The Essential Role of the Arts in Sustainability
When I was growing up in Shanghai, China, pollution was an accepted part of daily life, like rain or summer. The sun was always obscured by dust and air pollution, compounded by the thick humidity. We never saw the stars. Even clouds were rare; the sky being uniformly grey all the time. In the winter, it was not uncommon for me to have a runny nose the entire season and for my classmates to be out of school for asthma, sinus infections or other air pollution related illnesses. People had a habit of spitting mucus on the sidewalk because of all the dust that entered their airways. The river that ran through the city was black and stinky and littered with trash. It wasn’t until I came to the United States at age nine that I looked up and saw a blue sky; or walked in a forest and touched a clear stream; or breathed without respiratory discomfort.
The environment has always been for me an issue of social justice. Many of the advances of civilization have been obtained through domination. Slavery, child labor, the oppression of women, and the exploitation of nature are all means by which one group obtains what it wants at the expense of another. Environmental degradation is in essence a problem of human relations, and as such it is the same as all other forms of repression, such as patriarchy, totalitarianism, or class struggle. Beyond whales and polar bears, a healthy environment means access to clean air, water, and food, fundamental elements that are increasingly only accessible to an elite. The problem of unequal relations is especially evident in climate change, where a small portion of the world emits carbon pollution from their cars, manufacturing, and energy use, while a vast portion of the world, who emits hardly any carbon at all, suffer the consequences of droughts, floods, and rising seas. Climate change is the outcome of very unequal relations between the haves who emit carbon, and the have-nots who suffer the consequences of that emission. It is also the outcome of unequal relations between the current generation who privileges its needs over those of future generations.
Many of the proposed solutions for environmental problems today are technical solutions aimed at maintaining the current state of inequities. Measures such as clean coal, biofuels, and genetically modified crops aim at controlling nature so that it will produce enough for our demands, our wants. But it turns out, our problem is not one of inadequate supply, but unequal distribution. We waste without compunction while those in poor nations suffer from a lack of basic necessities. We focus our solutions at increasing supply, rather than controlling demand. But have we applied any policies aimed at controlling our wants instead of controlling nature to meet our wants? Would it not be better to master ourselves than to be masters of the world? The means by which we have met our demands has led us to where we are today, a world with vast inequalities, poverty, and ecological degradation, a world that is on the brink of collapse.
We need a different path, but as Einstein said, we cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it. Technology cannot solve our problems, since it was technology which caused them in the first place. We need to turn to the source of the problem, which is our minds. Education is essential in that it is the only way by which we can reform the way we think about the environment. But we don’t need more education of the technical kind, of how to build machines and mix chemicals, but a moral education, centered on the understanding of our place in the universe and our relation to others. The thesis of my talk today is that the education we need to address the major problems of our age—poverty, inequality, environmental degradation–is an education in the arts. Far from being irrelevant to social change, the arts is the only way through which we may gain an appreciation of our common humanity, it is the only thing that can teach us to love the world enough to protect and defend it. The education gained through an appreciation of the arts is what I call the art of submission, which is entirely necessary for social justice. I use poetry as an example, but the message applies to visual art, music, dance, film, or any other art form.