I want to share with you a memory from my childhood: it’s sometime in the 1970s, and although the adults are all worried about the energy crisis, for me the world feels in order. I am playing with a toy boat in a creek in Iceland. I place the boat in the milky water and race downstream to fetch it again. I lose myself in the game, am caught in the moment, in the flow of the here and now. The boat is the boat; the river, the river.
At the time I took for granted that the little wooden boat, shaped by human hands, was a thing of culture and the water was the force of nature, unchanging and beyond my control. The natural world of Iceland seemed distant and separate from the small town in Denmark where I was growing up. Today I have come to realize that the polarization of nature and culture is a construct; that Iceland had long been shaped by human activity, at least since its deforestation a millennium ago.
Despite the lack of trees, you can find relatively large logs strewn about the beaches. They were carried there by water currents and bleached by the sun and saltwater as they rode the waves for years, from as far away as Siberia or even South America. In 2008, I collected about fifty of these driftwood logs and brought them to Berlin, where, a year later, I secretly distributed them around the city as part of the leadup to my exhibition Innen Stadt Aussen (Inner City Out), at Martin-Gropius-Bau. It was amazing to see all these logs lying on the sidewalks, clashing with the city. For me, driftwood reflects the interconnectedness of our world and our climate, where wood from the tropics can end up on the stony beaches of a distant island near the Arctic. The climate knows no boundaries.
The public artwork Ice Watch also tells the story of our interconnected world. For this work, the geologist Minik Rosing and I brought large blocks of glacial ice from Greenland, where they had broken off the ice sheet and were drifting in the sea, to prominent public spaces in Europe — first Copenhagen in 2014, then Paris in 2015, and finally London in 2018. Visitors could touch and listen to the ancient ice as it melted, and ponder the reality of the disappearing ice. The discussion this direct contact generated will, I hope, help motivate action on climate change.
Today we know what humans are doing to our planet. We know too that we must act now, and we must act together, to tackle climate change with courage, optimism, and innovation. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said: “We are in a world in which global challenges are more and more integrated, and the responses are more and more fragmented, and if this is not reversed, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Luckily, we also know what we can do. In our private lives, we can change how we travel, how we refrigerate our food, and how we cool, heat, and power our homes. We can reduce food waste, adopt a plant-based diet, and buy regional and recycled goods. We can join others in calling on businesses to divest from fossil fuels and invest in sustainable energy and innovation. And on a political, systemic level, we can organize to put pressure on politicians and governments to introduce ambitious legislation that will secure a just transition to clean energy.
Let’s make 2019 the year that everyone comes together — across national borders, cultural differences, and generation gaps — to act on climate change.
Olafur Eliasson (b.1967) grew up in Iceland and Denmark. In 1995, he founded Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin, which today comprises more than one hundred team members, including craftsmen, architects, archivists, researchers, administrators, cooks, programmers, art historians, and specialized technicians. Since the mid-1990s, Eliasson has realized numerous major exhibitions and projects around the world. In 2003, The weather project, installed in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, was seen by more than two million people. Eliasson’s projects in public space include The New York City Waterfalls, 2008; and Ice Watch, for which Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing transported massive blocks of glacial ice from Greenland to Copenhagen (2014), Paris (2015), and London (2018) to raise awareness of climate change. In 2012, Eliasson founded the social business Little Sun, and in 2014, he and architect Sebastian Behmann founded Studio Other Spaces, an office for art and architecture.