Ben’s Strategy Blog: Culture/Shift: Working with the Arts for Mitigation & Adaptation
CCS Director Ben Twist invites people working on climate change and sustainability to think about how the arts can help them deliver their aims.
Over the summer Creative Carbon Scotland focused more than we have in the past on talking to people and organisations working on climate change and sustainability about the role of the arts in their field (as opposed talking to people in the arts about climate change).
We’ve been doing a lot of thinking (and I’ve covered some of this in one of my other blogs) about the particular role of the arts in working on carbon reduction and adaptation to a new society. My part of this has been to do a number of talks to various groups, from an event at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation during the Edinburgh Festivals to a TEDx talk at Heriot Watt University.
I’ve refined my talk over the summer and the structure now goes something like this:
- We’re facing a major social change: either we achieve the carbon reduction targets implicit within the Paris Agreement – in which case our relationship with energy and fossil fuels will have to change radically – or we don’t achieve them – in which case issues such as migration, changing food supplies, resource related conflicts and so on will bring about major social change (as they are already).
- The Mexico City Declaration by UNESCO provides a useful definition of culture in a broad sense as effectively the way we live in the world.
- Using that definition, climate change is as much a cultural issue as a scientific or technical one: it is a function of our culture, our way of living in the world, which is a culture of consumption. We dig up resources, use them and throw them away, and this latter stage is a major cause of climate change. In order to avert more climate change, we need to shift to a culture of stewardship.
- This would have useful implications not only for environmental sustainability and climate change but also social sustainability (climate justice but also equalities more broadly) and economic sustainability (perhaps abandoning the search for endless economic growth and following up some of the principles of Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, for example).
- So how do we achieve this cultural shift?
- Culture in a narrower sense – what we generally call the arts, but this includes design, film and media, museums and heritage etc – is the expression of culture in the wider sense used above. Art has often been said to ‘hold a mirror up to society’. But it is also therefore a way of understanding, interrogating and changing the wider culture.
- The German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote, ‘Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it’!
- Working with the arts is therefore a useful way to work on achieving the cultural shift.
- There is often an assumption that the role of the arts in areas such as these is to communicate complex ideas more effectively and particularly to engage the wider public emotionally rather than factually. This is indeed a useful role of the arts, but they can do much more. I have a slide which provides a (non-exhaustive) list of ways in which the arts work.
What Art Does
I think there are interesting ways in which artists can contribute to addressing climate change through making artistic work – CCS is involved for instance in a project led by the RSPB on developing awareness of the importance of the peat bogs in the Flow country as carbon sinks.
And there are also ways in which artists can use their skills, knowledge and ways of thinking in non-artistic projects and settings. After one talk, someone who has been attending the meetings of the Local Advisory Committee of the European Climate Change Adaptation Conference in 2017 came up to me. ‘I realise that’s what you’ve been doing at the meetings,’ she said. ‘You’ve used your role as an artist to make us think about and discuss things we wouldn’t have discussed otherwise.’
This was encouraging, as that’s what I do, although I hadn’t really thought of it as such in that particular situation. And in a way, that’s the point: I was being a member of a group and using the skills I have as a (former) theatre director, just as others in the group use their skills as academics, project managers etc.
This is all part of a strand of our work at CCS called Culture/SHIFT: the artistic and conceptual work that we do alongside, and inextricably linked to, our more practical and technical work supporting cultural organisations to reduce their carbon emissions. There’s more information about this here.
We’re always interested in more people working on climate change and sustainability attending our Green Teases and other events – following our most recent Arts & Sustainability Residency we’re thinking about reserving places for non-artists next year.
Our message must be getting through: we’ve been asked to run a session on this subject at the SSN Conference on 1 November. We’ll run through some of the ways in which we think the arts can support climate change and sustainability work and help participants to think about how this could be useful in their work. Sign up now!