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AmbITions for an environmentally sustainable future

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(A shorter version of this article by Hannah Rudman appeared as a blog in The Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network.)

A huge body of science built up over the last 50 years proves that climate change is anthropogenic: human made. The balance of nature is being significantly affected by the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) humans and their industry have pumped into the atmosphere, and we have simultaneously chopped down the planet’s capacity to absorb the excess CO2. We’ve also exploited to peak points, without properly paying for, the earth’s natural but finite resources. The increase in global temperatures these actions have created affect the balance of nature: causing effects we are all too familiar with. The weather is that effect, operating as an alarm system. We can see it with our own eyes, but we are busy pretending we can not hear the alarm. Our growing population, and the consumerism of our populations is costing us the earth – our habitat.

What have the cultural and creative industries got to do with dealing with this rather appalling predicament? The energy, built environment, and transport sectors obviously have far greater impacts on a nation’s carbon footprint in comparison to the arts, cultural and creative industries. However, just because we are not seen as a significant part of the emissions/pollutant emitting and natural resource using problem, does not mean we should not be a significant player in the solution. We all know climate change is something we need to address.

We face daunting challenges that will affect us domestically as well as globally: climate change is not just about the climate. It will have huge knock-on effects on human rights, economics, democracy, equality, and social and civil justice landscapes. The cultural and creative industries make work already that reflects implicitly and explicitly on these issues just listed. We already stir audiences’ imaginations, minds, emotions, spirits, and souls on these subjects. As we should – for all artists and cultural and creative producers, at some level and in differing intensities, this is our vocation. Why is environmental sustainability the topic so often missing from the list?

When a society faces upheaval, it looks for fresh narratives to help make sense of events. We need to dare to imagine those narratives. Imagine new stories for a new lower carbon future. More than ever we need stories to tell us where we stand, that help us imagine our predicament, see the approaching danger. We need stories to give us inspiration to act sustainably so that we can save our civilisation and ecosystem. We need stories to encourage us to celebrate and protect what we have. We need stories because we have a collective duty to imagine what we fear to look at.

Do The Green Thing is a fabulous online resource of artists’ digital work reflecting on, inspiring, telling stories about greener living. Programmes like Tipping Point and Cape Farewell have created and inspired books, poems, plays, music, visual art, films and online installations. Having our imaginations opened up, our emotions set ablaze, and our creativity enlivened – this is where  the creative and cultural industries have an important role, through our core artistic and creative work, in mobilising people to act and think differently. Programming work about the environmental challenges we face needs to become as core a part of all our artistic, cultural and creative missions – as is already programming about youth issues, social equality, justice, or the nature of democracy.

The window for averting climate change is narrow. If we want to choose our own path, not have one forced upon us, we need to take responsibility and act now. We must have the courage to programme far much more work about environmental issues.

If we’re programming about it, and forming a position on it, we must also seek to have integrity with that in our organisations’ and practices’ operations. Many venues and festivals engage already with the fabulous energy, waste and water reduction programmes that Julie’s Bicycle and Creative Carbon Scotland produce.

The digital development programme that runs nationally in Scotland, AmbITion (supported by The National Lottery via Creative Scotland, and run by Rudman Consulting and Culture Sparks), also seeks to support organisations hoping to make environmentally sustainable operational changes; product; and audience engagements. It has a fund called Sustainable AmbITion, that gives arts, culture, and heritage organisations support to make steps towards being explicitly ecologically sustainable – using digital tools. Digital is a part of the new eco-system our earth, our home, will depend upon, and we need to be using it as a tool in all areas of our practices to improve environmental sustainability.

Arts, cultural, creative and heritage organisations have a huge advantage over business corporations and even governments in terms of taking the lower carbon transition message to the general public. We have our own social networks of people who like and support us, people with shared values and social cohesion already formed. And they have gone digital. So then should our environmental sustainability efforts.

The Touring Network have used AmbITion Scotland support to create Tourbook, a digitally enabled social network of highland and island performing arts promoters. It encourages the behaviour change of that social network, which until now has been operating most effectively through analogue social network forms: meetings! Digitising some of the work done in these meetings cuts back the carbon footprints of the promoters themselves as they avoid travel to do business, but also makes immediately public to that wider group when artists are in Scotland. What this means is they should be able to avoid a situation where artists have to travel to the highlands twice in one year following bookings from a couple of separate promoters in different locations. Multi-leg tours can now be lined up to make the most sense of travel plans and itineraries of artists through this social digital tool.

The Highland Museums Forum have worked together as a social network with AmbITion Scotland support to create a digital reference tool which helps them share good practice and ways to be more environmentally sustainable in their unique locations.

Regional Screen Scotland, the organisation that looks after the Screen Machine (the UK’s only mobile cinema), worked via AmbITion Scotland support with their audiences and digital tools to compare the carbon footprint of touring the travelling auditorium, with the carbon footprint that the audience would otherwise create journeying to cinemas. The digital engagement with their community and the feedback from them on this subject has given Regional Screen Scotland new ideas about how to use digital tools to talk about their own carbon footprint, and reduce that of their audiences’.

The sector’s social networks, live and digital, also give us the opportunity to engage the with psychology of social norms. Social norms to build bridges between where people are at, and where they should be. The message about why someone should take an action (it is good for the environment), plus the presentation of the social norm, has an even greater effect than just the message on its own. Telling people what others like them do, changes behaviour (the 75% the people who have stayed in your hotel room previously and who recycled their towels, will have a social influence on you to change your behaviours too!)

Doune the Rabbit Hole is a family friendly festival that happens in August in a Stirlingshire that also has been working with digital tools for better environmental sustainability through AmbITion Scotland. Their online car sharing tool will use their digital social network to establish a social norm. As well as providing the service for encouraging festival-goers to share their car or get a lift, they will also, because the tool is digital, be able share back with their community the numbers of people car sharing, and so communicate a social norm to that community – “the normal behaviour of how to get to this festival is car sharing”! They will also be able to calculate the journeys avoided and therefore the emissions saved, which links the social norm to a good environmental behaviour. The whole experience takes the fear out of behaviour change.

We need to provide more ways, like this, of encouraging personal engagement with the new actions. They are good for the environment, but also give individuals a fulfilling role in society, and a sense of agency. The many ways in which arts, cultural and creative industries can enable each individual to change their own actions, develop their own learning, expand their creative imagination, and build their own emotional skills is incredibly important to achieving significant adaptation.

The point of a story can pierce a heart; a visual interpretation of data or photograph of a situation can blow our minds; emotionally engaging with a dance or music or theatre performance can make our souls sing; sending a viral video/cartoon/photo message round the globe through social media can engage our humour, enlighten our imaginations and embed meaning and understanding across cultures. Experiencing any of these can change mindsets and enable mass movements.

The cultural and creative industries are a crucially key sector to facilitating mass behaviour changes amongst the general public that a low carbon transition and future demand.

As a sector we are a powerful collective imagination and a trusted voice, and I want it  to be loudly heard in people’s ears, guts, brains, skin: telling stories of hope and warning about a likely future. But I also want it to be loudly heard reporting with integrity our own commitments to reducing operational and venue climate impacts and carbon emissions; and speaking into the online social networks and digital spheres where we have influence to change behaviours and create new social norms. Our disruptive, audacious thinking can get people engaged with hope. Our stories about ecological sustainability and greener living will be essential to preparing us all for a new ecosystem. Statistics cannot motivate us as stories can. Hope, in the powerful words of poet Seamus Heaney, is a state of the soul, rather than a response to the evidence.