This is a reflective extension of the talk I gave at Pat Kane’s wonderful (stimulating, fun, coherent…) conference Play’s the Thing: Creative Approaches to Wellbeing. I was asked to give a practical guide on how creative and cultural approaches can be applied to communities. Wellbeing, especially in terms of health and social care, is not my specialism so I felt a little ill equipped. Also, some may ask why I focused my talk on climate and ecology? That’s because I think that human wellbeing depends entirely on a flourishing planet, and that given the dire predictions of thermogeddon within even our children’s life span, I think we can only really feel well if we turn to the purpose of averting this prospect. (I was speaking alongside Marek Kohn, who talked of our duty to future generations in the face of the climate crisis, so I was responding to his talk.) My approach may not seem to address how we ensure the wellbeing of the more vulnerable or excluded in our society, and indeed, I was gently accused of taking a rather middle class stance. However, I don’t see a conflict here: Sustainability, equality and care for others go hand in hand.
One response to the crisis is to ‘get to a place of safety’ and create small self-sufficient communities there. People who do this are called ‘Doomers’. This is an entirely legitimate response and their experiments in living can be very informative for us. However, it’s not open to most of us who need or who want to stay where we feel at home. I wonder if we might use a new term of Loomer, a more optimistic kind of Doomer. Loomers look to a difficult future looming but they also weave sustainability into the fabric of their own places. Weaving or looming is also a good metaphor for wellbeing because Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his research for his book Flow, found that weaving was consistently the activity cited as creating the most flow, or optimum engagement. It perfectly combines tradition and novelty, comfort and challenge.
So, here’s a summary of the key points I was making in my talk, and also here are my slides (as there were lots of pics).
Time: We don’t have as much of it as we might think. When I was 18 I smoked, thinking it was more important that I was seen to be like others, and that I had plenty of time left to worry about my health. I used to listen to David Bowie, and Five Years was a favourite song. I used to wonder, whimsically, whether there would come a time when we really did have five years left, because ‘earth was really dying’. Well, it turns out that at this point we do have five years left to reduce emissions drastically (to 5-9% year on year) if we want to avert thermogeddon. (Andrew Simms and Marek Kohn also made the same point.) I pointed out that it’s not just a case of reducing CO2 but tackling all the planetary boundaries as they interact with each other. Existing systems are not equipped to bring about this change, so the overall system needs overhauling. That’s a massive challenge. But, how will we feel in 5 years if that hasn’t happened?
We have no higher authority: Homer Simpson is often left alone, drunk in charge of the nuclear power station. We’re all ordinary guys, in charge of this planet. It’s up to us. There is nobody in higher authority over our governing institutions, which are made up of ordinary people. So, the system change must be about generating that higher authority in our common consciousness. We all have a contribution to make. As Tim de Christopher says “We think we have no power when in fact we have more than enough power”.
What’s my contribution? I talked about the difficulties of persuading cultural organisations to turn their mission towards sustaining life on the planet, for example, explaining to Tate why it is not ethical for them to accept sponsorship by BP. I also talked about my research towards a book, The Learning Planet, and about the theories of Flow that inform our company’s work. I’m also inspired by the work around the Common Cause Values and Frames initiative, to explore the contribution of the cultural sector to change our cultural values, or our deep frames.
What is the root issue our practice should address? The root problem is equating wellbeing with wealth. To attain wealth, we blind ourselves to or veil evidence of ecocide.
So, what are some tactics to address this? Note that my tactics place an emphasis on design, as I think it’s the creative form most suited to tackle problems yet the least discussed in gatherings about the arts. Also, I include discussion of companies in thinking about communities, as they are potentially the same thing: a collective of people for the production of common goods.
– Not pussyfooting about the difficult stuff but unveiling the ecocide. People are much happier if they can explore difficult issues and be helped to take action, even if it’s small actions, to make things better.
– Bringing fun and discomfort more closely together. I showed an example of this device that places a goldfish in a transparent water supply so it gives you a clear emotional choice whether to save water or let your pet die.
– Turning the bad into good. An update on turning guns into ploughshares is to turn carbon into a useful energy-saving material. For example, see this carbon-coated ploughshare that reduces energy use by cutting more easily through earth.
