The Role of Art and Education. Change in Times of Uncertainty



Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)


The Anthropocene, an Epoch of High Uncertainty

There is widespread scientific consensus on the evidence that we have entered a new geological period, the Anthropocene. Its fundamental characteristic is the enormous influence human beings have on the global bio-geo-chemical processes of the planet. With our technological actions oriented by an economy that does not respect the limits of the ecosphere, we have broken the range of variability of many natural cycles in an accelerated movement that leads us to a future plagued with risks, one in which our viability as a species is already starting to be questioned.

Global change is a reality. The planet has changed and is changing, influenced by the rhythm and intensity of our actions. Problems such as the lack of biodiversity, improper use of water and energy resources, the disarticulation of the territory, and several others configure a high-uncertainty scenario, in which anthropogenic climate change, caused directly or indirectly by our ways of life, stands out as one of the most significant factors.

In this uncertain context of global warming, humanity faces ecologic problems the effects of which may be irreversible. As Mario Molina, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, said of climate change, we know the system can suffer abrupt changes, but we do not know where or when. However, our world leaders are more attentive to economic, financial and strategic questions, generally reversible issues, than to the points of no return with which certain ecologic risks confront us.

The larger picture of this environmental crisis is very complex. It has implications of political, ethical, ecologic, economic and social order, and it involves enormous risks, such as massive migrations caused by rising sea levels, the probability of changes in the Gulf Stream, and diseases moving from south to north with the northward shift of the heat boundary.

If we had to characterize this situation with a single word, it would be “uncertainty.” Not only is the future uncertain, but so too, increasingly, is the present. We live in the midst of experimental processes whose short- and medium-term effects we can barely glimpse. This brings an uncertainty that is further fueled by war, famine, terrorism and other threats which have arisen from our inability to engage in dialogue on fundamental aspects of community life that would generate social peace. What we do know, however, is that if certain thresholds of risk are crossed (and we are close to doing so in some cases), the changes will be not only quantitative but also qualitative, and there will be no going back for certain phenomena.


What to Do about This Scenario

Clearly, urgent changes to our energy policies need to be implemented, with short-term priority accorded decisively to renewable energies, evaluating the subject not only in economic terms (necessary though this is) but also from ecologic, social and strategic perspectives. It is not a question of making a purely monetary cost comparison between energy sources, since the balance must also include the damage (negative external effects) that the use of fossil fuels causes to people’s health, the state of the seas and oceans, the food we eat, and the air we breathe.

Within decades we must make drastic reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions, redefine the organization of large cities, reorient and incentivize reforestation policies, and educate the population of rich countries and sectors to consume differently, with self-restraint and awareness of limits. These and many other measures, such as sustainable water policies and conservation of biological and cultural diversity, could effectively bring about the civilizing change toward sustainability that we so badly need today.

For this change to take place, we must move around certain basic axes of thought and action:

  •  Awareness of the biophysical limits of the planet and the social limitations on our desires.
  • Incorporation of ethics into economic and political decisions on every scale, with special emphasis on ecological ethics.
  • Changed priorities in public policy-making and global governance.
  • Changes in the management of natural resources (energy, water, food) on a local, regional and global scale.
  • Changes in the collective imagination of the West and of the wealthiest countries and sectors, differentiating the purely quantitative “standard of living” from
    “quality of life,” measured with qualitative indicators.

Transformations of such magnitude are impossible without the involvement of people from all walks of life the scientific community and the world of art and creation. Making the population aware of such issues, stimulating the need for change, and constructing alternatives in the hearts and minds of the world’s inhabitants is the task of education. Said education, or training, must reach not only the population at large but also, and especially, the professionals who manage the different areas of economic, political and social life, including planners, managers and decision-makers. The global problem requires urgent measures, and we cannot wait for the coming generations to realize what is happening and take appropriate action. Ours is the first generation to have understood the gravity of problems like climate change, and it is probably the last that will be able to act with effective solutions.


