In 2021, climate scientist Peter Kalmus wrote in The Guardian about climate depression: the anxiety one experiences due to our livelihoods being destabilized by a warming planet, and the tension between that fear and world leaders’ inaction. Climate depression, he contends, cannot be soothed by “positive messaging” or words of comfort. So when I heard about the new Climate Action Museum, which opened in Chicago this past June, I wished for a salve that might speak to growing solidarity between collective action groups and political will, and to understand ecological justice through action. Too often, we’re stuck with doom and gloom.
The Climate Action Museum was founded earlier this year by a group of 50 local architects and individuals associated with the built environment. This cohort includes Douglas Farr, FAIA, of the Chicago firm Farr Associates, whose 2022 exhibition Energy Revolution at the Chicago Architecture Center has already drawn my ire.
The museum is located along the Chicago River and occupies a small glass box within the atrium of an office tower. Visitors are guided through a series of three spaces. The first is characterized by tall, text-filled panels illustrating the connections between lifestyle and climate impact. One panel, titled “Why Do We Move So Much?” discusses the impact of suburban sprawl on transportation emissions. Another panel series called “Our Well-Being is Tied to Where and How We Live” highlights research from the Blue Zones Project, a global initiative that studies the lives of centenarians and advocates for neighborhood design that promotes longevity.
Also included in this first room is a display of what could possibly be eco-conscious building materials, including a Press Glass brick, and what might be some type of insulation. I cannot be sure as I couldn’t find a label.
Snaking past the array of panel literature, visitors enter another room showcasing products such as heat pumps and induction stoves. Large infographics printed on inexplicably wrinkly butcher paper hang from the walls and provide information about building energy use. One compares different building types by energy use intensity: On the higher end of consumption are suburban homes, and on the lower use side, the McDonald’s Chicago Flagship store by Ross Barney Architects.
After encountering the product display and the EUI room, one is ushered through a dark, cavernous room built out of plywood and lit dimly by blue string lights. Quotes line the walls—I’m assuming from famous authors or thinkers, but truly it was too dark for the text to be legible.
Finally, one emerges from the whale belly into a room filled with multicolored (again, inexplicably wrinkled) posters containing carbon-reduction advice aimed to different constituencies. While it does address legislators–including Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson–developers, and business owners, most of the guidance is geared toward consumers. The museum recommends car owners reduce their driving miles by biking, walking, or using transit; and switch to the “smaller electric model that meets your needs.” Chicagoans are prompted to visit Electrifychicago.net to research their residential energy efficiency and urge landlords to push for electrification.
The experience within the new museum feels messy, with the wrinkled papers displaying typo-ridden wall text, the unlabeled table of building materials, and a too-dark cave that was supposed to provide inspiration. Though the wall panels from the first display room were neatly executed and coherent, the amount of reading I did with my head craned upward was uncomfortable. The displays seemed slapped together—perhaps a kink that will be remedied. Though there is often a final rush to put finishing touches on an exhibit and ensure its details are attended to prior to public openings, this museum was, upon my attendance, fully open to the public. Much of the exhibition space seems unsophisticated and at odds with its glassy office surroundings.
But my frustrations move beyond appearance: In some ways, the Chicago Climate Action Museum espouses consumer ‘responsibilities’ that simultaneously pressure car drivers to purchase increasingly expensive electric vehicles or encourge the adoption of induction stoves, pitting individual consumer choices against pathetic federal policies that preach carbon neutral futures while permitting massive gas and oil pipelines. Perhaps the museum might advise on how greater subsidies are needed to make a full electrical transition possible, or how the entire electrical grid requires a full remodernization and the political will needed to accomplish such a task. Or, perhaps, the museum could explore how lithium mining for car batteries, if executed using cheap labor and military might, will continue the extractive and lethal practices used for oil and coal.
But this is not to say that the museum is unsuccessful—optimism is the name of the game at the Climate Action Museum. Doom and gloom, however abundant or accurate they are in this climate emergency, can desensitize the general populace and send us into climate depression. Recently, journalist Dash Lewis interviewed climate scientist Rebecca Priestley for Sun Magazine, asking how people can carry such climate grief and fear while also living their everyday lives. “We can find ways to sustain ourselves even in the middle of a disaster,” she responded; performing small actions can, Priestley added, “help you feel like you have some agency.”
Though the ‘advice’ poster recommendations felt minuscule and patronizing in the face of our threatened existence, perhaps tending a small patch of land or making a grocery run for our neighbors could carry us through the dark days ahead. It isn’t optimism that is conveyed, but instead some type of collective efficacy. Our own actions, however infinitesimal, give us agency and thus hope. We should have access to such coping strategies, as well as meaningful, structural changes. Both must exist, if not at the Climate Action Museum.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.