I remember clearly a lesson in school, when I was only 11 years old, about a strange scientific theory that was called the ‘greenhouse effect’. It intrigued me, as I had been in my grandpa’s greenhouse and it was seriously hot, in fact stifling. It worried me that the conditions there would be adding to the ‘greenhouse effect’ I had been taught about. That was 39 years ago and the term used then has been joined by ‘global warming’ and now ‘climate change’.
‘Climate change’ is a much better description of what is going on. Our weather is changing and we are experiencing more extremes: hot weather getting hotter, cold weather getting colder, storms becoming more severe. As I type this, at the beginning of March 2018, a snow storm is raging outside the studio. It is not a normal storm: it is far from normal. The stratosphere suddenly warmed by 50o C, causing the Arctic to warm by over 30o C and the northern hemisphere’s weather pattern to change. There has never been so little sea ice for this time of year in the Arctic. ‘It’s just crazy, crazy stuff, these heat waves – I’ve never seen anything like this,’ says Dr Mark Serreze, Director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, who has been studying the Arctic since 1982.
Falmouth is now sub-zero, along with the whole of Europe – while it is raining in the Arctic. The Gulf Stream stands no chance of keeping the UK above freezing against such odds. It is the coldest UK day since records began for 1 March, the first day of the meteorological spring. My aeoniums, bananas, palms and echium plants lie beneath deep drifting snow. They will, in all likelihood, not survive, as they are not from this climatic zone, but manage to thrive in Cornwall because of global weather patterns and the warmth that arrives on the conveyor belt of the Gulf Stream.
Climate change has obviously stopped being an idea and is now a very big reality.
I am fascinated by global plants and harvests. Without the work of the CGIAR (Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research), the world would be struggling, in some regions, to feed us. Crops have had to undertake high speed evolution to keep up with population growth and climate change. We need to move ourselves towards a plant-based diet and especially to reduce our consumption of meat, as many studies have shown that livestock produces an alarmingly high percentage of the greenhouse gases which cause global warming.
As a society, perhaps we have not been brave enough to talk about these issues. But things need to change; the snow condemning my sub-tropical plants to an icy end is telling me this. I look at my children and know that we should all act now to help secure their future. Time is not really on our side, but all children need to know that small changes to lifestyle – eating locally produced food, and seasonal fruit and vegetables as far as possible; treading lightly on the planet – can make a big difference. It would be wonderful if I could spread this message to many more children and people through my art.
One idea, inspired by a project by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Observer newspaper, which sent authors such as Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) in search of endangered species, would be ‘Last Chance to Paint’. The original project in 1989 resulted in Adams meeting zoologist Mark Carwardine in Madagascar, leading to the Last Chance to See BBC radio series and book, with a follow-up TV series in 2009.
The internet would allow each subject/location and set of new paintings to be delivered interactively into classrooms and homes. The power of exploring the subject interactively is that children can be inspired through art, without having to be on location. They can use their imaginations, love, passion, facts and personalities to create their own art and connect. Through this personal connection I believe that change can take place.
I recently ran an environmental lesson on the rainforest ecosystem and tribal art for a class of children in the USA via Skype. They loved it and had so many good questions to ask. I am sure that connecting to the rainforest in this way will have been a very good influence on them. They are all now embarking on their own rainforest paintings which will reinforce the message.
‘Last Chance to Paint’ could also help to reverse the damaging sidelining of creativity in our schools and provide real connections between children and the natural world. As I race towards the age of 70, it could also be for me, quite literally, a last chance to paint these subjects.
The future can be bright, and for me the range and diversity of things to paint is awesome; there are so many subjects that it is hard to know what to choose. I have selected some for consideration and you can see these on the following pages. I hope that, when my children are my age, they will also have an equal choice of amazing ecosystems, plants, animals and natural habitats to explore.
John Dyer, 1 March 2018