The value of culture in environmental crisis

This was originally posted in February 2010. Since then we’ve seen major cuts to the cultural sector, reducing the capacity of many arts organisations supporting environmental sustainability. In response to that situation, I wrote this on Shared Horizons and New Stories in May 2011.

Original post follows:

I’m reading this review of research published by ACE in preparation for their major policy consultation. It opens with a situation analysis that concludes with a small section on climate change. Also, I’ve just written a ‘situation analysis’ for digital heritage, covering both cultural and environmental heritage, using the PESTLE model. The Environmental dimension of the PESTLE model comes at the end. I believe we need to reorganise the way we review the big context, by putting environment first.

I do applaud ACE for acknowledging climate in its review, as it is so often ignored, and for including sustainability in one of its five goals. In particular, I’m pleased that they don’t just fixate on making cultural buildings carbon neutral but also show they’re thinking about how we can be resilient in facing an uncertain future. However, I think they still overplay the first and downplay the latter. I’m also intrigued by this statement:

“The arts may be well-placed to engage with and shape this debate [about facing an uncertain future] and there are opportunities for artists to lead and influence society on environmental issues. However, this review found little evidence of the impact of such activity to date.”

I’m very interested to know more about that evidence. Is it just that there are at least 100 events or reports each year entitled something like ‘Will the arts get us out of this mess we’re in?’ which fail to conclude in a bullish way with bullet-pointed facts that show the planet would be a bit more saved because of artists? There are so many ways in which the work of arts, science and heritage organisations (not just artists, who are only one part of the picture) use creative means to develop the capacities of people to think critically and imaginatively, to develop skills in design, to bring about well-being and so on. It is proven that cultural and creative learning nurture the qualities that make people resilient and more aware of complexity.

I’m hoping that it’s possible to provide more evidence of the value of culture in this situation. Climate disruption is at best ‘game-changing’ for civilisation, and at worst it is ‘game over’. We can only plan for the more positive scenario (that it’s ‘game-changing’) so we need to respond by changing the game of culture and heritage. Amongst the many change agents, I believe the most important are:

  • a drive towards contextualisation, so that artefacts and heritage knowledge are more dynamically placed into an ecology of landscape, biodiversity and human economics
  • a greater equality between people with disciplinary and demotic knowledge
  • a shift from a transactional to a participatory model with audiences
  • an embrace of digital technologies to be used primarily for open knowledge generation
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