Artists and Climate Change

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Popular Movies and Climate Change

By Tulsi Pate

These days I find myself taking frequent nature walks where I breathe a little slower and think a little deeper. In a way, I romanticize these walks, imagining which angle will best capture the sunset or which filter will come closest to showing how green the trees truly are. This habit of inserting myself into a film as if I am a character comes from my love for the feelings that movies evoke. Suddenly I remember watching Avatar on the big screen, mesmerized by the natural blues and aquas, the chirping of crickets reverberating in the vibration of speakers. 

From towering tsunamis and cracking glaciers to animate green landscapes and vivacious animals, popular fiction films have given us both subtle and poignant images of our changing environment. It is debatable how far “awareness” of this issue can get us, but for the climate change skeptic, who may be reluctant to watch a documentary about the dying Earth, climate change-related fiction films can instill a sense of respect for our land and help visualize disasters that may otherwise seem abstract. James Cameron, director of Avatar, believes that he can be most effective at a grassroots level (as opposed to the political process) by using his cinematic skills to inspire viewers to connect with nature. “You can’t feel that you are ready to make a sacrifice in your lifestyle to protect something unless you respect and love it.”

We have all been there, sitting in a movie theater, speakers booming through our hearts, witnessing magical blue rivers and getting chills, yearning for an escape to nature. For a moment, we project past the screen and into the realm of computer-generated forests; everything is serene. But how long do these effects last? How long until I forget about my human footprint again and fall back into hopelessly accepting doomsday? A film’s impact depends on how directly it addresses our changing climate and how creatively it helps us visualize our impact on the planet. Movies can range from having environmental themes to being environmentally focused. They can also take many forms from apocalyptic (Snowpiercer2012) to lighthearted animation (Wall-E, The Lorax) to visually inspiring (AvatarMoana). 

In addition to helping us visualize an otherwise abstract future, films reflect how society is thinking about these catastrophes and stretch our imagination of possible solutions. For example, the recurring theme of an “escape to space,” present in movies such as Interstellar and Wall-E, becomes a more realistic prospect as tech billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos invest in space exploration. Other movies, such as 2012, feature a strong male character who saves his family from falling buildings and is left to survive with the remaining one thousand humans. These scenarios suggest a sort of hopelessness and inevitability about the destruction of Earth. I have yet to watch a movie in which governments manage to control carbon emissions to minimize the effects of climate change. That is the biggest issue in climate change film today. People are aware of climate change, and exacerbating the burden of change and desperation on them through film is more likely to drive them away than inspire them.

Let’s look at Wall-E, an adorable Pixar film about a robot that is compressing garbage on a demolished Earth abandoned by humans, who now inhabit a spaceship. The ship is run by the Buy’N’Large corporation, and epitomizes consumerism; humans sit on moving chairs, drink oversized sodas, and rarely look up from their holographic screens. One of the ship’s human-serving robots, named Eve (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), comes to Earth and takes an olive tree sprout back to the ship while Wall-E follows her in. The movie then plays out as a love story between Wall-E and Eve. Director Andrew Stanton claims that he didn’t “have a political bent or ecological message to push” and that “everything [he] wanted to do was based on the film’s love story.” Climate destruction is almost normalized in the background. The movie not only presents a post-apocalyptic trashed Earth, but it highlights how our increasing consumerism – however unintentional it might be – is inconsiderate of the Earth. 

Of course, many children may not see this movie for its environmental complexities, but even from a young age we internalize subliminal messages about our (typically Western) relationship to the Earth. Effectiveness? Well, the movie itself is not going to create a little army of child activists, but it will communicate the idea that our current extractive relationship to the Earth is unsustainable. Other animated movies have subtler themes: Moana features an indigenous relationship to the land as well as a beautiful Mother Nature-like depiction of Tafiti, and The Lorax even more subtly expresses deforestation.

It is possible for these movies to unintentionally normalize the destruction of the planet. Learning about deforestation and waste pollution at a young age may convey the idea that this is just how humans are. It may take the urgency of the problem away. In the case of Wall-E, it may suggest that escape from Earth is the only option, that the end of Earth is inevitable. Similarly, Interstellar is about a NASA mission to find another habitable planet after Earth has been consumed by dust storms. The movie opens with a rural farm family whose crops are failing due to the endless dust. Some say this was a sort of “wake-up call” to one of the demographics that most often deny climate change. 

For those who believe climate change is simply part of the Earth’s natural cycle, it is important to emphasize the role that humans play in exacerbating it. In some of the movies mentioned above, the focal point is the destruction of our planet, set in a post-apocalyptic time, and doesn’t show the human behavior that led up to it. Avatar is well-known for its stunning visuals of the moon Pandora, where the extremely intelligent Na’vi beings live in harmony with the land. That is until a military mission sends humans to Pandora with goals of colonization. Not only does this shed light on the military industrial complex and climate change, but it also emphasizes Indigenous relationships to the land as intelligent rather than “primitive.”

In Western culture, we are commonly taught to look down on “lesser developed” countries. For example, we often believe that advanced technology correlates with increased quality of life, and when we see images depicting lack of air conditioning or cellular devices in other countries, we assume those people need help. In the movieBlack Panther, we are shown what could have been if Native land hadn’t been colonized. Wakanda, Black Panther’s fictionalized country, is rich with resources and one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, but it is surrounded by mountains where people herd their sheep and ride on horses. This suggests that it is possible to develop technology that enhances the quality of life in a way that is compatible with the environment – two ideas that are often seen as mutually exclusive. Both Avatar and Black Panther also remind audiences that it is impossible to remove colonization from the story of our changing climate. 

In fact, it is impossible to remove many socio-economic issues from climate change and merely reduce it down to industrialization. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho is famous for his movies Parasite and Snowpiercer, both of which offer a striking commentary on not just climate change but also the wealth gap. Snowpiecer features a never-stopping train that carries the last humans left on an Earth that has frozen over. At the back of the train are the poorest of the poor, who are fed “protein bars” and live in sickness and gloom. As we move up the train, we reach the elite, where children attend school and people eat real food. The rear of the train orchestrates a revolution with the goal of reaching the front, but many are killed along the way. We later find out this was orchestrated by an insider for population control.  A commentary on how the world’s poorest will be the first affected by climate change, the film also shows how the elite can and do lead common people to their own demise.

In Parasite, a poor family lies and cheats in order to get employment with an upper class family and take advantage of its resources. At the end of the movie, it starts to rain, and the camera pans from the rich house all the way down to where the poor characters live – a small flat nearly underground – showing the progression down societal class levels. The flat is flooded, again showing how the poor are essentially disposable in this situation. It is difficult to watch these films simply for entertainment, and much of the audience will seek out themes of economic privilege in an increasingly deteriorating world.

This said, it is possible that only a few like me unpack these themes while many others enjoy the movie for what it is. Should climate change artists ditch their creative endeavors and focus on more “actionable” items or can art simply exist to exist? It is undeniable that these films evoke strong emotions and perhaps they are powerful enough to inspire some people into action. But the issue I see repeatedly in these films is the signaling of doom. The climate crisis has gained people’s attention; now it is time to revise the script to include legitimate solutions rather than destruction or escape. If writers and directors reframe the way they think about climate, they will be able to show audiences the change that is already underway and inspire alternative climate futures. Whether the movies end in tears or in joy, they will all embody the same human experience needed to propel us past our changing climate: hope.


Tulsi Patel is a student at Yale University studying Cognitive Science. Her interests range from linguistics to astrophysics, but the area that she would like to be most impactful in is climate – particularly food waste and education. A polyglot who loves learning languages, she would ultimately like to work in a global context. At Yale, she is part of an Asian spoken word group for which she writes and performs poetry about her experience of the Asian American diaspora and reflections on growth. Ideally, her future career will allow her to channel her passion for creativity into making an impact in sustainability.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Pitchaya Sudbanthad

By Mary Woodbury

For this post, we are fortunate to travel to Bangkok, Thailand, to explore Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead Books (US, 2020) and Sceptre (UK, 2019). In 2019, Bangkok Wakes to Rain was selected as a notable book of the year by The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. I read the book in April, while adjusting to our new life in Nova Scotia, and would read at night in the absolute silence of the new place. The novel is a beautifully written elegy to Bangkok’s collective memory.  It’s a forever moving piece of not just place writing but period/cultural writings. In that sense, it reminded me a little of James Michener’s The Drifters (a novel I read and enjoyed as a teenager) but it is much more significant, bound by wild prose and history – including the present and climate change – not holding the characters and their experiences together by mere threads but, seemingly, much more fluidly. Can I say that it haunted me drop by drop?


