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On Art and the Climate

Since time immemorial, painters, poets, and philosophers have had a symbiotic relationship with nature. It is the mirror in which we see reflected our rawest and wildest emotions, but also the cage in which we exist, and to whose power we cannot help but submit. In literature, and in art, nature can be a moral agent. It can exist in the background, for action and contemplation. It can, on occasion, come to the foreground, be a character in itself, curtailing the perceived free will of characters and reminding them of their humble insignificance.

We see this clearly in The Flood, where the symbolic and elemental power of nature cleanses humanity of its sins, heavily, of course, in Shakespeare, (notably, gloriously, in King Lear), and if we continue onwards in time, Wordsworth too, Laurie Lee. We feel the lack of nature – or perhaps its destruction, and the moral consequences – in the works of modernist writers and philosophers, including T.S. Eliot, quoted above, and Hannah Arendt, who compared the transition from pre-modern to modern life as a process of desertification, in which the barrenness of the public sphere also represented its moral vacancy following the Second World War.

Were we to become painters, poets, or philosophers, how may we consider our relationship to nature today, and make use of its allegorical power? Is it to be our moral mirror, frightening as the reflection may be, or will it step from the background to the foreground, and become the main character who in the final act of this great human drama commits us all to our tragic, but somewhat fitting end?

In the Global South, nature is already foregrounding itself, but in the Global North, it remains in the background. Despite the increasing regularity of somewhat biblical natural events – floods, fires, plagues, famines – it is perhaps because of science that we detach from or no longer imbue these occurrences with any moral significance. We can make sense of them, we know why they happen, and therein lies the problem. We know too much, and we care too little, behaviours or attitudes that are perhaps the intended and unintended consequences of scientific and technological progress.

A philosopher may say that Arendt’s vision of desertification was correct, and now complete. It seems that the concept of public life has vanished, or disappeared. Nothing grows from our public institutions, they are from neglect and the passing of time dusty, cracked, a waste land. The political atmosphere has grown hotter, the sun glares harder upon these cracks and divisions, but nobody is to be seen, no meaning is to be found. Desertification is, as Arendt described, both the symptom and the cause of ‘worldlessness’, the feeling that we no longer coexist in a shared and democratic space. It is no coincidence that it is in these conditions Arendt saw the origins of totalitarianism; a parallel, perhaps, to the rise of fascism and populism today.

For the painter, visual metaphors already exist in abundance, and therein lies another problem. From an ocular perspective, we are now in a state of constant overwhelm, where the messages and truths contained in the visual arts – and nature itself – are losing their ability to cut through, so saturated are we by the image in all its forms. If we employ Aldous Huxley’s idea that our vision is guided by our need to survive, that ‘our brains have been trained during the evolutionary millennia to screen out all those perceptions that do not directly aid us in our day to day struggle for existence’, is it any wonder that we look the other way when today we see nature and the visual metaphors that represent its destruction? For what was once a source of life, now screams death.

Finally then, we come to the poet. To language, stories, narratives. Herein lies the final problem. The causes of our deepest divisions, the driver of desertification, is in fact linguistic. The phrase, the slogan, has retained extraordinary rhetorical power despite the flood or constant torrent of visual imagery that so characterises the modern age. If what’s needed is the injection – or renaissance – of moral values in public life, which literary form is up to the task? The answer is none, for the answer is all. From now until the very end, words may be all we have to deliver us from the modern evils that have led us to desert the natural world, in all its power, and its glory.


hello, i'm lauren. when i find time to write, it's to try and clarify the chaos i see in the modern world, make sense of themes and shifts that are emerging, and to stave off an existential crisis. i'm interested in philosophy, modern literature, social enterprise and community-building, and occasionally organise literary salons that aim to foster a dialogue around contemporary life. instagram: @ourunbrokensociety 

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