Red state or blue, the impacts of climate change are felt by all. Colorado Springs, where I attended college with today’s subject Hannah Sohl, provides a particularly stunning example of its true cost. The conservative city of half a million residents was pummeled by the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history in 2012. Most destructive, that is, until another wildfire struck the Black Forest area of Colorado Springs in 2013. Now the city has hundreds of homeless families and millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure on it hands.
I watched the smoke plumes billow just off of I-25 this past summer and as is typical for a bystander to disaster, a gnawing feeling of futility crept in. What is a concerned Coloradoan to do? Longer fire seasons and drier summers mean this cycle of unusually destructive wildfires will continue. Even if I take a two-minute shower, recycle my cardboard, and ride my bike to work, larger and larger swaths of Colorado forests will continue to burn for years to come. “Why bother? There is nothing I can do to stop this.” is often the conclusion drawn.
Climate change activist Hannah Sohl tackled this feeling of futility last February in an unconventional way. She and her collaborator Camila Thorndike rallied more than a thousand people from their home town of Ashland, Oregon to create a piece of art that symbolized the urgent need for action from politicians to combat climate change. They formed the group Rogue Climate which Hannah now operates full time.
The two spent weeks publicizing the event and were featured in newspapers and even on local TV encouraging residents to decorate cardboard tiles. Their efforts were well worth it; more than 1000 people made at least one tile. On the day of the event a festive atmosphere took over the parking lot of a local restaurant where hundreds gathered to contribute. Music and short speeches set the mood while tiles were arranged into a dazzling 120-foot long salmon. They even got a crane donated by a local metal fabrication business to capture the moment from the air:
The salmon was chosen for its status as a beloved symbol of Oregon’s wild places and because of the severe threat to its survival posed by warming stream water and more frequent droughts. The Rogue Valley has already taken some steps to prepare for looming changes, including writing an action plan for local logging operations and a plan for hospitals to respond to new issues in public health that may arise. Rogue Climate’s project presented a moment to address one of the most challenging problems related to climate change; widespread skepticism that the problem even exists. To begin to address that issue, participants were asked to artistically respond to the following questions:
1. What do you love about the Rogue Valley?
2. What worries you about climate change?
Asking residents to first reflect on what they love about their home was an important place to start. This question is at the heart of every environmental issue since no one would put in the work of conservation if a place isn’t worth saving. The tiles bore a wide range of colorful images from black bears, to hummingbirds, to carefully painted landscapes.
The process of making the tiles alongside neighbors and friends provided a way for people to reach out to others who might not have considered climate change a threat to this place they share an appreciation for. Those who remain unconvinced are in fact the most important audience for an event like this. Hannah and the other organizers shared their message with all those present by punctuating the event with short speeches about the impacts of climate change to the area and a call to action.
Rogue Climate’s goal of encouraging civic engagement amongst community members reflects a shift in method in the environmental movement. For years the blame for our unsustainable lifestyle has been placed on individuals. Hannah summed up this change of focus this way:
“For so long it’s been about personal responsibility, but now there’s a new shift in the thinking. People realize that it’s not their fault that there aren’t other sustainable options. It not their fault that they can’t choose biodeisel at the pump, or that our government has made protecting oil in the Middle East such a high priority.”
Hannah’s point highlights the shortcomings of the traditional focus by environmental groups on personal responsibility. This focus contributes to the feeling of futility I mentioned earlier. Additionally, making environmentally sustainable choices can often be unsustainable for a person economically. And since the reward for “going green” is often intangible it can be hard to convince those who don’t believe it’s necessary to change their ways.
A community art project like this one is a powerful alternative to traditional tools for building support for the environmental movement. First it empowers people by showing them how many others in their hometown care deeply about climate change. In addition, each participant – some of whom were on the fence about the issue – had a non-threatening way to connect with a group of people who share the same views. Finally, the project provides a tangible record of their participation, something that day-to-day sustainability efforts like recycling don’t.
Though this event focused on local issues, the day of the event coincided with a “National Day of Action” sponsored by 350.org. The organization is activist Bill McKibben’s platform for advancing policy and raising awareness about climate change. On that same chilly February day the largest climate rally in US history took place in Washington DC where an estimated 40,000 people gathered to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and pressure president Obama to act on climate change.
Though the outpouring of support in Washington was admirable, it’s no secret that the national political climate is currently inhospitable for meaningful climate change legislation. This reality makes work at the local level all the more crucial to the movement. Rogue Climate’s salmon project is an excellent example of a community art project advocating for action on climate change at a grassroots level, with truly stunning results!
Photo Credit Rory Finney