A missionary doctor pines for his native New England even as he succumbs to the vibrant chaos of 19th century Siam. A post-World War II society woman marries, mothers, and holds court, little suspecting her solitary fate. A jazz pianist in the age of rock, haunted by his own ghosts, is summoned to appease the house’s resident spirits. In the present, a young woman tries to outpace the long shadow of her political past. And in a New Krungthep yet to come, savvy teenagers row tourists past the landmarks of the drowned old city they themselves do not remember. Time collapses as these lives collide and converge, linked by the forces voraciously making and remaking the amphibious, ever-morphing capital itself. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is an elegy for what time erases and a love song to all that persists, yearning, into the unknowable future.


I found Bangkok Wakes to Rain to be a profoundly moving story, mostly due to the expanse of time in which it unfolds, the deep dive into character-building, and the place writing. What motivated you to write this stunning novel?

I’ve spent my life witnessing the many ways Bangkok has changed over decades, at distances near and far, and as both an insider and outsider. It’s an inherently novelistic point of view that helps me try to make some sense of a city that is in a perpetual process of conflicted reinvention. In writing my novel, I was propelled by curiosity about a place that is intimately familiar to me and yet unknowable. I put my imagination down on paper and just kept trying to see what came next.

The novel seems to be one that hopes to preserve history by making us remember certain times, whether or not we’ve lived through themBut it also seems to be fluid and moving, like the life force of rain and water flowing constantly in Bangkok. When you wrote the novel, did you also plan to write about our present climate crisis and how that is changing Bangkok? There is that wish to preserve life before climate change too?

In the early days, I had no idea that I would touch on the climate crisis in my novel, even as someone with a degree in environmental studies. It eventually became self-evident that if I were to extend my imagination into the future, a Bangkok literally in deep trouble because of rising waters was more likely than not. I needed to project the novel forward with the climate crisis as part of the city’s arc.

Yet, in thinking of the catastrophic effects of a flooded city, I also saw the future reversion of Bangkok to what it had once been: a low-lying amphibious capital city with extensive networks of waterways. This was before much of it was contorted from its nature to match humankind’s trivial ambition of capital growth. What do we hope to preserve then? What will we mourn of a landscape’s forced deviation? Bangkok, like many cities, feels like a flickering dream of an unsustainable civilization. We will try to hold on to it for as long as we can.

Another reason I gravitated to the novel is because it’s nonlinear, and I think most of us really make sense of life that way. The past is constantly creeping up in memories – especially as we get older – and the present and future are highly uncertain, which sometimes makes us miss something more solid from the past, even though it too was surrounded by uncertainty. In Bangkok, one of the constants is the house in which various people flow, like ghosts. Care to comment more about these themes in your novel?

I have a propensity to try to bring a place in my mind, where it’s not just background but an entity in itself. I find that a place is never a thing with a clear, definite shape. It fluctuates, obscuring and revealing. Telling the story in some kind of straightforward narrative made less sense to me for this novel.

I find that place is usually many things to different people at various points in their lives, and so it is deeply rooted in character and time, which are always restless. Someone can be somewhere and experience a place in time far differently from others, and so memory can also be place or a sense of it. This is especially true for a city like Bangkok, where so much has been built and replaced and rebuilt again and where there are layers upon layers of social stratification everywhere. I always see the city with a kind of double or triple vision, where the present, past, and imaginative are spectrally imposed over one another.

Recreates the experience of living in Thailand’s aqueous climate so viscerally that you can feel the water rising around your ankles.

Ron Charles, Washington Post

What is the background of your creation of the main characters, such as Nee, Nok, Clyde, Phineas, Sammy, and Pehn?

It’s hard to pinpoint any one inspiration for each of my characters. Whenever I’m in Bangkok, I collect stories from relatives, Thai history books, folk lore, and mass culture into the same general chest of narrative construction blocks. I do some minimal amount of research to get a more accurate feel, and then I mostly see what happens. There’s a little bit of this and that in every character, and most of what ultimately made it into the book is the characters becoming what the novel needed of them, by my imagination.

And then the novel switches into the future, where the character Woon is introduced. This takes us back to my earlier climate change question but also my earlier remarks about preservation. The themes of submergence and rescue come into place as Woon rescues artifacts, such as art and old letters, that have been lost by rising waters. I kept thinking the whole time how important fiction is because it also preserves our memories, albeit creatively. Can you comment more?

With a climate crisis likely, I tried to think of all that would be lost in Bangkok, not just in terms of the physical aspects, but the sensuous and spiritual. I think fiction can help perpetuate a few complex visions of the city, just as an old painting can let us emotionally glimpse the impressions of city or landscape from centuries ago. I say perpetuate rather than preserve, because a future reader’s vision will also be colored by the experiential palettes of their own time. With all the documentation and data collection happening now, they may be able to reconstruct and relive our current experiences in ways we can hardly imagine, but reanimation is different from any singular remembrance. Who will remember Bangkok in a few hundred years? What will they see and feel? I don’t know. It will probably be a far different reconstitution of Bangkok from what I believe my writing depicts today. 

Important, ambitious, and accomplished.

Mohsin Hamid, 
New York Times bestselling author of Exit West

After the novel was published, COVID-19 came along, making us even more on edge. How have things been for you?

I know I’m fortunate in being able to maintain a very science-based hermetic existence during this pandemic, largely keeping to myself while staying awake at odd hours and communally doom-scrolling with the internet-captive masses. I’m also in pretty close contact with relatives in Bangkok and get a lot of visibility into the widespread, strict adherence to safety practices, like face mask-wearing and social-distancing, that’s far different from the easy disregard I’ve seen in America, even in a virus hot zone like New York City. The linkages of organized misinformation between the denial of epidemiological science and climate science denialism are made clearer to me and probably others paying attention.

Are you working on anything else now?

I’m exploring and working through a few ideas. That’s all I usually say.

Thank you so much for your time in talking with and for your brilliant novel!

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Jason Davis Merges Climate Stories with Original Compositions

By Peterson Toscano

Joining us in the Art House is musician and composer Jason Davis. Jason curates The site hosts videos from people all over the world. They reveal the impacts of climate change in their lives, and how they are responding. Jason takes some of these stories and composes music to accompany them.

You will hear a moving and powerful testimony from John Sinnok, Inuit Elder in Alaska. Woven around the story is Jason’s haunting and beautiful composition for the double bass. He calls the piece Footsteps in Snow. You will also learn how you can share your own story on the website.

Jason wants to hear your climate story. He invites you to explore his site to read other climate stories and consider contributing your own. That website is

Next month: As director of Artichoke Dance Company, Lynn Neuman recognizes the vital role art plays in addressing issues like climate change. But entertaining and educating are not enough for Lynn and her company. They always want to do more to get people to act. Through community engagement and direct outreach to lawmakers, they are training community members on how to change legislation. 

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is part of The Art House series.


As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Water Worlds

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Catherine Nelson is an Australian photographer who creates complex, imaginary natural worlds using digital technology and animation. After earning her Art Education degree in painting at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, she worked for a number of years as a visual effects artist in the film and television industry until she began her current practice ten years ago. Connecting her background as a painter with her inherent love of nature, Nelson calls her photographs landscape “paintings.” 

For each final composition, Nelson shoots hundreds of individual photographs of a specific site. Using Photoshop software, she then separates individual elements within the photographs, creating an entire library of elements that she can manipulate and place anywhere in the final image. Most of her compositions are circular, a device she uses to tell multiple stories within the same landscape. 


Completed in 2010, Nelson’s first series of work is called “Future Memories.” Unlike other contemporary artists who choose to portray aspects of the climate crisis with graphic images of present and future catastrophes, she prefers to deliver her environmental message of alarm by creating images that reveal the astounding beauty and richness of nature as an idyllic memory of a world we are losing or as an imagined Eden that never was. She photographed her first piece in the series called First Freeze: Bourgoyen Winter, in Ghent, Belgium, where she now resides. Inspired by the work of Flemish painter Pieter Breugel the Elder, the winter scene documents the last time the city was covered with that many inches of snow. 

