An artist, a farmer and a scientist walked into a bar
How an unlikely collaboration redefined a physicist’s approach to climate change.
By Bjorn Sturmberg
We generally hear climate change discussed as a technical challenge that will be solved with bigger wind turbines, more electric cars, less steak and fewer flights. The mission is nothing more, and nothing less, than to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent units.
As a physicist, this computes for me, but over the past year, I’ve begun to look at things differently.
I’m part of An artist, a farmer and a scientist walk into a bar, an unusual arts initiative in Australia designed to challenge and change the relationships we have with the land. My project – one of eight – involves working with a sculptor and two horticulturists to explore creative ways of harnessing solar energy on farms.
Things began with a visit to a drought-stricken farm in the shadows of the Blue Mountains escarpment west of Sydney, where the shallowness of the simplistic technical response to climate change took root.
Then, as the project involved me in more conversations with artists and other collaborators, a number of things struck me.
The first was the attentiveness and genuine value placed on the artistic process. You can hear this whenever an artist refers to their "art practice" instead of their "art". This seems to me to be powerfully linked to artists’ comfort in constantly working with a blank page; with a loose scope; with uncertainty.
Farmers too are deeply embedded in a perpetual process of tending to their living, breathing, never static landscapes.
As we rush into our uncertain future – with its changing climate, changing technologies, and changing demographics – the rest of us (especially us science types) would do well to give greater attention to the processes we adopt when we engage with issues.
Appreciating the process keeps us focussed on continually asking good questions and pursuing best possible solutions. It also helps sustain motivation through our multi-year challenges.
The adjustment in perspective is nicely embodied in the use of verbs over nouns: of consulting instead of ticking off a consultation, of leading instead of being a leader, of refining one's art/farming/science practice instead of being defined by one output.
The second remarkable aspect of the past year was how the context of an art project opened up a uniquely non-judgmental space. I put this down to a mix of identity and culture.
I don't identify as an artist, and so masquerading in that role I felt free to stumble across the curious, creative terrain of sculpture development without any preconceptions.
Beyond this though, I believe we have a shared cultural perception that in art there aren't any right or wrong ideas (although we all claim the right to like some art over others). This art setting was a radical contrast to the pressurised air of typical expert forums.
In developing our project, the combined effect of embracing the process and an open atmosphere freed us to derive things from first principles: our values. In this setting, the prominent values included the health and resilience of landscapes, the nutrient density of the produce, the relationships connecting humans to each other and their environment, and the future we will inherit to our children.
Having uncovered these values we could build a shared understanding of the true meaning of the farmer’s integrated farming system, and a vision of how to communicate this through sculpture.
This, I now believe, is also what must happen for us to successfully engage with the adaptive challenge of climate change: we must start by identifying and articulating our values.
Only with these in the open can we undertake the necessary work of managing change, starting with honest discussions of what - what things, what values, what structures - we’re collectively committed to holding on to throughout the changes, what we’re hoping to gain, and what we’re willing to let go of in the process.
A year on from that first weekend on the farm the influences of the project on me remain strong: embrace the process, particularly in the midst of long and uncertain projects, and keep spaces open for discussing values.
These attitudes are essential for the effectiveness and sustainability of our pursuits in a world bursting with change. Let us embrace further art collaborations to illustrate and instill them.
Dr Bjorn Sturmberg is a Research Leader in the Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program at the Australian National University. His project collaborators are Erika Watson and Hayden Druce from Epicurean Harvest and Mark Swartz from Feather Edge.