Top scientists go beyond science to art and imagination

22 February 2012 | News story

CEC member Dr. Joe Zammit-Lucia spoke on the role of art in sustainability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting 17 February. Here is his report.

"Our failure to address environmental issues is not a failure of information but a failure of imagination."

The above comment by Professor John Robinson summarized the strong message put across by scientists and artists participating at last week's American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

There was strong agreement about the fallacy of the idea that lack of change reflects lack of scientific information or lack of factual understanding by the public.

"Information plays a much smaller role than we like to think", according to Professor Tom Dietz, Assistant Vice-President of Environmental Research at Michigan State University. Rather "we need to talk at a society-wide scale about our values and reach mutual understanding about the values needed for sustainability."

In a session on the role of the arts in sustainability scientists, artists and scholars argued that, by capturing people's imagination, art can help us re-define how we think about or society and our place in a sustainable world.

"So far the role of art has been thought about as that of pretty-fying the established narrative of environmental activism" said to Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia. "But that narrative is running out of steam. We need to go much further and use the arts to re-imagine what sustainability, the environment and conservation actually mean in our societies."

The overall message was particularly pertinent in the context of the President's Address where AAAS President Professor Nina Fedoroff argued that the very legitimacy of science as a decision making tool was under attack.

The overall message was clear: we need to learn to abandon the pretense of rational decision making based on "facts" and start to engage with that which we have found uncomfortable to engage with: "the muddy waters of emotions, values, ethics, and most importantly, imagination."
 

Review of sessions on Common Dreams web site

Review on Michigan State University site

Guardian Review of President's Address