GREEN GUILT

On October 2nd 2019 I gave a talk at the request of the Overture Center in regards to my Gathering Shadows sculpture that was commissioned by the City of Madison as part of larger multi-artist show titled Phoenix from the Ashes. Below are excerpts from this talk as well as some generalized riffing.

 

Welcome everyone…

What I would like to talk about is guilt, justification and anxiety and how we process these feelings during our daily navigation of the world. Of course what I am talking about is how these feelings are related to climate change in particular and our role as individuals in this decision-making. What I call Green Guilt. And how unique are these feelings to our place in time and history? There have always been threats like wars, flu epidemics, nuclear holocaust… we all remember ‘duck-and-cover’, right? And now we have climate change. Is this threat any more grave than a nuclear winter? Has it raised the global anxiety levels? Is it any worse than what people went through during World War I or II?, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918? The nuclear threat still lingers, but it seems we have come to terms with it, the new normal so to speak. How many post-apocalyptic films/TV shows have we all watched? The nuclear threat from the 1950’s gave us the opportunity to point our fingers at our crazy governments, but climate change really begins with us and hence the personal guilt. This guilt, internal debate, anxiety and justification exists with me throughout my day and permeates my daily decisions.

  • I rode my bike here today, and that made me feel all ‘green’, but tomorrow I am going to play golf and we know how hard golf courses are on the environment, but I am going to walk the course and carry my bag and not take a fossil-fuel-propelled cart….ah-ha…justification!
  • For breakfast, I ate an organic apple grown from a friend’s tree who lives in my neighborhood…wow…locally-sourced organic fruit …another check in my environmental green box, but boy I used a lot of water cleaning my reusable coffee filter….guilt and justification.
  • I wave my green flag high and wide like most folks: I do not own a lawnmower, dishwasher, air conditioner, coffee maker, garbage disposal, snow blower…wow…lots of green checks, I also have a semi-permeable driveway and backyard and I put in a rain garden, I recycle, I ride my bike, I switched to all LED light bulbs…more green checks….yet I own 2 cars, I live in a large 4 bedroom home by myself…I own lots of stuff….I travel extensively, propelled by fossil-fuels

This internal debate, I believe is something we are all struggling with. This daily guilt has become the new normal and leads us to justify our non-green activities. Am I the only one who is living with this? …I didn’t think so.

What I find particularly disturbing is how this guilt-anxiety-justification is being passed on to our children. Has anyone seen this new environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, give her speech at the United Nations? She is a 15 year old from Sweden who has been making headlines organizing young people to speak out about climate change. I find her passionate and very poignant, but what struck me about her speech was the level of anxiety, anger and frustration that I could hear in her voice. This young person is living with all of this on her shoulders. I found that particularly disturbing, that our way of life has led to this. For a young person to grow up with this degree of uncertainty and fear is an abomination. I have children so that rings a very personal bell. So I ask, how is that effecting our young people in general? Or folks of any age? How much of this worrying about nuclear threats, wars, epidemics, terrorism and now climate change is effecting our global mental health? How much depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, drug addiction on this planet is directly or indirectly related to these man-made catastrophes? Why are we so complacent? Why/how do we let our governments get away with this? Do we blame capitalism? And that ‘we’ very well includes me! I know…lots of questions…

This is not the talk you were expecting. I know the other artists have talked about their work. For this I apologize, but I believe artists have a moral obligation to tell the truth. My intent was not to depress, but to bring awareness to a topic nobody is talking about and to stimulate a dialogue…to share that we are all in this together. There is no sugar-coating this thing and for that I make no apologies.

On a more positive note following up with what Paul Morrison just said on how he uses Emerald Ash Borer infested ash trees to make beautiful furniture. A gentleman named Fred Pearce wrote a book titled The New Wild. In this book Mr. Pearce describes this invasive-species world we live in plus the effect of climate change on our environment. He argues that we need to applaud the dynamism of alien species and the novel ecosystems they create. The people that adjust will be the survivors. How folks need to take advantage of this progression that cannot be undone. To embrace the new. Reverse engineering the environment has never worked and is a waste of time and money. Nature never moves backwards he states. As you look around at all of this beautiful art made from disease-infested trees, I see a little of Fred Pearce’s theory in practice.

Thank you.

 

Since this talk I have been surveying friends, family and folks in general who appear willing to talk, asking them “How are you living with this doomsday climate scenario?” “What are your coping mechanisms?” “Do you have any guilt?” “Do you justify your non-green habits and behavior with green ones?”…

I do not ask these questions in a holier-than-thou way. My curiosity is more geared to how people are processing all of this.