First Freeze: Bourgoyen Winter, digital photography, 2010

In 2015, Nelson completed two series of photographic landscapes of underwater worlds called “Unstill Life” and “Submerged,” in which she imagines “what it would be like to look out from under the water as if the body of water above is observing us.” Instead of our usual anthropomorphic view of the natural world, our position in these photographs is as just one of a multiple variety of species intertwined below the water. For these compositions, Nelson photographed vegetation in ponds located in Ghent and in mangroves in Thailand. Wading into the water carefully so as not to disturb the muddy ground beneath her, she lowered her camera below the surface of the water to take her shots. The vegetation in the final images is pristine, lush, interconnected and idealized; the water is clear without any presence of pollutants or menace. 

Unstill Life #1, digital photograph, 2015

Using the skills she first developed as a special effects artist, Nelson has also created two videos that are a direct response to the climate crisis. For EveryNothing (2017), she took thousands of photographs of the tiny succulents, euphorbias, and cactus plants being propagated in small pots at the Meise Botantical Garden in Brussels and identified as endangered. She then digitally extracted the individual shapes of the succulents from the photographs and morphed them into a continuous moving parade of plants that emerge into the picture frame and then disappear, emerge again with different shapes and colors and then disappear again. As Nelson explains, “everything comes from nothing.” She describes the finished video, which took a full year to complete, as “a kind of meditation,” a haunting record of what we are rapidly losing on planet Earth. The music accompanying the video, which was composed, performed, and recorded by Alexander Berne and The Abandoned Orchestra, adds significantly to the hypnotic effect of the 60-minute piece.

Nelson’s second video, Drop (2019), was inspired by the recent ten-year drought in New South Wales, Australia, said to be “the worst drought ever recorded since European settlement.” It was so bad that local towns were just months away from being abandoned entirely. Acknowledging that access to water is one of the defining issues of our time, Nelson calls Drop “a poem about the journey of a water drop,” the liquid that descends from clouds as rain and creates our lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans. 

Drop was shot in New South Wales using a drone. The actual drop of water was computer generated and follows a path from formation to its destination onto a cracked, desert-dry patch of earth. Although the soundtrack includes the muffled sound of thunder and birdcalls, the overall effect of the 2 minute video is one of quiet contemplation.

All of Nelson’s work is about the specific places where her photographs are taken, which include locations in China, the Danube Delta, Romania, California, Costa Rica, Greenland, Belgium, and Australia. As she readily admits, her decision to closely observe local environments through the lens of her camera is her attempt to understand how these ecosystems are out of sync so that she (and we) can better understand our common fate.

(Top image: Submerged, No. 1, digital photography, 2015)   

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.


Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited in widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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An Interview with Alexandra Chang

By Amy Brady

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve loved the fall. The wool sweaters, the turning leaves, the pumpkins – autumn is about as cozy as it gets. I hope that wherever this post reaches you, you’re enjoying something like coziness and comfort.

Of course, the world beyond my warm and cozy apartment is anything but comforting. With an election looming, a hurricane barreling toward the Gulf coast, the Western United States on fire, and oh yeah, an ongoing global pandemic, every day feels chaotic, even terrifying. I don’t have a cure-all solution for anxiety, but I can offer a balm: CritterVision. I discovered this trail cam last week, and it’s been my go-to soul-soother every day since. The cam appears to be located in South Carolina and streams 24/7. So far I’ve spotted a raccoon, a possum, some squirrels, a bunny, a whole mess of birds, and what might have been a fox. Enjoy!

And now, another soul balm for you. This month I interviewed art historian, curator, activist, and all-around excellent human, Alexandra Chang. Alexandra is an Associate Professor of Practice with the Art History program at Rutgers University-Newark, the founder of the Climate Working Group (of which I’m a member!), and the director of the Global Asia/Pacific Art Exchange and Virtual Asian American Art Museum with the A/P/A Institute at NYU. Her list of accolades goes on, and so does her boundless energy. She recently launched the EcoArt Salon at Rutgers University-Newark, which showcases the work of artists who are thinking about ecology, climate change, and the environment in their art. The salons encourage dialogue across disciplines about how art and the sciences might work together on issues of climate change. Below, we talk further about the salons, her thoughts on the power of art to address the climate crisis, and other exciting projects. 

Please tell us a bit about your background. How did you get involved in ecologically-focused art?

I can’t think of an exact moment when I started working with artists on ecologically-focused art, but in 2009 I co-curated the special exhibition 2012+ with curator and model Mie Iwatsuki for The Drop: Urban Art Infill arts festival. I remember The Drop as a special time when there were a bunch of us – curators, artists, architects, web folks, designers – all coming together on Wednesday nights from 9 p.m. until the early hours in a space in Chelsea to talk about the state of the world. It was 2008, so we were working in the creative fields amid the financial crisis and we were all finding it difficult to get funding for projects. We were also concerned about climate change and the potential end of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. We were wondering about our futures, our role as urban dwellers, and what we could do.

The idea of The Drop – a 2-week arts festival addressing climate change and our relationships to it as residents of New York City – emerged. Artists painted in the streets with the public, designers worked with the detritus of the festival to design outfits, the DJ booths were solar-powered. The Joan Mitchell Foundation and The Cue Foundation were located on our block near our building and they brought art educators onto the street and provided tables and chairs. It was an amazing moment of everyone getting together. 

Kickstarter had just started so we crowdsourced the funding and also had about 30 sponsors working together to make the event possible. Again, it was the recession but that made it a special time for working together. The special exhibition 2012+ took place in one of the 8,000-square-foot spaces we used – one space showcased sustainable design while the other featured the exhibition. It was designed as a maze or labyrinth through which you would go from works engaged with dystopian futures and current ecological issues to possibilities and dreams for the future. We ended with Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree on which folks could write and hang tags with their wishes for the future. These are now preserved in the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland.

What is the EcoArt Salon at Rutgers? And what do you hope it achieves?

The EcoArt Salon is hosted by the Paul Robeson Galleries and sponsored by the Clement A. Price Institute at Rutgers University-Newark. The EcoArt salon began to showcase the work of the many artists engaged in ecoart practices, but it is also meant to be a community where cross-disciplinary dialogue can be generative. The salons are small in size and allow for meaningful dialogue about what people are working on. They also allow for the possibility of collaborating. Artists, curators, students, faculty, community folks interested in the topic, and a range of others usually attend. We used to host with dinner, which always opens up dialogue, but it is also meant to be informal, inviting discussion rather than lecturing. The salons have grown a small community of folks who keep coming back, so meaningful connections and dialogue can happen. Now, it’s virtual. We just started back up again since the pandemic began and while we can no longer provide dinner, the online format has brought participants from across the world into dialogue, underlining the globally connected and comparative issues of climate and environment happening today.

The first EcoArt Salon at Paul Robeson Galleries with artist Katherine Behar, October 2019.

Artists of all kinds are increasingly interested in addressing climate change in their art. Why do you think this is?

There is an urgency. I think we can all feel it, from the fires in Australia, California, Colorado, and elsewhere that have never been so intense, to extreme weather happening all around us. Artists have always been addressing the issues and contexts of their time, and climate change is possibly the most intense issue of our time, happening right now. It only makes sense that artists are addressing it.

This is perhaps the ultimate – if impossible to answer – question for climate-minded artists: What role does art play in public discourse surrounding climate change? Does it bring greater awareness to the issue? Could it possibly motivate people to take action?

It’s an interesting question and it has come up during the EcoArt salons; artists are not sure if they are being effective. There is a lot of self-questioning. But I have to say that art plays an immense role and is powerful. What these artists are doing is underlining important issues that are being ignored. They are also addressing our minds, bodies, and spirits. Artists work in multiple mediums: embodied practice, conceptual work, visualizations that help us better understand or bring our attention to things that have been veiled from our perception for one reason or another. The term “spirit” is important; there is something about our emotions that is often ignored. Climate change, and the art that addresses issues related to it, encompasses and involves our fears, collective grief, and hopes as well. 

You’re the founder of the Climate Working Group. Why did you start this group?

