Dialogues With Mother Earth > Essays for Book
The Intersection of Art, Science and Education: Responding to Climate Change
It is a pleasure to contribute this essay to Erica Daborn’s book documenting the Dialogues With Mother Earth Project, a project designed to create awareness and mitigate the effects of climate change caused by global warming.
I teach art and biology at Olin College, an engineering school. As a biologist and educator, I am acutely aware of the threat to life on earth caused by human activities and I am impressed with the depth of concern for this crisis demonstrated by the young people I encounter. As an artist, I can see that Ms. Daborn is in a unique position to bring concerns over climate change to the world at large with visualizations that provoke reflection and discussion. Her remarkable murals are a clarion call for action.
While scientists have long recognized the danger of the reliance on fossil fuels to power industrialized nations and have furnished overwhelming observational data to substantiate those conclusions, calls for mitigation have largely gone unanswered by both the general public and governments of the largest polluters.
Daborn’s beautiful work is a poignant emotional appeal to put a stop to the insanity of our current behaviors. There exists overwhelming evidence that virtually all earth system processes are now altered by human activity, and this has led to the name Anthropocene for the epoch in which we now live. The Paris Climate Accord signed by 195 countries in 2015 unanimously agreed, based on scientific data, that the planet cannot tolerate a further rise in temperature above 2oC without catastrophic effects.
In the past I assumed that if people just had the facts they would understand. I quickly learned that it’s not that scientists have failed to explain the science clearly; it is that a lot of otherwise literate people just don't want to think about alternatives to what they already believe. Climate science deniers wrongly insist that not only is it not happening, but even if it was, it would be too expensive to limit; world-wide economies would collapse.
What is the role of education in responding to climate change?
I am heartened that many who come to engineering as undergraduates’ rank contributing to the sustainability of our planet as one of their most important career goals. Sustainability, according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, includes an end to poverty, quality education, reduced inequalities, good general health and well-being, responsible consumption, responsible production, and ongoing action to curb climate change.
There is no question that the politics of poverty and health are linked to climate change. From the perspective of the human race, sustainability of our planet requires sustainability of our human population. If future engineers are to contribute effectively to solving complex problems, then engineering students must be educated in the arts, humanities and social sciences and not just in the technical aspects of engineering. It may be easy to think that we can simply engineer our way out of climate change, but that is not the case; the ongoing damage is not simply reversible with technology. The problems we face are not merely physical, but also cultural and political, and they require understanding and expertise from many different disciplines.
Erica Daborn’s murals depict the realities of the Anthropocene epoch.
While the scene in Water is a fictional one, the fact is that availability of water sufficient to support life on earth is rapidly diminishing. Sources of water that took literally millions of years to accumulate deep beneath the surface of the earth will soon be gone. For example, in the United States anyone who owns land can draw water from beneath the soil. This allowed the United Arab Emirates, who purchased property outside Phoenix, Arizona, to drain the aquifer to grow agricultural crops for export. Construction of dams has also led to inequities in water ownership and distribution with consequent political strife.
Daborn writes, about her mural The Survivors, “Insects interfered with our lifestyle and our ability to dominate nature. So, we attacked them with pesticides, disrupting the ecosystem…” It reminds us of Rachel Carson’s work, where she anticipated our current situation. She bravely sounded the alarm about the dangers of pesticides in the 1960’s with her classic work Silent Spring. She was vilified by industrial chemists and corporate interests, yet she continued her work until her untimely death. Later, public concern forced investigations and legislation to protect species, including humans, from these harmful effects. Today, however, the struggle continues. When public interest is overruled in favor of profit-driven entities, we again see how fragile governmental protective policies can be. Carson’s work initially gave rise to the environmental movement. Now, in her place, a teenager, Greta Thunberg, has galvanized public support for mitigating climate change. She too has been vilified by commercial interests and the political far right, but undaunted she continues to muster worldwide support for environmental concerns, and environmental justice.
In S.O.S. (Save our Seeds) Daborn notes that corporations, such as Monsanto (now owned by Bayer AG), used science to gain control over nature for profit. Genetic modification of organisms (GMO) remains starkly controversial because of concerns of mixing species and unknown consequences. Such modifications allow exclusive ownership, and seems to be a violation of the natural order. Farmers need to purchase seeds each year because they are deliberately rendered sterile, setting up a continued dependency on corporate interests. On the other hand, growth of industrial farming, compared to family-owned farms, has entirely changed the control and means of supplying food for many populations. At the same time, drought caused by climate change has made necessary the development of agricultural plants that are resistant to harsh environmental conditions, revealing the tension between overcoming scarcity, feeding a growing population, and the ethical uses of science.
