Art has long inspired environmental activism. The photographer Ansel Adams, whose iconic black-and-white images of the American west helped to build support for the US National Park Service, served on the board of the Sierra Club for 37 years, working closely with David Brower, the club’s first executive director.
So it’s fitting that The Lexicon of Sustainability, a collection of artworks and short films by Douglas Gayeton that are designed to educate and activate people, have come to the David Brower Center, the nerve center of green business and environmental activism in Brower’s hometown of Berkeley.
Gayeton’s Lexicon of Sustainability artworks and films are based on a simple premise, he said. He explained that people can’t be expected to live “greener” lives, or act on behalf of the planet, until they better understand the language of sustainability. “Remember,” the films say, “your words can change the world.” This first series of works explores food and farming; future series will explain water and climate.
“The term sustainability has been totally debased,” Gayeton told me. “You can find sustainable shoes. You can find sustainable soda. Anything can be sustainable. People have hijacked the term. My wife and I thought, ‘Why not take it back?'”
They have done so in a unique format that Gayeton calls “information artworks”. These large works of art – about 10×6 feet – combine photographs with words that were spoken by the people in the pictures, in an attempt to tease out the meaning of such terms as organic, grass fed, biochar, drip irrigation and conservation easement.
To create the artworks, Gayeton and his wife, Laura Howard-Gayeton, identify experts or practioners; they visit them, take photographs, tape interviews and then mash the elements together. Gayeton has interviewed such luminaries as chef Alice Waters, agricultural expert Wes Jackson, author Carl Safina, animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin, Patrick Holden of the UK’s Sustainable Food Trust, chef and activist Barton Seaver and farmer Joel Salatin, along with less well-known farmers, ranchers and fisherfolk. “It’s part film-making, it’s part photography, it’s part journalism,” Gayeton says. “There are a lot of moving parts to what we do. It’s a laborious process.”
The artworks, films and a forthcoming book called Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America all point to solutions that, at least in theory, will make the food system more sustainable.
Consider, as an example, a three-minute film called True Cost Accounting, one of a series being rolled out this spring at PBS.org. With a quick credit to the ecologist Garrett Hardin, who came up the concept of the “tragedy of the commons”, the film points to the hidden costs of cheap food – in the form of farm subsidies, expenditures for healthcare related to obesity, the money needed to clean up waterways polluted by agricultural run-off and the costs of providing social subsidies to workers who aren’t paid enough to support their families. It says: “The tragedy of the supermarket commons is when people make purchases based on the cheapest price, without asking why something is so cheap.” Rarely has the idea of economic externalities been explained so efficiently, and in such an entertaining way.
Gayeton, 53, worked as a writer, film director, producer of interactive television and Los Angeles-based media consultant before moving to the small town of Pistoia in Tuscany about 15 years ago. “It totally shifted not only how I live, but what was important to me,” he says.
Gayeton was captivated by the Slow Food movement, which he documented on film and in a series of images that became a 2009 book called Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town. Since then, he has taken his Lexicon of Sustainability project across America. He has collaborated with high school students in Ames, Iowa, which is in the heart of the corn belt, who produced their own artworks, and installed information artworks in a Washington DC metro station outside the US Department of Agriculture, as part of an effort called Project Localize.
In the meantime, the show at the Brower Center is drawing appreciative crowds, according to its executive director, Berit Ashla. Ashla says: “We really believe in the power of art to amplify messages of sustainability, environmentalism and activism.” Brower, presumably, would approve.