Performing Climate Change: DJ Spooky Talks with Bill McKibben

May 20, 2013

As the amount of carbon in the atmosphere passes a dangerous threshold (400 parts per million), DJ Spooky speaks with founder Bill McKibben about the perils of climate change and the critical role art can play in confronting it.

This conversation is part of “The Met Reframed,” a year-long artist residency for Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) that has included performances, premieres, conversations, panels and special presentations by Miller. “The Met Reframed” is made possible by Marianna Sackler.’s “Do the Math” documentary about the rising movement to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis and challenge the fossil fuel industry.

The discussion below has been edited for length and clarity.

BILL MCKIBBEN: It’s a great pleasure to be here with you, Paul. Since we’re talking about art, it’s worth saying that at some level, we’re engaged in a kind of planet-scale performance art project right now and the question it raises is, what happens if you pour an enormous quantity of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere? What happens is that the way the planet looks in every dimension begins to change, quite quickly. Last summer, for instance, our joint art project melted the Arctic. Eighty percent of the summer sea ice that was in the Arctic that was there 40 years ago is now gone. If you go stick a pH strip in the ocean now it comes out a different color than it did 40 years ago because the ocean is 30 percent more acidic. We’re taking the big physical features of the planet and changing them in the most profound, dangerous and horrifying ways. And one of the reasons that we’re doing it, or that the fossil fuel industry is able to get away with it, is because we don’t notice: it’s happening just slowly enough that it takes concentration to see it happening. Not always. When the subways fill up with the Atlantic Ocean as they did last October, it’s pretty obvious.

350 parts per million is the most carbon we could safely have in the atmosphere. The most important scientific instrument in the world just clicked past 400.

Five years ago I founded the organization, with May Boeve and Phil Aroneanu, who are here tonight. They were undergraduates at the time and now they run the operation, which has turned into the biggest grassroots environmental campaign there’s ever been. We’ve organized about 20,000 rallies in every country on earth except North Korea, and from the beginning, part of what we were doing was performance art as well. We thought that one of the reasons there was so little action against climate change was not because people weren’t scared about it, but because it felt so big and each of us felt so small that it seemed pointless to do anything. So we decided that we would try to make people see that they were part of something very large.

Our first global day of action, in the fall of 2009, was the most widespread day of political activity in the planet’s history, according to CNN. We had 5,200 demonstrations happening simultaneously in 181 countries. Here in New York, we took over a bunch of the Jumbotrons in Times Square and showed pictures as they came in from around the world. We decided early on that images would be extremely important in our campaigns. In fact, we couldn’t have done the advertising that we did before the advent of Flickr, which allowed people to instantly download photos and allowed us to spread them all over the place.

I wrote the first book about climate change 25 years ago, and part of this subject is inevitably about numbers. We’re called because 350 parts per million is the most carbon we could safely have in the atmosphere, a number we’re well above. Sometime this week, the instrument on the side of Mauna Loa that tracks carbon in the atmosphere—the most important scientific instrument in the world—will click past 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s why the Arctic is melting and forest fires are spreading and so on. We’re not at all afraid of data and science. It’s the great tool that we have to understand the peril that we’re in, but environmentalists have been much too concentrated on appealing to that side of the brain that enjoys bar graphs and pie charts, and much less good about appealing to the side of the brain that understands things on a more visceral level, where art and music can be a huge help.

We need every tool we can think of—maybe, most of all, art.

So on one day in 2010, we tried more consciously to make art. It was the lead-up to a big UN conference on climate, and we wanted to remind these negotiators who never really get anywhere that the world was paying attention. The medium that we most like to use is human bodies in large numbers, and as many of them as possible, because at this point art around the climate crisis is probably most useful when it’s engaged in pointed dialogue with ongoing political efforts—i.e. it’s not just someone making a sculpture about climate change in a vacuum—and because of the work that we do with mass movements, we think that it should be done, whenever possible, en masse. We believe that the singular vision of artists is best quickly translated into things that require and employ and engage lots and lots of people to do.

In 2010, launched eARTh, the world’s first ever global satellite art project. In over 16 places around the world, the public created art so large it could be photographed from space.

We walk this line between art and activism at all times, and this is by far the biggest thing that human beings have ever done. In the lifetime of everybody in this room, this planet has left the Holocene—the ten thousand years of benign climatic stability that underwrote the rise of human civilization—and moved into something else. The only question is how far in we’re going to go, and the answer to that will be determined by how engaged we manage to get people. Art is an important, maybe even critical, part of that fight. We won the argument a long time ago. Scientific reason, however, has not prevailed against the pile of cash on the other side of the table. So we need every tool we can think of—maybe, most of all, art.

