Art and Environment?

As someone who has had a lifetime of passionate professional and personal involvement in the arts, I am also aware of the profound and at times emotional and empowering affect that works of art can have on individuals and communities, both local and global, be they paintings, photographs, films, theatre, dance, music, literature or any of the amazing range of forms encompassed by the term ‘new media’.

Throughout history the arts have played a major role in recording and reflecting the state of human society and the natural world in which society exists. Indeed, for some historical periods it is only through the arts that we have been able to learn about past civilisations. But sometimes the arts have also been a catalyst for change, a call to action, a pricking of humanity’s collective conscience.

So while we need the rational, practical, physical knowledge of science telling us how much of the world’s resources we are using, how much pollution we are creating, and what this is doing to the planet’s climate and ecosystems, we also need the sort of knowledge that is provided by the personal, unique, aesthetic responses to these issues because it is this form of knowledge which, in Bill McKibben’s words, is perhaps more likely to ‘register in our gut’.

We need to shift our way of thinking from one where we see ourselves as separate from nature, to one where we accept that we are an integral part of nature. We need to acknowledge what has been described as the ‘unruly complexity’ of the relationships between all things, to be aware that this is what makes our world the dynamic, intriguing, challenging and wondrous experience that it is, and I believe that the arts, which are a part of this wondrous experience, have a major role to play in encouraging this mental shift.

The arts can not only show but indeed make us feel the very problems that we are facing. They can allow us to have a foretaste of our possible futures, both bad and good. The arts can help us to imagine what sort of society we really want, not merely what others say we should want, or what we should be prepared to accept. Of course, by itself, imagining a sustainable, efficient, flourishing, society will not make it happen. But that vision is vital to guide and motivate our actions and the arts can be a powerful tool in illustrating, communicating and narrating that vision. This vision was brought into focus during the  ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE festivals held in Melbourne in 2015 and 2017.

The arts network is another way in which these issues can be explored and shared.  Those practising in the arts often have a strong sense of belonging to ‘the arts community’ and on a local and global level we should utilize our various arts networks to promote sustainability, share information and engage in reciprocal learning; to give and receive support, encouragement and hope.

The issue of sustainability is, at its most fundamental level, an ethical one, and love, compassion, friendship, generosity, justice – these are all qualities that are at the heart of our desire to act ethically. So we must learn to practice these qualities not only now, and among ourselves, but also towards future generations who as yet do not yet even exist. We cannot avoid the consequences of exceeding our planet’s limits, if we do not learn to see ourselves and others as part of one globally integrated society, and all the processes on our planet as part of one globally integrated, interrelated system.

So, as you can see, the tide is turning, indeed it is rising, and we all have to make our choice. Whether humankind can meet the challenge of climate change, whether it can achieve the sustainability revolution, is not a predetermined outcome.

As the authors of Limits to Growth: the 30 year update said, we can choose to continue on with business as usual, believing that our world has no limits, and the most likely result may well be catastrophe – a collapse of society and the world’s eco-systems.

We can choose to accept that we have a problem, but not believe that we have the time or the ability or the will to fix it. This way of thinking will be self-fulfilling, for if we believe it, that belief will inevitably be proven right.

Or we can choose accept that our world has limits, that there is no time to waste, that humankind has just enough ingenuity, compassion, wealth, resilience and optimism to bring about a sustainability revolution, to avoid the worst case scenarios of climate change, and indeed, to make the world a better place for the vast majority of its inhabitants.

This last choice may turn out to have been misguided, but on all the available evidence it could well turn out to be correct.  We will never know unless we try.

Twenty-five years ago William D Ruckelhaus, the then Administrator of the United States Environment Protection Agency, said:

“Can we move nations and people in the direction of sustainability? Such a move would be a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: the Agricutural Revolution of the late Neolithic and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries. Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous, and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation, guided by the best foresight that science can provide…

If we actually do it, the undertaking will be absolutely unique in humanity’s stay on Earth.”

I believe that the sustainability revolution will have to be guided not only by science, but by every kind of knowledge that humankind has inherited and created, and especially that great repository of creativity, imagination, and spirit that is the arts.