This group started in 2017 and the timing isn’t insignificant. It was when the U.S. government administration changed and the new administration started cutting support for policies and the data and science behind building awareness of and slowing climate change. Not only was information not being funded, but it was being erased. The group began at New York University with the Asian/Pacific American Institute, where I was working at the time. The Institute was rethinking its foci given all the changes happening with the change in administration and the need to concentrate more than ever on issues of environment and race. We had always been working on projects and with folks engaged in environmental and racial justice, especially in the Pacific, and my personal research interests also focused on these topics. I was able to help instigate and build this network, which has shifted a bit and now pretty much sustains itself. The Climate Working Group began and continues as a cross-disciplinary group of doers who are active in their respective fields in fighting the climate crisis. They collaborate on discussions and projects and create an important, supportive network.

A conversation between artists, faculty, and community members at a shared dinner at the EcoArt Salon.

What’s next for you? Any projects, research, or events that you’d like my readers to watch for?

I’m working on a publication with the Climate Working Group that was just approved by Routledge. I’ve also turned a lot of my focus on practices of healing and care during this time of pandemic and eco-crisis. I am trying, along with community urban farmers including Newark artist and urban farming advocate Jamie Bruno; Clan Mother, farmer, healer, and artist Michaeline Picaro of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation; and colleagues from across the different Rutgers campuses, to bring a healing community garden to Rutgers Newark at the Price Institute garden. Fingers crossed that this will happen and you can all join us there.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.


Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Chen Qiufan

By Mary Woodbury

For this post, we travel to a fictional place in China called Silicon Isle, based on the real town of Guiyu, in the Chaoyang district of Guangdong province. Author Chen Qiufan takes us there with his novel Waste Tide. I am grateful to Chen for answering my questions about the book and for telling this story, which is all too real and something many of us might not be aware is happening. The villages making up Guiyu were once rice-growing but now, due to pollution from electronic waste sent to this area for recycling, are unable to produce crops. The river water is also not drinkable. Cleanup efforts began to take place in 2013, with the “Comprehensive Scheme of Resolving Electronic Waste Pollution of Guiyu Region of Shantou City”, and in 2017 most of the workshops where workers dealt with a toxic environment were merged with larger companies, but many still remain and are not cleaned up. According to Wikipedia:

Many of the primitive recycling operations in Guiyu are toxic and dangerous to workers’ health with 80% of children suffering from lead poisoning. Above-average miscarriage rates are also reported in the region. Workers use their bare hands to crack open electronics to strip away any parts that can be reused – including chips and valuable metals, such as gold, silver, etc. Workers also “cook” circuit boards to remove chips and solders, burn wires and other plastics to liberate metals such as copper; use highly corrosive and dangerous acid baths along the riverbanks to extract gold from the microchips; and sweep printer toner out of cartridges. Children are exposed to the dioxin-laden ash as the smoke billows around Guiyu, and finally settles on the area. The soil surrounding these factories has been saturated with lead, chromium, tin, and other heavy metals. Discarded electronics lie in pools of toxins that leach into the groundwater, making the water undrinkable to the extent that water must be trucked in from elsewhere. Lead levels in the river sediment are double European safety levels, according to the Basel Action Network. Lead in the blood of Guiyu’s children is 54% higher on average than that of children in the nearby town of Chendian. Piles of ash and plastic waste sit on the ground beside rice paddies and dikes holding in the Lianjiang River.


Waste Tide was translated by Ken Liu, who brought Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning The Three Body Problem to English-speaking readers. This sci-fi novel is chilling as it paints an eerie picture of where capitalism leads: class divisions, unregulated technology, and environmental and health degradation, including climate change. According to Amazon, the novel is a “thought-provoking vision of the future,” but I think it is also a reflection of a horrible present.

Mimi is drowning in the world’s trash. She’s a waste worker on Silicon Isle, where electronics – from cell phones and laptops to bots and bionic limbs – are sent to be recycled. These amass in towering heaps, polluting every spare inch of land. On this island off the coast of China, the fruits of capitalism and consumer culture come to a toxic end. Mimi and thousands of migrant waste workers like her are lured to Silicon Isle with the promise of steady work and a better life. They’re the lifeblood of the island’s economy, but are at the mercy of those in power. A storm is brewing between ruthless local gangs warring for control. Ecoterrorists, set on toppling the status quo. American investors, hungry for profit. And a Chinese-American interpreter, searching for his roots. As these forces collide, a war erupts – between the rich and the poor; between tradition and modern ambition; between humanity’s past and its future. Mimi, and others like her, must decide if they will remain pawns in this war or change the rules of the game altogether.

An accomplished eco-techno-thriller with heart and soul as well as brain. Chen Qiufan is an astute observer, both of the present world and of the future that the next generation is in danger of inheriting.

David Mitchell, New York Times, 
bestselling author of Cloud Atlas

What led you to write Waste Tide?

Back in 2011 when I visited my hometown, Shantou, and met my childhood friend, Luo, he mentioned a small town about 60 km away from where we lived, Guiyu. Apparently, the American company he worked for had been trying to convince the regional government to establish eco-friendly zones and recycle the e-waste, but some local authorities had been standing in their way.

“It’s difficult,” he said, a little too mysteriously. “The situation over there is…complicated.” I knew the word complicated often meant a lot.

Something about his speech caught the attention of the sensitive writer’s radar in my brain. Intuitively, I realized there must be a deeper story to uncover. I took a mental note of the name Guiyu and later, it became a seed of the book.

Your novel addresses these issues of e-waste and all the greed and class struggles that go along with it. What is your experience in seeing this play out in an area similar to Silicon Isle, in China?

Most of the description of local life is real. I visited Guiyu myself and tried to talk to the waste workers, but they were extremely cautious around me, perhaps fearing that I was a news reporter or an environmental activist who could jeopardize their work. I knew that in the past, reporters had snuck in and written articles on Guiyu, articles which ended up pressuring the government into closing off many of the recycling centers. As a result, the workers’ income was significantly impacted. Although the money they received was nothing compared to the salary of a white collar worker in the city, they needed it to survive.

Unfortunately, I could not stay any longer. My eyes, skin, respiratory system, and lungs were all protesting against the heavily polluted air, so I left, utterly defeated. I put all my real feelings and experience in the novel.

A few days later, I returned to Beijing. My office there was spacious, bright and neat, equipped with an air-purifying machine, a completely different world from the massive trash yard that I had witnessed. Yet, sitting there, I could not get that tiny southern town out of my head. I had to write about it.

Waste Tide could not be simply reduced to black and white, good and bad: every country, every social class, every authority, and even every individual played an important part in the becoming of Guiyu. All of us are equally responsible for the grave consequence of mass consumerism happening across the globe.

It seems that around the world, we see Indigenous people working jobs, or living in or near areas of waste, dangerous to their health. How is this something that you feel fiction can address when it seems sometimes that factual reporting cannot get through to people?

I think it came to a tipping point when people began to realize how severe the problem is. The pollution has been there for decades, maybe for centuries – the process of accumulation accelerates as technologies develop. Humans didn’t get smart enough to solve the problem before the waste turned on them. Technology might be the cure, but fundamentally it’s all about the lifestyle, the philosophy, and our values. In China, the issue has been building over the last four decades, along with the high speed of economic growth. We try to live the “dream life,” like Americans, but we have 1.4 billion people.

China has already replaced America as the largest producer of e-waste, simply because we are affected by consumer ideology. Everyone purchases newer, faster, and fancier electronic devices. But do we really need all those things? All the trash that China fails to recycle will be transferred to a new trash yard, perhaps somewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa, or South America. If we continue to fall into the trap of consumerism and blindly indulge in newer, faster, more expensive industrial products, one day we may face trash that is untransferrable, unavoidable, and unrecyclable. By then, we will all become waste people.

The air, water, soil, and even the food was found polluted or even toxic. The government tried very hard not to repeat the old pattern of western cities like London or Los Angeles, but it always takes longer to recover than to pollute the environment. So both cultural authenticity and futuristic imagination are important to me. I try to use the genre of science fiction to evoke an emotional and cognitive response from people on the most urgent issues around us. Hopefully I did it in the right way.

I think you succeeded! The story takes place in the near future, but it also addresses the same pattern of problems we already see. Do you think things will ever get better as far as the way we deal with natural resources, manufacturing, and the way we dispose of things? I don’t think many people are aware that a lot of our e-waste goes to China to be recycled, or how toxic it is.

