individually and collectively, we must act in ways that are good for each other and the planet (and by “good for the planet” I mean good for allowing our planet to maintain the temperature range, biodiversity, and clean air and water that we as humans depend on for living), and we must do so quickly. A powerful motivator for change, as it turns out, is storytelling. Rather than tales of woe, however, we need visions of a world we want to see, across all art media. Through art, what seems impossible can be made relatable, and paths to possibility can be glimpsed. Yes, we can do it! We must do it.
*If you have seen art about Refrigerant Management, I’d love to see it! Drop me a line at teresa [at] teresastern.com.
So, the science has set our metrics and our deadline; step one is to cut carbon almost in half by 2030 to avoid the worst climate scenarios. Eco-advocates have pushed for individual actions for the last 20-30 years, and Thunberg calls for governments and corporations to change. So who’s right? That’s a question that creates a false construct. There is no need to choose. All three groups must implement change; all three are, and must continue to be, interconnected to hit the carbon targets.
So, if we need all three sectors of society to change, what
does that look like?
Climate Action Trifecta
We need a trifecta of climate leadership and action – from individuals, private sector businesses and governments at all levels.
Individuals: Many concerned citizens have heeded the climate change call; personal actions range from eating vegetarian to carpooling to work, installing solar panels on our homes to downsizing our housing or amount of goods we buy, and on and on. And these collective actions have influenced the market – we see B Corporations, and Corporate Social Responsibility Reporting, and big business actions. But the rate of change has been too slow; climate change is already happening and we need help. To learn more about how you can take individual actions to cut carbon, read the action section of my post Climate Shift.
Governments: Regulations, policies and incentives must be put in place that support the private sector and foster a market that moves us toward a climate positive future. From carbon taxes to transportation and energy subsidies to renewable energy and fossil-fuel free transportation, to clean air and water regulations, we need governments to step up. 24 U.S. States have stepped up so far, so there are clear precedents for the other states and the Federal government to join, follow, or use as a starting point.
There is a lot of overlap, with common themes of personal actions from diet to transit and home energy to family size; business practices from eco-agriculture to open electric markets, and policies including carbon taxes, emissions goals, and a Green New Deal. If we all pull together in the same direction, we can cut carbon, while also boosting the economy by creating jobs, and supporting eco-friendly technologies, products and methods. It’s time for every sector and every level of society and in every corner of the globe, especially in the developed world which has the highest carbon footprint, to act and to act now.
It’s a tall order isn’t it? Cut emissions across all sectors of the economy, in order to limit warming to 1.5° degrees Celsius. We need political leadership on this issue; but we can’t wait for it (particularly in the U.S.); it’s time to act. As society changes, politics will follow.
“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
Greta Thunberg, climate activist
Trends show us slowly making progress in the right direction, but how do we speed the rate of carbon cutting? Bloomberg’s energy outlook suggests we could hit 50% of electricity from renewables by 2050 – but we will need to push hard to achieve that, and that figure doesn’t address transportation and industry emissions. We’ll have to push even harder to reach the target of reducing total emissions by 50% by 2030-2040. It is possible; we have the technology and the tools (cheaper batteries, lowering solar production prices, improving efficiency in equipment, etc.); but we will need to shift to low carbon lifestyles, business practices, policies and public infrastructure.
Art & Climate Change
So if we know we need to change, what motivates people to actually change? Two key motivators for people to make changes are personal experience with a particular issue or problem, and the belief that what we do can make a difference. Many of the artists working with the climate change topic seek to address one or both of these psychological elements.
“Can visual art affect viewer perceptions of climate change?” The answer is yes.
Prof. Christian A. Klöckner, Climart
“The Floods”, Nathalie Miebach
Nathalie Miebach uses weather data to generate 3-D sculptures. She transforms the numbers documenting changing weather patterns into colorful woven swirls of reeds, grasses, wood, paper, yarn & rope. “The Burden of Every Drop” is a visual tale of Hurricane Maria – about the fierceness of the wind and rain, about the data silence as all electrical systems broke down, about the vastly underestimates death toll, about rebuilding and about people leaving the Puerto Rico. The piece combines weather and other numerical data with anecdotal information from the news in the aftermath of the storm, with the right side representing wind data coming into a crescendo to the left as it hits Puerto Rico, represented by an unraveling quilt.
