Using the power of art and science to fight climate change

Ben Whitehouse, founder SkyDay

Why fight climate change?

Just some of the scientific evidence for climate change.

Scale and speed is important to fight climate change

“The question is not if the world is moving to address climate change and also realise the Sustainable Development Goals. The question is now scale and also speed if we are to avoid potentially catastrophic climate impacts, hand on a healthy planet to the next generation and seize the opportunities of a different kind of development path.” Spokesperson of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Nick Nuttall.

Is mankind progressing in its fight against climate change?

The Paris Agreement entered into force on the 4 November 2016.

Interview with Ben Whitehouse, ideaXme’s YouTube Channel

The ideaXme interview

Ben Whitehouse, founder of SkyDay invites us to take responsibility and act on climate change.

Using the power of art and science to work together on climate

Ben Whitehouse: [00:00:10] Every morning I wake up and I look outside the window and notice what the sky is doing, notice how the trees are moving how the seasons are evolving and I’m reminded just how remarkably unlikely it is that are all here from almost every point of view and that we get a chance to share this journey together and try to understand what it means to be a conscious being. So, I take that kind of thinking to my art studio where I am a painter and a video artist and director of SkyDay which is an educational platform and a not for profit. And we have the mission of engaging the next generation globally in an inspiring conversation about our sky and how it functions and importantly what its vulnerabilities are and promote the idea that it’s extremely important that the next generation come together as one global family living and breathing under one shared sky to work together on climate.

Inspiration from Yo-Yo Ma and The Choice

Andrea Macdonald: [00:01:23] Your main inspirations for your project are Yo- Yo Maand very early on your father and his documentary The Choice. Could you talk to us about that?

Aspen Ideas Festival and the call to action by to Yo-Yo Ma

In 2013 when I attended Aspen Ideas Festival and heard many great conversations from some extraordinary people Yo-Yo Ma was there and he was speaking about his ideas of moving curriculum from STEM to STEAM but also what struck me greatly was his ideas about the role of the citizen artist. How can we those of us in the arts use whatever talents we’ve got to serve the next generation by engaging them and inspiring them on something that matters a great deal to us.

Inviting people from all over the world to look at the sky

Ben Whitehouse: [00:03:44] There in Yo-Yo Ma’s company I had something of an idea, a vision for how I might help. I had the idea that we would invite people all over the world, especially young people, to take a few minutes to look at the sky. Think about how beautiful it is, beautiful not just to look at how dynamic it is how it connects us all by wrapping completely around the Planet as one global family living and breathing under one shared sky.

The one natural resource that we all truly experience and share

Ben Whitehouse: [00:04:14] How it isn’t something higher up there away from us. But it’s all around us it’s in your home. It’s in my art studios. It is in our schools. It’s the air we breathe, the water we drink and how as a natural resource we live in such great proximity to it. The sky, our atmosphere is the one natural resource that we all truly experience and share. You can’t really say that about rainforest experience or ocean experience or desert experience, but we can absolutely all say it about sky experience. All we have to do is look up and breathe in.

Lets go to work to take care of this great resource

Ben Whitehouse: [00:04:55] That’s how close we live in proximity to it. And that also teaches us that we all have a responsibility to it because we all impact it. Every one of us is in the room of people who must go to work to take care of this great resource for everyone’s benefit. And I’ve thought about inviting everyone to photograph the sky while they think about those things and then help create a global citizen artwork, a global mosaic of our sky that would show what the sky looks like all over the world and could conceivably become a library of sky photos that could form the basis of an interactive educational platform. That was my original idea.

Persuade people to change their behaviour and take action on climate change

Andrea Macdonald: [00:06:09] So you are creating awe and encouraging children and by association adults to wonder at the world, to wonder at the sky in ways that they have not done until now.

You can’t paint away the carbon and a poem can’t wish away the damage

Ben Whitehouse: [00:07:27] As an artist, Yo-Yo Ma speaks to this. Is it sensible for people like me to just stand on the sidelines and not try to help, or do we have a responsibility to try to help? So, the first step was accepting responsibility that if there was a way that art and science combined could be purposeful and could help create substantial change, I want to give it my best. Acknowledging of course, that you can’t paint away the carbon in the atmosphere and a poem can’t wish away all the damage.

SkyDay is a non-political organisation

[00:08:07] We are non-political as an organisation. Why? Because we want to invite everybody to connect to our sky and to think about these things and as soon as one becomes political one becomes divisive. We’re not affiliated with any political group, certainly not any American political group.

What impact does your vote have on climate change?

[00:08:27] We are a global organization that tries to talk about this without getting into politics. So, the question is what do we want to achieve in terms of outcomes? Well, while we are not aligned with any political group we think it’s very important that when people become adults and think about how they’re going to conduct themselves as parts of the community for those who live in countries that can vote we want to urge them to have the education that they need in order to be open and understand the implications of what their vote means regarding climate change and to vote for leaders who are offering substantial ideas about what they intend to do to help us transition from unsustainable economies and businesses to sustainable ones.

