Evolutionary Kabuki: The Arts and the Earth

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” — John Lennon

Imagination, that force which when coupled with discipline, drives the arts. Such a force is necessary to successfully protect and sustain our biosphere as it represents the best alternative to cynicism and defeatism. My work, involvement, and strong passion for the arts catalyze a lifelong love and respect for our improbable orb, the earth. A few examples of this force which are set out below as well as Beethoven’s 6th always leap to mind. Clearly many members of the artistic community share this sense of connection.

A selection of images of Andy Goldsworthy's work

My first collaborative project out of college was an effort to broadcast an image of the earth from outer space onto the Jumbotron in Times Square. At this time, the World Wide Web remained a research project in labs and universities including the one I attended. So I learned early on what an amazing treasure of earth imagery was stored at NASA, the JPL, and other labs. This project partially resulted from my studies in Kenya at the Athi River research station. Each night the research assistants would lie in the savanna watching satellites pass overhead in their equatorial orbits. Witnessing the absolutely divine beauty of our planet in Africa, from other ecosystems such as the Togiak River basin in Alaska and much of the the American West, and in the woodlands of Alabama where I roamed growing up, has made me a naturalist at heart. So, knowing that the earth was entering a crisis, I wanted people to simply see her from space everyday as they scurried about one of her busiest intersections.

My grant application to the Whitney Museum’s fellowship program to rent the Big Screen in order to broadcast the images of our planet was rejected. That hardly slowed me down. Seeing these images and thinking of what I know of astronomy and astrophysics, the shear improbability of Planet Earth has always struck me. For this reason alone, it seems we should cherish the earth and its unlikely ability to support and sustain a broad and diverse array of life forms.

Looking at our solar system, our galaxy the Milky Way and beyond, we notice one thing: most planets are rocky and uniform, lack an atmosphere, or are so stormy and gaseous as to not credibly support life. A great many are too close to their sun or too far away to sustain life. (This essay is not to say one way or the other if life as we conceive it exists out there.)

My travels to Africa, which included skin diving in the Indian Ocean, particularly heightened my sense of the earth’s lungs and plasma- its forests and oceans. In travels since to places such as Beijing, China, it grew increasingly clear that Earth was entering a serious crisis.

Surely since the first rain dances began, art has transmitted an acceptance that humanity’s dominion over the earth is limited, and that somehow every technological discovery is limited in its ability to help mankind. The Christian Bible charges mankind with stewardship over the earth, as does the Koran and numerous other religious texts.  This is not to say we do not need technology or agriculture. We do.  The very satellites I watched traverse the sky in Kenya are now used to observe earth and alert us to the rapid degradations in her life support systems.  In short, sustainable agriculture and tool-making are essential for a thriving civilization.

Artistic expression reinforces the notion that both agriculture and technology are critical for the survival of our civilization. Artists, along with farmers and technologists, have after all, strong histories of technological innovation. They have done so in provisioning means for survival and media for creating deeper connections amongst humankind. In the 21st century, we see new challenges in the how we must shape the methods of agriculture and technology. This will help us sustain our planet, which had literally a vanishingly small chance of existing.

For the sake of brevity, excuse me if I leave it to you, the reader, to think of your own examples. There are many: I will touch on just a few. I think of Shakespeare’s sonnets and

Silent Evolution, and underwater reef by Jason DeCaires Taylor

Jonathon Franzen’s recent novel Freedom. Interpretive movement, from the rain dances of the Anasazi to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, share a seamless flow of connection to the earth through their rhythm and movement.  Film making brings appreciation of ecosystems to the fore through such works as Avatar and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy. One of our collaborators at Fund-Balance, Jessica Baron, has given us a great exemplar as well with the Green Song Book from her work to preserve and protect arts education via Guitars in the Classroom. Artists get it.

As someone who studied visual art formally for over a decade, I have a great many favorites from this discipline. The work of Andy Goldsworthy always captures my imagination. Another British artist Jason DeCaires Taylor’s recent Silent Evolution presents the convergence of past and present, human and ocean. I hope you will seek out the works of these artists if you are not yet familiar with them.

Another important way that imagination helps us  “remain in light” with respect to the crisis that our earth faces is cultivating empathy, the ability to imagine what it is like to be in another creature’s skin or circumstance. The arts amplify my consideration of what it’s like for someone else and their life in their time and space.

From perhaps a broader perspective, Aristotle’s prescient distinction between “oikonomia”, use value of products in the real economy, and “chrematistics” the maximization of exchange value measured by money, seems as relevant now as then. Contemporary finance and resource extraction operate irrespective of their environmental impact and hence lack empathy for natural systems they destroy. These pursuits fail to employ imagination towards finding ways to minimize such degradation and thus sustain the very systems that create capital and wealth. The arts generate value for objects and/or expressions beyond crude additions of the cost of materials. This is a deeply human mode of thinking that our civilization should factor back into our economies and ecologies. And to wit, artists have a long, hallowed, and harrowed tradition of working together with very limited resources to solve problems.

It may seem counter intuitive to some, but artists can inform business, banking, and policy making in the 21st century just as they have with Kabuki dances in Japan and in the plazas of Florence during the Renaissance. In this century, if Wall Street practiced empathy and took a long view of culture and civilization while they calculated their winning formulas while spinning their deals, abundance might occur without the depletion of the very land beneath our feet, without disregard for degradation of our air and water, and with respect for the mineral resources held deep in the earth. This in turn protects and preserves the means by which wealth happens. In sum, to protect the earth, we must protect the arts.

So I encourage you to join me in looking at the great Pacific garbage patch- a flotilla of discarded plastic in the South Pacific-estimated to be the size of Texas and the expanding dead-zones in our oceans with expansive imagination. I also encourage you to read a great essay by a great artist, Sigourney Weaver. She describes how empathy for women’s rights can preserve and reinforce a balance between ecosystems and human civilization.  She writes

“Two groundbreaking studies, one from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research and one from the Futures Group, found that simply by meeting women’s existing needs for voluntary family planning, we could reduce carbon emissions by between 8 and 15 percent. That is the equivalent of stopping all deforestation today. Empowering women to make critical decisions in their own lives can help solve the biggest environmental and humanitarian challenge of our time”.

This is another recent example of an artist using empathy and imagination to point to solutions for a major problem confronting civilization.

In the early 90’s, I participated in a project in which I enlisted a choreographer and composer to create a dance piece and compose music to be performed against a backdrop of images of the dancers’ brains via PET scans. It was a challenging and expensive endeavor. The concept was to present both the internal rhythm and flow of each dancer with each viewer’s external perception. My hope was that this effort to reveal the beauty of life both within and without would reinforce the audience’s sense of its sanctity.

That one got turned down as well with no explanation, just a simple rejection notice. Perhaps that was for the best as it doubtlessly led me to consider the need for development of green technology and the far nobler pursuit of finding sustainable means with which to power it. And, in turn, we at Fund Balance who with our newest partners join in putting imagination and empathy to work in order to inspire and inform investing in sustainability.

By Walter Borden