Arts and culture – missing links to winning the climate fight

By David Holyoake (first published in Voices, Global Call for Climate Action 7 April 2015)

The climate change movement faces a problem. While campaigners and advocacy groups around the world continue to fight against the climate crisis – and make huge strides in getting their voices heard – this world of climate change policymakers and campaigners still does not talk to the world of arts and culture.

More striking still, the cultural response to the biggest threat to human civilisation practically does not exist yet.

This holds true in both ‘high art establishments’ and in mainstream cultural channels like film, design, novels, fashion and popular music. It also holds true of our NGO campaigning. When climate campaigns use ‘art’ it is usually more about ‘stunts’ or exhausted photos of polar bears on ice caps. With a few exceptions, ‘art’ is not used, as such stuns fail to break into the cultural fabric.

Contrast this with other game changing campaigns that won in modern history.

The American Civil Rights Movement, for example. The Freedom Songs of African Americans united and inspired millions of tired souls and rallied others to the cause. Songs like ‘keep your eyes on the prize’ and ‘we shall overcome’ right through to the repertoire of Nina Simone and others, revolutionised the unity, energy and scale of the civil rights movement.

The power and accessibility of music allowed everyone to be part of the movement, with songs often performed at or in connection to political events – with Fanny Lou Hamer a famous example in the early 1960s.

The climate community is never lost for words, but these words so often feel tired and exhausted.Remember the words of activist singer and environmentalist Peter Seeger: “Art can help us ‘leap the language barrier.And he wasn’t just talking about music.

The Mexican equivalent of the Civil Rights movement (Chicano) developed a distinct art form. A unifying aesthetics, iconic imagery and mural paintings with greater penetration than words, facts, infographics or stunts.

What is different now? And why have we not, on the whole, managed to connect the call for urgent climate action with the cultural fabric?

Climate is a very different sort of campaign challenge, admittedly. But it is just as in need of emotionalising, re-energising and hope as the civil rights movement was until the late 1950s.

Where are our cultural influencers and artists at the vanguard of the new world order that the climate crisis must usher in? Where are the coordinated efforts of artist and designers and musicians helping inflame divestment or other climate campaigns? Where are the great utopic cultural movements of today in which to embed the climate story?

Forever Swarm aims to fill this gap.

There are many reasons why we have yet to see a mainstream cultural response to climate change. Part of the answer is the obvious general confusion about the facts perpetrated by Big Oil and not helped by the media until very recently. And the psychological tendency towards denial and wishful thinking (science will save us).

But there is also a deeper answer: that the environmental community has neither offered culture makers a compelling holistic vision of the alternative world we seek, nor invited them to help our collective dreaming. Better futures require better dreams.

This might be one distinction with the civil rights movement – they could see and articulate their alternative view of the world. We in the climate movement have articulated only parts of the future world we seek by 2050 or beyond.

We are clear on clean energy and transportation. But what of the rest of life, consumption, and the other sectors economy? We have not imagined a magnetic new positive story of human happiness that connects social well-being with the multiple and radical lifestyle and economic changes that will be necessary to unlock the emissions reductions that will be necessary from other sectors by 2050 or soon after. What about food and agriculture, consumables and the idea of not only buying efficient, but buying less full stop.

What about the values shifts, a redefining of prosperity as some call it? This shift will be needed to support policy changes in the mid-term, while securing the political mandate for the immediate challenges of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and an acceptable international deal.

But all is not lost. As we lead up to the UN climate summit in Paris this December, there are possible areas of convergence. Commitments on long-term deep decarbonisation pathways are important to hold political and policy momentum to account, to bed down long-term pathway towards the necessary goal todecarbonise our economies soon after 2050.

The majority of countries have not yet laid down even aspirational long term decarbonisation plans, with a few exceptions such as the EU which has at least headline figures showing how 2030 and 2050 pathways fit together.

We all know the difficulties of the COP process, even securing adequate shorter-term commitments (INDCs) and the need for immediate urgent action. But what if one reason why negotiators shy away from the longer term questions is because none of us can yet comprehend or imagine what a near zero carbon economy looks and feels like?

Forever Swarm believes that there is a need for creative renewal in the arts and to connect campaigns with the cultural fabric.

It is time set artists and creatives to work to help the cut through of smart climate communications. It is time for artists, filmmakers and writers to get to work translating a more holistic, positive visions of the future.

It is time they explored happiness, new economics and new definitions of personal and collective success in a carbon-constrained world. A world in which the economy serves human flourishing, well being and surviving an increasingly hostile climate, rather than serving the god of GDP growth. It is time to confront our collective dread, which cuts us off from the future.

And what about the role artists can play in specific campaign asks? Divestment is growing fast – an exciting glimmer of hope. Imagine how it could grow even faster if articulated and symbolised by iconic, unifying imagery, emotive inspiring art, song and design appearing and normalised in diverse and popular channels?

It has long been proven that humans make most decisions not rationally but according to emotional and unconscious drivers and values frames. Accepting this, the limitations of the infographic become startling. It might be time for the climate movement to revisit the power of art.


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