Ben’s Strategy Blog: Cultural and Environmental Strategies

21st August 2018

Photo by Simon Groom of Hanna Tuulikki's project Women of the Hill, an Atlas Arts commission

We're hosting an event in Glasgow on Monday 27 August to discuss with sustainability and cultural people how the Scottish Government's draft culture strategy can be aligned to support, among other things, Scotland's action as an environmental leader. Here Ben outlines where the strategy should be headed.

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on two strategies that relate to Creative Carbon Scotland’s work: A Culture Strategy for Scotland and An Environment Strategy for Scotland. The two documents and approaches are very different and to some extent illustrate difficulties that I think the arts world (not necessarily the cultural one, which includes a wider range of parties) could usefully address – a narrowness of its own vision, a lack of ambition in thinking about what it might be and what it might do, and a lack of clarity about how culture influences society.

Whilst the very draft document about developing an Environment Strategy seeks to make clear how the environment relates to the rest of life in Scotland – indeed is the foundation of it – the cultural strategy is much more constrained in its view and its understanding. I think it is also rather harder to read if you’re not steeped in the arts, let alone any wider conception of culture.

The Environment Strategy

The Environment Strategy provides a draft vision and outcomes:
Our draft vision is for “one planet prosperity”. This means protecting nature and living within the Earth’s sustainable limits, while building a more prosperous, innovative and successful nation.

Draft outcomes

  • We are a climate leader and play our full role in limiting global temperature rise to well below 2°C.
  • We are a zero waste, resource efficient nation.
  • Our biodiversity is protected and enhanced, supporting healthy ecosystems.
  • Our air, freshwater, seas and soils are of excellent quality.
  • Everyone can access, enjoy and connect with nature.
  • The global footprint of our consumption and production is sustainable.

Even someone not steeped in environmental policy can glean from these statements what the strategy might seek to achieve: a country sending nothing to landfill and with clean seas, for example. It’s also ambitious in its desire to make the global footprint of our consumption and production sustainable. Calculating our carbon emissions by consumption (what we use, including imported things) rather than production (the carbon emissions of the things we do, which excludes stuff bought from abroad) ramps up our emissions dramatically.

The Cultural Strategy

But the Cultural Strategy’s vision is rather vaguer and less accessible to a non-cultural reader, and is less ambitious:
Culture in Scotland is innovative, inclusive and open to the wider world. Cultural Excellence – past, present and emerging – is celebrated and is fundamental to future prosperity and well-being. Culture’s empowering and transformative power is experienced by everyone.

It’s hard to work out what this will mean on the ground. However, the Cultural Strategy does lay out some aims and actions under three themes:

  • Transforming through culture
  • Empowering through culture
  • Sustaining culture

The last is really about how the Government and others support the cultural sector, which isn’t relevant here. Empowering through culture is interesting, but Transforming through culture is where Creative Carbon Scotland fits in. So here are my thoughts on that topic.

Transforming through culture

The overall ambition of the Transforming through culture section is ‘Recognising that culture and creativity are central to Scotland’s social and economic prosperity’. I like this! But many of the issues that the strategy mentions are common to society, not just culture: the need to promote diversity and inclusion; climate change and other environmental issues; the need for increased prosperity (and here I’d define that as human flourishing, not economic wealth); increasing ‘physical well-being, mental health and community strength’ ; the need for a wider range of skills and attributes to equip us all for the future; changing patterns of engagement with society, not just culture. These are all issues and challenges that require culture change in the sense of the Mexico City Declaration (which I have written about before and to which the strategy refers) – in our diets; our ways of educating our children; the ways in which we view others generationally, geographically, temporally or socially distant from ourselves; our language; the way we run our society etc. The problems that culture faces and in some cases reflects (eg the lack of diversity of the workforce) are a result of these problems in society – but equally a widened understanding of and so role for culture could help address these problems in society. So arguably the strategy could helpfully focus not on culture per se but as ‘culture in society’.

