Are Artists the Ultimate Environmentalists?

Today’s post launches a new partnership between Conservation Magazine and Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment


By Bill Chameides

Some say there is a collective unconscious; a cache hidden deep within all of us that  contains all human experience from the time our forebears first stood erect to view the world as sentient beings to this very moment. An infinite treasure of memories, if we could find the key to unlock them.

It’s a fanciful notion. Were it true, I would want to channel the moment when a human being first saw a work of art. I imagine hunkering down in a smoky cave to the sound of whimpers and grunts and giggles. Looking up, I see in the flickering firelight a person scratching lines on the cave wall. They’re just lines, nothing more, until, suddenly, those seemingly random marks coalesce into an image. Perhaps it’s a picture of the bison, deer or bears we hunted that day.

As crude as people today might find such drawings, my caveman self is filled with awe. I not only see the animal, I smell it. I hear its grunts, and maybe my heart quickens a bit from memories of the day’s hunt. And in my mind’s eye I contemplate the day’s failures and celebrate its victories.


Cave art. Photo by Jeff Walker (Creative Commons)


The Power of Art

What is it about art that transports, astonishes, inspires? Its power to move us is almost as remarkable as the work itself. Every day, the images, sounds, and smells of the so-called real world literally surround us and assail our senses. Yet we tend to go about our lives consumed by day-to-day struggles and routines, oblivious to the marvels that abound. But then an artist comes along and interprets this very same world — through images, music, a story, a performance — and suddenly we are moved. Engaged. Really powerful art can change lives. (See here and here.)

Asher Durand

Certain nineteenth century American artists who reveled in nature’s beauty are given credit for inspiring the American preservation movement of the late 1800s. Among these artists are the Hudson River School painters like Asher Durand, whose “Kindred Spirits” is pictured here. Are artists the ultimate environmentalists?


Art and the Environment

Little wonder, then, that artists, whose work beckons us to contemplate and experience the world around us, have played a unique and important role in marshaling people’s energies to steward and protect the natural world. The artists of the Hudson River School and their spectacular landscapes, along with literary philosophers and Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and poets like William Cullen Bryant, are given credit for inspiring the American preservation movement of the late 1800s, which among other things, gave birth to our national parks system.

Earlier in the century, the Romantic poets in England, like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had sounded a similar note of sympatico with the natural world. Just check out John Keats’s take “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” or take a walk through William Wordsworth’s field of daffodils to get a sense of how nature inspired, delighted and sustained them.

Back in the United States, in the early 1960s, the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign set out to “dramatiz[e] how … pollution [was] hurting the environment” and to underscore that it was people’s responsibility to help stop the harm. While the campaign made inroads into raising people’s consciousness over the ensuing decade, it was not until the “crying Indian” ad featuring Chief Iron Eyes Cody became the campaign’s centerpiece in 1971 that the campaign really hit pay dirt, transforming, in the space of a few years, a society of profligate litterbugs into one where folks thought twice before spoiling the landscape. For me and, I suspect, many of my fellow baby boomers, the crying Indian was more than just an entreaty not to litter. In a short time it became an indelible, transformative mental image that informed a lifelong environmental sensibility.

The Power of an Image

And then of course there’s the “Blue Marble,” the 1972 photograph of Earth taken from space as Apollo 17 hurtled toward the moon. This earth-changing image came about from a small act of rebellion — though they had been instructed not to take any photographs at that time [pdf], the astronauts were so taken with the crystal clear view of our lonely planet* that they captured the image anyway. While that might have given the NASA mucketymucks a bit of heartburn, most would say they made the right decision. If there is a collective unconscious, then that photograph of the Earth as a finite ball alone in an ocean of space, profoundly hit a nerve in our collective worldview. It forced us to confront the fact that we are a single people adrift on a singular planet.

