Earlier this year, I came across a news piece with a title that immediately caught my attention: “Man throws cake at Mona Lisa in climate protest stunt”. As an artist, you could imagine my shock at such a headline even though this is certainly not the first time a piece of art has been (or has attempted to be) desecrated in the name of a cause. I am also not naive enough to think it might be the last*. Luckily, in this instance of vandalism, the bulletproof glass protecting our beloved 16th century woman saved her from what would have been a conservationist’s nightmare at best.
We all know that there are bad actors in the world who occasionally do these kinds of things. And it is up to us as communities and as a society to try to prevent, mitigate and address these sorts of actions, just as we do our best to stop bad actors from drawing swamp water from the infinite well of bad behavior and violent action. As disheartening as watching the video was, it was the comments section of the news articles and social media posts that compelled me to make a statement of my own. In particular, it was the comments section of a popular Instagram account I follow that succeeded most in raising my blood pressure.
For context, this is a widely followed art account (the name I will not mention) that is run by art enthusiasts, for art enthusiasts. Needless to say, if one was seeking sympathy for the iconic painting after the incident, one might search through the comments section of a place like this. While there was plenty of outrage over the incident, what disturbed me was seeing a very large percentage of the comments sympathizing with the vandal! After several minutes of scrolling, I gathered that the common thread among these sympathizers (and even some encouragers) was not that they necessarily wanted to see this painting or any other art defiled or destroyed, but that the reason for the act was justified given the motivation of the deranged protestor: climate change.
There are likely many reasons this person did what he did in the way that he did it. I would wager that he wanted to draw attention to (above all) himself, as well as the cause. After all, there is absolutely zero connection between his stated cause and the vandalistic act toward the Mona Lisa. His only upshot for hurling cake at the icon is that it was guaranteed to get world-wide press coverage. If he truly was looking to make an earnest effort toward circumventing climate change, the average elementary school student could have given him far better tactics than the path he decided to take.
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But why the sympathy for this behavior?
Climate change is a kind of emergency. It is an emergency in which we need to take tactful action toward healing the planet as to ensure that we, the environment and future generations do not pay the price for the environmental damage inflicted during the industrial age and post-industrial world we currently inhabit. Common sense would dictate that “tactful action” includes strategies that have a scientifically-verified basis in the active mitigation of climate damage: migration toward renewable energy, increasing production and availability of electric vehicles, and reducing the carbon footprint of your own household, to name just a few.
There is a difference, however, between how we are increasingly conceptualizing the climate change problem and all other dilemmas the modern world faces: this is the emergency of all emergencies. Each day, the messaging and rhetoric is becoming increasingly severe. Even in casual conversation, I am personally finding more and more people shoe-horning the issue and peppering it with phrases like “We’re all going to die soon anyway because of climate change,” or “I see no hope for the future” or even “We’re all fucked anyway.” It is true that absolutely nothing can compare to the idea that the world is about to end. And with this perceived reality, a kind of dark nihilistic worldview is eventually bound to inhabit the minds of people who adopt this perception.
Let’s unpack this just a bit to figure out what an end-of-days nihilism could mean for the people who adopt it, intentionally or otherwise.
In principle, it means that every conceivable action, idea or person is rendered insignificant next to the power of this end-of-days event. It means that even the most famous painting of all time, The Mona Lisa, is an insignificant blip in the timeline of human history. After all, if the whole world is burning, who cares if some old painting burns with it? And “Who cares if the Mona Lisa gets destroyed now, it will be gone in a few decades anyway” as one commenter of the cake-throwing incident put it. Perhaps even more dangerously, it could mean that any action or behavior might be justifiable so long as the perpetrator claims that it is done in the name of climate change prevention or worse yet, “awareness” - regardless of how connected the two actually are.
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It is true that as sea levels and global temperatures rise, wildfires increase, and even more animals are driven to extinction, we need to take action. This should be positive and optimistic action at the individual, communal and global levels. No champion ever got in the ring and won while believing in his heart he was going to lose. We have been through challenges before and have faced them together hand-in-hand. 70,000 years ago, the human population did in fact face an extinction-like event and was reduced to roughly 1,000 reproductive adults. These humans had to face a super-volcanic eruption that ushered in years of drastic climate change. And this is to say nothing of the countless natural catastrophes, ice ages and global wars our species has endured. However, the goal is indeed not to simply survive, but to continue our current human progress and preserve the natural environment as best we can while simultaneously mitigating climate change. This will demand a lot more from the human spirit than any sensational media headline or Instagram post could ever hope to generate. We should also pay keen attention to our elected officials in order to ensure that our rights as individuals are preserved in the process. Because again, within a nihilistic worldview where the end is near, it may be all too easy to sign on to solutions that may have outcomes that are equally destructive to the human spirit. And even if certain death for all was an imminent reality, would it not mean that we, in principle, occupy a very unique segment within the timeline of the human story… presumably the end? And would that not mean that we have a responsibility to demonstrate and act out the very best expressions of the human spirit wherever possible? I declare an emphatic yes to these questions. We would not only have an obligation to pursue our best selves but to preserve, to the very last minute, that which made and kept us human all along. The ideas, artifacts and achievements of humankind that unify us in our deepest senses (curiosity, creativity, altruism and love) should be preserved and protected until the last moment. The reality is that humankind will have a last moment, a final breath in the universe - be it now, one hundred years from now or one hundred millennia from now. I just hope that whoever is there to breathe that last breath has the respect, love and intelligence to bring humanity to its final close with the dignity it deserves. *The bulletproof glass protecting the Mona Lisa was installed in the 1950s after a vandal threw acid at the painting.