Think Locally, Act Globally

John Haber
in New York City

Multiculturalism and the Earth's Diversity

Art and science can easily seem as opposed as human ideals and stubborn facts. Too often, artists and scientists fear or scorn one another, perhaps because their tools are so hard to learn. When art turns up in science class, I can hear Clement Greenberg denouncing mere "illustration." When terms like "relativity" and "uncertainty" appeal to artists, or when mathematical symbols turn up as odd scrawls, I see the insights of science reduced to bad metaphor. Meanwhile, scientists get to mutter that postmodern artists and critics will accept anything, the more meaningless the better.

Art and science have often overlapped, however, or even depended on one another. Science's mathematical rigor stimulated the idealism of artists even before the dawn of the Renaissance, with its love for Plato and perspective. Science's empiricism, too, opened up a whole new appreciation of nature, from Renaissance sketchbooks to John Constable or the Hudson River School—and beyond. Certainly art and science share an appreciation of the natural world. In a sense, the same heritage that fed landscape and still life enters into Greenberg's insistence on the material essence of a work of art.

Art and science also share a commitment to creativity over commercial pressures. Both depend on how human beings model the world and construct its meanings.

They share plenty of dilemmas, too. Scientists have to face the fierce competition, low pay, and even lower prestige of academic life—or else put their work in the service of industry and the military. Increasingly and distressingly often, the lines blur, and they end up with both at once. When postmodernists examine the roles of museums, donors, and other social institutions, they are addressing much the same problem.

Artists may not glorify European wars that much these days. They may not do as much damage as scientists when they work for polluters. That gives them small comfort, however. Besides, they know their work speaks for the dilemmas of others, scientists included. A postmodern critique has all the more value for its scope. Who says that art these days talks only to other artists and critics?

Hilton Kramer, the right-wing critic, recently accused Barbara Kruger of hypocrisy for including the text, "When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook?" Why, she makes money from her work! Now, Kramer's easy assumption that "I" refers to him overlooks the wonderful slippage of pronouns in her work. Conversely, it attests to her success in provoking the viewer. Of course, artists truly do land right in the middle of the action. And that is precisely why their engagement with institutional issues can pack such a punch.

Artists and scientists share another dilemma, too. Both speak the language of lasting truths and yet local cultures. Sure paintings darken and decay, performance and installation art acknowledge their moment in time, theories supplant one another. Artists and scientists can still expect the basis of their work to last, though, as object, memory, and critique. Conversely, multiculturalism and feminism, as in the Brooklyn Museum's Sackler wing, dominate everyone's talk these days—and for good reason. Do preserving culture and promoting cultures support one another, or do they come into conflict?

I find art and science as opposed and yet necessary to one another as night and day. In fact, they literally make up my night and day job. As a science editor and educator, I develop columbia earthscape, a Web site in the Earth and environmental sciences. In introducing an issue of its online magazine, Earth Affairs, I looked at the politics of global values and multiculturalism, values that must also color any online community and exhibition space. Scientists have the job of ensuring long-term survival for entire species and this vulnerable planet. Can they also preserve local cultures?

Because of the connection to the arts, I want to reprint the essay here. I adapt it only slightly, chiefly to remove links accessible only from Earth Affairs. As one example of the dilemma I am expounding, the essay's journalistic context requires a frequent "we," and I retain it here. My Web site otherwise avoids it scrupulously. With Kruger, I hope to question who "we" are.

Actually, I should thank both art and science that their languages take such trouble to learn. Mathematics scares too many Americans. Art certainly baffles American politicians. But then again, that leaves room for me. Art and ideas share something else again: they take words.

The other day, along with two hundred very impatient commuters, I caught a ferry to Manhattan. Before long, at least some must have wanted the ride to last forever. In the calm, clear summer light, the city felt as fresh as when it was America's capital.

Looming up, in the shadow of skyscrapers, was a mix of new housing and precious landmarks. Not far from the nonstop action of Wall Street, I could make out spots where George Washington stood, drank, and prayed. Along the water I could see still-active piers. One of them may soon hold a giant art museum. The Guggenheim Museum has proposed a new building designed by perhaps the country's hottest architect.

And all of this may be lost, for all may soon lie underwater. I am talking not of centuries or even decades to come, but in years. The choice is ours. An MEC scientist at Jamaica Bay

As Vivien Gornitz outlines in Earth Affairs, global warming has local consequences. As polar ice melts, expanding oceans will hit coastlines and other low-lying areas familiar to us all. Dr. Gornitz describes a project, based at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, that assesses the Metro East Coast region. She draws examples not just from busy Manhattan Island, too. She evokes the quiet wetlands shown here—of Jamaica Bay's Gateway National Park, a site favored more by scientists and bird watchers.

Peter and Celia Bridgewater similarly ask that we put global issues in local terms. They ask what happens when environmental damage comes to traditional or Third World communities. Can we justify uprooting customs and peoples in order to preserve the Earth? Can we exclude whole societies in order to save their native ground? The Bridgewaters argue that greater understanding and acceptance of local cultures can avoid the conflict in the first place.

