Top Scientists Move Beyond The Science – Re-defining “Environmentalism”

Posted on February 17, 2012

Our failure to address environmental issues is not a failure of information but a failure of imagination.”

The above comment by Professor John Robinson summarized the strong message put across by scientists and artists participating at last week’s American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

There was strong agreement about the fallacy of the idea that lack of change reflects lack of scientific information or lack of factual understanding by the public.

“Information plays a much smaller role than we like to think”, according to Professor Tom Dietz, Assistant Vice-President of Environmental Research at Michigan State University. Rather “we need to talk at a society-wide scale about our values and reach mutual understanding about the values needed for sustainability.

In a session on the role of the arts in sustainability scientists, artists and scholars argued that, by capturing people’s imagination, art can help us re-define how we think about or society and our place in a sustainable world.

“So far the role of art has been thought about as that of pretty-fying the established narrative of environmental activism” said to Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia. “But that narrative is running out of steam. We need to go much further and use the arts to re-imagine what sustainability, the environment and conservation actually mean in our societies.”

According to Dr Zammit-Lucia, While science has helped us understand, with limitations, the materiality of things, such materiality, of itself, has no normative content.┬áSociety’s choices are driven not by what things are in a material sense, but rather by what they are in an ontological sense and we make of them as a matter of values within cultural contexts. “The arts and the humanities can combine with science to help us re-define the very meaning of ‘environmentalism’ and to craft approaches that are grounded in human values and can resonate with a broad public” he concluded.

The overall message was clear: we need to learn to abandon the pretense of rational decision making based on “facts” and start to engage with that which we have found uncomfortable to engage with: “the muddy waters of emotions, values, ethics, and most importantly, imagination.”
Review on Common Dreams web site

Full Session Details

Science Sustainability and the Arts

Organizer: Thomas Dietz, Michigan State University
Co-Organizer:Eugene A. Rosa, Washington State UniversityDiscussant: Professor John Robinson, University of British Columbia


Eugene A. Rosa, Washington State University
Ecolage: The Fusion of Art and Ecology with Discards

Joe Zammit-Lucia, Independent Artist
Message and Medium: Re-Defining Environmentalism

Sacha Kagan, Leuphana University
Art and Sustainability: Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity