Is The Future of Environmental Storytelling Artificial?

Is The Future of Environmental Storytelling Artificial?

Image by Bérénice Golmann-Pupponi


words by daphne milner

Experts warn that artificial intelligence could lead to humanity’s extinction. But it could also revolutionize environmental storytelling—and the green job market more broadly. 

Last week, dozens of experts issued a warning that artificial intelligence could lead to the extinction of humanity. 


Among the group, which collectively supported the concerns laid out in a statement published on the web page of the Centre for AI Safety, were the heads of OpenAI and Google Deepmind, who urged that mitigating the risk of human extinction from AI should be a “global priority” and treated with the same urgency as global threats like pandemics and nuclear war. Other experts have since come out to say that such claims are exaggerated and sensationalized. 


It seems we have reached another turning point. Not unlike the beginning of the Internet age, we are in the midst of an AI boom that will shape the course of humanity for centuries to come. 


To many, the transformation has already begun. From ChatGPT and DeepMind to Dall-E and MidJourney, generative AI is becoming part of the way we work. It is already being utilized in media, in entertainment and in content creation; it is changing the foundations of our creative infrastructure and revolutionizing the green job market. So much so that consulting firm Grand View Research estimates that the next seven years will see the AI market growth rate increase by 37.3% year-on-year. It is soon expected to replace some 300 million jobs across Europe and the U.S. In fact, in the tech sector, the “AI era” has already been cited as the reason behind mass layoffs. 


The rise of generative AI poses challenges in terms of adaptation and competitiveness, but it is also possible to regard it as a creative partner, a perspective that I have been pursuing in my art practice for almost a decade now,” said Turkish-American artist Refik Anadol, who has been in a decade-long engagement with AI as part of his practice. “In order to do that, we first need to understand these tools really well and become able to articulate which of their elements fit our visions as artists.”


In the movement for climate justice, creativity is a crucial vehicle for raising awareness, fostering empathy, and driving action. But the ongoing advancements in technology raise questions around the future of environmental storytelling—will it be driven by artificial intelligence? There is no straightforward answer.


“In a world intertwining AI and green jobs, embracing change and harmonizing technology with sustainability becomes a power source for professionals,” said head of community growth at Green Jobs Board, Jocelyn G. “Navigating the evolving landscape with an open mind, they must continuously learn and adapt to flourish in the AI-driven metamorphosis.”

“The rise of AI poses challenges in terms of adaptation and competitiveness, but it is also possible to regard it as a creative partner.”

Refik Anadol

Journalist and sustainability advisor Sophia Li shared a similarly optimistic outlook when she, in 2021, cofounded STEWARD, a digital art initiative that invites users to care for the natural world. Li, alongside her cofounders Lydia Pang and Maria Li, was determined not only to utilize technology for conservation purposes, but in unearthing the creative opportunities that come from building an equitable space in the digital realm. 


“We think AI is a whole separate entity, and that AI is going to take over jobs and creativity. But we’re the engineers. The problem is that most of the people programming generative AI art are white males,” said Li. “STEWARD is trying to infiltrate the space from within. We’re all women of color founders, and we’re all trying to bring in marginalized communities and artists who have been left out of the dot-com era.” Using on-chain technology, STEWARD encourages investors to put capital behind artists who are, in turn, linked with climate nonprofits, primarily Indigenous-led organizations, to finance both the artist and the conservation work.


To be sure, intentional use of AI can enhance and amplify urgent storytelling. But to supercharge human creativity through machine learning, experts say it is essential that policies and laws are passed that protect against the weaponization of artificial intelligence, and prohibit its unchecked access to data and the spread of misinformation. Unregulated generative AI algorithms are also known to produce biased, discriminatory, and harmful outputs that perpetuate existing social inequalities—injustices that will worsen as the climate crisis escalates. This is why some government bodies are taking action to ensure responsible development and deployment of generative AI. The EU is expected to pass the first AI law outside of China, which would require developers to apply safety checks, data governance measures, and risk mitigations on training data used for the likes of ChatGPT.


“[As things stand] some AI indiscriminately pulls data and work regardless of copyright is the source of a lot of justified anger towards machine learning,” said Salve Salvana, account manager of creative jobs board, If You Could Jobs. “In order to migrate this, we need to have the infrastructure in place to protect all parties involved. The thought of your work being taken without your permission, then fused with another, is some creatives’ equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster while others relish in this rapid form of experimentation.”

“My hunch is that AI will create more jobs, but my question is: will these jobs lead to real climate action?”

Lucy von Sturmer
Creatives for Climate

Salvana suggests that image generators like Dall-E implement an opt-in system that allows artists to contribute work—similar to UnSplash, a website offering stock photography through artist contributions. This would offer creatives agency in deciding what images they are happy to relinquish to diffusion models for AI users and fellow creatives to use; and they could even set restrictions on the prompts that their art could be used in response to.


The case for greater AI regulation is so pressing in part because the possibilities are promising. AI can be used as a tool to help mitigate the effects of climate change. For instance, it has been used to predict extreme weather, in turn warning of necessary evacuations ahead of time or—in other instances—optimizing farming practices for crop and soil management. It is also, among other things, considered a crucial component in facilitating our transition from fossil fuels to green energy.


“When it comes to the scale of research that’s necessary for climate solutions worldwide, AI could open up funding opportunities for companies who could scale their teams because they continue to scale impact efficiently,” said Kristy Drutman, founder and host of Brown Girl Green, and founder of Green Jobs Board. In the creative realm, artists like Refik Anadol are also increasingly turning to AI to help represent the scale and impact of climate change.


Not everyone is convinced. In order for AI to be successful in the reversal of global warming, be it through environmental storytelling or through ecotechnology, the end goal must be climate justice—not profit.


My hunch is that AI will create more jobs, but my question is: will these jobs lead to real climate action?” said Lucy von Sturmer, founder of collaboration platform Creatives for Climate. “There are a lot of intelligent people working hard to develop sustainability innovations, standards, and protocols to solve the climate crisis, leaning on technology more and more as key to driving change. But there are a lot of climate cowboys out there—green tech entrepreneurs looking to make a last buck while the world burns. The reality is that as the crisis grows, the money flows—but greenwashing robs us of a future.” 

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