The Paradigm Shift

At the beginning of the twentieth century, science underwent a paradigm shift that was truly revolutionary for the interpretation of reality: moving beyond the approaches of mechanistic, reductionist and determinist explanations to embrace a complex vision in which randomness and uncertainty have a place. The research carried out by Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and many other pioneering scientists opened the gates for a new scientific concept that includes the impossibility of an absolute separation between the observer and that which is being observed; a form of science that overcomes the old dualistic vision of modernity (person/nature, mind/body) and proposes instead a conception of the world akin to a great machine that obeys deterministic laws. Cartesian and Newtonian visions of reality and its laws were hence not refuted, but they were resituated in their areas of validity.

From a classical perspective, a law of nature would be associated with a deterministic description, reversible in time, which privileged order and stability, and linked knowledge to the possibility of certainty. New science recognizes the vital role of fluctuations and instability, considers position one of the constitutive variables of the complexity of the real world, and expresses itself not so much in terms of certainties as of probabilities. Time (the arrow of time) enters physics, and the irreversibility of thermodynamic phenomena moves to the heart of the scientific gaze. Consequently, as Ilya Prigogine affirms, the future is not assured. We are living the end of certainties.

Complexity thus makes its way into the scientific spirit, permeating both philosophy and art at the same time. The new postulate attends not only to the quantifiable aspects of life but also to those which challenge the idea of a predictable, manageable and risk-free world, and it questions the attempt to separate the realm of reason from that of feelings and emotions. At the same time, a process is set in motion whereby history is accepted into scientific discourse, bringing with it the incorporation of two key elements for a complex interpretation of the world: the subject (the observer) and the context.

The potential of artistic contributions to conjure up an alternative possible world lies not only in its added creativity and imagination but also in its historically proven capacity to anticipate

This vision emphasizes the interactions which take place in the living world, an intricate network of relationships and nexuses that is comprehensible only in systemic or complex terms. Philosophers such as Nietzsche alert us to the danger of reducing knowledge to formulae or closed truths. Reality is a cascade of realities, he says, incorporating the idea of the subject as multifarious and of knowledge as a multiplicity of constructs.

Popper illustrated this paradigm shift by asserting that science had gone from clocks to clouds, from a mechanical and predictable world to one which, like clouds, had fuzzy boundaries and was subject to constant change. Indeed, clouds provide us with the image of an inapprehensible and contingent world that makes and unmakes itself before our theories can grapple with it. They symbolize a complex reality beyond simplification, always diffuse, fluctuating, and above all unfinished. New science accepts that its truths are open to conjecture, and therefore provisional. They are necessarily open to disproof in confrontation with other ideas and theories which might better explain phenomena at any given moment. Uncertainty has come to stay in our way of interpreting the world.

In short, science on the one hand and reality on the other lead us to the greatest contribution to knowledge made in the twentieth century, which, as Edgar Morin states, is precisely the knowledge of the limits of knowledge; the impossibility of eliminating certain uncertainties. At the same time, our impact on the ecosphere has confronted us in the twenty-first century with the limits of our planet—limits which we are surpassing, with predatory ecologic and social effects which have resulted in extremely serious and intractable eco-social problems. It is a process whose consequences are largely unforeseeable. New uncertainty, growing uncertainty…

Scientists, thinkers and artists provide us with the diagnosis: we need a civilizing change that will allow us, with the necessary adjustments, to maintain our ways of life on Earth. We are facing new problems never before experienced by the human race, such as induced climate change. We cannot meet these challenges with our old answers, yet no evident solution is forthcoming even when we try out new approaches…


Questions and Answers

We need to understand that when a paradigm changes, it is not the answers that change but the questions. As humanity, we must moreover ask ourselves not only different questions, as certainly is the case, but also questions of a different kind, ones that go beyond the field of economics and politics to enter territories such as ethics, philosophy and ecology.

