More Groups Using Art for Climate Activism

By: Nick Engelfried 

August 19, 2010
On Tuesday climate activists in Portland, Oregon brought a new and artistic spin to a debate that’s been raging for over a year: how soon to retire the state’s only coal-fired power plant and biggest contributor to global warming pollution.  The action in Portland was just one example of a growing trend in the national and global climate movement.  More and more people and organizations, frustrated with world leaders’ failure to dramatically curb carbon emissions, are turning to art as a medium to express the vision of a sustainable future. 
In many cases students and young people have been the first to seize on paint brushes or canvas as new tools to push for action on global warming, and this was the case during Tuesday’s action.  Students and recent graduates from colleges and universities across the state of Oregon participated in organizing an event that included creation of a seven-foot-long community painting, and a sidewalk rally outside the offices of one of Oregon’s biggest polluters. 
At 8:00am on Tuesday, youth organizers from the Sierra Student Coalition and the Cascade Climate Network set up the canvas in Portland’s Waterfront Park, and invited passersby to join them in painting an image that depicts Oregon’s transition from reliance on the Boardman Coal Plant, to a future powered by clean electricity and renewable energy.  Park users from small children to grandparents stopped to take up a paint brush and contribute a few minutes of their creativity.
At noon event participants carried the completed piece of artwork to the nearby offices of Portland General Electric (PGE), the company that operates the Boardman Coal Plant.  Student activists spoke about the need to transition to clean energy as quickly as possible, and urged PGE to retire its coal plant by 2015 – the fastest and cheapest timescale recommended by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.  While interested bystanders emerged from the building to take a look, the painting was presented in full view of PGE’s windows. 
“The creation of this painting is a metaphor for how we can solve our energy problems,” said Katherine Takaoka, a student and Linfield College who helped organize the event.  “It was made possible by bringing people together, and by working together in our communities we can make the transition to clean energy.” 
This event in Portland was just one of the latest instances when environmental groups and those concerned about a warming planet have taken a breather from reciting facts and statistics, and used art to make the possibility of a better future more tangible.  Over the last couple years, major figures in the environmental movement like author and activist Bill McKibben have urged climate organizers to take up art as weapon of choice – and seen this advice taken by communities all over the planet. 
During an international day of climate action on October 24th of last year, thousands of groups in almost every country on the globe held events to draw attention to the maximum level of carbon dioxide that’s safe for the atmosphere: 350 parts per million.  Many of these actions employed visual art to get the message across, with groups of people forming giant numbers from their bodies and performance artists designing dances with 350 steps. 
Tuesday’s event in Portland was unique because it is perhaps the first example of artistic techniques being employed in the effort to move Oregon away from coal dependence and close the Boardman Coal Plant by 2015.  After months of organizing around public hearings and official meetings, activists engaged in the youth branch of the campaign decided it was time to try something slightly different.  Students from Linfield College came up with the idea of a giant painting, and designed the image template used for the event. 
Photo credits: Mika Hernandez

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