Listen and respond: Cultural learning in the Earth crisis

Earlier this year we were commissioned by A New Direction to carry out a strand of research for their Listening Project. A New Direction is a London-based non-profit, generating opportunities for children and young people to unlock their creativity. The Listening Projects cover five themes: the experience of young Londoners, supporting organisations leading practice, the Earth emergency, enabling cultural communities, and employment and work. 

Our central question was: With young Londoners in mind, how should culture and creative learning respond to the Earth crisis?

Our research aimed to listen and respond, to listen to the views of young people, cultural workers and educators, and to explore how the Cultural and educational sectors could respond to the Earth crisis. We rested this on several evidenced assumptions, including:

  • The truth that the planet’s operating system – its stable climate and thriving biosphere – is in the process of collapse due to the breaching of several of its boundaries.
  • That Children and Young People (CYP) are anxious about the Earth crisis and what it means for their futures, and that they are justified in feeling that their future is being stolen from them, and that they should be commended and supported for their activism.
  • That culture and creativity can be a powerful and generative force in arresting this collapse, and helping cope with impacts that are already ‘baked in’ or likely.
  • That CYP can both benefit from and take a leading role in this work. The more involved they are in leadership, the more that benefits will arise for their peers and communities.

We did background research, ran a survey, carried out interviews and then held three focus groups to explore the following questions:

Area 1: Emotions and the role of creativity

  • What are your emotions when you think of the troubled planet? 
  • How does culture or creativity help CYP explore and express their emotions in dealing with the Earth crisis? 

Area 2: The role of creativity and critical thinking

  • Do you have examples of how creativity and critical thinking can help explore different perspectives and complex problems, or come up with solutions? 

Area 3: Youth voice and democratic participation 

  • How much do you feel able to participate in decisions that affect your future, such as the state of the planet? 
  • How much voice do young people have in cultural organisations and creative learning, so that it responds to their concerns and needs (e.g. about their futures / the Earth crisis)? 

Area 4: Culture & creative practice as a vehicle for positive change 

  • Thinking about what is possible in 2027, if London’s culture & creative sector has responded to the Earth crisis, what do you see? 
  • And to achieve this vision what would you ask influential organisations to do?

The findings are presented in a report that you can download from this site, along with the reports on the other strands.

Some key themes that arose, which are covered in much greater detail in the report, included:

  • Don’t bracket out the Earth crisis, but integrate it into all cultural and educational provision, acknowledging that it affects everything and will do so increasingly
  • Opportunities to explore the Earth crisis (not just the science or the solutions, but all aspects) need to be carefully designed to be both taking it seriously and comfortably accessible
  • That CYP shouldn’t be pigeonholed (e.g. as eco warriors) or burdened with the task of saving their own futures
  • Some different opinions on the value of either individualism or collectivism in how we should respond
  • Knowledge brings confidence to speak, so democratic participation depends on education, which depends on creative engagement and well designed opportunities to learn
  • Parents and educators also feel overwhelmed and unsure how to engage CYP with such a difficult subject (which is not so much a subject as an urgent global existential crisis) and need support to help them with a sense of inadequacy and injustice on behalf of young people
  • Meaningful youth engagement requires more profound awareness of CYP’s needs, for example in relation to digital access
  • Sustainable cultural education has to be both intersectional and ecological.

These are the calls to action that concluded our report:

Advocate sustainable cultural learning to funders and policy-makers

Ask funders and policy-makers to support cultural opportunities for CYP to learn about the causes, impacts and solutions of the Earth crisis, and to develop skills for system-changing activism and aspirations for greener livelihoods. The complex environmental challenges facing CYP can be levered as an opportunity to advocate the value of cultural & creative learning. 

Plan to build professional capacity for sustainable cultural learning

Develop training for cultural workers and educators to grow their skills in supporting and challenging CYP with these complex challenges, to navigate needs to be truthful, protective and positive, and to carefully adjust this work for different needs and interests. Outcomes of this training could be the co-design of friendly, fun and inclusive cultural spaces and occasions where sustainable behaviours and ideas are integrated and normalised.

Encourage visible statements of commitment

Cultural organisations have a duty due to their public role and visibility. “How many cultural organisations have an overt climate strand of work with the public? How many have learning programmes that always have climate and ecology? [How many] have a statement about their systemic role as an environmentally aware and progressive organisation through every element of their being?” 

Encourage London’s cultural organisations & creative departments to declare emergency and make visible statements. Their action plans need to be broad across: 

  • educating themselves and audiences about the Earth crisis
  • becoming resilient as shocks hit, including decarbonisation
  • enabling youth activism and agency
  • supporting direct action for social and environmental justice. 

Explore multi-solving cultural initiatives for London

  • Model or promote ideal initiatives that create connections and mutually beneficial outcomes across culture, education, health, employment and environment, focused on London’s places. 
  • Encourage cultural organisations to collaborate, for example, with youth-led environmental movements or with local authorities to deliver environmental policies. 
  • Connect with plans for the Lewisham Borough of Culture with its focus on climate, ecology and sanctuary for migrants. 
  • Consider a mentoring scheme to support young people into creative activism and sustainable creative livelihoods. (See the call for 250,000 green apprenticeships.)
  • An ideal initiative could be a revival of the Every Child Matters agenda, led by a consortium of London boroughs and a board of young people, in which the Earth crisis and its impacts on CYP today and future generations is fully acknowledged. 

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