Many believe that this image (and its counterparts, see also here) helped spark the modern environmental movement, which led to, among other things, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, arguably the two most important and effective environmental protections in the United States. The photo also came to symbolize Earth Day, the annual celebration that sprung to life two and a half years before the photo came into existence. And it propelled the work of environmental nonprofits like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund, giving these groups whose raison d’etre is environmental stewardship, a visceral and lasting touchstone.

Science and Art

The photograph’s impact on the scientific community was also profound. There was a new appreciation for the connectedness of all things terrestrial, of the need for interdisciplinary study of the Earth from a global perspective.

If technological and scientific achievements had made that picture possible, it was our innate artistic sensibilities that informed our reaction to it — that moved us on a visceral level and that has propelled the Blue Marble and its related images to the status of an icon.

As so much of the modern world shows us, the power of a symbol cannot be underestimated. And in this highly technological age, reminders of the natural world are a necessity. As the novelist E. M. Forster remarked in “Howards End”:

“What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives? … Haven’t we all to struggle against life’s daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion? I struggle by remembering my friends; others I have known by remembering some place–some beloved place or tree–we thought you one of these.”

I’m a firm believer in the power of art to slice its way into our collective unconscious and compel us to see the world as it really is and to come together to preserve and steward that which is irreplaceable and beyond value.

In these pages over the next several months, I will wax scientific and artistic over the intricately intertwined subjects of art and the environment. The two link past, present and future and connect us to each other and to our common experience and heritage. I find it a fascinating subject to explore (see here, here and here). Join me.

You know, “only connect.”


End Note

* For the profound effect space travel has had on astronaut’s view of the environment and planet Earth see


Bill ChameidesBill Chameides is the dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. His research focuses on elucidating the causes of and remedies for global, regional and urban environmental change and identifying more sustainable pathways forward. He has authored or co-authored 140 peer-reviewed papers and eight books. He also blogs at,, The Huffington Post, the University of Minnesota’s digital magazine Ensia,, and National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge blog. Visit Bill’s blog TheGreenGrok and keep up with him on Twitter @TheGreenGrok.



  • Janet Glatz October 22, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    You have no idea how gratifying it is to read this piece. Yes, I am aware of all the artists you mention and their connection with our environment; however, no where else have I read a more moving account of it. I look forward with great anticipation to your upcoming posts. Thank you.
    Janet Glatz


  • Marc Myers October 24, 2013 at 5:39 am

    I am also gratified to see this but I have a very different sense of the drawings of our early relatives. They aren’t crude at all. They’re highly stylized with clear conventions on how and what should be included and not included in the drawings. If it was amateurs’ work, one wouldn’t be able to instantly recognize a Paleolithic style. It would look like beginners. Much more likely that we are seeing a tiny fraction of a practices that already had long histories and collective conventions. These were trained artists.


  • Hara Woltz October 24, 2013 at 5:58 am

    Thank you for this excellent summary/introduction to the intertwined nature of art and environmental science.

    I look very forward to your upcoming posts.

    You might want to have a look at this article regarding “the crying indian”.

    All best,

    Hara Woltz


  • Eliza Murphy October 24, 2013 at 10:21 am

    What a terrific idea for an important level of discourse. Thank you. I look forward to future posts.

    Having recently had the incredible good fortune of seeing cave paintings created by torchlight 15,000 years ago in the Dordogne region of France, I can attest that the level of sophistication visible on those walls far surpasses the skill of many contemporary artists. There is nothing at al crude about those truly awe-inspiring images.

    Not only did these paintings require careful reading of the rock to make the animals appear voluminous, some of the animals, rendered in profile, have a second eye placed in such a way that if a viewer was moving through the cave, guided by torchlight with light flickering on the walls, they would get the distinct feeling that the animals were moving & even turning their heads to watch visitors pass by. They are touching beyond belief. The caves feel animated, the animals present and vivid.

    A particularly beautiful aspect of these images is the absence of violence. There is no record of predation — no scenes of hunting or attacks. Rrather, the animals are shown in communion with one another, and they often display tenderness.

