28 September 2010

Artist or Activist?

28 September 2010

Artist or activist? This question frequently arises in relation to the Industrial Scars project. The work is first and foremost art [works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power]. Many years of study into the rules of composition, color, and lighting have gone in to their making. The images hang in galleries and museums, and fetch high prices from collectors. All that said, the subject matter is highly contentious, which inherently makes the work political. There is plenty of precedent for this in the art world from Goya to Picasso to the artists of the Third Reich. This is art with a message.

One current project, Coal Ash, is about the 140 million tons of toxic waste generated as power plants burn this most polluting hydrocarbon to produce our electricity. Coal combustion waste (CCW) contains mercury, lead, arsenic, boron, selenium, and so on, but the utility industry has managed to keep it designated as non-toxic. Most of the 600 coal-burning power plants in the USA dispose their waste ash in unlined impoundments, from which the ash leaches into groundwater, or worse, bursts out and poisons the surrounding land and waterways. The other method of disposal is in your home. Because of its designation, utilities are permitted to sell the waste to manufacturers who use it as a component in: sheetrock, concrete, fertilizer, fill, paint, and a host of other products.

The EPA is currently holding hearings about the designation, and environmental groups are fighting to have it reclassified under subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) so that it must be handled as the toxic waste that it is. Every citizen has a personal stake in this as this toxic waste might already be in your home, and given the dispersal of coal-fired power plants, there might well be a coal ash dump near your house, contaminating the groundwater with arsenic.

Today I am in Washington DC where I will, along with the help of EarthJustice, lobby congressmen about the rule change, and then hold a reception in the Rayburn House Office Building, Room B-369.

Long-lasting change in our society ultimately happens through political machinations, which are foreign to me. Since my art is about things that need to change, this is an exciting adventure. And thus, the artist becomes activist.

08 September 2010

What Can I Do About It?

8 September 2010

Climate change is a contentious issue currently, generating heated rhetoric, tremendous media expenditures, and much disinformation.

Dr. James Hansen, the scientist who is the leading U.S. expert on climate issues is focusing on cutting our coal use as the most effective thing we can do about global warming. Coal combustion is a significant contributor to climate change, and comprises 50% of electricity generation (in the USA.) We can easily affect this by reducing electricity consumption (turn off the lights, unplug appliances).

About 25-35% of climate change gases are caused by deforestation, the greatest portion in the southern hemisphere. Agriculture, commercial logging, and homesteading are some of the major factors driving this conversion, and each of them has a host of contributing elements, many of which point back to consumption in the more “developed” economies. Deforestation will remain a complex, intractable issue, but the individual that wanted to minimize her contribution to that process could consider: not consuming fast food made from livestock raised in the southern hemisphere, not driving (biofuel use of palm oil), and avoiding other uses of palm oil.

Soda consumption is a little considered, but significant cause of climate change on several levels: aluminum production uses prodigious quantity of electricity and releases large amounts of other greenhouse gases. Recycling one aluminum can save enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for 3 hours, or a TV for 2 hours (EPA, 2008). The climate change impact of the contents of soda would be another fascinating discussion.

Motivated by ideological agendas, it's easy to vilify the scientists who are trying to explain this very complex issue (climate change), especially if they make a mistake or are seen exhibiting human weaknesses.

Though the science now seems certain that warming is occurring, and that it is in part human-caused, no one can predict the exact effects or timeline of climate change, so there will inevitably be misestimations. We know that when all of that ice melts, sea levels will flood coastal areas. This will drive mass relocation of populations, putting a tremendous strain on the “higher ground” areas. Weather patterns have already started to change, which will affect agricultural production. Probably these changes will not happen overnight like in a science fiction movie, but there have been drastic overnight changes in the past, so they could. Bottom line: the risk is too great for inaction, and the individual can make a significant difference on the issue.