PAUL D. MILLER: I met Bill a while ago and I’ve been very interested in his books and writings. I just want to show you some photos. This is me DJing an Earth Day concert with The Flaming Lips. This is the same place where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and there were about 200,000 people there, responding to the music. But the music I used was made using the sound of ice, after I had taken a studio to Antarctica and gone through several of the main ice fields.


DJ Spooky performing at the National Mall in Washington, DC, on Earth Day, 2009.


DJ Spooky in the Arctic Circle during a Cape Farewell expedition, 2010.

This is me hanging out in Antarctica, where I explored several of the main ice fields for six weeks. I was making acoustic portraits of ice, and one of the things that struck me was the scale of devastation. Here you can see the side of a mountain that’s been scraped away by the sinking glacier. It looked like the entire landscape had been hit by a nuclear bomb and the detonation was moving in slow time. When I was taking these photographs and sound samples, I worked with a group of scientists out of Cold Regions Research Labs. Many of them were talking about time and sampling. When you dig down into the ice, there’s tens of millions of years waiting in the dust, because the dust is what tells scientists what was happening and gives a very precise portrait of the environmental context.

So, I was thinking about that, together with an essay by the moral philosopher Adam Smith, who wrote a critique of water and diamonds. He was trying to figure out why people would go to war over diamonds, whereas water, which was essential to life, was taken for granted. Our body is made up of over 90 percent water. The human brain is about 70 percent water, but people take it for granted. And meanwhile diamonds, which you can’t eat or use for anything, kings would go to war over. So he wrote “Of Water and Diamonds,” to figure out why people would add value to this kind of useless material and why something that was utterly essential was taken for granted. It was one of the first philosophical essays about free culture and free material.

If we start thinking about how we assign value, ice and water were really interesting materials for my art projects here at the Met because nobody owns them. We’re here in a museum, which is a place where objects are taken out of circulation, they’re put in a container and someone just walks by. Your average person sees a painting for less than seven seconds.

DJ Spooky visited the remote northern Arctic Circle with Cape Farewell in the autumn of 2010, to work on the follow up to his Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica project.

During my research, I wanted to examine data, so I was looking at Bill’s work. I was looking at how other artists used data and I eventually landed upon Johannes Kepler. In 1611, he was on his way home and a snowflake landed on his sleeve and he was stunned by the geometry of the ice. He went home and wrote one of the first mathematical treatises looking at mathematics in nature, Six Sides of a Snowflake. I used this to generate a series of algorithms looking at ice.

The snowflake has a hexagonal form. Anyone who’s into architecture can see this is a recursive section. There’s a famous phrase from Schiller, where he calls architecture “frozen music,” so let’s remix that and say, “music is liquid architecture.” One of my favorite writers, Douglas Hofstadter, wrote about patterns in nature and patterns in mathematics in Gödel, Escher, Bach. You can understand the permutations when you look at the mathematics. It’s algorithmic, so I created a software series of patches that would use maximums P and B to transcribe the algorithms, and then take those algorithms and use them to generate artificial versions of snow and ice. This is the fractal geometry based on those algorithms we presented at the Met. The electronic music in the show is based on the sound of ice.


DJ Spooky performs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, March 23, 2013.

One of the other projects I did here at the Met was called The Nauru Elgies, where I looked at financial data of what I called the “Easter Island of global finance”—a place called Nauru in the middle of the South Pacific, where a lot of the money from the Soviet Union went to when it was collapsing. I was interested in how economics shape the collection of art, but again with ice and water, who owns it? It’s an open medium.

This year I’m representing the Maldives at the Venice Biennale, based on the Nauru project. The Maldives is going to be one of the first nation states to sink under the conditions for global warming, so what I’m doing with that project is looking at the ocean currents that are erasing the islands and taking the data from that and creating a series of compositions. What you’re going to be seeing here is the mathematics of pattern recognition, but applied to these ocean gyres—what I call “gyre sonifications.” The islands are being destroyed by this movement, but there’s very specific circularity in patterns and that’s where I think the art will be derived from. Venice is also sinking, so I want to leverage this idea of the first-world response and the Venetian archipelago versus this more remote, canary-in-the-coal-mine kind of place called the Maldives.


Former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, holding parliament under water to demonstrate the urgency of climate change for his country, 2009.


PM: Bill, I have a question for you. We were talking about Walt Whitman and Thoreau earlier, and about Teddy Roosevelt busting the trusts. Do you want to riff on the 19th-century relationship to the trusts?

BM: We’re in an age where, at least as much as the end of the 19th century, money rules. The biggest campaign contribution in the post–Citizens United era came two weeks before the last election, from the Chevron Corporation, and it was designed to make sure that the House of Representatives remained in the hands of climate deniers. It was successful: nothing will happen in Washington for the next two years.

