The art of Awe
What if the key to motivating action on the climate crisis lies in the power of awe? We’re collectively driving down a highway, and according to the U.N secretary general, “a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.” Not quite the joy ride we signed up for, but we’ve known about this direction and destination for decades.
That’s the strange truth about knowledge. Just because we have the facts doesn’t mean we feel the weight of reality. And if we do feel the weight, does it truly help us roll up our sleeves and act? Or does the fear truly weigh us down to the point of paralysis? Regardless of the knowing, the climate crisis is so big and so all-encompassing that it quickly becomes the loose backdrop to everything we do. This emergency has become the context of living on this planet at this time in history, rather than it taking center stage. A bit like a chronic illness we’re all dealing with - an annoyance that can eventually kill us. A topic for scientists and politicians, activists and non-profits, but not a part of our general culture. But culture is what moves the needle; it’s the engine behind the widespread systemic change. It’s the anthem stuck in our heads that we could be humming, it’s the work of art that has us do a double take, and the undertone of the television shows we could be streaming.
I often think about what our environmental movement might need most, and then catch myself forgetting that the movement is made up of people: Human beings that oscillate between the courage of persistence and the paralysis of eco-anxiety. There is one common thread, however. Climate change needs behavior change. And behavior change often starts with a trigger moment. Or at least that’s what social scientist B.J Fogg suggests. Three crucial elements converging: a prompt (or a trigger), motivation, and ability.
These prompts can come in all shapes and sizes. A startling documentary. The beauty of a piece of music. The passing of a loved one. A deep conversation. Recently, I’ve come across what I consider to be the most potent prompt of all: the feeling of awe. Awe is an intense emotion characterized by feelings of wonder, reverence, and amazement. It’s the wow-goosebumps-eyes-wide-open feeling that snaps us into a reality that feels far from mundane.
Awe is truly awe-some. Recent research points to potent positive effects on our well-being, particularly in reducing stress and increasing a sense of connection to the world. Professor Dacher Keltner, director at the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab explores the science behind awe and how it can be elicited by experiences in nature, art, and other aspects of our everyday lives. A pink sunset sky. The shared joie de vivre during a concert. The courage and selflessness of another. “In awe, our minds open to wonder to the systems of life and our small part in them.”
So here’s my hypothesis. If a sense of awe has the potential to shift our perspective and increase our sense of connection to the world, it can motivate us to take action to protect it. Awe as an antidote to apathy.
It’s worth noting that awe isn’t always a positive feeling. Awe can be destabilizing - a moment when your perceived reality isn’t quite what it seemed. A tectonic plate shifting. An eclipse of your understanding of the universe.
Awe can be found is so many different places, hidden in the nooks and crannies of our lives on this planet. The most natural place for me to start exploring the power of awe is through the arts - a space I’ve been cross-pollinating with to translate and strengthen the impact of the environmental movements I’ve been a part of. The Activism Studio started as a laboratory focused on leveraging the power of creativity to amplify the climate movement. Now, I’m on a mission to serve those movements through the creative pursuit of awe.
The journey to understand the connection between awe and climate action is just beginning, but the potential is vast and the destinations unknown. But my hunch is that when art elicits awe in someone, it can have an even greater impact on their engagement in the climate movement. It can also serve to simplify the systemic complexity of the challenges our planet is facing, while still allowing room for nuance and understanding. When faced with wicked problems like our climate crisis, I believe awe can help us to see the world with new eyes - quite possibly becoming the trigger to inspire us to take action.
With the research by people like Keltner in my back pocket, my pursuit of connecting awe in the context of the climate crisis will likely take me to some unexpected places - but my focus remains: to highlight the power of art as a tool for engagement and action.