Buy tickets
      Connected | April 15, 2021

      What the pandemic can teach us about tackling climate change

      Dinah Cardin

      Written by

      Dinah Cardin


      On a blustery and sunny day in March, I took a walk on Derby Wharf with Jane Winchell, PEM’s Director of the Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center, and Curator of Natural History. As Canada geese followed our progress on the wharf and a full moon tugged at the high tide, we discussed PEM’s new Climate + Environment Initiative. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

      Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      Q: Why is making change around climate and environment part of PEM’s mission?

      A: We've been working into this over a long time. The institution had a long standing interest and commitment to understanding nature that goes back to the founding of the institution, really.

      Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.

      So it's more a matter of how that is being expressed, investigated, acknowledged. And with the founding of the Art & Nature Center back in 2003, we started really exploring some ideas relating to the environment as something we are part of. And not just something to be studied. But as this acknowledgement of, we can't separate ourselves from this living system.

      PEM’s Art & Nature Center. Photography by Mel Taing/PEM.
      PEM’s Art & Nature Center. Photography by Mel Taing/PEM.

      East India Marine Hall case being installed in the Salem Stories exhibition. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
      East India Marine Hall case being installed in the Salem Stories exhibition. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

      A: Now we have a series of exhibitions coming up that are very focused on bringing a stronger focus on the moment we're in with the climate and environmental crisis. Those are inextricably linked and we’re offering artists and other creatives a platform for exploring those, the situation that we're in, but in particular, the opportunity that we have right now.

      Q: Can you tie in coastal vulnerability? Here we are in Salem, walking out on a wharf that has been eroded.

      A: We have to look at what needs to be done and what's the best way to do that in terms of resiliency. And also, what actions we can take now to minimize those impacts. There are strategies that can really make a difference in what our situation will be in 20 years.

      Q: Can you name some of our local partners who we would be working with?

      A: The City of Salem and Resilient Together - the city's climate action plan with Beverly. And then there's organizations like Salem Sound Coastwatch, which has been integral to raising awareness, but also doing research, implementing strategies for mitigation. So there's both the environmental impacts that people are concerned about, to places like Derby Wharf. And then there's the historic structures, of which Salem has a rich complement of historic properties. There's concern about what's going to happen to those places and to vulnerable communities, with sea level rise or with intensive storms, storms with more energy. And what that brings.

      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.
      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Q: As we're standing out here by the water, I want to talk about PEM’s first exhibition as part of this initiative, Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks. What do his paintings say about our relationship to the planet?

      Alexis Rockman, Maelstrom, 2019. Oil on wood. Courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater Gallery.

      A: Well, we have certainly created some problems for ourselves. And the ocean has been this incredible mechanism for moving people around. But also we've managed to transport different animal species, which has been disruptive, and also diseases. And I think that his paintings really capture that -- they're big, they're vibrant.

      Q: One of them includes the bat that might have started COVID-19. Is it the bat’s fault?

      A Painting by Alexis Rockman

      A: That's where this is so interesting, because the bat is not to blame for COVID. It happens that we are susceptible to certain viruses that bats also carry, like COVID-19. The problem is we're out there eroding the zone between wild spaces and human spaces. Whether it's a bat or some other species, we are coexisting on a planet with them. And viruses are everywhere. So yes, these are complicated stories. And I think it's our tendency as humans to want to simplify things down to an easy answer. If someone were to say, "well, let's just get rid of those bats," that would generate other consequences that are not desirable either.

      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.
      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Q: What lessons can we learn from the pandemic?

      A: There are aspects of COVID that have offered insight into what we could be implementing to address climate change. This crisis is like our COVID situation on steroids. And so it's a really fascinating dialogue to hear from experts. Like, what can we learn from this? And how do we utilize this to go forward together because we are all in this together.

      Q: So what do you think people are going to say, in the future, looking back at how we've stewarded the planet now?

      A: That's concerning. It really is. I would like to think that we can leverage this moment to reverse the damage that we've done. And look forward in a way that is truly recognizing that we cannot be separated from other species or from what is happening on other parts of the planet. So, in a way, thinking differently about what it means to be human.

      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.
      Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Q: This is part of our mission, just as diversity and inclusion is part of our mission. Right?

      A: You can't have environmental justice without social justice. So that will be inherent to how we are approaching climate and environment, both as topics and as opportunities for building awareness.

      A BLM gathering on Salem Common. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.
      A BLM gathering on Salem Common. Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

      Q: Who suffers the most from climatic catastrophe on the planet?

      A: Well, obviously, you have populations that are right on the coast, but especially in many instances, it's Indigenous communities that have lived on the coast that have relied on the coast or on islands that are literally being submerged. So these people for whom that is their life, it's not like they moved there because they liked the scenery. This is integral to their heritage. And then there's communities of color and other marginalized communities that are ending up in places where they may not have the resources to up and move or to put their homes on stilts. They are much more vulnerable to climate change.

      Volunteers gardening at Ropes Mansion in Summer 2020. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

      Volunteers gardening at Ropes Mansion in Summer 2020. Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.

      Q: How do we have hope?

      A: We really need to be thinking with vision. We need to be bringing imagination and ideas for possibilities that are not grounded, necessarily, in the usual way of doing things. And that makes this moment exciting and full of potential.

      Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 7 pm
      Free event

      Emmy-winning television host, conservationist and wildlife biologist Jeff Corwin joins PEM to celebrate Earth Day! With live animals as co-hosts, Corwin takes audiences on a global tour to witness firsthand the condition of the natural world. Sharing a message of hope and humanity, he encourages us all to play an active and positive role in helping to save the Earth’s most threatened animals and natural resources.

      The program is offered in conjunction with PEM’s Climate + Environment Initiative Sponsored in part by The George Swinnerton Parker Memorial Lecture Fund.

      Instructions for joining will be sent with your confirmation email.

      Join us April school vacation week for a week of in-person programs in celebration of Earth Day.

      Download our April School Vacation Week flier.

      Keep exploring

      Past Exhibition

      Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks

      March 6 to May 31, 2021


      PEMcast 21 | Part 2: Sea Shanties and the Environment

      21 Min Listen

      PEM Initiatives

      Climate + Environment


      The Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center