Art, science and environmental change

Post by Stephen Carpenter*


Lake Mendota. Photo by Jeff Miller.

Lake Mendota, like all lakes, writes its history in its sediments. When we take samples from its bottom, we learn that before European colonization, the sediments were light gray in color, due to crystals of calcite.

Modern sediments are black, due to organic matter. Some of the organic matter comes from the algae that grow prolifically in the lake, and some of it washes in from the soils around it.

The boundary between light gray and black is notable. It dates to the mid-1800s. By then, most of the land around the lake was plowed. The rich prairie soils washed into the lake, turning the sediments black.


Algae bloom in Lake Mendota. Photo by Samantha Oliver.

Now, phosphorus maintains the abundant algae of Lake Mendota. Phosphorus is a nutrient that runs off the land and into the lake. Due to applications of mineral fertilizers and manure, the phosphorus content of the soil around the lake is much higher than it was a century ago.

If we were to decide to decrease the phosphorus content of the soil to improve water quality, it would take upwards of 200 years to return the soils to pre-settlement phosphorus levels.

Environmental change involves long time scales like these. Long spans of time are hard to think about and full of surprises.

My father turned 90 this summer. His birth year, 1926, is closer to the Civil War than it is to modern times. The changes that have occurred in his lifetime are remarkable: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the energy crisis, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the rise of climate change in global affairs. These events could not have been predicted in 1926.

What will the next 90 years bring? That simple question brings us face to face with uncertainty.

There are many ways the world could be in 2100. We can imagine many different pathways forward. A few will be followed, and most will not. It is hard to predict which outcomes will occur. But it may be possible to take stock of the full range of possibilities.


We can imagine many pathways into the future. Animation based on figure in Carpenter et al 2005.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Thinking about long-term change is even more complicated, with many options in play.

Dani Shapiro, who has written about the practice of writing, adds, “The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.”

The same tolerance of multiple potentials invoked by Shapiro is needed to think about environmental change.

Art and science approach uncertainty in different ways.

Art does more than show the world; it asks questions and exposes multiple possibilities. It helps us understand how things could be different. It provides space for the viewer or listener to connect, think and learn.

A good example is the work of John Miller who illustrated the four futures of the Yahara watershed for the Yahara 2070 project.

Miller deliberately used subdued colors and contrasts to suggest features of the four contrasting stories about our region. The illustrations add new dimensions to the narratives. They do not resolve the narratives, but enrich and expand them. They help us think about the multiple futures inherent in our region.

Scientists take a different tack on uncertainty. Often, we try to pin down the uncertainty of our measurements, state carefully how we might be wrong, and analyze with our assumptions carefully defined.

Environmental scientists are comfortable with uncertainty. It is inherent in everything we do.

Moreover, scientific progress creates uncertainty. Each answer uncovers new questions, and public engagement leads to even more questions.

Where we scientists get into trouble is in the communication of uncertainty. Decision makers want simple bullet points, stripped of nuance, no questions or caveats. President Harry Truman famously said he wanted “one-armed scientists” – that is, he did not want to hear about “on the other hand.”

So it is not surprising that the communication of uncertainty leads to difficulty. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding of uncertainty can have very bad consequences, such as the current impasse over climate change.

Here is where collaborations between artists and scientists are rich in potential. In many ways, art and science are natural partners, and I believe we can learn a lot about creativity by studying their intersections.

The Confluence collaborations between the UW-Madison Art Department and Center for Limnology are examples of what combining the artist’s and the scientist’s approaches to uncertainty could look like. Artist Jojin van Winkle and scientist Ali Mikulyuk produced “Voices of the Namekagon” about a river in NW Wisconsin. Artist Helen Bullard and scientist Chelsey Blanke developed “Restless” about Wisconsin’s shoreline of Lake Michigan.

These projects convey rich histories of change as experienced through iconic places in Wisconsin. We learn unexpected things about places we thought we knew, along with interesting human and natural history.

The result does not tell us what to do or think. Instead, it opens an arena for us to think about the range of possibilities inherent in the place.

The similarities of art and science are more striking than the differences. Both help us to see how things could be different.

Both activities combine unstructured creative thinking with disciplined craft. Both require us to be open to novelty, expect the unexpected and embrace uncertainty.

Both require quiet time for creative reflection, as well as social interaction, because interpretation is co-created.

And both require a willingness to abandon conventional wisdom and try something new.

*This post is a modified version of a talk Carpenter gave on October 21, 2016 at the UW-Madison Kohler Art Library for an event called “Flux: Water in Art & Science.” Watch the talk below.


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