When did you read the following expressions for the last time on social media? „Mankind (will be doomed/is silly/destroys nature)“ or „people (are silly/egocentric/don’t pay attention to what I say)“.

I can understand, better comprehend the furor that lets you cry out: „They are too stupid to learn! They don’t want to change! They are such ignorants!“ But stop, I can’t stand it any more. It may take some of the air out of the ranters‘ inner steam boiler, but it doesn’t get us anywhere. Often I look at such posts and think whether the person in question doesn’t see themselves as part of nature. Or what it might say about some of these loudmouthed wiseacres themselves.

Every teacher knows what happens if you call your class too stupid or ignorant to learn. They wouldn’t learn better, on the contrary! These teachers would burn out and perhaps write into their social media „diary“: „It gets harder every day to retain any optimism.“ Wut tut gut“, in German we have these hurling vocals as in „Dunkelheit“, darkness. They sound like in doom and gloom. Anger does good but if it cannot be transformed into constructive, creative energy, it becomes destroying. In most cases it fizzles out like a fart.

wild waste dump with rusted oil cans, bottles and other pieces in a lost place.

Some weeks ago, I met a group of people, in a safe and familiar environment. Wealthy and poor, younger and very old, shy and boisterous ones. It happened what only happens in a safe situation when people respect one another and listen. People talked about their hurts. Marie* (*all names and situations changed) told us about her rather new problem trusting others. She had always been an open-hearted and communicative woman who felt at home in groups. Mary is one of these enchantresses who bring together shy and new people. She talks about it for the first time: The horror of 2020 has changed everything. People showed up at their extreme, friendships broke up. Others lost all strength, and the extreme lockdowns in France took their toll. There was no help against the sudden loneliness that hit especially the very young and the very old, the poor, and the city dwellers who could not escape into nature.

At the table sits Evelyne who was our „corona extremist“. Marie and Evelyne never talked with one another for three years. And Evelyne says: „I went crazy. I was not myself. I couldn’t take it all and then I went crazy. Got mixed up with other weirdos. It did me no good. It’s so hard to come back, to break this cocoon.“ After that evening, Marie and Evelyne drank a glass of wine. Slowly, tremendously cautious, they started to talk about their hurts, their unlogic behaviour, and their facing a crisis no one had prepared them for.

Meanwhile, Pauline and Susie chatted about jam cooking and their farmers‘ garden. They are at an age when many no longer trust them to do the hard work. And of course, they reminisce. Pauline indulges in memories of an old type of cassis that gelled so wonderfully: „You could eat these berries raw without it tightening your gums. No new variety could compete with that. If only she knew how to get them“, she said. And then she beams happily. Susie, of all people, has cuttings to give away, she has grown about 20 new plants. „Do you know why?“ She knows why the group will be surprised and says: „The drought last years …“ Another woman adds: „I lost my two-year-old cassis plants with the last summer drought!“

Suddenly the talk about jam changes into a talk about the climate crisis. Susie explains that this old and nearly forgotten species can stand aridity and heat. It is more resilient than any species from the catalogue. „I grow my cuttings with as little water as possible. That makes the plants even hardier.“ The spontaneous garden swap becomes a group that talks about the consequences of climate change and biodiversity loss, in everyday language and farmers‘ knowledge. „How dangerous it is that we have made ourselves dependent on a few corporations for seeds and varieties“, says Pauline. „In the past, we had different tomato varieties for every weather situation and region.“

Listening to them gives me the certainty that sensitivity to the topic does exist in circles that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. On social media, probably people would make fun of such women because the „wrong“ generations would meet. On this evening in real life, in a safe space, the apparent opposites complement each other. It is an exchange.

Of course, everything is always insufficient when you have to and want to achieve a lot. But here, amazing solutions emerge within a few hours. People search for them together, courageously and enthusiastically. What we could achieve if we learned from it! If we used such ways more than complaining bitterly.

The only difference of the two situations in the beginning was the way of addressing people:

  • You are all bad/ignorant/passive.
  • People are different. I don’t know why you react so, help me understand your perspective. Let’s listen to one another.

Does that sound too small-scale to you? You know, the mighty oak starts with a tiny acorn. And it takes only a microscopic virus to infect the world …

Book author and journalist Gaia Vince wrote in the Guardian about the importance to open our mindsets even for the storytelling of science fiction-like ideas and wild imagination instead of fueling eco-grief so much that we feel overwhelmed and helpless:

„We are living inside the imagination of our ancestors. Everything we see around us exists only because it first took shape in somebody’s mind. Ideas such as democracy, public libraries, the abolition of slavery, municipal sewage, aeroplanes, seatbelt regulations, eating with cutlery, the very building you’re sitting inside right now … they were all birthed in a person’s imagination, then actively formed into a shareable vision that others could collectively mould, modify, reimagine and nurture in their minds.“

Gaia Vince / The Guardian

Coincidentally, I came across an exciting (German-language) interview with ecologist, DJ and book author Dominic Euler, who talks about the freedom we artists have to reach and touch people. For we have this instrumentation that works in groups like the plant-sharing women. Artists learnt to work with colours, images, sound or touch as well as with empathy, provocations, and feelings. I like it because in my podcast NatureMatchCuts I try to go just this way about amazement, enthusiasm, and fascination. Life as a wunderkammer, with the need for intact ecosystems and not systems of fear. Euler said:

„Man muss natürlich auch alarmistisch kommunizieren, darf die Leute aber mit ihren Ängsten vor dem Ökozid und der globalen Erwärmung nicht alleine lassen. Man muss ihnen die Möglichkeit geben, offen über ihre Ängste zu sprechen. Dann können spannende partizipative Prozesse und die Energie entstehen, etwas im Kollektiv zu verändern.“

(Of course, you also have to communicate in an alarmist way, but you must not leave people alone with their fears of ecocide and global warming. You have to allow them to speak openly about their fears. Then exciting participatory processes and the energy to change something collectively can emerge.)

„Man muss Menschen über das Lustvolle erreichen“/Wissenschaftskommunikation

What art can do for a debate and change, you can watch at the moment at Vienna’s Leopold Museum. The intervention „A Few Degrees More“ plays with the idea of climate action in museums and art galleries but finds a new language. Landscapes painted by artists like Gustave Courbet, Tina Blau, Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser or Egon Schiele were tilted by exactly the amount of degrees that prognostics predict temperatures to rise in the depicted landscapes. The degree of danger becomes not only visible but speaks to your „inner Monk“ as much as your feelings for a beloved painting. The museum writes:

„Additionally, the specially mounted labels next to the paintings encourage visitors to make a change in their own lives as well as to support measures taken on a political or structural level against these concerning developments.“ … „It has shown that a simple transfer of knowledge is not causing a satisfactory degree of actions being taken. Collaborations with artists or art institutions can build bridges because they offer more poignant and more provocative forms and possibilities of engagement with audiences.“

A Few Degrees More/Leopold Museum

Maybe some of us are too often stupid, lazy or ignorant. But humankind can achieve so much more. What would happen if we empowered each other instead of belittling each other? Our species has learnt to cooperate. We can use imagination to overcome our fear, think out of the box, and take action for a change. If you don’t believe that, take a look at the first cave drawings of our species.