Definitely, even if it’s not obvious and remains invisible. Actor-Network Theory (ANT), founded by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, claims that non-human actors, such as waste, should be considered just as important in creating social situations as human actors. Waste is profoundly shaping and changing our society and way of life. Its outputs cannot be predicted from its inputs. We treat garbage, together with its whole ecosystem, as a hidden structure – something out of sight – while maintaining the glorious trappings of contemporary life. And some take advantage of this while others suffer from it. Class distinction, economic exploitation, the international geo-politics involved in e-waste recycling procedures – for example, groups and power – must constantly be constructed or performed anew through complex engagements with mediators. There is no stand-alone social repertoire in the background to be reflected off of, expressed through, or substantiated in interactions. We have to see the reality.

Are you working on anything else right now?

I’ve been working on two projects. One is co-authoring a book titled AI:2041, with Dr. Kai-Fu Lee. It’s a combination of science fiction and tech prediction about how, according to research, AI would change all aspects of our world. Another project is my second novel, A History of Illusion, set in an alternative world in which the Apollo project failed and the human race turned to psychedelic entertaining. A young man with designer-drug talents tries to uncover his family’s secret. Both projects might come out in 2021.

Looking forward to these! And, finally, how do you deal with writing and book tours with COVID-19 shutting places down?

During the spring festival, I was spending my lockdown hours with my parents. In the first half of February, I was super frustrated and anxious, but then I forced myself to stop following social media and turned to reading and writing. That became maybe the most productive period of my life, literally. Since we’ve cancelled all the tours, domestically and internationally, I’ve learned to use Zoom, Skype, WeChat, and other platforms for giving speeches, having meetings, and live-streaming. It has become the new normal for authors and for everyone else too.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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About converted

By Claude Schryer

I admire the work and commitment of Artists & Climate Change and have been waiting for the right content and moment to make a contribution.

I proposed recently that they republish my September 19, 2020, converted blog, which explores the idea of “preaching to the converted,” and includes reflections on deficit preaching and issues of impact. But I reconsidered and proposed instead that I write this critique, About converted, as my thinking evolves…

Let’s put paddle to water…

Claude Schryer steering a canoe in Duhamel, Québec, July 2020. Photo by Sabrina Mathews.

First, some background. I am a composer by training, a student of Zen, and I love the outdoors. On September 15, 2020, I retired from the Canada Council for the Arts, where I was a senior strategic advisor and contributor to corporate environmental policies and partnerships, such as the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre Climate Change Cycle. I’ve had privileged access to networks and knowledge and now am an independent cultural worker.

I launched the conscient: art & environment blog and podcast in January 2020 as a personal learning journey to explore “how the arts and culture contribute to environmental awareness and action.” You can read about my motivation in my first conscient blog, terrified.

My intention is to help inform the arts community, and the general public, about some of the outstanding work being done in the field of art and climate change by leading activists and cultural workers.

It’s been interesting but I recently came to the conclusion that my conscient work was a form of “deficit preaching,” which CBC Radio’s What On Earth: How the arts might help us grapple with climate change (do listen to this episode!) defines as “the idea that people will change their behavior related to a problem if only they had more information about it.”

This made me think about my audience for conscient: art & environment and question some of my assumptions and privileges.

In converted, I wrote that “most people, including most artists, do not respond to ‘wake up calls’ about climate change and other existential issues, no matter how passionate or compelling the arguments might be.”

I asked, “what then is an earnest art and environment podcast producer to do?”

I stood my ground and stated that “I think you have to follow your gut instinct and buckle down on where you think you can make a real difference and not look back.”

Of course!

What choice do we have?

But the truth is that most of the time, I’m discouraged and deeply depressed about the state of the world. I’ve come to absorb some of the pain of the earth’s degradation in my body and carry this maelstrom within me, quite literally, in my gut.

At times, it feels utterly hopeless, doesn’t it?

In converted, I quote one of my favorite writers (and regular contributor to this forum), Joan Sullivan, from her brilliant Solastalgia essay about this sensation of despair: “a form of emotional, psychic, and/or existential distress caused by the lived experience of unwanted transformation or degradation of one’s home environment or territory.”

My questions, fellow art and climate change workers, include:

  • How do you manage solastalgia: plunge forward or strategically retreat?
  • What keeps you going?
  • How do you recover from the stress and strain?
  • How can we better support each other?
  • On what issues and themes would you like to see more research?

Please let me and each other know.

Here is my plan.

From conscient: art & environment website.

First, I will undergo a reset before jumping back into the fray. I’m not sure, however, where I will focus my energies once I re-emerge: it might or might not be through blogs and podcasts.

Thankfully, I have a shelf full of articles and books by scholars and activists with compelling theories and strategies. I will read and reread these and consider next steps.

For example, one of my sources of inspiration is the Crisis: Principles for Just and Creative Responses document that I helped shape while at the Creative Climate Leadership USAcourse in Arizona, which took place from March 8-14, 2020. A cohort of artists, arts administrators, cultural workers, and scientists from across the U.S. and Canada gathered at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona to explore creative methodologies and collaboration to address climate and environmental challenges. It was a very intense course that focused on developing creative responses for a new climate future, as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in the United States and around the world. See the conscient: art & environment podcasts 8 to 17 for a series of 10 interviews with Creative Climate Leadership USA participants and faculty.

Claude Schryer’s bookshelf in Ottawa, September 2020. Photo by Claude Schryer.

Thankfully, I also have access to specialized blogs and podcasts for support, such as Jennifer Atkinson’s Facing It, a podcast about love, loss, and the natural world that suggests that we need to work our way through this pain and reconnect with hope, and Green Dreamer, a podcast and multimedia journal illuminating our paths to ecological regeneration, intersectional sustainability, and true abundance and wellness for all. Artists & Climate Change postings are also an anchor in a sea of turmoil.

I suspect that given the magnitude of the issues we collectively face, many of us reading this posting share, consciously or not, this dreary state of mind.

Part of me remains hopeful and thinks that it is not too late, while another part of me feelslike it is impossible to save the world as we know it.

What then is the role of art?

How do we move forward?

Forest (2020), a black and white sketch by Ottawa-based artist Jeannine Schryer (mother of Claude Schryer).

I concluded converted with this quote from “What should we expect from art in the next few years/decades? And what is art, anyway?” a lucid piece of writing I recommend by curator Carmen Salas:

Imagine art which is capable of rekindling values of care, kindness, compassion, action-taking, social justice and cooperation. I’d like art to take a larger social dimension. Art isn’t about stagnation, conformism, fear. Art is about risk taking, resistance, empowerment and transformation. If we are going to have to re-engineer society after coronavirus, we need art that is less about individualism and the “artistic genius” and more about artists and institutions that focus on systematic solutions and collective/collaborative practices that foster community care and participation, collective consciousness and action-taking.

Art has the capacity to cut through clutter and help us feel, as opposed to only think, our way through emotions like eco-grief. It can also help us feel inspiration in strategies like regeneration and reconciliation.  

I’ve had the privilege to see some of the artworks, meet with artists, and experience the immense and unlimited power of art.

It works.

What is tough is keeping our heads above water, especially when water levels are rising so quickly, and sometime invisibly.

Hang in.

I welcome your feedback or critique, such as this comment by independent artist, writer and cultural worker Richard Holden that I received about converted:

… It is far more effective to be satisfied planting seeds, if not of doubt, then at least curiosity. … Seed planting may take longer, but I’ve found that given patience, it can be far more effective.

Claude Schryer’s final conscient: art & environment blogs for season one are guilt and pause.

(Top image: Scenery from a recent bike ride. Photo by Claude Schryer.)


Claude Schryer is a composer and arts administrator from Ottawa. During the 1990s, his work focused on acoustic ecology and soundscape composition. From 1999 through 2020, he held management positions at the Canada Council for the Arts, leading the Inter-Arts Office and serving as Senior Strategic Advisor in Arts Granting. From 2016 to 2019, he produced 175 three-minute audio and video episodes of simplesoundscapes, which explores mindful listening. In January 2020, he launched the conscient: art & environment blog and podcast, exploring how the arts contribute to environmental awareness and action. You can find Claude’s coordinates on the conscient website.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Andrew Krivak

By Mary Woodbury 

For this post, the Wild Authors series travels back to North America as I talk with Andrew Krivak, author of The Bear. Andrew tells me that though the entire setting is fictional, the landscape of the novel was inspired by the mountains and woods around Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. Thanks so very much to Andrew for talking with me about his newest novel, which I was thrilled to read.


