The greatest scientists are artists

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Christi Cooper at Standing Rock
Courtesy of Christi Cooper

Humans like taking the scenic route when we can. It means we have a little time to appreciate the world around us, to sit with our thoughts awhile, maybe figure out if we really want to go where we’re heading. 

That’s as true for road trips as it is for life journeys. 

You could say Christi Cooper took the scenic route to becoming a filmmaker. But you could also say it took every twist and turn in this Boulder native’s journey to make her capable of documenting one of the most important environmental lawsuits in American history, Juliana v. United States

Or, as Cooper calls it, Youth v. Gov, her documentary about the journey of the 21 plaintiffs in this historic case. Cooper was recently named the inaugural Focus on Nature Artist-in-Residence at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. Her residency will give Cooper a stipend and, mostly importantly, the time she needs to edit the documentary.

Cooper’s been following these 21 plaintiffs — all of them under 25, most of them under 20, the youngest 11 — for the last eight years, since Mother’s Day 2011 when the nonprofit organization Our Children’s Trust began filing lawsuits on behalf of the young plaintiffs against their home states and one lawsuit against the federal government. (Perhaps you’ve heard of one of the plaintiffs, 18-year-old Boulder resident/rapper/tireless activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez.)

The plaintiffs argue that the federal government has abused the public trust doctrine by knowingly polluting the atmosphere and creating an unsafe environment for current and future citizens. Their original federal lawsuit was dismissed on appeal.

But the plaintiffs and their legal team went back to the drawing board to refine the legal standing for the case and made a much stronger constitutional claim. They made a breakthrough in 2016 when U.S. District Court of Oregon Judge Ann Aiken upheld the idea that access to a clean environment was a fundamental right.

Since then, the federal government has been trying to keep the case from going to trial by filing various motions with the Ninth Circuit Court and the Supreme Court to get the case dismissed. The case is currently in the Ninth Circuit Court with an upcoming hearing on June 4.

These young folks aren’t backing down. And Christi Cooper plans to ride out the storm with them.

•  •  •  •

Cooper’s love of the natural world was cultivated as a child “climbing the hills up in North Boulder” where she lived with her parents and two siblings. Mount Sanitas was the unofficial playground for her elementary school on Fourth Street. Her father took the family camping and skiing and biking. 

It was a quintessentially 1970s Boulder childhood.

“Just living in Boulder as a child really empregnanted me with a love for the outdoors and wanting to protect it,” Cooper says from her home today in Bozman, Montana, where she lives with her 18-year-old daughter Hannah. “It shaped a big part of who I am and what my ideals are.”

Christi Cooper with her daughter Hannah

Cooper took her love of nature with her to college in Nebraska where she studied microbiology. She planned to become a veterinarian.

But her love of the mountains pulled her back to Colorado. She completed her graduate and undergraduate degrees at Colorado State University, working at the animal hospital. 

Still, her curiosity of the natural world drove her deeper into the world of science. Cooper moved to Germany, where her father’s from, and completed a Ph.D. program in neuroscience. She got married, had Hannah, and before long Cooper and her husband were recruited to run a stem cell research center at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. 

By now it was 2004. 

“I was dismayed by what was happening in our politics in the U.S., in how science was being demoted and denigrated and funding was being pulled during the Bush era,” Cooper recalls. “I distinctly remember the Bush-Kerry election, stem cells were the hot topic. It led the discussion on science, on abortion, and I felt like it was done with so little understanding of the science. It just became this political agenda with pundits not really knowing what they were talking about, just using their beliefs to discuss the topic. I really felt drawn to being able to educate and talk with people about what was at that time my topic, stem cells. It felt really important to me for people to have an understanding of why [stem cells] were used in research and the potential they have.” 

While Cooper never worked with embryonic stem cells — the heart of the controversy in the stem cell debate — many of her colleagues did. She understood that the future of scientific breakthrough relied on educating the public about how research could shape their lives, how it could shape their children’s children’s lives. 

She threw herself headfirst into public discussions about stem cells, doing print and radio interviews. Cooper became a part of an EU interdisciplinary consortium and helped develop traveling science fairs through Europe that focused on educating the general public on all kinds of science-based issues, not just stem cells. 

All the while, Cooper was feeling more and more like academia wasn’t the path she wanted to follow; fighting the tenure system sounded daunting… and fruitless. 

And she wanted to make her way back to her beloved Rocky Mountains.

“I didn’t know anything about Montana; even growing up in Colorado we never made it as far north as Montana,” she says. “But I found a master’s program in Montana. I have an uncle and grandfather in Germany who are documentary filmmakers. I always admired the work they did but thought I was a scientist and not a creative. When I saw this program it was the perfect blend of what wanted to do. I was so driven toward stories and human faces around those stories, and the program felt like a perfect blend. I came to Bozeman and got into the grad program here. That was my entry into the film work.”

The program was at Montana State University, an MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. It’s geared specifically toward training students with formal education and experience in science, engineering or technology to become professional filmmakers. 

Phil Savoie was one of Cooper’s professors in the program. Savoie is a lifelong environmental filmmaker, journalist and educator who currently lives in Wales. 

“When we take in students [into the Science and Natural History Filmmaking program], it’s just the top 1 percent of students who would apply,” Savoie says. “Christi was a really good example. She’s motivated, clever, keen, with a creative side she was just starting to explore. She’s carried on with that well.”