    We ought to be very careful in our assumptions about our predecessors. The record left in this region of France shows the hands of a gentle and refined society, characteristics often lost in inaccurate interpretations of societies often presented as crude, violent and barbaric.

    Much of art created today is often crude and barbaric by comparison, both in theme and technique, a reflection of the violence in which we are steeped, a record of an unfortunate trend toward the self destruction of our species.

    Again, thank you for taking on this enormous subject. It promises to be a fascinating journey.

    Glad for Art as Antidote,
    Eliza Murphy


  • Todd Wilkinson October 24, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Glad to see your blog, Bill. You may find this interview of interest. It’s one I did with The Nature Conservancy, below, about the connection between conservation and wildlife art, which I’ve been writing about for 25 years…. Art and conservation is also a theme explored in my new book, “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”


  • John Richter October 26, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks for this — I really look forward to it.

    I wonder a lot about the role art plays in transforming society, and in particular what role it could play in helping people _understand_ climate change at a more visceral level. Right now climate change is still too abstract for way too many people–people don’t understand averages very well. Unlike the Civil Rights movement, there aren’t news images of people being chased down by German Shepherds–in other words, imagery that instantly evokes a visceral, emotional response. (Well there are, but the connection between climate change and extreme weather isn’t explicit enough for most…)

    I’ve written a bit about the role of art in generating behavioral change on my blog ( ):

    >>>I tend to view the two methods for changing people as almost divergent modes of thought that are absolutely need together to accelerate change. They can be broadly categorized into expression and structure. On the one hand, emotional appeals are modes of expression; they are appeals to hearts and sensibilities. This is how I tend to view protests, art, films, music, and most activist endeavors. While these items are absolutely necessary, they are events that, taken individually, are loosely connected to the underlying structure of how things work–governments, societal structures, and the like. They can cause people to soar great heights of emotion, and often this is enough to convince people “on the border” to move more solidly to one side of a contentious issue. The idea is through the steady accumulation of converts, those actual people will be able to foment an actual structural change. (As any activist training will tell you, there are two mediums for bringing change: people and/or money.) On the other hand, persistent structures are, well, exactly that. They are the very definitions of how people act. They can come in the form of societal conventions , government laws, market mechanisms, and technological means. The truth is, those emotional appeals are the lens through which all major changes must pass in order to develop deeper-rooted structural changes.

    Alas, what’s the follow up to art? As an artistic technologist wandering about, I find myself running the spectrum of questions from expression to structure…

    I look forward to exploring your writing and links!


  • John Richter October 26, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    I forgot two things I wanted to add:

    1. A quote by by Alejandro Jodowosky on the role of art in raising consciousness:

    >> If you look carefully, what defines man is not quantity but quality. Humanity has always been qualified by his valence. Another thing is the great multitude, which, at the core, directs the world — the politicians need their votes, and they have to deceive them to legitimize themselves. Our labor is something else; it is to create conscious people. Everything I desire, I desire for others. Work the consciousness, then share it, so that humanity does not sink into catastrophe, because then the multitude will dominate– and the masses have a limited level of consciousness. It is necessary to elevate the level of consciousness: the multitude does not represent the human being. In this sick society, people emerge who are like antibodies; they are called to expand the consciousness, but this is work that must be done through the schools, on the streets, through art, and with every word. For this reason I say that art, not politics, heals. ….. [there’s more at the link–it’s really good]

    2. An awesome climate change protest I attended that was part art, part protest, and that I think was incredibly effective because of that:

    Coal, Oil, Gas
    None Shall Pass

    (in Vancouver, WA, on Columbia River, with Kayaks and people across a bridge)


  • Deborah Hughes October 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Through photography I have found a greater appreciation for nature and feel more attuned to weather, seasons, and other natural processes. Thanks for your thoughts on this subject. Art should be a mandatory subject in schools as a tool for thinking about and becoming more whole human beings.


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