Not far from the original Shake Shack in Manhattan, surrounded by bustling intersections and tourist traps, 49 towering cedars stand naked in Madison Square Park, looming like apparitions from a desert landscape, as if they're accusations from a blighted future.
The trees are from Ghost Forest, an installation by the artist Maya Lin, who is part of a growing movement of artists drawing attention to the growing climate and biodiversity crisis. Through ecological works of startling intensity, the artists aim to snap people out of a status quo that, if left unchecked, will render the planet uninhabitable in the decades ahead.
Her work is also inspired by a hope that if we can just recover our kinship with the natural world, we can overcome the vast environmental challenges facing us.
“We have become so disconnected from nature that many of us do not even realize what we are losing,” Lin told the art magazine Frieze. “Many common songbirds are declining at a rate of up to 80%, so what’s missing are the soundscapes we knew as children, yet we might not always notice that absence. In his 2005 book Collapse, Jared Diamond refers to this phenomenon as ‘landscape amnesia.’"
“The magnificent cedars in Ghost Forest, for instance, once covered much of the Atlantic seaboard,” she said. “To accompany that project, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has lent us field recordings of 20 iconic species, from bears to wolves, beaver, and elk, which were once common in Manhattan. These can be downloaded from the Madison Square Park website and a corresponding timeline is on whatismissing.org."
Lin’s Ghost Forest, which will remain in the park until Nov. 14, is one of dozens of art works championed by ART 2030, a nonprofit that leverages art to unify people around the United Nations’ 17 Global Goals. Other works that ART 2030 highlights include Ernesto Neto’s Cura Bra Cura Té and Diana Thater’s Yes, there will be singing.
The group strongly believes that artists can help spur the transition to a more sustainable world. The clock is ticking — hence the focus on 2030. The United Nations warns that countries have to cut emissions by around 7.6% annually to avoid catastrophic climate change. At the same time, current levels of resource extraction and pollution have to be dramatically reduced to protect the health of wildlife.
The reigning economic model commodifies the natural world, reducing it to an estimated monetary value. Forests, rivers, and mountains alike are often measured based on their ability to generate or guard profits, rather than their life-sustaining benefits. This paradigm has led to degradation of 75% of landscapes and two-thirds of marinescapes.
Luise Faurschou, the founder of ART 2030, told Global Citizen that art can play a role in shifting our collective understanding of nature and changing the criteria that governs its protection.
“Art can capture attention, stimulate imagination, and inspire action,” she said. “I trust that if we are touched by art, we will reflect on how we have to change the course of the world.
“We really have to take a stand on a very individual level, but also on a society level, so we have to do top-down and down-up,” she said. “And what is making us take a stand? We take a stand when we are provoked or inspired or enlightened or shocked, when we feel that something is so important we have to discuss it with someone. And that’s exactly what great art does.”
ART 2030 wants people to feel inspired by art, and then take action. That’s where its connection to the UN’s Global Goals comes in. The organization connects people with resources on how they can take action in their personal lives and breaks down what needs to happen on a society-wide level in order to protect the planet.
In addition to staging installations, the group also hosts educational events and public actions designed to build community.
“In order to get a more sustainable world, it’s about partnerships and collaborations,” Faurschou said. “We do know the problems. We also know the solutions. What we are lacking is the will to act and that has to come both as a movement from a broad group of people upwards, and also from politicians.”
Art has long been at the forefront of social movements that oppose war, racism, misogyny, poverty, and pollution. By creating works of visionary power, they help to light the way for intersectional groups of people to take action in a concerted way.
The movement to protect the planet has been bolstered by a global array of artists working on issues as diverse as coral bleaching to plastic pollution to greenhouse gas emissions. And if you attend any climate march, you’ll see people using their creativity to make signs and outfits.
“Art shows how interlinked everything is,” Faurschou said. “We of course should protect the natural world for the sake of the natural world alone. But we also have to understand how interlinked it is with everything.
“We know what to do,” she added. “We know how close we are to our planetary boundaries. We also know how to balance it. I think it’s doable but I think it’s really time of essence.”
You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.