Of Hearts and Minds, the Arts and Rivers

Jason Rainey
Monday, December 2, 2013

We who work to protect rivers from destructive enterprises are, fundamentally, agents of change.  Those who perpetuate the status quo, in varying degrees all across the world, continue to treat rivers as conduits to receive the discharges of an industrial society, or as energy potential just waiting to be harnessed by dam walls and turbines.  The threats are unabating, and so we work to articulate the value of rivers – in all their ecological, economic and cultural terms; to critique the rapacious system that degrades and devalues these lifelines of the Earth, and to proffer alternatives that can meet the needs of humans and other beings without compromising the integrity of our freshwater ecosystems.  

We seek to change these patterns and outcomes –to “win the hearts and minds,” as the cliché goes – of those who decide the fate of rivers.  We often appeal to the rational mind –producing scientifically validated reports and otherwise “making the case” for a development trajectory that protects and restores ecosystems.  And we sometimes appeal to the heart by sharing stories of the people impacted by destructive dam projects, and the courage people display in standing up for their rights.  But it is art, in its myriad forms and media, that can often have the greatest catalyzing effect.  

In my personal experience, it is the  poetic turn of phrase, the rebel-rousing song, a muralists’ vision of an abundant future, or a well-composed photograph that, more than any single news report or research paper, has a greater chance of influencing my thoughts and motivating me to strive as a change agent.  Although I’m neither a poet nor a musician nor sculptor, I feel most enlivened when I’m meditatively practicing an “art.”  Noodling lyrics in a notebook in a café, keeping beat in a circle of drummers, or fashioning a garden ornament out of left-behind materials awakens even the untalented to the heightened possibilities of what might be.  And what is true for an individual, I have discovered, can also be true for an organization.

My greatest lessons on the power of art for environmental outcomes came through my six years of direct involvement with the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, a festival founded “by activists and for activists” and organized by the California-based watershed protection organization, SYRCL (a tricky acronym with a simple and inclusive pronunciation “circle”).   With a potential to speak to the mind, heart and body, a great film – including the kinds of innovative documentary formats that fill this festival – can convey information and inspire action like nothing else.  

In the years that I headed SYRCL, I met with thousands of film festival-goers, viewed several hundred films, and visited many communities that screened the “Wild & Scenic” film program.  Along the way I met with an insurance broker who attend the festival, then quit his job  and embarked on a project to build networks of young farmers producing food at a scale that could feed a small village.  I met a filmmaker who ditched “Hollywood” and has since produced films that have helped NGOs protect forests and decommission destructive dams.  And I’ve met NGO leaders who, after bringing the power of art and film into their “programming,” doubled their membership base and quadrupled their impact.  Through these and many other examples I came to understand that art is not just some “side show” to the “real work” of, say, policy advocacy or campaigning against corporations.  It is precisely when art becomes integrated into an organization or movement that creativity, fresh strategies and new constituencies are borne.  And from that, we’re all stronger, better united and more effective.

In this issue of World Rivers Review we take time to reflect on the role of art and artists in shaping and propelling social movements in service of our precious rivers.  The Wild & Scenic Film Festival is one example (and if you’re in California in January, or anywhere in the US throughout the year, check it out!), but you’ll read about a number of inspiring artists and creative projects from around the globe that have catalyzed change, and ultimately advanced the case for protecting the rivers of the world.