Art in Conservation
Text by International Intern, Ester Eriksson
Cover photo by Robyn Brown
Why would culture be involved in such clearly nature-based initiatives? Why should we be concerned about literature, cinema, visual art, music and theatre when discussing how to save habitats and species? What does it help elephant conservation to be in touch with creativity, expression, and emotions
I argue that art has an absolutely vital place in conservation work, and I am happy to share my thoughts on this with you.
A few weeks ago, the Elephants & Bees team were invited to an incredible workshop hosted in Kilifi in Kenya by The Elephant Queen Outreach Project . This was 4 days of intense conservation education, delivered through many different forms of communication, including classic seminars, workshops and discussion groups, and alternative modes of education like small sketches and plays, dance and movement choreography, film screening, orchestral music, and theatre performances. We all left feeling super motivated and inspired for our own and others’ projects in the name of elephant conservation.
What was different to a standard conservation conference? The emotions!
Motivation and emotions are so closely linked. This is clearly demonstrated in empirical research, but in all honesty, I doubt we need to go through those papers – you as a reader probably have first-hand experience that supports this, yourself! Think about how you feel listening to a really sad song, or walking out of an intensely moving theatre performance. They have an impact. Think about how you feel when watching a David Attenborough film. Doesn’t our planet seem just a bit more magical in that moment than it does when reading a scientific report on the status of ecosystems? I think so.
Intellectually, we know that we should protect the environment, biodiversity, individual species. We understand the importance of healthy ecosystems and living sustainably to maintain the functioning and services they provide. Yet, we find ourselves in situations where, globally, the environment is taking devastating blows and the climate crisis (and subsequent challenges like habitat degradation and human-wildlife conflict) rages across the planet.
Our emotional understanding is different from our intellectual understanding, and one way of reaching it is through art. Depicting the world as it is, can elicit strong emotional responses. Many of us feel devastated when seeing photos depicting rapid climate change or poached elephants, and that devastation is an important motivator. Statistics on the same issues just do not reach as far. Likewise, depicting the world in its splendour and as a celebration of what an incredible privilege we have to live in it, is also powerful. Positive and negative, our emotions are fuel for action. Positive emotions, even more so than negative! It is incredibly important to have emotional experiences with nature that are positive, to be driven to protect it.
In Kilifi we had the privilege of seeing the Youth Theatre Kenya’s performance of the play The Trial of Athena, about the prosecution of an elephant matriarch for an incident in a HEC area. At the end, interactive discussions with the audience revealed that most people got strong opinions and had even stronger emotions regarding the outcome of the trial, and the responsibility of humans. It was one experience among many that highlighted how art can reach deeper than statistics sometimes, and therefore be of huge importance when raising awareness for conservation. I also believe it is healthy for researchers to incorporate art into their professional work regularly. Not at the expense of absolute scientific rigor, of course, but as a way to tap into the motivation to continue doing this work, even when scientific reports paint a bleak picture of reality.
Art and creativity are important for researchers, too, to be able to come up with novel ideas and solutions to problems, and for developing a rich imagination for what is possible in the future. Without our emotional connection to nature and to the value it holds (outside of financial value), it is much more difficult to stay motivated to buckle down and do everything we can. To move towards sustainability. To protect habitats. To reduce conflicts and promote coexistence. To save the elephants
If you are interested in more on art and conservation, I highly recommend checking out the following sites:
And if you do want to dig into the research around emotions and motivations in environmental behaviour, you can start here:
- Visual art inspired by climate change—An analysis of audience reactions to 37 artworks presented during 21st UN climate summit in Paris
- Visual art as a way to communicate climate change: a psychological perspective on climate change–related art
- The Role of Art in Environmental Education
The views, opinions and position expressed in this article belong solely to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of Save the Elephants