The award-winning visual artist and author on why fixing many of the world’s problems means letting go of our obsession with being right.
I was at a TED climate conference dinner when someone across the table asked me: “What advice would you give to young people wanting to become climate artists?” And I replied: “I don't think there should be climate artists.”
Before I got a chance to finish my sentence, the person took offence, saying: “How dare you tell people they shouldn't do something”. The point I was making is that by virtue of being a climate artist, you've already entered a polarised space; you're either preaching to the converted or annoying the people who have made up their minds. And that's not what our job as artists is. Our job is to get much deeper than that. Our job is to make art about the world we see. To just become a climate artist is too limiting and prescribed. Just be an artist!
I think that the idea that you have to do things in silos has been a successful model for capitalism for a long time. But that's not how people work. We’re not machines. Humanity is made up of grey, multifaceted creatures. There's a brilliant quote by Jacob Bronowski, who wrote The Ascent of Man: “Man is unique not because he does science, and he is unique not because he does art, but because science and art equally are expressions of his marvellous plasticity of mind.”
We need art and stories to make sense of the chaos, and we need science to tell us how to do it. But it’s usually science following the story, not the other way around. This is why stories are some of the most important things that human beings have ever created. Science and logic won’t always win somebody over, but stories will. We can change how we feel about pretty much anything depending on the story we tell ourselves. And many of us have been telling ourselves the same story for too long.
We need to move away from the story of “I” to the story of “us”.
We’ve had a hedonistic party for the last couple of generations, we've been handed the bill, and now somebody's got to pay it. There's a little confusion over who should pay it and how it should be divided up, but at least – at last – we're addressing the elephant in the room. It’s a challenge because the tentacles of power, greed and the patriarchy run deep, but we know it’s possible for people to very suddenly change their entire narrative and get into a new lane to follow a different story.
Covid showed we could all rally around a story that connected us all. It proved that once we feel emotionally connected to something, we can quickly change and adapt. The same goes for those who experienced World War Two – you’ll hear the older generation say they felt a sense of community and purpose and that sacrifices were easier to make.
And I believe we’ll see the same Zeitgeist shift when it comes to how we deal with the climate and nature crises. Whether we follow a capitalistic model or otherwise, the story will soon be that being environmental is the more interesting and efficient thing to be; it makes us all feel better. It’s going to be remarkable.
We’re already starting to see this steady transformation, but if we want to accelerate it, we need to move away from the story of “I” to the story of “us” as a collective. We need to create a sense of community that takes the emphasis away from whether we are right or wrong and our individual story and move into a space where we work as a group or a winning sports team.
The vast majority of people are out of the loop and don’t care because they haven’t been included in the conversation.
One of the biggest roadblocks is our obsession with being right, even if that means going against our best interests. What we forget is that if you’re right, someone else must be wrong – and this is what keeps conflicts and debates open and dragging us down like a dead weight. I felt this acutely when I returned to Belfast after 17 years of living in New York. I was reminded of the problems that still exist in Northern Ireland and, indeed, in so many parts of the world right now. At the heart of these conflicts is an inability to see that this isn’t about being right or wrong; it’s about finding out what might be better.
The same can be true of business leaders or leaders in general. I felt this palpable sense of ego when I was at COP26. I wanted to knock it off its kilter by saying: “You know, it’s not about you – it’s not about your company’s profits or the hard border of your country.” As the global pandemic proved, and weather catastrophes are proving, these crises don’t care about borders, passports or bank accounts.
At COP26, I realised there were six very different groups present: the business leaders; the world leaders; the humble delegates who were there just trying to do their job and get people to change policy; there were the media; the angry youth protesting outside. And then the last group – by far and away the largest and most important – were the taxi drivers. Not just because they were taxi drivers, and we couldn’t get anywhere without them, but because they represented the rest of the city. And you know what? They were indifferent – either they didn’t know what was going on inside the conference walls, or they thought it was a waste of time and money. When I asked if they thought that climate change was real, they said, “well, sure, yeah,” but when I asked if they were doing anything about it, they said they weren't because they didn't know what to do or how to do it. And this is the group that we need to be talking to right now. It’s not the angry deniers, the media, companies, or even the politicians; it’s the rest. The vast majority of people are out of the loop and don’t care because they haven’t been included in the conversation.
Which leads us back to storytelling and why it’s so critical at this moment. It transcends all these groups, reaching and moving people in a way that science and even journalism cannot. Stories help people make sense of the world and feel united in the knowledge that their story is one that millions of other people can share, wherever they’re from. It’s this perspective that can nudge the public conversation, helping us realise that we are part of something bigger. And suddenly, things can feel different. The story can start to change.
As told to Charlotte Owen-Burge on 21st February 2023. This conversation was edited & condensed for clarity.