Through the Eyes of a Climate Artist

Artist statement for Mountain Film in Telluride, 2014. by Carter Brooks

 the late 1990s, while my brother, Cameron, was assistant director of 
Mountainfilm, I was a regular. So I’m excited to return after 
more than a decade’s hiatus, and it’s fortuitous that the word in the 
air this year is “wilderness.” Cameron wrote his senior college paper 
on the Wilderness Act, perhaps inspired by a class we both took with the legendary philosopher-turned-environmental-historian Bill Cronon. Cronon taught us how our mental concept of 
wilderness and nature affected how we manifest ourselves on the 
landscape, whether we were conscious of it or not.

 year was 1988, and climate change wasn’t yet on my radar. In fact, it 
was just stepping onto the public stage. The IPCC was formed that year, 
and Jim Hansen gave his now-historical first testimony on climate change
 before the U.S. Senate. A year later, Bill McKibben published the first 
book on the subject for the general public, The End of Nature,
 in which he pointed out the surreal realization that an 
untouched nature wasn’t possible anymore, now that we’ve changed the 

 the intervening years, things have, well, changed. Last year, just a 
few weeks before my twenty-fifth reunion, CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere 
passed 400 ppm. We’ve set the atmosphere back 2 million plus years to a 
different geologic epoch. We talk daily and matter of factly 
about the ice cap melting and measuring carbon footprints, while 
bemoaning humanity’s tendency not to take action until the consequences are obvious — when they are dire and already upon us.

 of Cronon’s class are as relevant as ever when it comes to climate 
change, not just for the profound challenge to our idea of nature it 
implies, but also because those ideas shape our response. Perhaps this
 is seen most clearly in the way our concept of nature as a symbol of 
virtue results in an incredible overemphasis on what individuals can 
personally, virtuously, do to “save” it. This, unfortunately, comes at the 
expense of focusing on systematic changes. We can see it play out in 
the public conversation, the vitriol of the political spat, right down 
to neighborly tensions over SUVs versus Priuses.

 metaphors in language unrelated to nature also shape our actions. Think
 about the dominant conceptual metaphor: “Change is motion.” We speak of
 climate change as “speeding up,” having “momentum,” and are even so 
bold as to suggest the goal is to “stop” climate change. For substantial 
natural changes a big rolling boulder comes to mind. Our general 
call for mass behaviour change is, in a way, an organizational principle 
that is a natural entailment of this metaphor. We can conceive of 
“stopping” climate change because we can imagine the boulder coming to 

 truth, I daresay, is more complex — a bit more sobering, too. A 
better metaphor might be a big wave. In fact, truly wrapping our head around it may require taking the advice of the great Donella Meadows to “be 
unattached in the arena of paradigms.” She was speaking about leverage 
points in systems. But I think what she was getting at was that in 
order to see complex systems truly requires a profound act of letting 
go: “It is in the space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have 
impacts that last for millennia.” And isn’t that the current challenge?
 To have an impact on the situation on a millennial scale?

of the roles of artists is to look at things differently. So, when I, as
 climate artist, look at the current global event, I don’t see a 
“problem,” for which there are “solutions.” I think civilization has a 
“situation,” or, as the kindred souls at the Dark Mountain Project put it recently, a 
“predicament.” It doesn’t imply solutions; it implies evolution. I 
don’t see a bunch of individuals not 
changing behavior. I see a civilizational organism metabolizing the earth’s 
stored energy. I see hundreds of millions of years of the earth’s 
stored photosynthesis risen up and animated at once in the form of a 
sort-of-industrial meta-being. With a big sugar pile that no one can 
guard. That’s not a problem that can just be solved. It, perhaps, 
implies a different sort of response.

For this reason, I like to talk about climate art as an art and a 
philosophy. The art is to come at the situation from a different angle.
 The philosophy, well, that’s a longer conversation…

wilderness at this moment may be about softening our focus on time. The wild being in me is haunted by the images David Breashears showed 
us years ago in the Sheridan Opera House of the Himalayan glaciers’ dramatic deflation. 
Living geology passing before our eyes. To find the wild in ourselves 
is to find the dignity of humanity from that time when the energy 
efficiency of our body was our advantage on the shelterless plain. With that dignity, be present and bear witness. See 
the eons of time dissolving into the air and melting before you, 
and marvel at the responsibility and excitement of being alive on the 
planet at this moment.

—Carter Brooks

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