On the way in, I saw the enormous sign explaining that the Koch brothers were building the next wing of the Met. You know, they’re also on the list of performance artists who are filling the planet with carbon. They’re probably number one and two on the whole list and part of their art has involved taking an area called the Tar Sands in Alberta where an native people lived quite happily for a very long time and turning it into a—well, the technical name I believe would be Mordor. So yeah, we’re in a big fight with the fossil fuel industry. It’s their political power that’s kept science at bay for a quarter century.

So, May and Phil and I, among others, have launched this huge campaign to get colleges and universities and museums and hospitals and everybody else to divest the stock they hold in fossil fuel companies just as we did a quarter century ago about apartheid in South Africa. In fact, Desmond Tutu, who was one of the great heroes of that fight, made a short video that said, “Look, if you could see the famine and drought in Africa right now, you’d know why I was asking you to take up those same tools again.”

The arc of the physical universe is fairly short. It bends towards heat and if we don’t win soon, we’re not going to win.

So the good news is that we’re building this movement and we’ve now got 340 college campuses where this fight’s under way. Four of them have already divested. Last week the brave undergraduates at the Rhode Island School of Design took over their president’s office and hung a big banner out the window, and it said, “We may be art students, but we can do the math.”

Audience Member no. 1: Since we’re addicted to our lifestyle, and fossil fuels created our lifestyle, is there anything we can do? Do we have the political will to change?

BM: Sure, the good news is that it’s completely possible to imagine what the next world looks like. If you want to see what it looks like, go to Germany. There were days last summer when Germany generated more than half the power it used from solar panels within its borders. We don’t have the political will at this point, even though, unlike Germany, we have assets like Florida, Texas, California and Nevada. But there are more solar panels in Bavaria than there are in the United States and the reason is precisely that lack of political will.

That’s why we fight so hard around divestment, and around the Keystone Pipeline. It’s why we try to build movements. Hopefully, we can muster the political will if we put our minds to it. On occasion in the past, we’ve made changes in political will quite quickly. Whether we can do it in time to catch up with the physics of climate change is the thing that haunts me, because unlike other social issues, this one does come with a timeline. Dr. King always had absolute confidence that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The arc of the physical universe is fairly short. It bends towards heat and if we don’t win soon, we’re not going to win.

On the other hand, Dr. King had to be far braver than we do. No one’s yet shooting at you for talking about climate change, although in the Maldives last year they put the president—our good friend Muhammad Nasheed—in prison because he was taking on this issue. He’s a great man and he’s now in prison, where he already spent many years before he won an election to overthrow the despot. Now the military is back in control. I’m sure you’ll [Paul] figure out some way in Venice to say something pointed about what’s been going on in the Maldives.

One of the things that dealing with climate change enforces is a brute sense of realism about how much you have to do in how little time.

PM: During the process of setting up the pavilion, there was actually a coup among the curators. There’s a lot of interesting discussion about who was representing the Maldives, because the curators who were attached to the previous regime were pulled off the project. As an artist, I wanted to amplify that dispute.

BM: What President Nasheed did was a great example of actual performance art. He taught his entire cabinet to scuba dive. They held an underwater cabinet meeting and they passed a resolution that they sent to the UN demanding that they take action to get back to 350 parts per million and it got extraordinary coverage around the world.

Audience Member no. 2: Since half the planet now lives in cities, and it’s probably eventually going to be one big city, how do you help people who live in urban environments understand about climate change?

BM: This is a really good question. When I was just out of college, my first job was at The New Yorker, and I wrote the “Talk of the Town” column for five years. I wrote a long piece about where everything in my apartment came from. I followed all the supply lines: I was in the Brazilian jungle because Con Ed was buying oil from Brazil and so on. For me, it was a necessary project to remind myself of the physical basis of our existence. Now I’m afraid it’s getting easier and easier to remember, because Mother Nature is doing her best to remind us. I mean, what was Hurricane Sandy but a pointed reminder that this place is a deeply physical artifact and it will be overwhelmed—it is being overwhelmed.

Audience Member no. 3: Paul, you talk in your work about structure and pattern. What I’d like to put on the table here is I do think we have to come to grips with the fact that this system cannot address the environmental emergency because of its structure, because of its underlying patterns. In other words, the system operates according to certain dynamics and rules. Profit is in command. The United States is struggling to maintain its dominant position as the leading empire in the world. The U.S. military is the single largest institutional purchaser of oil in the world. This gets to your other point, Paul, about imagining and envisioning other forms of society. What I’m suggesting is that to confront the reality of global warming, let’s confront the reality of the system, and let’s confront the fact that there is a real alternative, a revolutionary alternative in which society can be structured on principles of social and sustainable development, in which we restructure an economy away from fossil fuels, in which we marshal resources and capabilities to confront this urgent environmental emergency and in which we imbue people with the values of becoming protectors, not plunderers, of the planet.

