'No Wealth but Life': The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Tackling the Climate Crisis

by John Holmes and Dion Dobrzynski

When politicians and generals talk about winning ‘hearts and minds’, it is hard not to be cynical. The phrase seems to mask with good intentions a desire to dominate. But in the fight to stop climate change and the degradation of the natural world we need to win over the hearts and minds of the global population if we are to stand a chance of victory. As the survival of ourselves and countless of the other creatures with which we share our planet depends upon our success, this could not be more vital.

To be moved to act, whether as a leader or a citizen, you first need to be moved. People need to feel for themselves that they have a stake in the transition to a new and sustainable society; to know what they, personally, will love and lose if we do not make this happen; and to believe that with an act of collective will, we can. If we are to reach a sustainable future, we first need to be able to imagine it, not merely practically, economically, technologically but as human beings.

Science is essential to this process, but it cannot achieve the transition we need on its own. It will need the help of both the arts and the humanities. Climate science and ecology tell us the risks we are facing but we need art and stories, television and film, music and poetry to help us feel for ourselves the impact of the loss of animals, plants and environments.

The arts offer hope and motivate us to act where graphs and diagrams remain remote and impersonal. Scientific data and discourses can be exclusive or obscure, while climate change, pollution and deforestation are all too often invisible. They are happening at a distance for many of us, incrementally, and even as individual disasters mount up and spread, it is hard to get over the cognitive dissonance caused by the wish for this not to be true, combined with the fair-to-moderate weather outside our own windows. The arts can make climate change vividly present and salient within our everyday lives. They can speak to a broad range of people of all ages and backgrounds in accessible and inclusive ways, and they engage us as communities, not just as individuals. After all, we can only solve the ecological crisis together. As the galvanising effect of music and theatre within the activist group Extinction Rebellion shows, the shared experience of art can help to sustain hope and motivate collective action.

If the arts can win over hearts, the humanities can help win over minds. Technological innovation will surely play a key part in slowing and potentially reversing climate change and in developing new and more sustainable infrastructures, but historical research and literary scholarship are vital too, to recover the voices of the people who saw before the rest of us the impact humanity was having on the natural world. We can still learn today from their observations and solutions.

In February 1872, in the second lecture from his series The Eagle’s Nest, the Victorian prophet and social critic John Ruskin told an audience in Oxford that ‘our ingenuity in the vindication, or the denial, of species, will be disregarded in the face of the fact that we destroyed, in civilized Europe, every rare bird and secluded flower’. It is almost one hundred and fifty years to the day since Ruskin alerted us to anthropogenic extinction. Not much more than a decade later, in 1884, he warned of anthropogenic climate change in his lecture The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century. In tackling these problems, we could do worse than start by adopting the remedy Ruskin himself proposed some years earlier in his trenchant critique of capitalism, Unto this Last, summed up in the phrase ‘wise consumption’. If Ruskin’s voice speaks to us from the early decades of rampant industrialisation and rapacious extraction, contemporary history comes together with oral tradition and indigenous knowledge in the voices of the Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Columbia. Their BBC documentary From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning, now thirty years old, is a stark reminder of lessons we might have learned then and still need to learn now about how to live in harmony with the rest of the natural world and of the need to consider all human cultures and traditions in looking for solutions to the ecological crisis.

Science is our best guide to understanding the world as it is, but literature has the most to offer us in teaching us what it might be. In their different ways, poetry, myth, science fiction and fantasy all break open our narrow assumptions of what is possible, showing that we can indeed imagine new and different ways of living. For the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, poets were, as he gloriously put it in his ‘Defence of Poetry’, ‘the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present’.

In her acceptance speech for a National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin echoed Shelley when she praised her fellow science-fiction and fantasy authors as ‘Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality’. Where ‘so-called realists’ risk entrenching the social order of the day, taking its intellectual limitations to be the actual limits of the world, the visionary imagination can throw off the shackles of prejudice and enable us to conceive of new worlds, including ones in which human beings sustain a less self-centred and self-destructive relationship with nature.

If this seems utopian, remember that we live our daily lives inside multiple and demonstrable unrealities – limitless economic growth, endless consumerism, anthropocentrism – fictions which are disguised as fixed natural laws or mere facts of life.