For me the cultural strategy therefore focuses too much on improving and strengthening culture, and not enough on strengthening society. It feels to me as though it has it slightly the wrong way around – it sees culture as something external to the rest of society rather than something that is society. By contrast the Environment Strategy document states that:

Scotland’s rich and diverse natural environment is our greatest national asset. It is at the very heart of our national identity and culture and is world-renowned for its beauty. ….It deserves to be celebrated and protected for its own sake and because the success of our nation depends on it. The quality of our natural environment is fundamental to the prosperity and well-being of our society, and that of generations to come. (pp4-5)

At a stroke this statement seems to me to jettison old and tired arguments about the ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ nature of the value of art. See what happens if you replace the words ‘natural environment’ with ‘culture’:

Scotland’s rich and diverse culture is our greatest national asset. It is at the very heart of our national identity and is world-renowned for its beauty. ….It deserves to be celebrated and protected for its own sake and because the success of our nation depends on it. The quality of our culture is fundamental to the prosperity and well-being of our society, and that of generations to come.

Culture is society

The cultural strategy ‘places culture as of equal importance alongside other areas such as the economy, education, environment, health and tackling inequality…’ which somehow suggests it isn’t part of those elements of society – but it is, just as the environment is! It is not so much of equal importance as central to achieving success in those areas.

True, the cultural strategy does set ‘Recognising that culture and creativity are central to Scotland’s cultural, social and economic prosperity’ as the first Ambition under the heading Transforming Through Culture. It then sets as aims that 1) ‘Culture should be placed as a central consideration across all policy areas’; and 2) there should be ’a new cultural leadership post within Scottish Government, supported by strategic thinkers from across the cultural sectors and beyond’.

Building the importance of culture

This is good, but I’d like to say, ‘Please Sir, can I have some more?’ Rather than ensuring that culture is a central consideration across all policy areas, which I read as meaning that all policy areas need to think about how they can contribute to culture, I’d rather see all policy areas considering how culture can help them achieve their aims, and so finding opportunities for cultural practitioners, workers and thinkers to become involved in their work. This would build the importance of culture, strengthen others’ understanding of it and champion its role in society in the way that the Strategy seems to suggest, but would do it by offering something rather than asking for it: ‘This is what culture can offer you in your work’, not ‘How can you make sure that your work is supporting culture?’

Doing this would also strengthen what an economist would call the demand side – creating more demand for cultural practitioners and their work, so making their careers and their fields more sustainable.

Culture on board

Similarly, rather than a cultural leadership post within Scottish Government (which risks ghetto-ising culture in one person who doesn’t then have much ability to bring about change – and imagine the arguments about who it should be: someone from film, broadcasting, arts, heritage, games?!?) I’d rather see cultural practitioners and workers seen as qualified for Board and advisory roles across the government, public bodies and private sector. There’s an assumption that financial, legal and marketing people and skills are necessary: what if cultural knowledge and skills were also seen as essential characteristics?

The third aim under Transforming through culture is more encouraging. The aim is to ‘Position culture as central to progress in health and well-being, economy, education, reducing inequality and realising a greener and more innovative future’ and the action to achieve it is to ‘Develop alliances that support social change through culture and promote leadership and joined-up working across the culture sector, other sectors, local and national government and communities’. I’d support this whole heartedly. But I wonder whether the difficulty which the strategy has in defining clearly what it wants out of this Transforming through culture section expresses a deeper need – to understand how culture operates in that central role.

Culture influences society, but how?

There’s wide acknowledgement that culture does influence society, but as Belfiore and Bennett’s book The Social Impact of the Arts makes clear, there have been and are various different views of how it does it. There’s a second aim in the Transforming through culture section, ‘Open up the potential of culture as a transformative opportunity across society’ and a corresponding ambition which is to ‘Develop a partnership for culture that includes working with academic partners to develop new approaches to measuring an extended view of culture and better articulate the benefits of culture to society’. I like the idea of getting clearer about all this, but I’d rather we weren’t leaping to measurement and articulation but first got clearer about the mechanisms at work. As part of our forthcoming Creative Project Cultural Adaptations we’ll be doing some work on this, so watch this space.

The Discussion Paper on the Environment Strategy is backed up by a series of Knowledge Accounts that provide more detail on how we got to where we are (‘Past Drivers’) and the links to the ‘Future Drivers’ identified in the draft Strategy. I found this a useful approach and it highlighted a missing link in the draft Cultural Strategy – how this one relates to and builds on previous strategies and other work. If, as I believe, culture has something to offer those other areas of policy, the whole cultural sector and in particular the arts has to get clearer about the role that it can play.

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