In Oprah and Noah Save the Animals, Daborn asks why efforts to rescue animals from extinction seems to require the efforts of celebrities or the invocation of divine intervention? Why is there no awakening on the part of the general public and the political system to the fact that it is they who should be custodians of life on earth? she wonders.
The theme continues with The Funeral for the Last Elephant. The world has entered a period author Elizabeth Kolbert termed “The Sixth Extinction” only in this case it is human activity not natural causes that is responsible for species and biodiversity loss. Numerous sources estimate that, mainly due to increased use of land for agricultural purposes, the world is losing up to 1,000 times the natural rate of one to five species per year and that currently nearly 12% of the estimated 8.7 million global species are threatened. Species loss is not a work of fiction; it is a reality.
Seeking Higher Ground, frames a complex set of themes: the inexorable march of consumerism, the selfishness of depleting natural resources and the alarming aspect of sea level rise due to global warming. Factors contributing to sea level rise include thermal expansion of ocean water, and glacial and Arctic ice mass melting. “What should we have saved?” Daborn asks.
The Rescue presents women as the iconic nurturers of life, the ones that always end up taking care of those in need, while the men carry on with saving commodities. One disturbing contrast, however, is the woman front and center who seems more intent with styling her hair than recognizing the dire situation in which she finds herself. One cannot help but think that ultimately, with these attitudes, no one will survive this catastrophe.
A family enjoying their holiday building sandcastles, in Ahab’s Revenge, is oblivious to the plight of the beached whale entangled by detritus from the ocean. This magnificent creature is brought down not by Ahab’s harpoon but by single-use plastic, so convenient to use and so easy to rationalize. Anyone could learn from the internet of the existence of the floating islands of plastic debris, but that lesson is as easy to ignore as the trash that washes up on every beach in the world.
Saving Fish from Drowning illustrates the plight of sea creatures who require extraordinary measures to be revived from the pollution of their home in the ocean. Microplastic particles, formed by the breakdown of plastic in the ocean and larger items, are mistakenly seen as food or otherwise find their way into the bodies of these animals, exacting a cruel fate. CO2, a potent greenhouse gas, dissolved in the ocean, leads to increased acidification that threatens all forms of aquatic life. The caregivers in Daborn’s work heroically save the lives of the fish but they may be powerless to save the ocean.
Tipping Point displays a lush banquet of huge proportions for scavengers. On a global basis it is estimated that landfills, which contain large amounts of food waste, account for about 12% of all methane produced, or 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions per year. Measures to redistribute unused food or to compost food waste in most countries are nascent at best.
Related to waste and over abundance, The Appeal draws attention to data indicating that approximately 15% of global greenhouse gases are due to livestock for industrial production of beef and dairy. The extraordinary cost of raising cattle and feeding them is unsustainable. Yet meat consumption is entrenched in diets of developed nations and becomes increasingly sought after by emerging economies.
On its surface, the The Murder of Mystery seems oddly out of place with the murals thematically related by environmental destruction at the hands of humans. However, at its heart, this work offers a deep respect for nature and the unknowable. Ignorance of the effect of human activities and the finite resources that have been relentlessly consumed and destroyed is the villain here.
Taken together, Erica Daborn’s murals offer a stunning collection of scenarios that show what has gone wrong in the Anthropocene epoch. They are exquisitely rendered and beautiful, yet the stories are terrible. She has created a world of cautionary tales of use and abuse of our natural resources and of selfishness that characterize the human condition. She depicts the stark reality that scientists describe with data. Yet all is not lost, as there are also people in her scenarios who are rescuers. They save our seeds and rescue animals. There is still time and cause for optimism if more people are willing to make sacrifices and act now. Erica’s work can help advance the movement to mitigate climate change. She provides a unique form of access for those who are willing to engage, reflect and ask if they see themselves in the work, if so, join her and do something about it!
Helen Donis-Keller, Ph.D.
Olin College of Engineering
Visions of a Lost Arcadia.
Drawing is one of the most intimate tasks of the artist.