Opportunities for leadership, innovation and business

[00:09:20] So, voting intelligently with real information for those who can vote is a significant goal of ours. And thinking about how one can work oneself towards a sustainable future how can our young people become leaders in a sustainable revolution? Because one of the things we are arguing strongly because it’s absolutely true is that the inevitable transition from unsustainable economies to sustainable ones is the absolutely the greatest opportunity of their lives because everybody is going to need. It is opportunities for new leadership, for innovation, for new businesses and ultimately for a new definition of citizen. What it means to be a global ecological citizen.

Life in the Sky

Andrea Macdonald: [00:10:23] Prior to interviewing you I reacquainted myself with the Sustainable Development Goals and it was quite interesting because your focus at the moment is the sky and two of the Sustainable Development Goalsone is Life Under the Water. Another one is Life on Earth. And the third one out of the 17 is climate change. And I just saw a very interesting thing would be to use this initiative maybe inappropriate to say this now to lobby for Life in the Sky.

The place where the clouds hang out and the birds fly through

Ben Whitehouse: [00:11:34] By sky of course we’re talking of climate. Our sky is beautiful and of course it is an ancient word comes from the old Norwegian word from Old Norse, meaning the place where clouds hang out and birds fly through, atmosphere really. And to me the atmosphere is everything because all that we are doing goes into the atmosphere. And from that relationship of atmosphere to the Planet things result. But I take your point. Good point.

Passion for light

Andrea Macdonald:[00:12:36] So, tell us a little more about your passion for light.

The evolution of the eye

[00:13:10] And those early grub’s that crawl around our planet that didn’t have photosensitive cells would have had no idea when something was coming to eat it and would not have understood why it’s warm during the day and cold at night. But with those first photoreceptive cells came a chance to avoid being eaten, perhaps find better food. As he describes, it led to an evolutionary arms race centered on the eye, bigger eyes, eyes all over the body, extraordinary evolution of the eye and today because we have eyes and can see light, we can see each other and come to know one another.

Passion for light explored in painting and video art

Andrea Macdonald: [00:14:38] You don’t just bring this alive in your painting. You have recently brought this alive in your video work, Revolutionsis an example. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Conveying the experience that I was seeing

I wondered if there was another way to convey the experience that I was seeing, all those moment to moment causal relationships that result in the way things are experienced. And it occurred to me standing on the banks of this river that it would be great if I could create a video of this. Unlike time lapsed start which takes frames in a certain period of time and then plays it back more quickly giving the appearance of time passing more quickly; I could create a sort of projection that would be like a living window or a living canvas in which everything evolved and moved in real time.

A powerful experience around the solstice

Andrea Macdonald: [00:16:21] And Stonehenge.

Rare sighting of people in Ben’s work

Andrea Macdonald:[00:16:57] When I watched that particular video it occurred to me, apart from the summer season video of your video series to accompany Vivaldi’s Four Seasons where one sees a man or woman coming into view and swimming with a seal behind them: It occurred to me that neither people, nor buildings appear in your paintings or videos. People are rare sightings in your work. Can you explain?

Seeing how the environment moves and flows as if you were the first person to see it

Ben Whitehouse: [00:17:36] In my art in general, I want to focus on the other. There’s a great deal of brilliant work being created about us, the body, our relationship to each other and about the human experience. I wanted to turn my attention elsewhere and to examine the way our environment moves and flows as if you were the first person to see it and you were alone seeing it and really meditating on it.

Influences of Maya Angelou and Vera Klement

Andrea Macdonald: [00:18:38] Can you talk about your further influences for example Maya Angelouand Vera Klementand how they have affected your life and how you paint, your approach to art?

I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me

[00:19:42] She was an amazing person who taught me many things. At the heart of her teaching was this idea that we all share a core humanity, such an important idea. She would often quote the great playwright and Terence, who in one of his plays a slave says: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me” and in that one sentence which she would laugh at and say she wished she had written it as he saw the simplest description of what our core humanity is all about.

The incredible people of team SkyDayProject

Andrea Macdonald: [00:21:21] The SkyDayProject is a major project for you as we said earlier, and you have some incredible people involved from Daniel Horton right the way through to Nicole Stott, an amazing woman who was until recently a NASA astronaut and is now a space artist “The Artistic Astronaut”. So, you have some amazing support.

Barriers to achieving the goals of SkyDay

[00:22:02] But what are the barriers to achieving what you would like to achieve next?

How to engage people to create change

[00:23:12] The question is: “How do we engage people on that in a way that creates substantial change. The first obstacle is cutting through all the noise and some of the deceptions and getting people’s attention. The problem is that casual engagement is very hard in and of itself. And I think if you were to ask most people who are educated and understand what science really is who understand the same science that works your toaster and makes your car work and keeps airplanes in the air is screaming at us that climate change is happening and that the evidence is overwhelming and that the implications are astounding.

