What Does Climate Change Smell Like? Engaging Our Senses for Climate Action

What is your most powerful sense? I remember walking around downtown Chicago about a year ago and all of a sudden thinking about the neighborhood where I lived in Tokyo 15 years back. At first I wondered what triggered the memory, but then I noticed the wafting smell of soup--much like the soup of the noodle shops that dotted my Japanese neighborhood of Ogikubo, famous for its ramen.

Many years ago, I met a graduate student in design who wanted to invent a camera that captured smells along with images. How would such a device help us strengthen connections between people and the natural environment? How can we deepen these connections by tapping into more of our senses for climate learning and engagement, using devices and strategies that actually exist?

Much has been written about the importance of using images to communicate climate change to local audiences—and specifically about the need to use local images, rather than images from the Arctic (for example, see “On Shooting Polar Bears: Communicating Climate Visually”). I am a visual anthropologist with a background in popular education, and expanding beyond the visual has been my latest obsession in the climate action engagement realm. Popular education takes multi-sensory engagement as a basis for helping people gain new understandings about how their lives are situated within big issues, like globalization, the labor market…and climate change. 

Image courtesy of Dr Pop; taken from Educating for a Change

Food: Food, and its accompanying senses, smell and taste—is one of the themes related to climate that is pioneering multisensory engagement work related to environmental and climate action. In my own work, helping organizations from diverse communities around Chicago incorporate climate change education and action into their core programs, healthy African food has been the key “co-benefit” for climate engagement in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Vegan soul food caterer Chef Tsadakeeyah of Majani Catering does cooking demonstrations in the Bronzeville Community Garden, to introduce veganism to local residents as a strategy for human and environmental health.   

 Chef Tsadakeeyah demonstrates vegan soul food cooking in the Bronzeville Community Garden. See the steam? Smell and taste are powerful senses. © The Field Museum, ECCo 

One day when I was in the garden, a man who was walking by stopped at the cooking pavilion and Chef T asked him, "Do you want some soup?" "Is it vegetarian?" the man asked. When Chef T told him it was, I asked if he was a vegetarian. He told us that he had become one a few years ago after he was shot because his body can't handle meat anymore. Stories like this personalize the idea of “co-benefits” and can help climate scientists and educators better tap into the issues that people care most about, using resources that link climate issues to quality of life—like these climate change and food handouts and videos that we produced for our partners when I worked for The Field Museum of Natural History.

Chicago partner Jane Addams Hull-House also uses eating as a springboard for engagement, through their Rethinking Soup program. In the tradition of Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, Hull-House's initiatives link environmental action with social justice. “Rethinking Soup” brings people together to eat homemade soup made from local, healthy ingredients while learning about and discussing contemporary issues.

In New York, the American Museum of Natural History is also using food—and smell and taste—to help people understand and experience connections between food, nature, and culture, in their new Our Global Kitchen Exhibit. Museums can be powerful partners in this work, largely because they are tactile and embody complex ideas in familiar objects.

Local Climate Change and Action: In the research I have led to identify community assets related to climate action, we often shadow residents around their homes and neighborhoods to look for and point out changes they have observed that they think might be related to climate change, as well as to show us concrete examples of climate action. 

A woman from the Forest Glen neighborhood on Chicago's far Northwest Side shows our researchers examples of climate change in her community's forest preserve. © The Field Museum, ECCo 2011

This active engagement strategy uses the visual and the body itself as learning devices, and can be more impactful than simply conversing about these issues.

A woman from the Bronzeville community on Chicago’s South Side shows a researcher plastic bags that she recycles for personal use. © The Field Museum, ECCo

Learning By Doing: Even within our dialogues, we try to incorporate physical and tactile learning as much as possible, so that participants learn by doing.

Members of the Energy Action Network construct a model of an energy-efficient home to display in their social service agencies, which all offer the Weatherization Assistance Program for low-income residents. Photo courtesy of the Energy Action Network

Stories: And partners have also used visual approaches to tell and collect personal stories that bring climate change, and climate action, home.

God’s Gang, in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side, developed a poster campaign to share homegrown climate actions and collect more local stories. © The Field Museum, ECCo

Art: A number of artists around the country are experimenting with creative approaches to climate change communication, education, and engagement. Digital Media/Sound Artist Andrea Polli uses all sorts of media--my favorite being sound--to help people think about the natural environment and climate change in new ways. Check out this blog entry about her work from grist.org. The Chicago dance troupe The Seldoms explores a number of social issues--including climate change. Here's a review of their performance in 2012, Exit Disclaimer: Science and Fiction Ahead. And Cincinnati high school student Camille Jones is turning to song to inspire herself and others to get involved in environmental action; check out her blog post, Sending A Message Through Song.

These multisensory strategies have the potential to help broader and more diverse groups of people understand climate change, by tapping into multiple ways of knowing and learning. More importantly in my opinion, they tap into the human creativity inherent in us all—and thus have the potential to inspire and nurture bottom-up climate leadership and diverse solutions.

Dr. Jennifer Hirsch is an applied visual anthropologist and works as a sustainability and diversity professional in Chicago. From 2007 to 2012, she led The Field Museum’s Chicago program on community-based sustainability. She blogs at: Sustainability - What's Culture Got To Do With It?