It’s the first mark, the first image, the first impression of an idea
There’s nothing closer than that to the immediate thought and sensibility of the artist.
“The drawings of Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso”—the famed Spanish collector Artur Román tells us –“are the expressions of their lives, the laboratory of their stories, the chronicles of their gaze.”
In many ways, drawings have remained changeless throughout the historical transformation of art. From the walls of the caves on which paleolithic tribes expressed the natural world that surrounded them with pieces of carbon, the basic and essential elements of drawing have remained unaltered: an instrument that can generate a mark; and a supporting surface capable of receiving it; as well as an eye and a hand that connect to a mind.
However, it is also true that in the last fifty years drawing has experienced important changes that define its contemporaneity: changes in its technical aspects, the introduction of new tools for drawing, like felt tip pens and the computer programs of Adobe Creative Cloud; changes also in its formal aspects, like those generated by an explosion in size, with drawing passing from a sheet of paper to an entire wall, as per the wall drawings of Sol Lewitt. And finally, changes in its conceptual aspects, which have amplified the very definition of drawing, which now permit us to call a diversity of things by that name, for example the lines traced by feet walking over grass, in the work Line Made by Walking, by Richard Long.
All these changes, formal, technical and conceptual, have resulted in the an increasingly strong positioning of drawing as an autonomous artistic field, with values and meanings of its own. From being considered as a secondary activity in the work of artists, carried out as a sketch of ideas or as a study made prior to the execution of pictorial or sculptural work, drawing is now an artistic practice of the first rank. This ascent of drawing is expressed by the recent surge of important institutions and organizations specifically focused on studying it, preserving it, and exhibiting it, like the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, or The Drawing Center in New York, mentioning just two of the most outstanding examples.
Equally, drawings of renowned artists today are sold in the art market at sums equivalent to the prices of the paintings and sculptures of those same artists. This has led in turn to the proliferation of galleries, auctions, and art fairs directed exclusively to the marketing of works on paper, generating an important sector of new collectors who each year attend the Drawing Now Art Fair in Paris, Art on Paper in New York, or Gabinete in Madrid.
But despite all these important changes given to contemporary drawing, what is interesting here, we stress, is that the essence of drawing remains the most immediate response of an artist in his relationship with an idea, a vision, or an emotion. As Paul Klee said once, a drawing is only a line that has taken a walk.
This essential attribute of drawing is maybe what lends it a value and a meaning in our technological age, flooded with images of high resolution graphics, created at tremendous velocity and in huge quantities, proliferating on websites and social media. These are images that can be downloaded and printed at low cost with a digital printer, but that don’t have nor can they ever have that direct mark, permanent and transcendent, of the hand, the eye, and the sensibility of the artist.
With her magnificent mural-size drawings, Erica Daborn immerses us, in the most literal way, in a universe precisely defined by her hand, her eye, and her sensibility toward the accelerated destruction of the natural world, a destruction also typified, sadly, by our technological epoch.
In their fantastical narrative, these large works curiously evoke the medieval stories of Geoffrey Chaucer, to the extent that her style can be linked to the new British figurative art that arose in the second half of the 20th century, represented, for example, in an outstanding way, by Adrian Wisznieski and the so-called New Glasgow Boys.
The drawings of Daborn, however, are extremely contemporary, not only for their theme of environmental destruction, but even more so for having been thought out as a series of murals to be exhibited side by side in a great room, creating a scenario enveloping the spectators, and visually changing the space they occupy -- thereby assuming the characteristic of a genuine installation.
Attention is called to the landscapes of Arcadia that Erica Daborn shows us, as fascinating as they are disturbing. They are fascinating for the technical mastery with which they have been executed and for the detailed and almost scientific drawing that embodies the insects and animals that inhabit them. But at the same time, they are disturbing because the world of dreams they exemplify is, at its root, a world of nightmares. The apparently idyllic scene they depict is no such thing. The human beings that populate it appear to be automatons, they do not communicate with each other and look off into infinity, as though they were seeing an apocalyptic catastrophe on the horizon, that maybe now, in these times of COVID-19, we have already caught up with.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
The Ethical Desire in the Work of Erica Daborn
Erica Daborn, an English artist based in Mexico, makes use of muralism to awaken social and ecological awareness. Each of her works in "Dialogues with Mother Earth" becomes a channel of communication through which she shares and analyzes the relationships between us and the natural world that surrounds us.
