Justifying Bad Behaviour
From 25 September to 6 October 2008 I took part to an expedition to the Arctic of scientists and artists to raise awareness about climate change, organised by Cape Farewell, a London UK based organisation.
In the summer preceding the Cape Farewell voyage, I was questioning the meaning of our trip to the Arctic in relation to developing a cultural response to climate change, and my role of artist and engineer in this critical debate. I thus developed the idea of a project that would spark debate and highlight the controversies of our society: Justifying Bad Behaviour. I bought a cylinder of CO2 - one of those used in pubs to make fizzy drinks, and shipped it with a container full of scientific instruments to Greenland, to our boat.
29 September 2008
One morning I walked across the fresh snow with a gas cylinder in my arms, containing 6kg of CO2. I took it across the unspoiled snow field of the Jakobshavn fiord until I found what, to my eyes, was a wonderful place. From a little hill I could see massive icebergs silently floating by, some of them breaking up from time to time with a loud bang. The sea below was deep grey, which made the icebergs stand up in all their beauty and fragility. The sky was a merge of pale grey and cerulean with a yellow glow just behind the skyline. I could feel lichen and small berry plants cracking under the powdery snow as I walked by.
I though: this is perfect!
I walked to the top of the small hill, I put the cylinder down, got on my knees and opened the valve. The CO2 came out violently, freezing the air around the nozzle and producing an unpleasant whistle. When I lowered the cylinder towards the ground, the snow blow off all around me under the jet pressure, almost to signify the melting of the Arctic ice shelf because of the Carbon emissions generated somewhere else.
Reading this you might think I carried out an evil horrible action. I would like to reassure you, I didn't! I have done something great: I have offset the carbon emissions generated by the CO2 cylinder, through an online Gold Standard Carbon Offsetting scheme! Cool no? This is great stuff; one can go about consciously polluting the world, wasting energy, producing tonnes of waste and abusing natural resources without feeling guilty at all!! One can simply pay somebody to compensate for his/her 'bad' actions somewhere else, and become Carbon Neutral!
Don't you think this is great?
Personally I think it is appalling.
A lot has to be done before we can revert to Carbon offsetting as an effective mechanism to reduce global Carbon emissions. Fundamental changes in societal behaviour are necessary to reduce our environmental impact, looking at the way we live, travel, eat, consume, go on holiday and warm our homes. Only after we have significantly reduced our environmental impact to the minimum possible, only then Carbon offsetting can start to be used efficiently.
With my performance I sought to throw a serious comment on the contemporary practice of Carbon Offsetting as a mean of green washing conscience and excusing bad behaviour. I am also seeking to provoke debate on why society is so resistant to change and how a collective behavioural shift could be achieved.
The cost of Carbon is still too low to drive change.
I believe that change must come from within.
After I carried out my piece, a few people on board were quite upset by my gesture, they thought it was outrageous. But generally I received lots of support for what was perceived as thought provoking and courageous.
What I have consequently learnt, is that we usually get upset for what we can tangibly see and feel, not necessarily for what we know. Some of my fellow voyagers were upset about my piece because they could visualise that black 'nasty' cylinder full of CO2 in a way that they couldn't, if I told them that every time they drive their car for 20 miles they emit the same amount of carbon dioxide.
So now I wonder how we could develop and communicate to our society a more direct way to visualise the Carbon impact of the resources we use!
The performance was immediately published and discussed online around the world. I was astonished to see how the majority of the reactions to the piece on the press were centred around technicalities of the CO2 release, whether I shifted the CO2 simply from one place to another, about the carbon offsetting scheme chosen or the merits of Carbon Offsetting generally in tackling Climate Change.
Most of the discussions failed completely to address the fundamental moral issue of knowing that we are responsible for the severe changes of global climate, yet find excuses to justify our bad behaviour. This has confirmed to me that lots more has still to be done in raising awareness and sense of responsibility. Artists might play a critical role in steering the debate and provoking discussionon on the need of a global societal shift.
New Scientist - Environment, published 05 Dec 08
The New York Times Science Blogs, published 03 Oct 08
Royal Society of Arts, Arts and Ecology programme, published 30 Oct 08
treehugger.com, published 12 Feb 08
cape farewell, my blog, published 29 Sept 08
Herald Sun Australia, Andrew Bolt's column, published 07 Dec 08
Photographs credits: Nathan Gallagher and Francesca Galeazzi