Climate science is the exploration of uncertainty. It starts with a question—a portal into a broader investigation, a way to make sense of disquieting realities and incomprehensible futures—that unfolds into an answer. Climate art, as interpreted by Brooklyn-based artist James Leonard, is much the same.
To walk into Leonard’s latest installation, The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies, is to enter a space that expresses heaven and earth, past and future. Participants step past walls festooned with strips of colorful, recycled cloth and haunting pastel watercolors of animals that seem to be on the verge of disappearing. It is an ephemeral space intended, through both shape and sound, to convey intimacy and connection with one’s immediate surroundings. Participants stand on bare ground and peer into an oculus that opens up to the sky—reinforcing humans’ place in the order of the universe, illuminating both themselves and the diviner.
The “new normal” is here: The world is experiencing its 14th consecutive month of record-breaking temperatures, the longest in recorded history. Harrowing facts about climate change have become commonplace; the concept of climate anxiety is now part of the popular lexicon. Yet while cause for concern has increased, engagement with climate change has stagnated or ceased. This disparity is what spurred Leonard to action. “I thought to myself, if we’re not going to listen to climate scientists, we might as well be listening to fortune-tellers,” Leonard says. Then he took that idea and ran with it, using the art of divination as a conduit to help people grapple with climate change.
In The Tent, participants choose among three tarot decks—the classic Rider-Waite deck, the Tarot of the Boroughs and the Wild Unknown deck—and then pose a question related to climate change. “Perhaps they want to know what their neighborhood will look like in 50 years, if a favorite lake will still be there, or if avocados will still be available on store shelves,” says Leonard, who is taking his installation on tour around the country. “[Or] from someone seeking ways to get more involved in a specific aspect of the climate crisis: How can I use less water in my life? How can I affect the office culture where I work?”
On the surface, such small actions may seem futile, bordering on frivolous. But Leonard’s perception is correct: Psychologists have almost no evidence that data changes people’s decision-making, as I learned in research for a 2012 TEDx talk on psychological barriers to environmental engagement. Science is not our only conduit to understanding.
“The human species did not evolve to handle today’s complex problems,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist who runs the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Instead, our brains are designed to respond to four kinds of threats, explains Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert: “Ones that are instantaneous, imminent or personalized—or things that repulse us.” What we see and, more importantly, what we directly experience, matters. What also matters is what we believe to be true: Psychology studies suggest that we will go so far as to embrace misinformation that conforms to our pre-existing ideas in order to keep our values in alignment. When faced with compelling evidence contrary to their opinions, people often harden their beliefs because they distrust the message or the messenger.
Moreover, when we face the sheer scope of these kinds of challenges, we tend to shut down. This is known as “psychic numbing,” meaning it’s hard for us to emotionally connect to problems or tragedies that affect large numbers of people, and has been illustrated psychologist Paul Slovic’s work on risk. According to behavioral economists Patricia Linville and Gregory Fischer, we have a “finite pool of worry”: there is only so much we can concern ourselves with at one time. It’s not that we do not care about climate change, drought or famine; we simply cannot fathom their magnitude or fit their threats into our existing set of worries.
The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies tries to bridge these challenges, using emotion and personal experience to inspire engagement with climate change. Leonard stresses that he is not trying to make concrete predictions about the future. Instead, his projects is about how we feel when we "suspend disbelief" inside the tent and, more importantly, what we do with those feelings afterward to enact change. “The work is not intended to replace science,” Leonard explains. “It’s meant to provide a way to receive this information and the emotions it stirs up—maybe fear and anxiety, maybe anticipation or hope that we can meet these challenges.”
For 15 minutes, Leonard explores answers, reminding the person before him of his or her agency. “We draw the cards. We choose our fate,” he tells participants. “Take whatever you have found in the face of this complexity and carry it within you. If the world is already damned, it may be damned to a degree, but there will be those who live here after us. Will we be good ancestors or bad ancestors to them? Will we have laid the seeds for a culture that will find means to live with a new and more chaotic, vengeful climate on a daily basis? Or will we be amongst those that pushed off any shift in lifestyle, thinking, activity or consumption, making the future even more painful?”
The grief caused by climate change—as detailed in this thoughtful account by journalist Jordan Rosenfeld—is palpable. But Leonard is not without hope. The etymology of “divination” is from the Latin divinare: “to foresee, to be inspired by a god.” Leonard views this experience to be deeply spiritual—an integrated way of addressing concern for the environment and for humanity’s future. “Loss is going to happen, but it doesn’t need to be absolute loss,” he says. “That has been a common message from readings: that the climate crisis is not the end, it is a chapter.”
James Leonard is on tour with The Tent of Casually Observed Phenologies through the fall. Details can be found here.