According to its publisher, The Bear (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020) is a cautionary tale of human fragility, of love and loss, and a stunning tribute to the beauty of Nature’s dominion. It’s a story of a girl and her father surviving on the side of a mountain. In story, Adam and Eve might have been the first two characters on the planet, but in The Bear are the last two. The prose is simple but complex, delicate but strong. If you like to read stories set in Nature – where humans connect strongly to their natural habitat – this book might be for you. Stunning descriptions of landscape and wildlife, survival wisdom, love, sadness, and joy splash page after page. It’s a lyrical fable for humankind, with elements of magical realism.


How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

The Bear came together for me over time in two parts. The first was inspired by Randall Jarrell’s children’s story The Animal Family, which my editor Erika Goldman at Bellevue Literary Press sent to my three kids when they were much younger and which I read to them out loud. She thought they would like it because I had told her once that I had made up a story to get them to sleep about a bear who helped my father and me find our lost dog, Troy, in the woods of rural Pennsylvania where I grew up. What those two stories got me thinking about was how to understand not just animals but Nature as protagonist. But, I have to say, my kids really loved that story about the bear – made up on the fly just to get them to sleep! They would ask for it even after they were old enough to know that bears couldn’t talk. 

Then, about six years ago, we bought a house in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. The place has really taken me back to the kind of nature I knew as a kid myself, and which I’ve tried to share with my own children. So, after I published my second novel, The Signal Flame, I had a really strong desire to write something in which Nature was treated as though it were a character itself, and a first iteration of The Bear was a version of that children’s story. But I wasn’t happy with it. It was too simple. Too thin. I wanted something that challenged me as a writer, as well as pushed the envelope of literary fiction. Then one day, when I was out fishing, I was looking around at the shores of the lake, trying to imagine how the landscape might have looked to the first people who saw it, and – almost automatically – I wondered out loud in my boat, What is it going to look like for the last? Then it hit me. I rowed back to the dock, walked up to the house, and went right to my writing desk, where I wrote the first line of the novel: “The last two were a girl and her father who lived along the old eastern range on the side of a mountain they called the mountain that stands alone.”

When reading this story I was struck by your knowledge of plants and animals and how to survive in the wild. Have you had experience doing this yourself? What kind of research did you do when writing?

I’m no survivalist, I’ll admit to that. But growing up in Pennsylvania in the 70s my younger brother and I were outside in the woods all the time, hiking, fishing, sleeping out in the summers, making snow caves in the winter. It was the kind of childhood in which we seemed to spend more time outdoors than in school (thankfully). In fact, he and I were just reminiscing on the phone about how we used to get up at four o’clock in the morning in the summer, walk over to our uncle’s pond with a friend of ours, and fish until we got tired, then walk home, and our mother would say, without any anger in her voice, “Where’ve you been?” We’d tell her we were at Uncle George’s pond fishing since sunrise, and she’d say, “That’s nice. Did you bring me anything?” On those days we’d have fresh bass for dinner, along with what was growing in my father’s garden. Zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, radishes, all depending on the season. 

To answer your question, though, being accustomed to the outdoors and being able to survive in Nature are two different things. Still, I think that when you’re comfortable in Nature, there’s a shorter learning curve when it comes to understanding the things necessary to live and survive there. So yes, I did a lot a research on plants to eat and where to find them (some of them I already knew and used to eat as a kid), how to make a selfbow and arrows, how to make snowshoes. And then I would come to a place in the story where all I had to do was remember what it was like to build a fire in the winter, how it burned, what it felt like in the cold, and what it smelled like. The thing about research is that you can get caught up in doing more than what you need to move your story.

The Bear is not a handbook for survival. It’s a story about a girl’s coming of age in a unique time. Nevertheless, the purpose of research is to achieve authenticity, especially in the genre of realist literary fiction, which is the genre in which I would place my novel. So, you see the balance necessary. There is one thing I experienced in the writing of The Bear, though, that is curiously relevant to your question and which I’ve never talked about. In the summer of 2018, when I was deep into the final draft of the novel, I found myself trying to live a kind of parallel life to my two characters, at least with respect to food. I didn’t drink any alcohol. I drank only herbal tea. I cut sugar, and bread, and dairy from my diet, and did all I could to consume only seasonal lean protein, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. 

I wasn’t starving myself. I was simply paring back the things we take for granted, but are really just excess. And I found myself having really intense dreams about running through the woods, or along mountain passes high above rivers, or some extreme wilderness environment, and I was always moving quickly through it under my own power. The cool thing about these dreams is that I never felt fear in them. I felt exhilaration and strength, aware of the danger, but not being immobilized by it. I called them my elemental dreams, and they got so that I would crave them before I went to bed at night. 

When I finished the novel, though, they stopped and only re-occurred last year briefly when I was training for a triathlon. After a day of a particularly intense workout biking or running along trails in New Hampshire, I would have an elemental dream. But only for one or two nights, and then they were gone. I think what they helped me understand was the man and the girl’s complete focus on their world. It wasn’t that they had to survive in Nature. It was more like this was simply how their lives were going to be lived out, right up to the end. They were a big influence, these dreams, on why I ended the novel the way I did.

I have read a lot of novels that try to imagine our future, and have seen many different approaches, whether dystopian or utopian. But your novel is rather unique in that it offers an alternative viewpoint of a future world wherein everything is different but it’s not exactly a world that is terrible. It reminds me of the movie based off Jean Hegland’s novel Into the Forest. If you had to imagine our future world right now – especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic – could you see your story playing out as a reality?

Sure. One thing I’ve said, and many friends and readers agree with me, is that while I’m worried about humanity’s survival, I think that Nature is going to be just fine. Which is to say, Nature is a lot tougher, bigger, and smarter in the long run than we are. One of my favorite books is John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, and when you consider how old the Earth – Nature – is, and consider the fraction of time hominids have occupied this Earth, the difference is sobering, if not mind-numbing. It rises to the level of unimaginable hubris to believe that we have been and will be, in the end, anything more than a blink of the eye on the face of this Earth. 

We are fascinating creatures, there’s no doubt. The beliefs we’ve put forward, the problems we’ve solved, the stories we’ve written, the things we’ve made in this short stretch of our existence, are nothing short of sublime. Yet, I have to say, we seem sometimes, as the saying goes, like legends in our minds. I believe that right beneath our feet, the natural world has done, is doing, and will continue to do, things far more amazing than our minds could conjure or contemplate. Yet, more often than not we’re blind to everything but what concerns us. That’s the hubris. So, I think the future could absolutely play out this way, more so today than when I was writing The Bear two years ago.

As I answer your questions, I’ve been in my home with my wife and three children for three weeks because of the COVID-19 virus. This certainly won’t be the end of humanity as we know it. Not this one. But how the world has changed for us literally in a matter of days is astounding. And outside? Birds sing and flowers bloom and it’s coming on spring here in the Northeast, just like it always has, and always will. The only thing I do hope is that we don’t experience something that turns our twilight on this Earth, when it comes, into a nightmare, rather than a quieter dream of what once was. I was certainly aware of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as I was writing The Bear, and I harbor in my mind no comparisons whatsoever to that novel, one of my favorites. But I had also been reading Robert Alter’s translations of Hebrew Scripture as I wrote. That’s the reason why I imagined a return in the end to our mythic beginnings. An Eden for the last two, as it was imagined in the beginning for the first two. 

One thing I love to remind readers of is the fact that the word myth did not always mean a story we believe is false or gets truth wrong. Myth just means story. In his Poetics, mythos is the word Aristotle uses when he writes that “action” is the most important element of tragedy. When we’re talking about what makes a story a story, with all its truth and characters and mystery, we’re talking about myth.

How important do you think it is for authors to connect their stories to the environment?

I think that depends on the environment a writer feels committed to. The Great Gatsby is committed to a certain environment in the same way that Blood Meridian, or Beloved, or Marilyn Robinson’s Iowa trilogy, is committed to a particular environment, not just in setting but in how and why characters live and move and have their being. But if you mean environment with respect to the current ecological and climate crises, I would leave that to the author and his or her own commitment to what is elemental about a story. But I think also that in our current climate, a growing awareness of environment as something that can potentially play a more dynamic role in a story will quite organically begin to enter into fiction. 

