Climate change; the role of the artist.

What role does an artist have in the debate about the environment?   Surely it all depends on scientific data and predictions.  The solution must be based on interpretation of evidence and engineering solutions, mustn’t it?   But it is not as easy as all that.   There are so many factors to consider.  Take the coastline for example.  Up until now,  the initiatives have all been about  defence; holding the line, building sea walls, putting in flood gates.  It’s a siege mentality.    But now it’s different.  Rising sea levels is something we cannot oppose.   It was King Canute, who reputedly  demonstrated the limits of human potential with regard to time and tide.   A thousand years later, it seems we are discovering it all over again. 

Sea levels are going to rise, coastal erosion is going to take place all along East Anglia,  land is going to be lost.  You cannot stop it.  All you can do is try to accommodate it and limit the damage so it does not affect certain resources that just have to be sustained, like Sizewell B Nuclear Power Station, like Southwold, Lowestoft, Felixstowe and Woodbridge.   But to do this, other things may have to go.  Farmland may have to left to revert to salt marsh,  but protected by baffles and breakwaters  so that the run-off from high tidal shifts does not encourage further erosion.  Lighthouses and other coastal structures like Martello towers may have to go.  Land below sea level may have to be allowed to flood.   A controlled breach may have to be made in the elbow of the River Alde where fifty yards or so of shingle just separate from the sea,  but this would silt up Orford so that after 1000 years it would be landlocked like Winchelsea.   

But there are so many factors to consider in trying to think what might happen,  the height of the tides, the extent of coastal drift, the topography and geology of the land,  the bathygraphy,  and of course human activity.  Mr Peter Boggis, local engineer and landowner,  had taken matters into his own hands and dumped thousands of lorry loads of hard core onto the foreshore above Southwold to prevent the erosion of the soft sandy bedrock of his land, but the sea has just continued to undermine his efforts, eroding the underlying soft sand so that the hard core subsides and is also  washed away and the erosion continues.   In other placed they have tried to protect the Martello Towers and other coastal amenities, like Felixstowe Golf Course, by depositing a band of large blocks of Norwegian granite  (rock armour) along the shoreline, but rock armour is only as firm as the ground it is dumped on or leans against.  In any case, eddies are set up where the granite ends causing accelerated erosion down the coast.  There are always knock on effects.  

So where does the artist come in.  Well, as Simon expressed it,  the informed artist is an observer,  he applies a prepared mind to explore contingencies and consequences.   He has no vested interest and can therefore afford to have an  unbiased perspective and promote a conversation among other stakeholders;  environmentalists, engineers, landowners and politicians.  The perspective of the artist differs from that of the scientist because it is by necessity, exploratory and speculative and gives free rein to the imagination.  The informed artist has no idea what will happen, but, lacking vested interests, is in a good position to work out what might.  The scientist is programmed by Popperian philosophy to set up a hypothesis and try to disprove it.  He has already decided what will happen.  This scientific approach is much more rigid and focussed;  its methodology and statistics offer a ‘semblance’ of proof, but only under the rigid conditions of the ‘experiment’.  They tend to  foreclose discussion. 

In reality, we need both approaches.  The artist and scientist should work more together. The exploratory models, based on the intuition and imagination of the informed artist can help to focus and structure the scientific investigation so that it takes into account all contingencies and creates a much tighter null hypothesis that will lead to less ambiguous conclusions and more effective strategies.   

We are talking here about chaos and meaning.   Natural phenomena, like the patterns of flow that create the weather, the rivers and sea, growth and even human emotion and illness, appear chaotic and can all to readily escape the arbitrary rules we try to impose on them.   We need to make fully informed responses to them in the sure knowledge that while we cannot hope to control, we can understand and contain.  Philosophy requires the integration of imagination and reason, intuition and fact, information and speculation to achieve a more meaningful and effective response.  

 But philosophy requires freedom of thought and matters such as coastal management are highly political; people stand to lose or gain enormous sums of money.   The conversation can all too easily be railroaded by the political manipulations of landowners, farmers, entrepreneurs, developers,  powerful stakeholders with sufficient resources to employ lawyers to find loopholes.  The project could so easily be stalled and then abandoned by an incoming government, the ability to plan productively will be lost, and when the disaster occurs, the losses will be catastrophic. 

And all the while, the  unexpected can  happen.   This week there has been a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland, pumping ash high into the atmosphere and grounding all aircraft coming in and out of the UK.   Simon informed me that the last time this happened, it caused widespread famine in France and initiated the French Revolution. 


On April 15th, Simon Read, my brother,  talked about his latest exhibition of drawings to an audience at The New Cut Arts Centre in Halesworth, Suffolk.  He explained how he had abandoned the creation of works of art for their own sake many years ago, developing  his artistic intuition and skill to explore phenomena; light, movement, growth, the flow and turbulence and water; the essential meaning of things.  He has utilised the insights this has given him in the service of the debate on coastal management.