What is the limit? Watching my five year old niece play with my parents’ puppy this seems to be the question on her mind. ‘How many times can I poke him with this stick before he growls at me, or before someone sees and tells me off; what is the extent to which I can pursue my goals?’ As we grow older, the questions return; how far can I run; how high can I climb in this tree; how long can I wait before I go down to dinner…how much money can I make…how long can I live? This question seems lodged so frequently at the back of our brains, burning with such an intense need to be known that it’s so frequently left unspoken. Only through attempting something do we discover the answer; I can run x amount of miles in x amount of time; I can get five feet into the trees branches before I fall; I can make x amount in one year; I can poke this puppy zero amount of times because my mother is now scalding me. It is a question which transcends our own selves, and at this point there is a new reason not to talk about it; because we don’t want to know the answer. We don’t want to know how long this economic boom will last, because we want to believe it will continue forever, we don’t want to discover that we don’t live forever, and we can’t even consider that there is even a limit to the planet we live and so utterly rely on.
What is the limit that our planet can take? Briefly, a quick and sexy note on growth. Both Marxist and Free Market theory consider a GDP growth rate of One or Two percent a year as modest and a One percent growth in population as the ideal. Looked at year by year, these are fine figures, nothing to worry about; but look at these figures over one hundred years and they become terrible; a world population of 18 Billion and a world energy consumption ten times greater than todays. The limit, is going to very rapidly be discovered; because suddenly there is no space and no more resources.
The problem we face is that we will continue as we are because at the moment it doesn’t affect us. We’re here, at our wonderfully user friendly computer screens, with a trillion different internet sites to browse and countless Satellite TV channels to watch. We have such complete freedom in what we interact with that we don’t have to be affected by what we don’t want to hear. So what can we do? Tell people they need to act before it’s too late? Who wants to hear that?
What we need is engagement. No more time spent ignoring questions, throwing a sheet over the elephant in the room and agreeing silently not to talk about the long trunk ferreting about on the carpet looking for spilt peanuts.
Art, is undoubtedly one of the most spiritual ways to engage with something. Not simply art but creativity; letting the mind roam around a subject and interact with it, be inspired by it, and then create what the mind finds. Then re-evaluate the creation. It becomes spiritual in the way the mind becomes detached from the brain, the everyday chores of breathing; blinking, and blends with a serenity that breeds creation. Perhaps creates something which shocks us, if only because we didn’t realise it was already there in our thoughts.
Again, it is a great pleasure to bring this feature onto it’s true purpose; to highlight the works of the artist and fashion designer Asher Jay, and demonstrate how her art engages with that which is skating across our synapses and creates work which bring light to sub-conscious thoughts.
One of the key themes of her works here is time. There is an anxiety among even the most belligerent of us caused by the ceaseless workings of this continuum. The brief, sinking feeling that crescendos through your stomach as you realise you are late is going to very shortly become far, far longer, as we begin to grasp we have missed our chance to halt the
tide. The endless oceans of opportunities seen by the large oil companies will soon reach a peak; a maximum level of consumption of their fossil fuel which will very rapidly and unstoppably decline into an absolute zero. This will not be one limit reached, but will be amidst others. In this new born millennia, humanity already finds itself in at least five ecological and social crises; each one a warning sign that something is wrong: an unemployment crisis, a global financial crisis, a food crisis, an economic crisis and a global ecological crisis. Each one represents another way in which we are pushing the planet to breaking point.
Take Lake Natron, currently a popular tourist destination in Africa for those seeking the thrills of Earth’s natural wildlife. From the air, the colour of the lake diffuses from pure white, to orange, to clotting-blood red, and finally to black. This is all the evidence needed to plan the construction of a soda ash plant; to convert the white that is sodium into washing powder.
There is another colour to be found on the lake. From a tourist’s perspective, it is almost a mirage of pink, as millions of Lesser Flamingoes stand together as one body; each individual diffused with the next. They feed on the organisms that feed on the sodium that we would love to use to wash our dirty laundry.
Asher Jay spent time here, and elsewhere in Africa, and the effect of the journey on her can be seen in her collection of works ‘Shadowed Heirlooms’. Whilst she collected bags of litter from sites as well as Lake Natron – some of which she used in her works – she also wrote letters to officials and spoke with the people who work in these areas. The problem that places such as Lake Natron suffer from is that human beings seem unable to diffuse with the planet in the same way everything else does. Look at your green, monospecific chemical drenched lawns, how far they stand out from the natural grass of meadows. Leave Suburbia and there’s a sprawl of human activity; low density development that cuts the environment into splinters – fragmentation. A single soda ash plant will stand here at the lake and erase the colour and life from it. Once the limit has been reached, we will move on. The lake will not.
How would it feel to stand next to a natural spectacle the day before it is torn apart? Would you take a photograph? Would you admit that it’s a shame?
But it’s difficult. We know that because all the time there’s infinite little bits of distracting noise; infinite freedom of choice over the tiniest of things. Intellectually and culturally we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli, whilst elsewhere on the planet we continue to push ourselves further into the very core of Earth.
In What’s a Whale Worth to You we plainly have a question asked that we’d rather not answer. We’d rather not think about dead whales, rather not have to picture Free Willy tied up by his tail over the harbour, blood falling from harpoon wounds while the nuclear disney family huddle around beneath his body holding each other. Yet though the question is direct; urgent, urgency itself seems fleeting these days. Replaced instead by an apathy which takes photographs and wears too much suncream.
