Environmental collapse is not in the future: Culture must respond

I’m more than ever committed to work towards a groundswell of action towards a Culture that is restorative of the planet’s systems and that is justice-driven and rugged in the face of collapse. The following is about what motivates me, and a little of what I’m doing in response with Culture Declares, Climate Museum UK and allied groups such as Museums for Future. This is collaborative work, inviting you and others to join us, but this is my own take on the situation. 

The big why: environmental collapse is here

There has been a lot of debate about whether collapse is possible or imminent, or not. I’m of the camp that says it’s been underway for some time, if we think in a more granular and nuanced way about what collapse is. Some places have already experienced collapse of ecosystems and societies, increasing with extractive colonialism over past centuries. This has now joined up into a patchwork of collapse, overlaid with the hugely disruptive factor of global warming. 

Injustice: Multiple links have been categorically proven between a range of extractive activities and the global impacts of a heating planet. These activities have their origins in colonialism and their impacts fall disproportionately on the Global South, but also on disadvantaged communities in countries like the UK. 

Signs of climate breakdown are appearing up to three decades sooner than projected. For example, the Antarctic is losing ice at twice the rate previously thought. The northern hemisphere bakes in extreme heat and drought, and freak rainfall and storms pound places in random patterns, including places considered protected from the worst impacts, in what Alex Steffen calls the Transapocalypse. So, extreme weather events are now strongly affecting the privileged North, while the Global South is experiencing unbearable temperatures, and there is increased displacement from areas such as Sub Saharan Africa. Famine has increased 6 fold over the past two years, there was a 20% rise in global food prices in 2021, and the current drought has reduced European harvests by c.30% in summer 2022. 

McGuire stresses that if carbon emissions can be cut substantially in the near future, and if we start to adapt to a much hotter world today, a truly calamitous and unsustainable future can be avoided. The days ahead will be grimmer, but not disastrous. We may not be able to give climate breakdown the slip but we can head off further instalments that would appear as a climate cataclysm bad enough to threaten the very survival of human civilisation.” Robin McKie, talking to Bill McGuire, Guardian, July 2022

Human health breakdown: Heat stress, floods and food shortages erode mental and physical health, and shorten lives. Covid-19, Monkeypox, HIV and others are zoonotic diseases that have emerged from our ecocidal relationship with nature, and will grow in number and severity with climate breakdown. Meanwhile air pollution causes 7 million deaths annually. 

Global conflict: War and conflict are ramping up as one of several intersecting crises that come from the degenerative system. There are currently major conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria and further civil wars in Africa and South America. These result from conflict over resources, often fossil fuels and land for agriculture, stirred by nationalism, religious ideologies and authoritarian leadership. The most dangerous agents of war are those nations extracting the most resources, harbouring the most corruptly sourced wealth, and building arsenals of the most destructive weapons.

Energy prices: for several reasons, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy prices have shot up and are threatening to rise further. This is throwing light on our dependence on fossil fuels and their supply from totalitarian regimes, resulting in calls both to increase local supplies of fossil fuels and to increase investment in renewable energy, as well as nuclear power. 

Fossil fuel corruption: The fossil fuel industry has been profiting $3 billion a day for the past 50 years, with record profits in 2022 due to rising prices that fall on customers, with the poorest facing unaffordable bills this winter. Yet, the industry continues to lobby governments and influence the media, for example, through Net Zero Watch

What are we doing about it?

There have been bubbles of response as this Earth crisis has worsened, such as our formation of Culture Declares Emergency, and the other declarer’s initiatives, in 2019-2020. I formed Climate Museum UK at the same time, a collective of practitioners engaging people with these issues. We’ve been campaigning and training with my Culture Takes Action framework, offering eight pathways to expand ideas of the role of Culture in response to the emergency. 

Since the build up to COP26, the bubbling has grown to a boil with many creative campaigns, alliances, awards, exhibitions and climate-focused roles (for example at the Horniman Museum and at Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts). We’ve seen Julie’s Bicycle and the Museums Association centre climate justice in their work. We’ve seen the arts used in climate activism, such as in Writers Rebel. We’ve seen growing success of the campaign, strategically led by Culture Unstained, to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture. 

But, we’re tired

By we, I mean, collapse-aware regenerative culture activists in the Global North. And we’re not experiencing a fraction of the trouble and threat for activists that have been for some time on the frontlines. We’re tired because:

  • We are trying to join up to save effort, but this takes so much effort. 
  • We, some more than others, are trying to work in trauma-sensitive, inclusive ways, and often failing in our rush to action. 
  • There isn’t enough funding for cultural work that can leverage system change.
  • Incomes in arts and culture are very low (two-thirds of the median UK wage) and are not rising with the leaping cost of living. 
  • We find it hard enough just to reduce harm within our existing activities, when what we must do is completely re-organise our mission and collaborative practices in order to restore nature and make reparations. 
  • The Earth crisis impacts make us tired – overheated, shielding from zoonotic diseases, less able to afford good food and so on. 

We’re also pushing against a tide of media that confuses, denies climate change and promotes ‘everyday ecocide’. More and more people are deeply concerned about the Earth crisis, and are talking about it privately, but don’t say what they really think. They mask, deflect and minimise. They might hopefully or aggressively quote the falsities they’ve seen in media or speak as others around them speak. Bill McGuire describes how climate scientists practise appeasement, being much more optimistic and reassuring in public than they are in private. 

So, what am I doing about it?

Focus on place

I’ve resettled in Norwich in Norfolk, where I come from, and I’m trying to root some of my work in place. In Climate Museum UK, we’ve been a cohort in the course ‘Power of Place’, about regenerative place-making. From this learning, we’re growing a cluster of associates and partners in Norfolk, and I’m working towards creating a space or centre, ‘Possitopia Norwich’. Norwich is a perfect place for this vision, as there is an appetite for creative community engagement on climate and ecology, a political recognition that the Earth crisis is the all-encompassing issue, and a number of existing initiatives that can be enriched or amplified by it. I’m also part of the Culture Declares East of England hub. See this upcoming event, on October 12th, in partnership with Climate Museum UK. 

Museums declare

Although I work across cultural sectors, my longest connection has been with the museums sector, and have been running many training sessions & talks across Europe (and India) on the Earth crisis. I noticed that hardly any museums had signed up with Culture Declares, so am working with Museums For Future on a campaign to encourage museums everywhere to declare, take action and seek justice. We’re also supporting a call out to museums and galleries to participate in the pilot of The Great Imagining, a major futures literacy initiative for schools and young people led by The House of Fairy Tales.  

Alliance of Declarers

I’m working on a joint call to action to an Alliance of Declarers, convened by Culture Declares, embracing 10+ other initiatives responding to the emergency across the cultural and creative industries. This will invite all to imagine what kind of response is possible in this Earth crisis, in four areas of Culture, Climate, Nature and Justice, and to work collectively to make this response happen. 

Impact in Society initiative, with Unstitution

Working with Unstitution on a coalition that aims to reboot society’s operating system, and increase collaboration across many sectors and academia to focus on impact. We’re contributing to the role of Culture in this, and building a suite of online resources on Possitopia as a practice for place-making, storytelling and learning. 

These are just four of several strands of work, including supporting emerging practitioners, continuing my work in Flow Associates and my own creative practice. Do get in touch to talk about any of this, or to be connected to people or initiatives mentioned here.

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