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Icons of climate change

14 May 2005
In George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, O'Brien tells Winston Smith that if he wants one image of the future he should think of a jackboot stepping on a human face for ever.

Things haven't all turned out quite so bad, or at least not yet. Much of Europe, for example, has seen peace and prosperity for the last sixty years on a scale that would have been unimaginable given the continent's history until 8 May 1945.

Single images of the times are likely to be misleading, even if they contain a grain of truth (Orwell's pessimism was formed at least in part by Stalinism, which looked far from a spent force when he was writing in 1948).

Nevertheless, simple or single images can, in the right circumstances, help foster change for the better where changed had seemed impossible.

A good example is the diagramme of the slave ship Brookes (see here and here), which helped galvanise opponents of the slave trade in the eighteenth century in a struggle against enormous odds that took more than fifty years (for an excellent recent account see Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains, so wrongly traduced by some critics).

Could there be a similar icon for man made climate change? Would it be helpful or appropriate?

Images of death and despair may be exactly the wrong way to go. Scaring people is probably unhelpful and may be misguided. Participants in this debate have argued and will argue about this. It's striking, for example, that the authors of a forthcoming, very grim piece on why climate change is a "hard" security concern conclude that "the challenge is more to our wisdom than to our ability, more to our values than to our resources, more to our aspirations than to our fears".

Some environmentalists argue that overcoming "autism towards nature" (in the phrase of Janine Benyus) is the biggest challenge. Perhaps a strictly non-"artistic" image can help, such as the graph in the openDemocracy article by Carol Turley and Jerry Blackford which shows that human action is altering ocean acidity in less than a century by more than has been the case for over 25 million years.

But single images may well be the wrong thing for a highly complex situation in which imagination needs to be applied in rich and varied ways. Bill McKibben, Mark O'Connor, and Max Eastley with David Buckland have made some suggestions for the openDemocracy debate. Others will follow.

If you think climate change is a cause for concern, you can be part of this too. Please suggest - either in the forum or by writing to [email protected] - what writing, imagery, music or other material can most help to move people on climate change. Could a single image - an icon - be helpful to increase awareness, and if so what could it be? Or is a different approach needed?

Caspar Henderson

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