The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a major US-based environmental advocacy NGO working internationally. Founded in 1970, it has approximately 3 million members. The NRDC is primarily a scientific and legal organisation whose mission is to influence policy in the public and private sectors towards sustainability. It campaigns to reduce global warming, limit pollution, and conserve energy through scientific research, litigation, advocacy, and public education.
NRDC’s artist in residence programme was started in 2014 and has opened up new ways of working as well as new partnerships. The main purpose of the programme is to involve artists and other creative practitioners (including designers and architects) in the work of the NRDC, contributing to its overall mission and moving environmental issues forward in public discourse. The NRDC has recognised that artists can develop novel ways of achieving its overall goals, different from its traditional methods using legal briefs, press releases, and white papers. The NRDC works with artists long term and where possible gives them a ‘seat at the table’ enabling them to help shape projects that highlight key environmental issues.
For the NRDC, the benefit is engaging the public in new ways and reaching new audiences through creative approaches developed in partnership with the artist. This has developed into relationships with museums and arts organisations resulting in collaborative programming, such as delivering environmental education in the context of a museum programming exhibitions on climate change and sustainability. Artists benefit from working closely with the NRDC, a highly regarded environment NGO, for a meaningful length of time—in addition to gaining access to the NRDC’s considerable expertise across a wide range of environmental issues including endangered species, climate change, pollution, energy, water, and sustainability.
Artist Jenny Kendler hands out balloons filled with monarch butterfly food.
The NRDC works with five or six artists each year, some on projects and some on a long term basis. One of the long term artists is Jenny Kendler. Kendler’s role as artist in residence with NRDC is now over 5 years old and demonstrates the principles of long-term engagement and having a seat at the table.
One of the first projects that Jenny worked on with NRDC was Milkweed Dispersal Balloons, included as part of the Marfa Dialogues at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri. From an advocacy perspective, the project was intended to raise awareness about the declining population of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), which has fallen by as much as 90%, and stimulate both policy change and citizen action. Monarch Butterflies are migratory and travel from the northern USA to Mexico and back each year.
NRDC scientists and lawyers agreed that one of the most meaningful steps that could be taken to help the monarch population increase its resilience to the stresses of urbanisation and agricultural practices was to plant and protect milkweed (Asclepias spp.), the primary source of food for monarch caterpillars. However, the organisation didn’t have a way to convey that information to the public in a manner that could spur and empower direct action. Milkweed is widely regarded as a “weed” and is a target of pesticides, most notably Monsanto/Bayer’s glyphosate known commercially as RoundUp.
In response to this problem, Kendler proposed and developed Milkweed Dispersal Balloons, a project which distributes biodegradable balloons filled with monarch-friendly milkweed seeds from a ‘food cart’ positioned outside museums and other cultural venues where the NRDC would not normally have a presence. The balloons can then be carried around and burst in an appropriate environment to spread the floating, fluffy milkweed seeds.
Kendler designed badges showing fragmentary close-ups of monarch butterfly wings to pin the balloon strings to people’s clothes, which are also used to burst them. She also used this interaction with members of the public as an opportunity to discuss the issue of insect habitat, conservation, and toxic pesticides in an informal manner distinct from the conversations street campaigners could have for example.
The project raises awareness of the dangers that pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change pose to pollinators; explains the ecological and economic importance of pollinators in general and the plight of monarchs in particular; and empowers communities in St. Louis (the world headquarters of Monsanto) and across the Midwest to take action to protect this unique species. As of September 2019 the Milkweed project has distributed thousands of balloons, filled with hundreds of thousands of milkweed seeds and been presented at more than ten museums, parks and cultural venues by Kendler herself—and many more by members of the public who were invited to recreate this ‘open-source’ project, using resources made available by Kendler via her website.