Mapping the Islands: How art and science can save the Great Barrier Reef

I am pleased to report that the Global Challenges Program has funded our collaborative project “Mapping the Islands: How art and science can save the Great Barrier Reef” with Dr Leah Gibbs (Human geographer specialising in environmental governance), Kim Williams (artist) and Dr Lucas Ihlein (expert in socially engaged art). The title of our project is a provocation to think deeply about how interdisciplinary work can encourage environmentally sustainable action on the Great Barrier Reef.

We hope to use art-science collaboration to communicate climate change research in ways that engage with peoples’ values. In doing so, we aim to reveal opportunities for and barriers to environmentally sustainable practice. Adopting the social-environmental case study of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef, we explore the efficacy of maps, drawings and story-telling for communicating how recent environmental changes are impacting the reef.

The last two years have seen the demise of much of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef from recurrent mass coral bleaching events. In 2017, this iconic Australian coastal landscape has undergone a second consecutive mass bleaching event. Driven by carbon emissions, this environmental issue represents a truly global challenge:

“The elephant in the room for improving environmental management of the Great Barrier Reef remains climate change. This is a global problem.” (Professor Terry Hughes, Coral Reef Centre of Excellence, University of Wollongong, 6th April 2017).

As James Baldwin says History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” Our project partner Professor Iain McCalman (Sydney Environment Institute) has pointed out that the Great Barrier Reef has been saved before, by a forester, a poet and an artist. That was in the 1960s, when the Queensland State Government wanted to mine the reefs for limestone fertilizer. After a decade-long battle, the Great Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site and the threat of mining went away. Now the threat is climate change, and the whole world needs to come on board for any meaningful outcome. Can interdisciplinary collaborations save the reef again?


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