When asked about the impetus behind her weather weavings, Nathalie shared that “one of the things I have learned is that it is very difficult to get people to speak about Climate Change. It’s such a political topic that most people feel uncomfortable talking about that. I think that’s dangerous for the future of this planet and our own survival. If we don’t know how to talk about it, we won’t change and continue living as if Climate Change is a topic that only concerns scientists and politicians.” However, she found that people will share their weather stories; it’s a more personal link to climate change, often involving devastation and destruction. We experience weather every time we walk outside, and the patterns of that weather is already changing. This week alone saw a multitude of super storms across the central U.S. Is that the weather you grew up with? Extreme weather is on the rise; think what 10 or 20 more years along this trajectory might bring.
“Pollution Pods”, Michael Pinsky
Visual artist Michael Pinsky teamed up with Climart, an international climate & art research project, to create the “Pollution Pods”. The pods are an installation of geodesic domes that contain carefully mixed recipes emulating the relative presence of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide which pollute London, New Delhi, San Paolo and Beijing. The pods were envisioned as a way to provide visitors with a personal experience of climate change, and to help answer a critical question, “Can visual art affect viewer perceptions of climate change?” Per Climart’s coordinator, Prof. Christian A. Klöckner, the answer is yes. The project’s findings show that the pods “trigger strong emotional responses in the visitors through the visceral experience they provide. These emotions then seem to be an entry point into thinking about air pollution and climate change and ones role in this issue… Some people feel motivated to act.” Pinsky’s TedxFreiburg talk “Cars: It’s a Question of Culture” explores in more depth what he sees as a critical cause of the climate crisis – the combustion engine, “get rid of [those types of] cars, get rid of the pollution.” Simple in word, not in deed. Policy, urban design, transportation planning, and efficient mobility technology all need to shift to a lower carbon mode – but only if demanded by the citizens of the world.
“Greta Thunberg”, Brooke Fischer
Botanical artist Brooke Fischer combined her blooms with the a call to action from youth eco-activist Greta Thunberg, in her painting of the same name. The work embraces and celebrates the blunt but hopeful challenge in Greta’s words. Fischer states that, “We both believe that humans are in for a rude awakening if we do not take action now. We can all help the planet now.” From changes in our daily lives, to voting for politicians that support reducing emissions, to “voting with our wallets”, we do have the ability to effect change. It is our youth that will pay the highest price, which may be one reason why concern about climate change is highest among Americans aged 18-34.
“Trojan Horse: Exploring Issues Around Climate Change”, Margot Cormier Splane
Margot Cormier Splane sees art as a means to share her views with an audience. Her Trojan Horse series focuses on her concern for the environment. “Trojan Horse Follows the Money” can be summed up as profit over planet, which translates also to profit over people. Many companies, particularly large corporations, focus on stock holders and the bottom line, at the expense of all else. In fact, U.S. law requires them to do so, unless a company’s mission statement makes reference to environmental, social justice, or other philanthropic goals. Time, population growth, consumerism, habit, and inertia compound the impacts of putting profit above all else, but Cormier Splane believes we can make a difference. We know it won’t be easy, but it is vital that we take action, “because the ball is rolling, and the faster Climate Change occurs, the harder it is going to be to stop it in the future.”
Artists across the globe have embraced the climate conundrum and call on the collective “us” to make change. Our individual actions can and do make a difference. I’ll refer to Canadian academic, speaker and environmental activist extraordinaire, David Suzuki, “In a world of more than seven billion people, each of us is a drop in the bucket. But with enough drops, we can fill any bucket.” Are you ready to fill the bucket and help cut carbon? See the Top 10 Things You Can Do About Climate Change, or my own shorter version here:
Use less energy – walk, bike, bus or train to work, weatherize your home, buy efficient appliances when it’s time to replace them.
Support renewables – from asking your university or workplace to divest from carbon industries, to purchasing, supporting, invest in, and voting for renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) – to grow the pro-planet industries of the future.