Erica Daborn's drawings show us characters and situations that seem dystopian and yet are more real than ever. The climate catastrophe that we face as humanity, because of our actions and way of life, is represented in 10 large charcoal drawings, in which art becomes a tool for education and social transformation. Her goal is to generate positive changes in people by capturing the public's attention in unconventional ways.
In "Dialogues with Mother Earth", Daborn presents a latent reality about issues of great importance for the planet like climate change, the culture of consumerism and waste, endangered species, the food crisis, among other crucial topics. Each mural opens a discussion on environmental ethics, on how each of us is responsible for the impact and damage to the environment; and on how we can be a direct agent of change. Her scenes are made up of ambiguous characters that blur race, culture, and borders; positioning ourselves as spectators within the same space and time in which we are all equal. It is in this place, where we become aware of our responsibility in the face of such problems, while at the same time we realize we are victims of an uncontrolled system.
Daborn, reimagines the human relationship with nature to tell us stories in scenes full of symbolism. The notions of sustainability and vulnerability become more apparent by showing our human nature in relation to the world we are devastating, leaving us with a palpable sense of fatalism about our existence.
Each of the murals seeks to raise awareness about the environmental problems that our planet faces, and at the same time remind us how easily beliefs in current consumer systems and lifestyles destroys our environment. The aesthetic experience of these drawings envelops us in an existential and ethical discovery. They force us to ask ourselves questions like: Why didn't we do anything when we had the opportunity? Does our role as human beings force us to make certain considerations for other living beings? Is there an ethical obligation that we must follow in the use of natural resources? In which case, why? What are our limitations? Where do we start?
In an evocative, provocative, and sublime way, Daborn communicates an urgent universal message: that we live in a time of crisis that needs a radical transformation; a transformation that begins and grows from the individual and the community; a transformation that is imperative if we wish to confront and reverse the damage that has already been done to the Earth.
The intention of the artist is to take her work to the youngest, since, as she says-"they are the ones who have the power to act differently and change the future"-. Promoting Daborn's work is not just an art show, it is a call to action and a powerful and subtle way to stir consciences.
Viridiana Gutiérrez Tejeda
Drawing to Save The Planet
The project began in 2010. Returning from a sabbatical year spent in a quiet location in Mexico I found myself reflecting deeply on how the beautiful, natural world that surrounds us was gradually being decimated by human activity and our responsibility was going unacknowledged. Plenty of scientists had been warning about climate change for decades but their forebodings had basically been ignored. And at that time there was little press coverage.
I had also become disillusioned with the gallery scene. My work was never really appropriate for that kind of marketing not sufficiently “Over the Couch”. So as an artist I decided that it was my responsibility to take the skills I had to somehow make a difference.
As an educator, I’d been teaching in art schools for twenty years, I found myself in conversation with young people who kept saying “Why is nobody doing anything about this? We’ve read all the stories about what’s happening in the environment, extinction of species, catastrophic droughts, nobody in government seems to be doing anything.”
It was their voice, their concern as young people, including those of my own daughter that galvanized me into action, figuring out a way I could be helpful. Through no fault of their own these young people would be living with the consequences of climate change. Well, the only thing I knew how to do was to make art of some sort.
So I devised this educational project to help people who haven’t really thought about these issues to understand that we’ve all contributed to the problem. I wanted to show, through the work, that it is what we’ve valued as a society that has led us here. And because scientific facts don’t work, I devised a series of visual stories that capture the imagination and bring viewers to explore the issues in an accessible form. Originally the murals were designed to be part of a more complex interactive installation, but as it became clear that they acted powerfully enough on their own, they have been exhibited in traditional museum venues.
Historically murals have been created to commemorate significant societal events: Picasso’s Guernica: Iri and Toshi Maruki’s The Hiroshima Murals; Diego Rivera’s History of Mexico; Piero de la Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross. The use of the mural form in Dialogues with Mother Earth places the viewer into the future looking back at quasi-fictitious documents of past disasters that we did not prevent. This serves the hope that we become alerted to taking action now. The textured surfaces and use of the most primitive of drawing materials – charcoal -- references man’s earliest celebration of his environment: prehistoric cave drawings.
With this book I hope to fully bring the ideas embedded in these twelve images to a wider audience, and to encourage more people to take the environmental action that is so desperately needed now.