From this point of view, the most significant questions we should ask today would not revolve fundamentally around the efficiency of our systems, hugely important though this is. The key to our questions is to be found, in my opinion, in the pertinence of the life models we have generated, and above all of those we wish to adopt. It lies in devising a way of relating to nature which no longer sees it exclusively as a provider of resources, and in adopting new ways of consuming, planning our cities and attaching value to the rural world. Clearly, this pertinence encompasses the need to ascribe a leading role to women in many cultures and to promote the cultivation of values such as harmony, solidarity in consumption, and cohabitability. It is essential to remember that as well as Homo faber, we are also Homo ludens, beings who dream and play together, and need to look one another in the eye so as not to feel alone.

We are at a giant crossroads, and the choice we now make collectively will be decisive for our future on Earth. This situation confronts us with changes of a Copernican magnitude that demand not only technological solutions but also an extra set of values, creativity and imagination that will enable humanity to evince a future of sustainable living. In the words of Federico Mayor Zaragoza, our societies are suffering from a deficit of soul, one which we must necessarily heal by recovering the true value of time and hope, of interpersonal relations, dignified labor, and of suitable forms and spaces of cohabitation.


Change in Times of Uncertainty: The Role of Art

Science provides us with the tools to forecast the gravity of problems such as global warming, rising sea levels, droughts and floods, which will become increasingly frequent and unpredictable. Technology can help us find possible ways to mitigate these problems, though such mitigation will always be partial and incomplete. Both technology and science, however, are insufficient when it comes to imagining and elucidating possible worlds—new relations, values, qualities and properties of the real that are hidden to a purely experimental researcher. As the poet Valéry once said, imagining is tantamount to unlearning that which we are led to believe by custom and conventional language.

The great challenge we face is using the fragile and brittle material at our disposal to give birth to new forms of collective life, making a reality of those possible worlds whose qualities we can currently only intuit. In this task, the role of art and artists is fundamental. We must abandon the purely instrumental vision of nature and living systems, no longer considering them merely as providers of resources but recognizing the potentiality that lies hidden in them on an invisible plane. We need to discover our surroundings anew in astonishment, learn to look with new eyes, listen as though it were the first time, and perceive with all the senses available to us. Only this intuition of the invisible allows us to understand the true value of Life for our own lives, which consist of much more than producing and consuming.

Confronted with a scenario of increasing uncertainty, the profound change lying ahead of humanity if it is to advance toward a sustainable world presents us with the challenge of placing imagination and creativity, guided by ethical values, at the center of our thought and our decisions. Art can help us learn, imagine and express aspects of reality and complexities that are unintelligible from the scientific point of view. While science pursues precision (which is welcome but must always pay the price of its own limitation) art is able to expand our vision in the midst of uncertainty, since its goal is not to be precise but to pose questions and elicit brand new answers. Scientists and artists, meanwhile, need to be illuminated by ethics throughout the process.

We need a form of art that manifests itself as a privileged space for the creation of knowledge about the world we are being challenged to build, one vastly different from today’s. In this respect, the potential of artistic contributions to conjure up an alternative possible world lies not only in its added creativity and imagination but also in its historically proven capacity to anticipate, which now more than ever is so necessary.

Uncertainty cannot be fought, nor should it be ignored. We must humbly limit ourselves to managing it as well as we can. But we are not ready to embark on such management. Addressing the great ecologic and social issues of our times we employ too many fixed rules and too little imagination. We repeat worn-out formulae and resort to the old instruments. Can we hope in that way for a civilizing change toward sustainability? For the moment, let us allow our artists to speak, give voice to people’s dreams, listen to our profound but much neglected nature as humans, and also confront the challenge hand in hand with the philosophers, who remind us of a forgotten ethics, and the teachers, who are trying to save thought and wisdom from being smothered by information.

The great educational challenge of this century is that people at any stage of education should learn to manage uncertainty


Uncertainty and Education, a Necessary Bond

When did uncertainty disappear from education? Or was it never really a part of it in the first place? Western culture has constructed potent educational systems which in times of lucidity, such as the days of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza in Spain, have incorporated all the creative potential of human beings into their pedagogy. It is no coincidence that those who came out of their classrooms include creators such as Salvador Dalí and Federico García Lorca, greatly admired today. Afterwards, however, rationalist methods came to the fore in the pedagogical field, fostered by an incipient technology that placed more emphasis on explaining how the world functions than on teaching how to think about possible worlds or question oneself on the ethics of good living. Lessons on the “how” eventually prevailed over questions about the “whats,” the “whys” and the “who for.”

