July 8, 2021

Guest Blog: Joyce MacMillan, columnist and theatre critic, reflects on the role of the cultural sector on tackling climate change

Author
Joyce McMillan, Columnist and Theatre Critic

The publication of the report and recommendations of Scotland’s Climate Assembly, on 23 June this year, could hardly have been more timely. Within days, shocking stories of unprecedented high temperatures across the north-western United States and western Canada began to dominate the news agenda, as cities such as Vancouver – famous for its temperate climate – endured temperatures in the high forties Celsius, braking all previous Canadian heat records by four or five degrees, damaging infrastructure not built to withstand such heat, and leading to the deaths of dozens of vulnerable people.

The report also came at the end of one of the most remarkable years in human history, when a global pandemic itself probably caused in part by environmental breakdown, and by increasing habitat destruction for forest species, offered a foretaste of the scale of change that our societies will have to undertake, if we are to have a chance of reducing global carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Working from home, travelling much less, flying very rarely, focussing more closely on our local neighbourhoods, and using electronic communications in new and inventive ways – these changes were all forced on us by the pandemic, and are all likely to play a strong part in future low-carbon lifestyles.

And all of these changes, of course, have impacted the cultural sector, and particularly the performing arts, perhaps more heavily than any other industry or activity. A sector built on a culture of ever-growing internationalism, and of constant travel to present work to crowded live audiences in towns and cities across Scotland, the UK, and the world, has been forced to suspend all those activities for more than a year, and to give serious though to whether it should even attempt to “return to normal” when – and if – the pandemic finally ends. That live performance will return, and is already returning, is not in doubt; but there’s also no doubt that the option of simply returning to “business as usual” is increasingly unthinkable.

The Scotland’s Climate Assembly Report And The Cultural Sector event held online on 29 June therefore offered an important opportunity for the sector to discuss the Assembly’s recommendations with Assembly members, and to reflect on how cultural organisations and individual artists are already responding to the climate challenge, and on how that response can be developed in future. From the 16 key recommendations of the Climate Assembly – covering areas from house building standards to public transport systems – the organisers of the event chose four that seemed both wide-ranging in their implications, and particularly relevant to the arts. Those areas were 20 Minute Neighbourhoods, Carbon Labelling and Carbon Literacy, the Circular Economy, and Measuring Success; and it was striking that in all four areas, arts organisations were already pioneering projects and ideas that took the thinking behind the recommendations fully on board.

It was both fascinating and deeply encouraging to hear from Claire Dufour, the Creative Climate producer at Creative Dundee, from Adam McDougall of the National Theatre of Scotland, from Kate V. Robertson of the Circular Arts Network, from Scott Morrison of Scottish Ensemble, and from many others in discussion in breakout groups, about the work arts organisations are carrying out in all of these areas; and it’s also a tribute to the work of organisations such as Creative Carbon Scotland, which have been striving to put climate action on the agenda for cultural organisations in Scotland for the last decade and more.

What’s clear, though – both from the experience of arts organisations working to reduce their carbon footprint, and from the Climate Assembly recommendations more generally – is that many of the changes needed to support rapid carbon reduction require major political action at national and local level, on a scale that is sometimes obscured by the focus on personal lifestyle, or the decisions of individual organisations, that still haunts the debate on our environmental future. An organisation like the Scottish Ensemble, for example, is free to consider ways of reducing its international touring footprint while still maintaining global links; but it will have difficulty implementing those changes if the funding bodies which support it, and the governments that stand behind those funding bodies, are still using the extent of a company’s international touring as a key measure of success and qualification for support. The same is true of the need to create a supportive regulatory environment for the recycling of raw material, or the banning of single use plastics.

The truth about the climate challenge, in other words, is that it can only be met if government, business, and society as a whole – including the arts – agree on the goal and begin to work together to achieve it. The pandemic – and particularly the rapid development of vaccines, in less than a year – has offered us a vital glimpse of just how much can be achieved when society gets all of those ducks in a row, and really unites to tackle an emergency; but given the strong vested interests in old ways of doing business, there will be no avoiding the hard politics of the situation. It will take strong social movements at the grass roots, exerting constant political pressure on governments, to achieve change on the scale that is needed, to tackle the emergency that is climate crisis.

There is finally no doubt, though, that the arts and the culture will have a huge role to play in the transition we face. It’s clear that many arts organisations are already thinking deeply about the changes they need to make in the way they work, in order to bring their carbon footprint to zero, and that that change has been greatly accelerated by the pandemic; among other things, the whole sector needs to imagine, and foster, new ways of expressing the internationalism that is vital to the arts, without constant travel.

It’s also clear that artists are in a unique position to tackle the climate crisis through the content of their work, and to use it to start vital conversations on the subject in the communities where they operate. Many artists are already doing this, such is the force of the concern felt worldwide about climate breakdown; and there is a vital job of curation to be done, in making sure that work that reflects the crisis, and that seeks to imagine new and more sustainable ways of living, is commissioned, shown and debated in ways that push forward public debate, and help us to explore our individual and collective hopes and fears – whether the work is created in-house by major arts organisations, or by freelance artists working alone, and seeking both support for their work, and an audience to whom to show it.

And finally, we should never forget the intrinsic value of the arts in this debate, as a form of human activity that can bring great joy, challenge, excitement and fulfilment, without any of the damaging consequences of the more material sources of satisfaction – bigger houses, faster cars, fancier food, more glamorous holidays – that are constantly associated with happiness and satisfaction, in the consumer society we have created. Those false measures of success, and models of happiness, are gradually killing the beautiful planet on which we depend for our very life, creating despair and profound insecurity on a global scale. What we now desperately need is a way of life that is less competitive and more co-operative, less destructive and more creative, more beautiful, more connected, and more hopeful; and there’s no question that the arts can and will play a vital role in creating and embodying that better future, for us all.

Blog originally posted by Creative Carbon Scotland.