Close attention to literature gives us the critical distance we need from these contingent and transitory modes of being in the world. By reading and studying science fiction and fantasy, not to mention the diverse literatures of other cultures, times and places, we can help ourselves and each other to enter imaginatively into attractive and sustainable alternatives to the social, political and cultural systems we currently live in. Literature, then, no less that science, has a key role in bringing about the ‘futurity’ we need.

Finally, science needs the arts and humanities to show us the importance of values, not just costs. The policies and commitments made and thus far unmet at COP after COP have been predicated upon what is achievable within current models of economic growth, obsessive as they are over GDP. Ruskin’s famous adage ‘There is No Wealth but Life’ should be blazoned on every wall of every meeting room at COP26 as a reminder that wealth as we have been pursuing it since around the time of his birth, two hundred years ago, has been at the expense of life, and that our very future – indeed the future flourishing of life itself, at least as we know it – depends upon us finding other ways to conceive of value. The reason we must act now cannot be reduced to economic ends nor the method to economic means, not only because of the moral imperative to respect and care for life at large and unborn generations but also because economics itself should serve the ends of life, not the other way round.

The arts, together with humanities disciplines such as history, literature and ethics are as integral to solving the ecological crisis as the sciences. To mobilise them we need to pursue not just dialogue but active collaboration between artists, humanities academics, scientists and civil society. At Birmingham, we have been developing two projects which point a way for these collaborations. Working with Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and several museums worldwide, we have launched the Symbiosis network to promote and enhance the role of the arts and humanities within natural history museums and collections. Symbiosis has enabled us to think globally. We have devised projects with colleagues in Europe and Canada and shared practice and expertise with museums from Paris and Portugal to Pittsburgh and Brazil through an online conference attended by delegates from over 20 countries across four continents.

Acting more locally, our closest and most far-reaching collaboration to date has been with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Founded in the 1850s, the museum was designed by the Irish architect Benjamin Woodward, working hand in glove with Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites and the scientists at Oxford University. They aimed to use the arts to celebrate nature and teach science. Since 2016, we have been working with the museum to revive that legacy under the banner Visions of Nature. Art exhibitions and commissions have drawn new audiences to the museum and helped them to apprehend the impact of environmental changes from the decline of British bees to the melting of the Arctic ice. Poets in residence have brought these changes home and helped visitors to fathom their own sense of loss and their hopes and to express them in poetry themselves. Following Ruskin’s lead, the museum has embraced activism alongside public education, opening its doors in September 2019 to Extinction Rebellion for an ‘Arts/Science Extravaganza’ that saw 6000 people attend the museum in a single day. 

More recently, literature scholars at Birmingham have begun working with Ruskin Land in the Wyre Forest as part of an interdisciplinary doctoral programme funded by the Leverhulme Trust at the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research. One project in particular aims to explore the imaginary forests found in fantasy literature to consider how they might enable us to think about woodlands in less anthropocentric and instrumental ways and how we can mobilise them to enrich public engagement with actual forests. Forests are home to most of the Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity and are vital in our fight against climate change. Yet, all around the world – including in Britain – forests continue to face very real threats. Just 7% of all Britain’s native woodlands are currently in good ecological condition, according to the Woodland Trust’s State of the UK’s Woods and Trees Report (2021). The popularity of fantasy literature makes it a valuable resource for shaping public opinion. We will be running a series of experiments in Ruskin Land – itself John Ruskin’s historical experiment to revitalise working people’s connection to nature – using fantasy literature by William Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien and Le Guin. Through reading walks and discussions in the Dragon’s Nest, fantasy readers and environmentalists will be brought together and stimulated to reflect on and reimagine our past, present and future relationship with forests.

These projects show how the arts and humanities can make a direct contribution to winning over hearts and broadening minds in the struggle to halt climate change and reverse the destruction of the natural world. In his 1872 lecture, Ruskin told his audience:

we shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise, generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth: —the most cruel in proportion to their sensibility, —the most unwise in proportion to their science. No people, understanding pain, ever inflicted so much: no people, understanding facts, ever acted on them so little.

If these words don’t resonate with our own moment and our own failings, then we have not heard them clearly enough. There is no doubt left about the facts and we must act on them in full. In the words of Ruskin’s fellow Victorian, Alfred Tennyson, speaking as the Greek hero Ulysses, ‘’Tis not too late to seek a newer world’. If we seek it together, pooling the knowledge of science and the know-how of technology with the inspiration of the arts and the wisdom of the humanities, then we stand a decent chance of finding it.