In the academic world of our forward thinking and innovative universities, why should a broad over-arching societal issue such as climate change be confined to the department of environmental science? The environmental changes will certainly impact us all, therefore our learning institutions are starting to look at ways to bring in a broad spectrum of subjects into the dialogue, hoping to stimulate different ideas and new ways of dealing with the climate crisis.
On Oct. 30, five distinguished scholars from the University of California system met in a symposium setting to discuss how the humanities can be incorporated to the climate change discourse. Two of these professors were from UC Berkeley: Robert Hass, a poet laureate and environmental studies professor, and Carolyn Merchant, environmental ethics, philosophy and history professor. Also included were Timothy Morton of UCD, Michael Osbourne of UCSB and Robert Watson of UCLA.
The goal was to discuss the ways the humanities can become involved in climate change discussion in an institutional setting like the UC system. While this is a very important topic, the most intriguing portions of the dialogue dealt with the ability of the arts to promote the healing of the human psyche in the face of crisis.
The very mention of global warming in today’s society triggers feelings of apocalypse and impending societal collapse. The notion that the planet is already heating up sparks feelings of anxiety and fear, yet these feelings seldom have an outlet of release. These feelings of anxiety and helplessness build up in the face of a changing planet, propagating the apocalyptic vision. Society is facing this impending doom theory, yet few people are finding cathartic outlets to express their fears.
This is where the humanities can help. By expressing fears and angst through writing and art, one lets go of personal feelings and shares them with the world, hopefully helping to heal others in the process. There is no way we can heal the planet if we do not heal ourselves first.
Creative expression becomes an outlet for sharing feelings, as well as inspiring new ideas and solutions. We may read about environmental destruction through scientific journals and newspapers, but we rarely see them through an artistic eye, imbued with feelings and passion. Like seeing a painting which forces one to question one’s own experience, it is this creative expression that will help us see our personal role and duty in regards to saving the environment.
I see many outlets for people to express hopes in the face of environmental crisis, especially in Berkeley where we have the blessings of community gardens, farmers markets, environmental awareness, and political activism. Yet we cannot forget the global environmental crisis. There is a constant influx of this doomsday theory into our everyday awareness, and this is causing a toll on our personal psyches as we read about the collapse of ecosystems and the billions of marginalized people around the world.
Sometimes we must admit that we do not have the solution, and that is what can make the world a scary place. Timothy Morton professed the need for society to let out a cathartic scream with footnotes attached. A release of all the built-up pressure, yet with an added note of intelligence and awareness. It is true that sometimes we just need to scream.
Morton also pointed out that its okay to be depressed when it comes to the impending environmental crisis. He called the crisis, “unspeakable.” It is hard for us to even wrap our brains around and comprehend it with our current linguistic capabilities. We are slowly realizing the inter-connectedness of all living things, but we are learning it the hard way, as the planet is already heating up and society is not yet in the place to amend its wrongs yet. So we have all the reason to be depressed, and that can be okay. There is a degree of intelligence in depression. We cannot successfully deal with climate change if we are suppressing our feelings of sadness, under a mask of keeping busy with “progress”. Lets deal with our depressions and then perhaps we may come out of them notably more well equipped to tackle the problems we are facing.
Dealing with our depressions does not mean sulking in our light impoverished bedrooms however, but instead expressing depression creatively through writing, art, performance, etc. When sad about the state of the environment, let that out. Write about what makes you afraid, paint your anxieties, creatively share with others when you are feeling helpless in the face of global warming. When reading about the next devastating hurricane or famine lets take a collective societal scream, and then we can get back to our business of saving the world.
Albany resident Elyse Bekins recent environmental studies graduate from UC Santa Barbara.