On a Pale Blue Dot

Courtesy 350.org

Perhaps you heard: This past week Bill McKibben and 350.org organized the first global gallery walk, to draw attention to climate change. Called EARTH, it's a tour you can only take virtually. Most of the installations—composed largely of spirited, standing humans—were visible from space, where a satellite photographed them: In the Dominican Republic, people lined up on a beach to form a figure waving from the roof of an outlined house. On a glacier in Iceland, artists sketched a massive polar bear, a species whose stomping grounds are melting. In South Africa, 70 glittering solar cookers were arranged on a worn soccer field, colorful rays of fabric extending across the pitch (the cookers later were donated to a Cape Town community without electricity). In Mexico City, there was a human hurricane.

But my favorite "piece" was “Flash Flood for a Living River" performed on November 20 in New Mexico: an undulating crowd of over 1,000 walked down the barren Santa Fe River carrying blue umbrellas, tarps, and spray-painted plywood. Imagine a single wave, holding together, gaining energy as it rolls down an otherwise dry channel. That might be an apt metaphor for the climate change movement, which is building momentum, slowly; but “Flash Flood” catches the eye because it was beautiful and smart—conceptual art meets genuine concern. Since the 80s, the Santa Fe River has dried up some of the year because of upstream reservoirs, from which the city draws 40 percent of its water. The problem’s exacerbated by a dwindling snowpack, likely tied to climate change.

As McKibben knows, it takes bold gestures to capture our imagination and, from that, reason might follow. His campaign is science-based, of course: its goal is to have us recognize 350 parts per million as the safe target for CO2 in the atmosphere. However, not only is this an ambitious target (we surpassed 350 ppm in the 80s), but it also involves physics and chemistry that’s not so easy to understand. (I'll admit, too, that every time I hear “350” my mind does a double-take: Did they mean “360," a full revolution? Ah, the branding issues of science ...)

But rewatering a dying river with a parade? Now that's down to earth. “Waking people up is one of the tasks at which artists excel,” McKibben wrote last week on HuffPost. “And in this case, the medium really is the message. By using, for the first time, the whole earth as a canvas, they’ll be reminding all of us the one root truth of the global warming era: we really do live on a planet.”

Satellite image, courtesy 350.org

Upon first seeing “Flash Flood,” I was reminded of the installations of Christo and (the late) Jeanne-Claude, especially their proposal to hang fabric over 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Their art is immensely moving, art for art’s sake. (Who could forget wandering through “The Gates” in Central Park?) But their vein of art is, in ways, also a testament to our ability to overwhelm, to cover land with material, which is driving climate change, too. In Colorado, it's not surprising that Christo’s “Over the River” idea has irked some locals, who are probably right that a stream of translucent panels, followed by art-stalking tourists, will degrade the local environment.

“Flash Flood” seems the more inspired. It was a grassroots event, organized by the Santa Fe Art Institute. It used found materials: dusty tarps from garages, umbrellas from the closet, blue shirts, and scrap cardboard, on which people scribbled environmental messages. It was cheap art, for the earth, and it was uplifting, literally. (Say “cheese"... for the satellite!) And yet, how poignant. Seen from above, this gathering of cerulean looks miniscule. So unlike what a river should be: long, unending. On the one hand, these folks held up a symbol of what's being lost, unwittingly, as our climate changes; on the other, they showed it can be reclaimed, festively.

Much like the "pale blue dot" image, then, which was taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1991, "Flash Flood" drives home the point. "That's here, that's home, that's us," Carl Sagan wrote famously of the photograph. "On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives." This little blue wave in New Mexico also encourages us to see beyond numbers to what's at stake in the climate challenge: water, air, land and community.

“My fantasy is that we weren’t the only ones watching," McKibben wrote of the installations on Grist, "that some distant alien was looking on as well, and he was able to report to his superiors, ‘I think they’re starting to get it.’” This week, he and 350.org are presenting images of EARTH to the delegates at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 16) in Cancun. So, we'll see.

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