To many Americans, despite a still-robust democracy, "regulation" sounds like something handed down from above. To nations long run by Europe or America, it sure does, too. The Bridgewaters articulate quite another kind of environmentalism. Care for the planet, they believe, can and must work through the constraints of culture. Conservation groups and governments should develop strategies together with the people most directly affected.

Drawing examples from his own roots Down Under, Dr. Bridgewater himself has helped set the trend toward localism. At UNESCO, he is part of a several-year study, taking different ecosystems around the world. It will truly focus at once on "Man and the Biosphere."

Other contributors to Earth Affairs no doubt agree with his focus on culture. Our past issues have already put debates on global warming in terms of the local, human dimension. Alexander Pfaff, K. Broad, and M. Glanz asked, "Who benefits from climate forecasts?" Dena Dincauze showed how climate shifts have led to the fall of great civilizations. Maybe the Mayans could not prevent change, unlike us today. They did not drive SUVs and run air conditioners constantly. They did not dump greenhouse gases into the air at our alarming rate. Still, their fate and the environment were intertwined.

Roger Pielke, Jr., and Daniel Sarewitz must have loved Dincauze's story of the Mayans. Their article last time out stressed the need to adapt to climate change. In their provocative view, a clear minority among scientists, adaptation should in fact take precedence over prevention.

In any case, they feel, we must not roll back economic development on environmental grounds. Poor nations and cultures rely on growth to survive. Without it they cannot even begin to address green issues. We must listen to their needs. As Koben Christianson says in his latest column for Earth Affairs, "No one group has the ultimate authority to define sustainable development."

End of debate? Not quite, I think. So far I have managed to minimize real differences among our contributors. Let me stimulate debate by putting some questions to what I might call NIMBY environmentalism.

For one thing, just try to define a local culture. Ask whom we wish to protect. Why single out a distant people? Suppose my neighbors chuck out McDonald's wrappers and drive a quarter mile at the drop of a hat. Even without a degree in sociology, I know a culture when I see it. Must I preserve every way of life? As we go to press, a study from Texas A&M University credits human beings with a full three-quarters of global warming.

Some scholars make us suspect of singling out Third World groups as culture for another reason. It sounds too much like First World condescension. Notions of culture and race slide easily into racism and contempt. I can only respect all the more the care with which UNESCO's project approaches its diverse subjects. The map here shows the biosphere reserves for Australia alone. UNESCO biosphere reserves in Australia

Sometimes, too, respect for others ought not to excuse inaction. We may actually need to step in to save a community. For centuries, without science and concern for nature, local practices have meant death. Poor hygiene has included contaminated water resources.

Other advocates of the Earth would go further still. Can we never value a wilderness area more than its inhabitants—and act to save it?

Another problem comes when, like Dr. Pielke and Dr. Sarewitz, one identifies local needs with economic expansion beyond borders. Care for poor nations gets transformed into profits for rich ones. Unregulated growth has a way of stripping communities of their resources, dumping oil in their waters, and paying them not a Euro. Speaking up for science and environments once again does populations a favor.

No wonder that, once praise for free enterprise as a problem solver enters the picture, a scientific consensus goes out the window. Like opponents of evolution, those who advise adapting to any climate change like to remind us that science is only a process. This evasion becomes an easy way to dismiss scientifically sound conclusions. But people really do contribute to a dangerous global warming, and people really do have the power to regulate and to change.

Sure, a model is only a theory, but in science that is a compliment. It means that that predictions have intellectual consistency. It means that they have data behind them. It means they are likely to work. It means that one ignores them at one's peril. Heck, one can even develop curricula based on them.

Besides, what if we could not safely make predictions? Suppose that our burning of fossil fuels and logging of forests do not cause trouble after all for the Earth as a greenhouse. How could we then adapt to sweeping change? Planning ahead still takes foresight one way or another. It still takes looking at melting ice and drying agriculture continents away.

Dr. Gornitz's example brings us closer to home in one sense, but it also holds quite a different lesson. When changes at the poles lead to floods thousands of miles away, I have to think of the Earth as more than set of communities. It suggests a central theme of columbia earthscape—the Earth as a system. In fact, connections span time as well as space, which is why we have to worry about the consequences of our actions. To quote Koben's column again, sustainable development is about "intergenerational equity."

And yet, in defending the Earth, scientists do have to bring the message home. Even outside a city like New York, people think of natural disasters as triply remote. The predictions of global warming rely on fancy scientific models. They talk of droughts on distant continents and melting polar ice. They often come from distinct political groups with, well, an image problem. So why spend tons of money and upset your whole life?

At least this once, then, political opposites like libertarians and multiculturalists may have it right. Politics is local. Sure, I can ask what this means to me. And in the case of global warming, the answer is plenty. Dr. Gornitz touches on, so to speak, only the tip of the iceberg.

Science can make sense, both in ordinary language and in human terms. Scientific research and environmental action can make serious economic sense. Instead of "not in my back yard," we can ask what we need to know just to keep the back yard from drying up or vanishing altogether. We can think locally and yet learn from it to act globally.

BACK to John's arts home page

This essay first appeared, in slightly different form, as the editor's introduction to Earth Affairs, the magazine of columbia earthscape, itself a publication of Columbia University Press. Kramer was writing in The New York Observer.


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