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In McKibben's Toolbox for Cancun, Art Visible from Space

350 EARTH project based on the notion that art gets to people in ways that science doesn’t

By Elizabeth McGowan

Nov 19, 2010

The water supply to the high-desert Santa Fe River is dwindling and aquifers aren’t being recharged because of severe drop-offs in precipitation and an earlier and less abundant spring snowmelt caused by global warming. Never mind that dams and the reconfiguring of a riparian ecosystem into a concrete channel has been less than friendly to fish, frogs, birds and other aquatic life.

Karp has no doubt that politicians will pay attention to the 3,000-4,000 children and adults committed to participating in what’s titled “Flash Flood: For a Living Santa Fe River.” Incidentally, New Mexico became the newest entrant into state-based cap-and-trade initiatives when its Environmental Improvement Board passed an aggressive measure on Election Day to curb heat-trapping gases.

“This is not about celebrity or one artist’s vision,” Karp says. “We do this in order to support the forwarding of legislation.”

Something has to galvanize people so they are willing to make the commitment to legislative, personal and community change, she said, adding that 350 EARTH “allows us to come together to speak with a unified voice.”

Solar Eagles, Polar Bears and Elephants

The artful transformation of a New Mexico riverbed from brown to blue isn’t all that will be photographed by satellites roaming 17,000 mph about 400 miles above Earth’s surface. Throughout the week, viewers, including those attending the Cancun climate talks, also can watch the spectacle unfold in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Iceland, India, South Africa and Spain.

In Los Angeles, for example, 1,000 people are enveloping themselves in photovoltaic film sheets to form the image of a soaring solar eagle. Vancouver residents will craft two giant ecological footprints while people in Cape Town will feast on a traditional meal cooked on solar cookers positioned to represent the sun. An Iceland artist is creating a polar bear from hundreds of tents at the edge of a glacier.

And in Mumbai, thousands of schoolchildren will swarm into the shape of a pachyderm—to remind climate decision-makers not to ignore the “elephant in the room.”

“I’m an artist … not a politician,” McKibben says. “I have an idea of what gets people involved and interested. This is a very good way to raise attention about particular issues in particular places, and the global issue of climate change that unites them all.”

His large-scale activism began in 2007—the year before he kicked off—with a Step It Up campaign featuring gatherings in all 50 states. Follow-up work parties and political rallies expanded from 5,200 events in 181 countries in autumn of 2009 to 7,400 events in 188 countries last October.

“Now, we’re pretty much out of countries,” he says with a laugh about reaching capacity on that level.

Is Art the Answer? 

That groundwork, however, laid a solid foundation for the satellite art project.

“I’m eager to remind everyone that we live on a planet,” McKibben says. “We’re just a small hunk of rock floating through space. And I think that’s hard for us to remember in day-to-day life.”

While his organization is credited with prompting the Obama administration to follow former President Jimmy Carter’s example and reinstall solar panels on the White House roof, McKibben says he would gladly trade that symbolic victory for solid climate legislation emerging from Congress.

That, he says, would signal the rest of the world that weaning their economies of fossil fuels is achievable.

“I don’t think we’re going to get much out Cancun and nor does most everybody else,” he predicts. “Still, countries are asking, ‘Are we going to wait for the United States or go ahead and act without them?’ We have a moral imperative to be involved but maybe our politics are so retrograde, that might be impossible.”

Ultimately, says Third Way’s Sean Gibbons, time will tell if McKibben’s global art endeavor makes a difference in the climate conversation.

“As he says, there are lots of tools in the toolbox to draw attention to this issue,” Gibbons says. “Not every tool works every time but this one could. We’ll have to wait and see.”

(Credit: for Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada)

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