Months later here is what I have found: that people are thinking about climate change, and they have changed some habits, that people love talking about the green side of their lives, but when you peal that onion, deep down they are not giving up anything of great importance…lawns are still being mowed, jet travel is pervasive, lights burn bright in their homes and their businesses, they own second homes, multi-automobiles, jet skis, ATVs, cruise ships… endless consumerism…

People see the problem, I believe they understand the consequences, but they believe the problem exists over there, it is someone else’s doing… blaming corporations and governments, rain forest devastation, coal burning and as Greta Thunberg says “clever accounting with the carbon budgets”… and they are not wrong, but…

They admit to some guilt, but that is quickly followed up with something along the lines…”What? Am I supposed to sit home and be depressed all day?” …well, no, but…

I do know that I golfed in Madison, Wisconsin on December 24th 2019. Now that is just crazy! And simply depressing and frankly scares the shit out of me...and yes, I am part of the problem.


Kirtland’s Warbler: ours is a moral landscape

“Wisconsin is Open for Business.”

This has been Scott Walker’s mantra since he started campaigning for the governmental office of Wisconsin in 2010, and following his election, in 2011, he had 23 “Wisconsin Welcomes You” signs updated to read “Open for Business.”

The slogan leads a campaign and structure of policies in Wisconsin to make all decisions focused on the goal of job creation.

In his keynote address back in 2011, Walker stated, “‘And as your governor, I make this pledge: Wisconsin is open for business. We will work tirelessly to restore economic growth and vibrancy to our state. My top three priorities are jobs, jobs and jobs.'”

But such policies as “Recreation, Industry, Agriculture,” now followed by the newest, “Open for Business,” frequently have significant, negative environmental consequences. When we talk about “job creation” and “economic growth,” our measurement is inevitably dollars, and to focus on job creation with such urgency is to force us to play for the companies that can bring the most dollars, and not necessarily with the most environmental conscience. History has shown us time and again that when we quantify the worth of the land and natural resources by their usefulness in industry and capital gain, we do so with the short-term goals of capital success, followed by the expense of long-term consequences.

So when the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, released a call for artists to respond to the theme of Waysides, I knew this was a call worth responding to. Waysides are the familiar rest stops for tourists and commuters traveling by car. The original idea came from Herbert F. Larson, a highway engineer in 1918 who saw roadside parks as a way to maintain the scenic forests along the roads. Larson sought to create places for people to pause on their journeys, picnic, and enjoy nature, and “to keep alert and ahead of the woodsman’s axe” so to preserve the forests.

His idea took off quickly as other rest areas appeared across the nation, though the numbers have dwindled in recent years as travelers opt for speed and convenience. The prized real estate by the turnpikes now gets contracted to private retailers and the restaurant industry. Today, the US has over 100,000 fast food restaurants, many of which serve as the rest stops for weary and hasty travelers.

Kirtland’s warbler is a Wisconsin and federally endangered bird that makes its home in parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario. It makes its home at the base of young jack pine trees. As people settled the Midwest and northern regions, they cut away the pine forests that these warblers called home, never to be restocked. The trees can only grow so far north, so as the forests were cut away the warblers became locked between a northern boundary and the Great Lakes. 50 years ago, Kirtland’s warbler nearly went extinct. In 1985, only 1000 pairs still existed. The bird has made a slow comeback thanks to conservation efforts in the last 30 years. The population has grown to 5000 and in 2005, just eleven years ago, it was observed in Wisconsin, a sign of the birds’ recovery and regaining of territory.

To move “forward” with an “Open for Business” policy and mindset is to destroy the progress we have made to restore the things that we were responsible for destroying in the first place.

This isn’t the first time I’ve used my artwork to respond to irresponsible/misguided land management. I refer you to my statement and piece titled, November Reliquary, as another means of visually expressing these failed land management practices, as well as my painting series, Endangered Wisconsin, where I use beauty as a means to show how our policies have led to the demise of some amazing plants and animals.

We have looked at the environment as capital, as something for us to benefit and profit from. In the past, we have used survival to justify these endeavors. They say that hindsight is 20-20, and in these days of plenty and sound environmental science, we can choose how to use our money, our wealth, and our knowledge. If we have the ability to afford a 15 year old war, then we have the resources to legitimately address the looming threat of climate change. It is time to give back.