Today this model has reached its culmination. From school to university, educational systems now emphasize information and the technological instruction of our children and youngsters. We teach them thousands of concepts, theories and computer skills, but we do not enthuse them with the pleasure of discovery, the kind to which the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman referred when he said that he had been attracted to the world of science by the infectious enjoyment of an adventure.

In making these remarks, I am of course speaking in general terms, and referring only to what educational systems today, at least in Spain, propose and expect of their students: that they learn a large amount of information and know how to handle themselves technologically. However, I should like to stress that I know there to be many educational centers and teachers that manage to dodge round these models and choose to work with their students stimulating their creativity, their ethical values and their pleasure at allowing themselves to be surprised by knowledge. Are they representative of the majority? We shall leave the question open for each reader to reflect upon.

In my opinion, most of our education, from nursery school to university, with magnificent and highly estimable exceptions, provides our children and youngsters with answers to questions that they have not asked themselves. We go too fast for them, and this makes us unable to generate the conditions from which the questions could arise from them. We do not give them enough time or space to feel astonishment at the marvels of life. We keep them shut up too long in classrooms, where everything is under control, far from the real world with its uncertainties and problems. Randomness does not visit educational centers, and if it does, it is immediately reduced. Can we expect generations educated in this way to cope with the uncertain and insecure world we are leaving them? When will we start teaching them fewer theories and giving them decision-making tasks (which can be small but still educational) related to the conflicts of their environment?

On the same note, it is also worth reflecting on how many of the answers we teach them still respond to old questions, to a worn-out paradigm, and so have no meaning in our context, where everything, including necessarily our vision of the world and our strategies for engaging with it, has become more complex.

The great educational challenge of this century is, I believe, that people at any stage of education (for we adults also have to keep learning) should learn to manage uncertainty. We must be able to live amidst complex problems, make decisions even if we don’t have all the facts at our fingertips, and imagine new scenarios for living that go beyond the real, testing their possible implementation. This challenge means something like introducing poetry amidst so much educational prose, restoring the value of questions and creativity, and accepting that true knowledge only settles and comes alive when it comes as a response to restlessness, interrogation and the sense of a quest.

The butterfly effect of the imagination could invade our educational spaces and turn them into places that conciliate reason and emotion, search and discovery, the visible and the invisible. Places with room for astonishment. We need education to enthuse the citizens of all ages with the pleasure of wandering down unexplored paths that lead to sustainability and good living. And to achieve this, in addition to the mind and heart, we have to bring resistance and resilience into play, teaching how to construct out of adversities, to sing in the midst of the storm, to discover unexplored paths and overcome fears hand in hand…

In an uncertain world like the one we now live in and are condemned to live in henceforth, education must help us to confront questions of potential irreversibility as something urgent and vital. Our present and future are at stake. It is not a task to be left until tomorrow, since the problem is already burning in the dining rooms of our homes. Among other things, this predicament points to a need for joint, humble, collaborative learning in which all of us are called to share: the learning of cooperation, of the art of putting ourselves in the place of someone else’s orphanhood, in order to recover the value of nature as a common home, the common ground among the human family, the quality of relations, knowledge as a shared construct, and life as an encounter.

Above all, we can and must imagine, imagine, imagine, guided by ethics and the art of good living. In the words of Ernesto Sábato, our youngsters need (and so do we) to learn to glimpse a horizon while standing before the abyss. For that is where we are in times of uncertainty.


María Novo

She is a member of the board of directors of the Spanish Chapter of the Club of Rome, director of the Ecoarte project for the integration of science and art in the treatment of environmental matters and president of the Asociación Slow People. She is also the author of twenty-six books, including treatises and essays, poetry and fiction, and she has been awarded the international N’aitum Prize for her professional career.

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s