When a writer goes deep – and deep necessarily defines what is involved in the process that consumes novel-writing – one isn’t simply connecting to a setting, as though it were a place lying around and the writer comes along and populates it. The place of a novel becomes of the Earth, even in the most urban of places, like Don DeLillo’s New York, or Roberto Bolaño’s Mexico City. But your question also raises a point I think we miss often in our need to shoe-horn fiction into market genres. I push back particularly hard against the category of so-called “historical” fiction. All fiction has its setting in some historical moment, no? Just because an author finds an interest in the intersection between characters who actually existed and characters created doesn’t all of a sudden mean that the history is what’s driving the action of the novel. So, I wonder, the same way, about the fate of the novel that treats Nature as a character itself, if not protagonist altogether. Do we just start calling these books “Environmental Fiction?” Or do we begin to read the re-alignment of Nature-as-character, or Environment-as-action in fiction in an altogether new and critical way?

Something I’ve begun to explore as a way of writing about the environment with respect to form as well as content is to limit the interiority of a character. In other words, how often in a story I go into the mind or thought process of a character, how long I stay there, and what I draw from that interiority for the sake of the story. I think most writers are really comfortable writing from inside the head of their characters, finding that place desirable, if not critically necessary, to moving a narrative along. But what if every time a writer was going to make that interior move into a character’s mind, he or she had the character look out and showed us what that character sees of the world, the environment. I mean really sees it. At the granular level. And then had that character act based on and being wholly within the environment around him or her, rather than acting based on what decisions were come to in the thought process of a moment. That would, I think, begin to raise the role of Nature out of a kind of passive setting (or at least a distant second to the setting of the character’s consciousness) and give it a more active role in the narrative, simply by having the writer signal that environment can and does play a part in the moral imprint of a character in a story. And that’s something I’ve tried to do in The Bear.

Great points above regarding genres. It’s something I’m always asking myself and appreciate when genres actually blur and reach out beyond whatever boxes people tend to put them in. I’ve heard the term “rewilding novels,” which I like quite a bit.

Which authors inspired you as you were growing up, and what are your hopes for younger audiences reading The Bear?

Books were everywhere in our house growing up. If I close my eyes and imagine the bookshelf in our living room, I can see Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare’s plays. Those books, though, I didn’t get to until I went to college (I was lucky enough to have parents who let me, and in fact encouraged me, to study liberal arts in college). 

As a kid, I had a pretty eclectic reading list, influenced largely by my older brothers and sisters, who passed down everything I read, from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, to Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring. But I also read books that came to me via the usual school channel, like A Wrinkle in Time, and a young reader’s version of The Iliad. I’ll tell you, though, for as much as I loved the freedom of living and playing outdoors so much in rural Pennsylvania, I felt trapped too. Creatively, intellectually. So books became a way of traveling for me. A means of escape. Especially in high school, when I read writers as a way of seeing if maybe I could become a writer myself. I think for that reason the authors who inspired me most were authors who wrote books about journeys. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Just to name a few. 

Now, all these years later, after decades of studying literature, every character from the great books I’ve read and loved live still in my imagination, every place they’ve all traveled is mapped and logged there too. So that when I’m old and alone and slowed down, I won’t be lonely or sedentary, because I’ll have all of those characters to accompany me to all of those places they’ve been over and over, again and again. That’s what I hope a younger audience will take not just from The Bear but from any book read and loved and never forgotten. Companions of the imagination. Because – if I can add this to your question about survival – literature can be a means to survive. Not because of what a paragraph tells you how to make, but because of how a character in a story lives along the arc of his or her own becoming.

Are you working on anything else right now?

In our new (and I hope temporary) indoor lives, I am working everyday (I’m hesitant to say feverishly) on my third Dardan novel, the fictional Pennsylvania town I’ve mined for my first two novels. It’ll be a longer, more sweeping work than the other two (The Sojourn and The Signal Flame), but that’s all I can say about it right now in these early days, except that I’m really enjoying getting back to the work of shaping and chiseling and sometimes just hammering away at the story that lives inside the stone. We’ll see where it goes.

I’m looking forward to hearing more! And I deeply appreciate your time in chatting with me about The Bear, a novel I think is a must-read in this age. Your in-depth conversation is eye-opening and wonderful. Thanks so much.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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Cultivating Change by Integrating Drama: A Classroom Experience

By Daniel A. Kelin, II

During the eighth session of my ten-session residency with a combined 5th and 6th grade class, I asked the students to find new partners. As a small class in a modest-sized, rural charter school in Hawaii, choosing partners generally meant returning to favorites. In this eighth session, however, one boy hesitated, walked across the room and asked a girl standing apart. The teacher froze, looked over at me and whispered, “I can’t believe that just happened. I can’t believe it.”

Paraphrasing a favorite professor of mine, cultivating awareness does not equal creating change. When invited to conduct a drama-integrated residency focused on a global issue, I selected the threat of sea level rise on Kiribati. One of the world’s lowest lying island nations and a nearby neighbor of Hawaii, Kiribati’s ongoing reality would provide an unknown, yet engaging story that could challenge students to debate real questions that are wrangled over even today. As students imaginatively face the daily challenges and realities of other people, they encounter problems with little to no knowledge of real-life outcomes, so must draw on their own ideas to deal with the “unexpected” challenges.

When I design arts integration residencies, I keep my professor’s comment in mind. Through immersive drama-based experiences, students practice life skills, from collaboration to critical thinking to creative problem-solving. In that charter school, the one girl was often ignored, included only when the teacher required it. When that boy, a kind of social influencer, partnered with her, a significant change permeated the class. The teacher later noted, “This was an amazing experience for my students. Several learned to reach out to others formerly ostracized. We watched students evolve from silliness to seriousness as the lessons progressed.”

We started by engaging in foundational drama activities to explore students’ knowledge of king tides, climate challenges, and Kiribati. Once they trusted that I would provide both joy and safety, we took our first creative dive into the Pacific nation. Analyzing photos from Kiribati and reading descriptions of daily life and communal values, the students divided themselves into “families.” Each received several large pieces of cloth to help them define their land. I find that, when students use simple props to define their own space, their investment in the drama increases. As families they doled out daily tasks, from gardening giant taro to caring for their home and animals to maintaining local sea craft and going fishing.

One of the photos of Kiribati provided to the students. Photo by Charlie Mitchell, downloaded from Stuff.
Another photo of flooded Kiribati provided to the students. Downloaded from Wired.

In a following session, I read how the local hospital was unexpectedly inundated by a king tide. What might a small island community need to do? In small groups, the students imagined and dramatized a three-part action sequence: 1) The moments before the tide hits, 2) The moment it hits, and 3) How might the community react? The students created various scenarios of patients flailing, neighbors wading through the waters to save each other, and finding needed medicines and equipment. I then showed images from the real event. Students often respond more personally to such images when they have already imagined themselves there. As the teacher commented, “The pictures of the real situation added validity to the subject.”

As families, we discussed facing future king tides. The families suggested building walls or watch-towers to raising building off the ground to just leaving. As the students began to dramatize their ideas, I introduced another tide. In silence, I gathered up a cloth or two from each family. Several students attempted to stop me from devastating their land. The families then selected a slip of paper from several I offered. “On the paper,” I told them, “is the amount you lost.” Some lost multiple taro plants to saltwater, or their entire home, or the ocean wiped out a great deal of their coconut trees. More pictures showed trees afloat and people wading through chest-high pools of water. Now the families needed to consider, do we stay on our home island or migrate to a place such as New Zealand?

Swam taro, a staple of people’s diet on Central Pacific atolls like Tuvalu and Kiribati.

Families conferred, then presented arguments for and against. Having already experienced the challenges on the island we then, as a class, took on the role of climate migrants. Influenced by the story of Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati man who sought climate refugee status, I guided students to first explore what changes people might face moving from a rural island to an urban setting. Once they invested in a new life, an official letter was delivered; their visas had expired and they needed to return to their island home. The family, now consisting of the entire class, discussed their options and actually decided to request an extension of their visa. I stepped into a government official role and denied their request. Out of role, the students claimed this was unfair. I asked what argument might convince officials? Small groups suggested the dangers of floods, losing food and land, and even their own lives. I then read about Ioane Teitiota, repeatedly turned down by New Zealand courts and taking his appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. “What happened?” students asked. “Let’s imagine,” I said.