– Companies have the influence: Governments of rich nations are already giving up on the Kyoto Protocol and many care more about the interests of super-corporations than their citizens. We should focus more attention on persuading supercorps to turn towards eco-innovation, and leading by example, creating our own eco-innovative community companies. We all love Apple for their user-friendly and aesthetic design, and have made them very rich, but they are really not very green. We need to help them become more so. Philips is a more positive example: Their EcoVision5 seems on the surface to be quite a typical sustainability statement, but their product design experiments are inspirational. My father-in-law, Noel McKenzie, was chief engineer for Philips in the days of VCRs. We have to remember that companies are made up of our friends and family, people who have friends and family. We need to appeal to their humanity if we find them wanting.
– Create companies in our communities: In my neighbourhood of New Cross Gate/Telegraph Hill, we’ve created a charity called Bold Vision, as an incubator for a number of small-scale regeneration initiatives. One is the Hill Station, a cafe and arts centre, with a big emphasis on learning about food. Another is the Common Growth garden, not just for growing food but growing knowledge. Another is the New Cross People’s Library, running the library closed by Lewisham council, with a vision to become an arts and literacy centre. Transition New Cross intersects with all these initiatives. Culture is a really important aspect of Bold Vision. For example, we’ve ‘reinvented’ the ancient traditions of solstice parades particular to our area, with Garlick Man in summer (as the area was Plowed Garlick Hill) and the Night of the Beasts in winter. The idea is that these celebrations will become traditions in the future – we’re spooling heritage out forwards. If we are to think in longer horizons, we need to imagine a long future stretching before us.
– Exploit urban spaces: One project that inspires us at Bold Vision is the Farm:shop in Dalston, with its combination of artistic practice and pragmatic design for living. It is, literally, a farm in a shop, using hydroponics and aquaponics and keeping animals on the roof. They show how we can grow food in unused spaces without needing to use land as extensively as we might think. It exemplifies what Alex Steffen says, we can live sufficiently in cities and restore more of the land.
– Restore rather than exploit wilderness land: Woollen Line is a great example of imaginative and community-based ways to restore the land, and also a great example of ‘looming’. Artist Pip Woolf invites volunteers to gather unusable sheep’s wool from Black Mountain hillsides, and to make sausages or weave nets to lay on top of the peat. The top layer of peat in this part of the Black Mountain has been destroyed by fire, losing its ability to store carbon and water. It needs protecting as grass won’t easily grow back.
– Use art to reflect on building a community: Nowhereisland is another artist project where the top surface of land has been removed. There was some media fuss about this Artists Taking the Lead/Olympics project because it cost £500k. A tiny rock island exposed by Arctic melt has been towed down to English shores. Yes, it is a lot of money but now it’s spent we can make use of it to stimulate learning about citizenship and future worlds. It’s a notional state, a metaphor for a new world, and a provocation about what this world could be if we ran it. You can become a citizen and have a stake in its constitution.Hopefully it will also expose other initiatives, like the Seasteading institute, imagining and designing ways we can live with rising sea levels. Their designs are currently still in virtual form but they are not metaphorical (unlike Nowhereisland, despite its rocky reality). The group are serious about wanting to build seagoing villages.
– Use art as emotional connection: A powerful example is The Water is Rising, a USA tour of 36 performers from Tuvalu. Tuvalu is the first sovereign nation likely to be lost to rising seas. Everyone sings and dances here, so they are making full use of their resources to connect with us. The people of Tuvalu are very concerned to preserve and promote their cultural heritage in the face of a permanent tour, their inevitable future escape to a place of safety. We can connect with them because all of us, in some way or other, has been or is going to be detached from the land (or habitat, a healthy ecosystem). Our human creativity and technology will be a layer we need to weave together to protect our knowledge and heal the land, as the Woollen Line shows.
So, the turn will take place because of people, working to change the systems at the level of companies, local communities and cultural organisations. I suggested we’re all like Homer Simpson, dim ordinary drunks in charge of the planet, but we’re not all that dim really. Some people are incredible and we need to fund, treasure and learn from them. For one of many examples, look at Theo Jansen, who makes creatures who walk powered by wind.
An emerging theme at Play’s the Thing was this: The pursuit of happiness will be fruitless and labyrinthine, whereas the happiness of pursuit will bring rewards. Indy Johar said we should talk less of wellbeing and more about how to live with purpose. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but the key is in how we craft our pursuits so that they are open enough to allow us to play and explore. We can change cultures towards sustainability not by making machines or systems with narrow goals to change culture, but by helping people to imagine and make with as much openness as possible, with as much awareness of the context in which we live as is possible.