Savoie and Cooper have remained in contact over the last 10 years, their daughters becoming friends in the process. 

“Because of Christi’s background with neuroscience, that did make her rather unique,” Savoie says. “She was the first student that I’d taught with a neuroscience background. She’s hungry, she’s learned, she has the curiosity. A lot of people who are in science and people who are of that disposition, they have insatiable curiosity. It keeps them young and keeps them sharp.” 

•  •  •  •

When Cooper entered the program at MSU, she thought she’d be doing “super science-focused documentaries about how the brain works.” But life had different plans for her. 

During her second year in film school, Cooper got an internship with WITNESS in Brooklyn, New York, an international nonprofit that trains and supports people using video to promote stories about human rights.

“I came on board this project working with youth, at the infancy of this whole … youth movement around climate litigation,” Cooper says. That’s where she met Kelsey Juliana, the led plaintiff in Juliana vs. United States, and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. Cooper co-produced a series of 10 films with Juliana at WITNESS about her own litigation, as well as the lawsuits of the other young folks around the country suing their state governments in the name of environmental justice. 

“That was my entry into climate justice world,” Cooper says.

When the BP oil spill happened in 2010, Cooper packed up her film gear and drove to Louisiana with hopes of connecting with other scientists there. She and a few scientist friends hoped to offer their expertise in media to help get the word out about the seriousness of the spill. 

What happened was as edifying for Cooper as any work she’d ever dreamed of producing about the oil spill. 

“There was a Native American tribe on the outskirts of Louisiana, outside of the levy system,” Cooper says. “I connected with them and stayed with them for three weeks. I learned a lot during that time about how oil exploration and exploitation has impacted primarily people of color and indigenous people. There is a whole racism component to environmental justice and to climate justice. I learned a lot through that whole project. That tribe had been through decades of oil exploration. More than 10 thousand miles of pipeline runs through their land and has destroyed the ecosystem and homes of people who have lived there for thousands of years.”

Cooper went on to work on other projects, one with Montana PBS that won her and her team two Emmy awards for a documentary called Indian Relay. But she never took her eyes off of what was unfolding with the youth climate change litigation. Cooper eventually took a job with Our Children’s Trust, the organization that has helped the 21 youth plaintiffs file their cases. During the few years she worked with the nonprofit, Cooper had the opportunity to travel with Martinez to the 2012 United Nations climate summit in Rio de Janeiro, and to the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York.

Meanwhile, other young folks working with Our Children’s Trust continued to press litigation at the state and federal level. 

“I had it in my mind that I wanted to tell a longform story about this litigation,” Cooper says. “But I had other projects going on in my life at the time. When [Our Children’s Trust] filed a new federal lawsuit in August 2015, I was watching it very closely. … When [Judge Aiken] ruled in favor, and I knew it was at least going to appeal and the kids had won the first standing in the courts, I decided I wanted to tell this story. I put everything else on hold and kind of closed down my other projects and began to focus solely on this.”

That was three years ago and the story continues to unfold. The federal government continues to find new ways to hold the case at the district level. And the young plaintiffs continue to fight for a better world. 

•  •  •  •

When Sean Weiner, director of the Creative Culture Initiative at the Jacob Burns Film Center, was looking to fill the brand new Focus on Nature residency at the film center, Christi Cooper’s name cropped up. 

“In the documentary film world you’ll see 10 grants behind one project,” Weiner says. “We asked [other filmmakers] what are the two or three projects that haven’t gotten that kind of attention. That’s where we prefer to support. We have leverage to put support behind that. Our only goals are filmmaker and artist development. We seek no financial gain from this.”

Cooper’s doc fit the bill.  

“The subject matter of the film is really compelling on all levels for us,” Weiner says. “And with this project we have a golden opportunity for our resident to engage with local students in middle and high schools around the area.”

Weiner says he plans to build one or two events where students from the area will come in to see some or all of Cooper’s movie and talk with her about filmmaking and activism.  

“A lot of our student programs focus on young protagonists,” Weiner says. “That’s exactly the case with Christi’s film. Seeing someone their age engage in activism is important to show.” 

CHRISTI COOPER films Levi, the youngest of 21 plaintiffs in the groundbreaking ‘Juliana v. United States’ case. Cooper’s documentary, ‘Youth v. Gov,’ follows these young plaintiffs.

While Cooper can’t say what will happen with Juliana v. United States, she knows this is only the beginning. 

“I see these kids looking at their future in a much different way than I did,” she says. “I didn’t think, ‘Are species going to be extinct?’ every day as a child. I didn’t think, ‘Are we still going to have an Arctic shelf? Will I be able to live where I want to live?’ I was planning my whole life and I see kids questioning whether they should have children, whether their family members are going to be harmed, whether they will be safe having a house near the woods. I feel compelled to provide a platform for them. They have as much to say about the future as adults, and these kids often know more about the science and policies and impacts than adults do.” 

As for taking the scenic path, maybe that’s the only way to really get where you need to go. And Cooper’s not the first. Kurt Vonnegut studied chemistry at Cornell. Samuel Morse studied at London’s Royal Academy of Arts before co-founding the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. Da Vinci, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, John James Audubon, all artists and scientists who took their own meandering paths to greatness.

Like Einstein — who played piano and violin — said: “The greatest scientists are artists as well.”