The reason we don’t want to have to answer this question is because we again know the answer. It’s because we like the way things are, because in their current state we have the money we have, and whilst there may not be much chance of us getting more capital, if we try to change things and stop our growth, we might very soon end up with less money, and that would be abhorrent because then things might change for us.
The thing is, it’s fine for us to be worried about having less money; we need money to pay off debts, to keep up with the neighbours, put the children through a decent education, but if something isn’t done soon, all the things that are bringing the money in at the moment will reach the limit and stop; and then there will be infinitely less money with little to no Plan-B to turn to.
We find ourselves at a crux. A crossroad. Humanity has so much potential. In the last century, the western democracies were arguably the most admirable societies the world has ever seen; not the most admiral we can imagine, and not perfect, but the best humanity has yet been able to achieve. Yet we are still obsessed with growth, or extending ourselves further, poking the puppy one last time; reaching the limit.
There are too many of us, encroaching on every inch of the planet. Its especially clear when you go to South America, yes, per capita consumption is rising, yes, the Chinese are illegally vacuuming up resources down there. But the real problem is pressure; six kids per family versus 1.5, people are desperate to feed the children that the pope – in his infinite wisdom – makes them have, and so they destroy the environment. In America alone, the population is going to rise by 50 percent in the next 4 decades, think about how crowded the exurbs are already, and the traffic, and the urban sprawl and the rising price of oil, and then add fifty percent of that. But then America is larger, expansive and can theoretically sustain a larger population. Then think about global carbon emissions, and genocide and famine in africa, and the radicalized suppressed classes in the Arab world; the people who have been forgotten by their governments and treated as terrorists by the rest of the world. And then think about the overfishing in the oceans, 100 million poor people in Pakistan, the Han Chinese over-running tibet, illegal Israeli settlements; theres hardly a problem in the world that wouldn’t be solved by having fewer people. and yet we’re going to add another 3 billion by 2050. Any things we do now to try to save nature and preserve some quality of life are going to get overwhelmed by sheer numbers, because people can change their consumption habits – it takes time and effort, but it can be done – but if the population keeps increasing, nothing else we do is going to matter. And yet nobody is talking about the problem publicly; it’s the elephant in the room, and its killing us. Living life the way one wants to on an individual level is free and meaningful, but on a global level it’s killing us. We need to seek some rational and humane ways of putting the breaks on growth rather than simply destroying the planet and letting everyone starve to death or kill each other.
And so into the gaping possibilities that may befall our species, this is why it’s important that we have artists ready to engage and explore the thoughts and questions we’d rather not admit to having. Why it’s so energising to find artists who don’t simply fill a glass with water and call it an oak tree, and who aren’t so wrapped up in the inspiration their own minds illicit that they can actually do something with their creative instincts that brings to light what we might not quite be able to relate to, in a way that we understand it more. It’s because they create; they provide evidence for thoughts we try to cover up subconsciously and others actively seek to conceal. Art can be a point of gravity, of focus, within the trillion distractions we face to otherwise coherent thought.
That art can be a point of focus, does not mean that it will be so. Is it possible that art can change the world? If a piece is intended to shock people into action over a perceived truth, yet becomes so consumed by this desire that it appears grotesquely oversized and self-important, has it lost all energy to convince viewers of it’s political charge? Conversely, if an artist paints a picture of their younger sibling intended as no more than a birthday present, yet catches the eye of a passer by in the way the portrait holds so much sadness that it could seem the world itself was weeping in the eye of the pictured child, and the painting is bought by this traveller who bestows such vows of brilliance upon it that people flock from across the globe to feel it’s majesty, does the painting then become that of the viewers or the artist?
What is the extent of changing the world? Will a young adult see a painting at a gallery, be so filled with thoughts of revolution that they lead a rebellion which overthrows a government? Or will the sibling love her given portrait so greatly that she holds onto it forever, moved to a constant joy by it that it makes those around them happy also? Which of these count as changing the world? Do either? Revolutions have begun throughout history. Joy and happiness can be found even in the saddest of moments.
Then there’s also the need to be realistic about who will buy, support and find interest in art for conservation. Most people – emphasis on the most; not all – would agree that conservation is fine: as long as it doesn’t interfere with their lives or cost them money. The people that support such art, are those already converted to the need to change our species impact on the planet; its preaching to the preached. Unfortunately the preached in this case aren’t readily loaded with capital for investment; the numbers of rich conservation-minded people is far outstripped by the numbers who aren’t minded to such ways.
So the outlet we need to build a focus around, the outlet which can inspire and draw thought from those who may not otherwise have been inclined to such thoughts as conservation, and a need to change the way we live; this outlet is constrained. There is so much money in the world and it’s going everywhere but the sources of change. In 2008; one of the worst years of the current economic crisis, US bankers announced bonuses of 16.8 Billion Dollars; that’s 5.8 Billion Dollars more than the entire GDP of Haiti before the earthquake.
This is not a reason to give up. The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t going to take a day off, so we mustn’t convert to apathy. Take a look at Persephone Returns. This piece has been chosen from Asher’s previous collection, Material Farce (http://www.asherjay.com/material-farce.html) for it’s opulent and vibrant colours which hang with all the fragrance of Africa; all the energy that the planet holds at this moment; all the frisson that teams within the artist standing at the easel with intent. The name of the collection, coined to highlight the undercurrent commentary on thoughtless consumerism and waste generation, seems suitably apt to sum up the way so many of us think; that the limit or what can be owned is so far away, anything we do to speed it up won’t noticeably affect it.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi.
“Light up the darkness.” – Bob Marley.
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