One group took on the role of the family’s lawyers. One group became the Supreme Court. As the government lawyer, I argued why the family did not deserve climate refugee status. The family lawyers then had the chance to refute my points. And finally, the Supreme Court were given privacy to discuss their verdict. Although we had a sense of what the outcome would be, the Supreme Court group did take some significant time to discuss their ruling. The other students were visibly nervous. As the teacher wrote later, “The role-playing of local leaders and government officials by the teaching artist added to the drama and encouraged students to engage in their roles with commitment.” The Court finally ruled in favor of the Kiribati people. Real joy followed, students congratulating each other. One Court member did confess to being against refugee status, wondering if there “might be too many others trying to move.” I ended our residency experience with the true-to-life ruling; Ioane Teitiota was sent back to his island home. Although this disappointed the students, I felt it would help them realize the real challenges of fighting for change.

The main school campus of Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences Public Charter School. 

While the students may not yet be in a place to help climate migrants or address sea level rise, they did discover their capacity to overcome challenges as a class, to welcome working together or take a theoretical stand in support of their fellow human beings. In such a drama-integrated experience, students move beyond simply being aware of our world’s issues to realize that they have it within themselves to make change.

(Top image: Daniel A. Kelin, II teaching class 5 students at Children’s Garden School in Chennai, India in 2010.)


An artist, educator, scholar, and playwright, Dan has been Honolulu Theatre for Youth Director of Education since 1987. He’s served organizations in American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Pohnpei, Guam, and India and is on the Teaching Artist roster of the Kennedy Center and a current Fulbright Specialist. A Fulbright-Nehru Fellow in India in 2009 and 2019, other fellowships include Montalvo Arts Center, TYA/USA, the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America, and the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Dan has five published books and numerous articles about his arts education work.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Learning with Every Body’s Whole Body

By Clare Fisher


In my last post, I describe the (not quite) theory of teaching the arts with climate change as a monster: one which, in being unafraid to conjoin multiple and even contradictory forms of knowledge, treads new intellectual and creative ground. Here, I’ll focus on the pedagogical practices that make of these monsters an invigorating learning environment for students.

In many cases, it means a focus on experiential learning. At Wofford College in South Carolina, many courses in the Environmental Studies department feature a lab which, as faculty member Professor Kaye Savage explained, students are often surprised to discover is not science-focused but interdisciplinary. Savage, a geologist by training with a background in fine arts, who had a lot of input into the structure of the department, feels very lucky to be able to exercise both her “scientific” and her “artistic” self. She says this is one of the key components of the interdisciplinary learning on offer in the department: “It’s so important to let students get their hands on materials. Whether it’s out in the field or in a lab or even in a classroom, it makes [the learning] come alive in a way it never can in a book or on a screen.”

Not many institutions, however, will have the resources to invest in purpose-built interdisciplinary spaces; nevertheless, many educators are finding innovative ways to break down their metaphorical classroom walls, even if the physical walls remain very much in place. Elizabeth Trobaugh, who teaches Cli Fi: Science and Stories at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, is one such example. Her previous experience of running an interdisciplinary program with an ecology professor gave her both a passion and a firm understanding of how interdisciplinarity works, and she was able to “grab the science and integrate it into my literature course.” As well as devising a range of active reading, writing, and discussion activities which probe narratives around climate change, she brings in scientific colleagues to do live experiments in class, to demonstrate, for example, the albedo effect: “I’ve seen many students have that ‘aha’ moment and it’s quite wonderful.”

At the Centre for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS), a transdisciplinary center at Uppsala University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden, students take considerable control over the course structure itself. Every year, two students are appointed as coordinators for the course Perspectives on Climate Change: Ecopsychology, Art and Narratives. Working together – and given that they often come from diverse disciplines, this is an interdisciplinary experience in and of itself – they decide on which lecturers, artists, and external partners and stakeholders to invite so as to bring the syllabus to life. This, of course, is an experimental and unusual method, which Malin Östman, educational coordinator of CEMUS at large, argues is precisely its strength: “We should dare to use more experimental methods from the arts. Sometimes it will fail, but the same goes for all pedagogical methods.”

An openness to experimentation is also a key component of Sarah Fahmy’s approach to the Creative Climate Communication course at the University of Colorado, Boulder:

Much of the learning takes place outside, in the field, where it’s easier to see that we don’t live here alone and this planet isn’t only ours… It’s important for them to see that not everything has to be rigorously theorized. An important part of research is doing things that are fun – and laughing! The pedagogy is very participant-driven, which means often our ideas as facilitators end up being challenged or changing, but that’s fine because we’re not precious. We’ve also got used to the idea that not everything we start will go to plan; it’s the process that’s important, and making sure we create a space in which everyone’s voice is heard.

In Fahmy’s eyes, an openness to experimentation goes hand in hand with an openness to failure, and an assumption that students’ views are just as valuable as the educator’s. Rather than clinging rigidly to an initial idea or vision, she is willing to let them go in favor of a better idea that may come about during the learning process.

Evelyn O’Malley, who teaches the Theatre for a Changing Climate course at Exeter University in the UK, also noted that adopting a collaborative approach to pedagogy was empowering for students:

There is a real sense of shared responsibility for the material amongst the students. The collective element of the learning is one of the pleasures of the teaching. I’m always looking for ways that the students can facilitate each other’s learning; I can be part of that, but I try not to be an all-knowing lecturer at the front of the class. The students are always smarter than me and able to ask better questions. I try to set up my classroom as a space where we can think together and go down the rabbit hole together; hopefully, we’ll end the module with better questions than we began with.

In creating classroom structures where students feel supported in taking risks and making mistakes, and where the emphasis is on collaboration and asking questions rather than heroically rushing to find the best individual answers, O’Malley supports students to sit with the “trouble” and the uncertainty of taking responsibility for their own learning.

Yet what is the link between giving students an active role in their own learning and giving them the tools to actively work towards a sustainable future? Ian Garrett, who teaches in the MFA Design for Performance program at York University in Canada, has some ideas in this regard:

Performance is a way of imagining what society might be: at a time where we need a lot of social change for a sustainable future, it becomes a very useful process. The core is being able to communicate ideas about different possible future scenarios and, through the process of play, to come at it from different perspectives. Students work on specific projects around improving sustainability on campus, and this is usually empowering for them: they’re doing it about a place they’re invested in, and are presenting it not just to me for a grade but to a stakeholder who has agency that they have identified. It deepens their relation with a place and their systems thinking.

Systems thinking and project-based work give students a multi-faceted understanding of their artistic discipline as entangled within a complex web of change, yet it also, particularly in tasks where they focus on improving one element of their campus and present their projects not only to professors but to external stakeholders, gives them tangible evidence of their research’s impact beyond the university. As such, it has both ethical and practical ramifications.

It is no wonder, then, that every single academic to whom I spoke stressed how much an open, collaborative approach was as enriching to them as it was for the students. Many, such as Min Hyoung Song, who teaches the Climate Fiction course at Boston College in Massachusetts, also stressed how much it had impacted their own research, and for the better:

I was in the midst of revising a book manuscript on climate change and contemporary literature (both poetry and fiction) in the Spring, so there was a dramatic circular relationship between the manuscript and the course on Climate Fiction I was teaching. The students made what I was writing more personal, and allowed me to see from their perspective the kinds of preoccupations I was having. And just as importantly, together we explored how spending so much time with literature helped us to think differently about the topic.

In Song’s words I sensed a real hunger to connect with students, and an ability not just to say that they value students’ insights as much as their own but to demonstrate this through actively allowing such insights to change their teaching and even their research trajectories. Yet, such trajectories, in their openness to grappling with the complexity, uncertainty, and difficulty that is climate change, are emotionally as well as intellectually challenging: How to tread the line between hope and despair? How to empower students while giving them tools to engage with the – in many ways – grim realities of the situation? These are the questions I’ll be asking in my next and final post in this series.

This article is part of our series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education.


Clare Fisher is a novelist, short story writer, and researcher based in Leeds, UK. She is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds and teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary University of London. She can be found on Twitter at @claresitafisher.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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