I Don't Always Paint Trees...But When I Do They're Happy

On benign visual interventions in physical space

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

Which signs do people see?

Was Sheldon Whitehouse’s sign effective? The junior U.S. Senator from Rhode Island delivered his Time to Wake Up speech to his colleagues 279 times. It was a weekly oratory effort to make politicians move on climate, dutifully delivered on the Senate floor since 2012. This week, finally feeling that the government was beginning to act, Whitehouse retired the speech. He also retired the charmingly huge and 1995ish clip-art sign he displayed each time he made said speech.

Was Greta Thunberg’s sign effective? Her Friday School Strike for Climate signage, messily but disarmingly painted, helped her galvanize the world. I prefer Thunberg’s hand-made placard to Whitehouse’s Capitol Kinko’s affair, but both get the job done for their respective audiences.

So what should my sign say?

I’ve been thinking about this visual vernacular very much lately, given the distance at which we all communicate these days. Our faces are covered by our masks, so physical cues are nearly nil (If I’ve passed you on the street and not said hi, sorry!!! I seem to need more facial real estate to determine identity!).

We cannot engage strangers at close range. We’re bundled, swaddled, removed from the frisson of everyday interaction, with precious few clues to understanding what the people in the spaces around us are feeling and thinking. Unless of course, they are sporting this mask:

It’s similar to a Talk Climate button that I made for a work project. It’s loud and bold and it’s been on my jacket for the past few months. It’s meant to invite people to chat, but … it hasn’t worked as well as I’d have liked. If anything, people seem to avert their eyes. It’s no different than when I had kale smoothie on my nose at work, and no one mentioned it. All day.

I think it’s because the shouting feels antagonistic. The message needs more surprise and delight. Every time there’s a climate protest, it’s the funniest and most clever signs that win the day. I think my next batch of pins will say “Ask me about rainbows (and climate).”

The right visual cues, bright and playful and inviting, may be the key to climate communications magic. A few years ago we started decorating the tree in our front yard. We’d cut the piles of gratuitous vegetable delivery cardboard into big shapes and paint them in loud colours. I made one for the Raptors (Tree the North. I know, couldn’t resist). And our 30 cardboard skulls have been hauled out for a few Halloweens now (much to the chagrin of our kids, who want all the gory plastic decorations they see on other houses. Not gonna happen!).

One day, a woman told my husband that she walked her granddaughter by each day to hear the toddler laugh at the creepy skulls dancing in the wind. It was all the cardboard affirmation we needed—this tiny little anecdote inspired my husband to make a batch of gorgeous hearts, which he put up a few days ago.

I like to sit in the window drinking tea and watching people smile when they spot a heart bouncing in the breeze as they walk by. 

Last year we painted forest signs in the park next to our street for a friend’s birthday. They weren’t climate messages, so much as the punny musings of two former headline writers. But with precious few outlets or ways to make our voices heard (especially through three-ply cotton), perhaps climate signs need to move beyond marches, and find some greater pride of place in the daily conversation. A little physical real estate to help others see that the vast majority of humanity wants to tackle climate change

Our tree signs worked because they were barking mad. Hopefully after chuckling at the silliness, people stopped to think about the fact that they were strolling a miniature urban forest, a truly wonderful and beneficial thing.

What could a large-scale visual intervention entail? Should it be a unified message, or a diffuse invitation to visualize climate concern on your place or person? I feel seen and green! If you lived 🌎, you’d be home by now. Nature is the opposite of doomscrolling. Dismantle dystopias! Here to stop the destruction of the planet so that future generations can live in a world that is not a desolate hellscape! Maybe that one’s a bit too wordy. But the possibilities are endless. And we’ve got to do something with all that delivery cardboard.

What will your sign say?

THIS WEEK

Is your home or apartment or body a climate billboard? Could it be? Let me know.

LAST WEEK

So many great recommendations, thank you! Writes Scott:

You asked what folks are reading, & right now I'm in the middle of Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. It was originally written in response to W Bush and his time in D.C., but now has a new foreword & afterword. I love the way she illuminates so many events & how they have affected our world. The first people to propose abolition of slavery was a small group of folks in London. They were determined, acted on their convictions & built a movement that saw it come to fruition in something like 25 years, and later the movement came to America. Great stuff, I highly recommend it.

I keep getting incredible solar punk missives, too. Writes John:

Sarah, I was inspired by your article describing indoor waterfalls to consult my 9 yr old granddaughter about an idea for a crossover relationship between Mindcraft and Lego.  She informs me that there is already a relationship. I am almost 72.  My time is coming to a close but hers is just beginning.  I am going to get her some minecraft legos because she loves them both and I need a way to believe that the world is going to be safe for her. 

And Chris produces a whole fictional solarpunk podcast from the year 2047. Check it out! 

PEOPLE DANCING

The end

Thanks for much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night.

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