About Snails, Extinction and Hope

by Yasmine Ostendorf

Apparently a lot of people experience this: you get ill the moment the holidays kick in. It happened to me this Christmas and for this reason, I missed my deadline for the New Year’s What Gives You Hope? article published on Artists and Climate Change on December 31, 2018.

Nevertheless the posed question “What gives you hope?” remained on my cloudy mind. Even with the slightest interest in politics and the current state of our natural world, it can feel naive and unrealistic to “hope for a better future” – and worse if you actually engage and care. It would be more appropriate to instead invest our energy in what MoMa design curator Paola Antonelli proposed this week in an interview about her forthcoming exhibition Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. “We’re proceeding faster than many other species that have become extinct,” Antonelli said. “I don’t see any other possibility than to designing an elegant ending for humanity.”

We are not only hurtling an astonishing number of non-human species towards extinction; we are rapidly making the planet unlivable for ourselves. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview with Antonelli, in particular when she refers to Todd May’s recent article in the New York Times, which questions if human extinction would actually be a tragedy. I’m not sure if this was the illness talking, but a beautifully green planet without any people on it suddenly didn’t seem that terrible. It would definitely make the non-human species on this planet a lot more hopeful, I thought.

A theory that is often heard in our field – the intersection of art and climate change – is that the general public finds it hard to engage with climate change because none of the “potential solutions” can be implemented within the capitalist system. When financial profit is prized over anything else, the environment always pays the price. It makes it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

The optimistic response to that line of thinking is often that this is exactly why we need artists. Artists can supposedly propose alternatives to the system, tell positive and inspiring stories. Out with the doom-and-gloom, we say and in comes HOPE and POSITIVITY! Aside from the fact that I’m losing faith in this narrative, which I was always the first to embrace, it lacks a description of what it is we hope for and how we can work towards it. After learning about the death of George the Snail – the last of his species – last week, I re-read Thom van Dooren’s essay “The Last Snail: Loss, Hope and Care for the Future” published in the great book Land & Animal & Nonanimal. Van Dooren, an environmental anthropologist and philosopher, writes about what he is hoping for, why and what it will cost. He asks:

Can our hopes be translated into meaningful action and taken up in a way that recognizes the myriad losses and expose the dangers that lie buried in the things we hope might yet come to pass? I see this kind of hope as a practice of ‘care for the future.’ Care must be understood here as something far more than abstract well-wishing. […] The grounded and responsible hope that we need today, hope for a world still rich in biocultural diversities of all kinds requires this kind of care for the future. It requires a grounded and practical care, but also one that is committed to critical engagement with the means and consequences of its own production.

The Open Call for Valley of the Possible, a refugio for art and research in the Chilean Andes.

I agree with van Dooren that hope in itself is not enough and should go hand-in-hand with grounded care, critical reflection and ultimately, action. So what actually gave me hope recently was to see two friends, Mirla Klein and Olaf Boswijk, tick all of those boxes when they set up a refugio for art and research in the Chilean Andes. Called Valley of the Possible, the refugio offers artists, scientists, and other creative thinkers and makers space and time to (re)connect with nature, conduct research, and develop artistic work. Mirla and Olaf want to renew participants’ perspective on our relationship with our planet and provide a platform to investigate an artist- and community-led model for nature conservation.

Mirla Klein and Olaf Boswijk of Valley of the Possible.

To end this article and add my contribution to the Core Team‘s What Gives You Hope? article, I followed the same format and asked Mirla and Olaf what gives them hope. Here is their answer:

Mirla and Olaf: The rise of international art and science initiatives joining forces and researching ecology and sustainability. The New Zealand Prime Minister becoming a mother on the job and banning offshore oil exploration. Rivers, mountains and other “natural” actors gaining legal rights. Literature from contemporary writers and philosophers such as Timothy Morton and Rebecca Solnit. The resilience and activism of the Mapuche in Chile, who have been fighting patriarchal, (neo)colonial and neoliberal powers for centuries. And what gives us the most hope is that throughout our lives and various careers, we have never received so much voluntary support from friends, family and, most of all, total strangers for a project that is not about money. It really is astounding how much goodwill there is in the world – how it is human nature to collaborate and form communities for the greater good, regardless of how we have all been indoctrinated by the idea that everything needs an economic purpose. The more you research the initiatives and networks around ecology, sustainability, different ways of thinking and other (economic) models, the more you find them. That in itself can help to create a more positive, and most of all, more constructive mindset for the 21st century.

PS: There is currently a very exciting Open Call at Valley of the Possible! Check it out!

(Top image: This snail, named George, died on January 1, 2019. Scientists believe he was the last of his species, which was native to the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Photo credit: Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.)


Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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