Margy Culturevulture

In conversation with Dr. Laura Sommer

Dr. Laura Sommer is a behavioural scientist and sustainability consultant whose work focuses on behavioural responses to green transition. Centring her work as a curator to Michael Pinksy’s Pollution Pods, we converse with her on green transition, climate art, and how powerful artworks can inspire us to act.

By  Sunniva Bratt Slette

When I found out that Michael Pinksy’s Pollution Pods would be featured at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, I felt compelled to reach out to my former colleague Laura Sommer, who was the curator of this important artwork.

Michael Pinksy’s Pollution Pods are five connected transparent domes which “simulate” the air quality from five different places in the world. Walking from pod to pod, spectators can take part in the artwork physically and get a feeling of how it feels to breathe the air of New Delhi, followed by London, moving on to Beijing. Scent and visibility are the most important effects to mimic smog, and a live monitor of air pollution levels underscored the difference between the respective cities. Since 2016, the Pollution Pods have been touring the world—with the most recent appearance in Dubai under the auspices of COP28.

My familiarity with Laura and her work around the Pollution Pods research project goes back to my days at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where I was a part of the interdisciplinary research group NTNU Sustainability. Laura was the lead project coordinator who performed the academic research linked to the artwork.

When I reach out to Laura for an interview, she promptly responds despite having some hectic days in Germany, where she just hosted a workshop on nudges for reusable food and beverage containers. We quickly dive into the details of the artwork and what it means, which comes naturally to an amazing science communicator like Laura.

It is a privilege to interview Laura Sommer—her work showcases how creativity can be channelled to raise the public’s awareness of climate-related research. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

What, in your experience, do the audiences feel or do having stepped into Pinsky’s “Pollution Pods” art piece?

When the artwork was exhibited in Trondheim, but also at Somerset House in London, I had the opportunity to talk first hand to people who just stepped out of the immersive installation – and this is what they reported: It is a very visceral experience. Walking from Tautra into London, New Delhi, Beijing and Sao Paolo, all within a few minutes and breathing in the air, feeling the different temperatures on your skin do have quite a profound effect on some people.

I say for some people, because it depends a lot on what you are used to and how sensitive your sense of smell is. Someone coming from the coast of Ireland with fresh air from the sea had a very claustrophobic experience. That person nearly ran through the exhibition. Meanwhile, someone living in London, did not even feel the air from New Delhi to be “that bad.”

What it does highlight for the majority of people though, is the fact that for millions of people, polluted air is part of their daily life. It is affecting their health and that of their kids heavily, as well as their quality of life. Especially for people in the developed countries, this message is sinking much deeper than when they would see another short video about air pollution in one of those mega cities. It makes it tangible. And most visitors also make the connection between their own consumption and the production of their consumables in countries such as China and India.

You have said that “Great art makes us feel something. Something special. And these feelings fuel our motivation and can drive our behaviour.” In your experience, how has the average spectator reacted to climate art?

In this quote, I speak of “great art” and that is a very important distinction for me – because there is a lot of climate art out there, but not all of it is great. In fact, during the COP in Paris, I collected data at an art festival accompanying the climate change conference. Me and my assistants surveyed how different climate artworks made people feel and how that was associated to their thoughts about climate change: The overwhelming result was that from 37 artworks, only three were perceived to be exceptional and only those led to reactions in the audience that had the potential to become meaningful.

To make a great artwork, you need to take something that everyone knows, and twist it such that it becomes possible for people to discover the underlying meaning by themselves. It cannot be too easy, or too difficult, or you will lose your audience. That is a fine line that not many artists manage to walk. Michael Pinsky does, but also did the greats like Olafur Elliason, Joseph Beuys, Agnes Denes and the Harrisons.

You were the first curator of the Pollution Pods and one of the researchers working on Climart, a four-year research project that investigates exposure to climate art. What is your strongest takeaway from the results of the project?

Great climate change art can elicit strong emotions in people, which is important. However, if we do not change the choice architecture around people, nothing will happen. Everyone will just keep acting the way they are used to. Humans are busy creatures, trapped in their day-to-day activities – they do not have the capacity to assess their choices every day. By making infrastructural choices for them, in favour of sustainability and providing them with easily accessible sustainable services and products, we need to make it easier for people to swim against the current. That is why I have turned towards Behavioural Science now – this field has great tools to advance sustainability, and governments and organizations realize more and more the value of these tools to achieve their sustainability goals.

Meaningful climate art can show solutions and urge to action, but not through telling people what to do. Instead, it allows people to reflect and look for solutions themselves.

Why do you think the global society has not been successful in collective action against climate change?

One of the most important reasons relate to our psychological reactions, behavioural scientist speaking here. There are a lot of psychological barriers in our way. Climate change is a beast, casually speaking, because it triggers our defence mechanisms on all levels. Many sustainability professionals experience those barriers and defences on a daily basis – they get called into a company to bring about change, but then, somehow, no one seems to actually WANT change. As in the saying: “Wash me, but do not make me wet!”

Of course, there are structural, legal, economic barriers as well, but this stands out to me as one of the most fundamental ones. In fact, my colleague Susanne Volz and I identified a need to help sustainability professionals in understanding and overcoming these psychological barriers. So, we developed a workshop series, which will start in March 2024.

In the latest IPCC Synthesis Report, sociocultural and behavioural changes are addressed as possible solutions to quickly mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. How do you feel about the power of "normal citizens" to contribute, versus larger systematic changes that need to be addressed?

To me, that is a two-sided sword. We need structural changes, but also individuals to help with the green transformation. Also, we want individuals to feel a sense of self-efficacy, and to not lose hope in the face of things yet to come.

In order to explain this better, I often use the downstream model of change: At the end of a river, that is where we find the consumers. We can cheer them on, to consume more sustainably and so forth, but that does not affect how strong the current of the river is, against which the consumers have to swim. Midstream, we have the businesses that can decide what products and services they put on the market and how they price these and how accessible they want to make them. Here we have a lot of untapped potential for green change. Upstream, we have governments and legislators, that affect the strength of the current directly through their actions. That is why we need action on all levels of the stream.

This interview was a first attempt to showcase exactly how serious the challenge of climate change is, coming from the viewpoint of a scientist and consultant. But we also hope to kindle a spark of hope by showing how we can shift behaviour and structures to positively affect air quality and climate crisis.

Through a series of Solution Spotlight articles, we have been thinking about air pollution for a while now. Find the earlier piece through the links below:

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