BM: For me, one of the things that dealing with climate change enforces is a brute sense of realism about how much you have to do in how little time. It’s plausible that it would be easier to deal with climate change if we had an entirely different economic system. It’s plausible that it would be easier to deal with climate change if everyone subscribed to a nature-based religion. It’s implausible to me that those things are going to happen in the very brief window of time that we have. Hence, the need to figure out how to use what we have to make what you correctly state will be massive change.

It’s no accident that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations 30 years after James Watt invented the steam engine, rather than the other way around.

In fact, if one were looking to transform our economy and society, the quickest way to do it would be to demand the rapid diffusion of renewable energy technology across the landscape. Not only is it lower in carbon, but it is inherently far more democratic than what we have at the moment. If you think about fossil fuel, it did more to shape the world around us than anything else. It’s no accident that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations 30 years after James Watt invented the steam engine, rather than the other way around. If we are able to move to a world where we do not have a huge centralized power plant, or a few people like the Koch brothers who are able to dominate our political landscape, but instead a world with millions of solar panels on tops of millions of rooftops, we’d begin to make some real progress in eroding pillars of power. To me, that’s probably a far more practical step than trying a frontal assault on all of American or world politics and economics.

PM: I definitely want to respond to this as well. There was almost nothing in what the gentleman in the audience said that I could disagree with. The facts are very clear, but as an artist, I have to say that part of the battle is getting people to imagine a change, whatever that change is. If you look back at the 18th century, there was this thing called the Little Ice Age. It was caused because one volcano blew up and put all these clouds in the air, and there were a couple summers with no summer whatsoever. During that time, there were revolutions; governments collapsed. People were starving and crops failed throughout most of Europe. So, climate change caused all these revolutions. Amusingly enough, the U.S. military now considers weather a weapon. The War College now actually studies the impact of weather on major combat zones.

Audience Member no. 4: It’s easy to get discouraged by corporate power, but if there’s a cultural shift and the population gets hold of an idea, things can move very quickly. It’s really about turning public opinion. The Koch brothers’ money is intimidating, but we’re talking about influence on the political system, on our political decision makers. The bottom line is that the people in Congress, in the White House, and in the Governor’s office don’t care about money per se. They only care about being reelected.

BM: This is an important point. There are few people in this room who are, like me, old enough to have been alive on the first Earth Day in 1970. Back then, 20 million Americans—then one in ten of our population—took to the streets to do something. That gave such a scare to our political leaders that Richard Nixon, a man who didn’t care about the environment at all, within the next five years signed every important piece of environmental legislation that we still use: the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Keystone Pipeline is one of the few issues where the president has a free shot. We’re going to find out what the guy is made of when he makes that decision.

My own experience in Washington has been eye-opening. I haven’t spent much time there in the last two years, and a fair amount of the time there has been spent in jail, but it is a place ruled by money. There are however, some great exceptions. I live in Vermont. My senator, Bernie Sanders, is a stand-up guy if there ever was one. Lisa Jackson, who just stepped down as the head of the EPA, was the honest person in the first Obama administration. She was great and gutsy and smart and willing to buck the system. I liked her better than just about any bureaucrat or civil servant I’ve ever come across. She was actually thinking of the common good the whole time. So, there are people who are trying to do the right thing.

The trouble is the place is just awash in money. If you tell me how much money someone has taken from the oil and gas industry, I can predict with unerring accuracy how they’re going to vote on things like the Keystone Pipeline. It’s a far better predictor than their party identification or anything else. So, Washington is one of the places where the fight with the fossil industry is happening, but we can fight it as effectively on college campuses with endowments in portfolios, and in local governments. We have now had 11 city governments announce that they’re divesting from fossil fuel, including, most recently, Seattle and San Francisco.

When we started on the Keystone Pipeline stuff, one of the tactical decisions we made was we weren’t really going to attack the president. We thought it’d be more painful for him if we tried to hold him to his words from his campaign, so when we surrounded the White House, five people deep all around, every single sign was just a quote from Barack Obama in 2008, saying thing like “It’s time to end the tyranny of oil.” Well, that got the year-and-a-half reprieve from the Keystone Pipeline that now is coming to an end. I’ve got to say, this will be an interesting moment for the president. The Keystone Pipeline is one of the very few issues where he has a free shot. He gets to make the decision; Congress is not in the way. So we’re going to find out a lot about what the guy is made of when he makes that decision.