Ben’s Strategy Blog: Why Climate Change Needs the Arts

27th July 2016

Creative Carbon Scotland began by focusing on the arts and cultural sector, arguing why our colleagues in theatres, galleries, music …

Creative Carbon Scotland began by focusing on the arts and cultural sector, arguing why our colleagues in theatres, galleries, music groups etc and individual artists should start thinking about climate change. But more recently we’ve recognised that we must also talk to those involved in climate change from the scientific, technical, innovation, research and policy angles about why the arts and culture are important, and why they might want to call upon the arts in their work. My last blog touched upon this and I thought it might be worth explaining our thinking more clearly.

We’d argue that climate change is at heart a cultural problem. In 1982, UNESCO defined culture as part of its conference on cultural diversity. The Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies states:

‘In its widest sense, culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterise a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs…’

This wider culture is, in effect, the way we live in the world – how we organise our societies, the values we hold and the way in which we see our place on the planet and our relationship with it and its other inhabitants. At present, we live in a culture of consumption: we take resources from the planet, use them and dispose of the waste into the land, seas and atmosphere. Climate change is one of the results. (This last is of course not new to anyone who works in the field of climate change, but it’s necessary to restate it for the next part of the story!)

The Mexico City Declaration mentions in its old-fashioned way the ‘arts and letters’. We’d include in this category what today are described as the arts – theatre, music, visual arts, literature and so on – but also museums and heritage, broadcast media, video and gaming and other similar areas. For the sake of this blog, let’s call these ‘the arts’.

The arts are an expression of the wider culture – in their myriad forms they express our values, our way of seeing the world and our place in it. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells the players to:

‘…hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure…’ (Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 17–24)

The arts help us understand our way of being by expressing, exploring, contesting and debating it. My own field of theatre is in many ways a live ‘thought experiment’. Different ideas, situations and futures are played out, arguments and viewpoints tested, implications followed through. The arts in Europe have always been a forum for public debate, from ancient Greek drama, which set out the thinking behind how Athens was governed, and the packed theatres of Soviet Eastern Europe, which were where forbidden ideas were debated before the Wall came down, through to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where contemporary scientific ideas about the slipperiness of ‘reality’ were discussed in the cafes of the Parisian Left Bank and translated into Modernism in painting, music and dance.

One way or another we are heading to a massive shift in the way we live in the world. If we achieve the (almost impossible) carbon reductions required by the Paris Agreement our ways of living will need to become much less energy-intensive. There is a widespread reluctance to admit that business as usual, but using zero carbon technologies is not going to achieve what is required. Our diets, mobility and levels of consumption are going to have to change. If we don’t achieve those carbon reductions (and arguably even if we do), the impacts of climate change that we are already seeing will increase and will require a different cultural shift: what we eat and how we get it; where we live; migration from increasingly stressed areas (see IPCC AR5 SPM p16); and so on. Our wider culture will not be the same in the future as it is today. I described our view of the role of the arts in this great transition in my last blog, arguing that the arts should be seen as working not on individuals and behaviour change, but on changing the way we as society think about how we live in the world. To be more specific about this, we see the arts as operating to change the collective thinking of society by (among other things):

* Synthesising complex political, social, scientific and philosophical ideas

* Re-interpreting and developing these ideas and feeding them back into society’s thinking

* Representing these ideas in concrete form in order both to explore their possibilities and to engage different audiences

* Imagining different futures and playing out ‘thought experiments’

* Holding contradictory ideas in creative tension in a way that other parts of society find hard

* Making the invisible and implicit visible and explicit

* Analysing how the way things are came to be

* Innovating and thinking non-linearly

* Breaking conventions & challenging established norms

* Bringing communities together or helping to make new ones

* And of course communicating emotional truths, where the arts are best placed to do so

These functions apply to the arts generally, not just to their engagement with climate change and the great transition, but they are useful and relevant to it. As well as informing their own practices and ways of working, these approaches take the arts out of their own field into other areas of society where they can make a useful contribution.

Getting specific about how the arts and those who work in climate change should get work together is a discussion for another blog but see my reflections on our exciting event with engineers, architects, planners, artists and the Land Art Generator Initiative for some starting points. And feel free to get in touch if you have thoughts about this – we’d like to hear and we’re here to make things happen!

And finally, another quotation from the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht (one of my favourites):

It is not enough to demand insight and informative images of reality from the theater. Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality.

(Bertolt Brecht – Essays on the art of Theater 1954)

* Image:Rising Tide, Jason deCaries Taylor

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About Creative Carbon Scotland

We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.


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Supported by

Edinburgh Festival City Edinburgh Festival City

A project initiated by Edinburgh’s Festivals with key partners the Federation of Scottish Theatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network

Edinburgh Festival City Federation of Scottish Theatre Scottish Contemporary Art Network