Creating substantial change to protect our climate

[00:24:04] But if you’d asked most people who have been educated, they will tell you they care about climate change. If you ask them if they care about their parents, they’ll probably say yeah of course they do and then you ask them how often they see them.

The challenges of creating engagement with a depressing subject

[00:24:36] So I would say that education is a major obstacle but getting attention in the right way is a major obstacle. I just told you. As you all know as I’m sure everyone listening or watching knows the climate change laundry list is long. I didn’t mention polar bears or melting ice caps, but we could go on for hours and it’s just depressing, and it makes people feel helpless because we know we all have to do this together.

SkyDay is a day of contemplation and engagement to address climate change

[00:25:45] So we created SkyDay. It’s also a date on the calendar, the 21 September and this is a day of contemplation and engagement in our sky a day of reflection on what it is. What the science is of what’s going on up there why you should, what the implications are, what we need to do about it. So, we’re beginning this process.

SkyDay’s team of artists, scientists and engineers to fight climate change

And you’re right I have an amazing team that includes Daniel Hortonwho leads the research group at Northwestern University, the Climate Research Group. You mentioned Nicole Stott, an extraordinary human being, who’s experienced our Planet from the depths of the oceans because he is also a NASA aquanaut as if all the other things, she does aren’t enough. She’s experienced our Planet from the depths of the oceans to the heights of outer space and talks beautifully about the implications of those kinds of experiences to her and it creates a great love of the planet and our people.

SkyDay’s leading atmospheric scientist to fight climate change

Don Wuebbles, a leading atmospheric scientist is also on our team. He is a lead author for the IPCC. There’s nobody who knows more about climate atmosphere than Don. He and his panel, the IPCC was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in 2007. He is an extraordinary person to have on our team.

I wish that I could paint away the Carbon in the atmosphere

I wish I had a silver bullet for it, could paint away the carbon in the atmosphere. We’d like to encourage people to vote with education, to seize the opportunities that a sustainable economy presents. It would be terrific if we can be helpful with persuading people to do that.

The importance of empathy

Andrea Macdonald: [00:28:04] So you are reaching out across the world with this idea. Empathy is important for you and particularly empathy for our Planet and its systems. You are supporting and bringing alive a very big and important idea. I’m interested in along your human journey who empathised with you, who supported you at the important times the important times to propel you forward?

The first person to propel me forward into the arts

Ben Whitehouse: [00:28:39] What a great question. Well we mentioned Maya Angelo and Vera Klement both of whom absolutely did that. The first person to do so was an art teacher in London at Pimlico School where we had a school teacher called Helena Waskowitz who had escaped from Auschwitz and was an extraordinary passionate woman who insisted on propelling me forward into the arts.

Importance of my wife’s support to move forward

Out of everyone, I would have to say that my wife, who is an extraordinarily supportive intelligent thoughtful person who challenges me to think about how I can be as purposeful and helpful as I can with this work. She’s on our board and really is the person who gave me the courage to try and to be useful for a moment and to pass on something she’s taught me to our audience. She points out regularly to me when I am struck by the fact that I don’t really know how to do what it is I’m trying to do that I am searching for answers and searching for ideas.

Learning a little more with each step and being brave

That’s just the way it is in life when you’re trying to do something difficult that maybe hasn’t been done before. And as she says you learn a little and you take a step. You learn a little more and then you take another step. There is no other way to move forward. So, frankly without her encouragement and her wisdom and her intelligence to speak to and to trust I would not have had the courage to do this.

Whom would Ben Whitehouse like to meet?

Andrea Macdonald: [00:30:43] You are surrounded, both in your personal and professional life, by amazing people. Out of everybody that you could meet in the world, haven’t met so far. Whom would you like to meet and what question would you like to ask that person?

Invitation to collaborate with SkyDay and fight climate change

Ben Whitehouse: [00:31:04] What a fabulous question. Thinking about the living for a moment and thinking about who I would most would like to meet and ask. It would be any artist, scientist or educator who has an idea for how we can serve the next generation globally through some kind of art science initiative. I would love to speak to you and perhaps collaborate with you to fight climate change. We would love that as the organisation SkyDay. That would be terrific.

I’d love to meet John Lennon and George Harrison

Ben Whitehouse, founder SkyDay

How did you become so brave?

Ben Whitehouse: [00:32:42] Yeah, I’d like to ask them how they became so brave and how they stuck with it and how they conceived of things how they worked through ideas how they recognized good ones and discarded the not so good. Yeah, would love to talk to them about that.

The Fourth National Climate Change Assessment

One week after publishing this interview The Fourth National Climate Assessment was made public. President Trump downplayed the findings.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme

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