Museums for the Future

3 06 2011

I’ve just written and produced, with my Flow colleagues, the Museums for the Future Toolkit. I’m really pleased to have been given this opportunity by Ruth Taylor and Sharon Bristow at Renaissance South East, as you’ll know if you read this blog that this is a big area of interest for me. I was concerned by the lack of structured guidance helping cultural & heritage organisations develop environmental sustainability work with their communities, integrating their work with audiences with the more operational aspects of sustainability. At a time when museums are being asked to prove their value, it’s so important that they align their mission and practices towards the possibility of solving the most urgent problems we face.

The key message of the toolkit is that being a truly sustainable museum isn’t just about having low energy lighting (or similar small actions). It’s about museums striving to transform themselves, and the lives of their visitors, schools and local communities, in order to have a wider impact on the planet.  The toolkit provides a framework and materials for museums to become agents in forging a more environmentally sustainable future. Although aimed at museums, it would equally be of use to heritage sites, arts organisations, archives, libraries, botanic gardens and wildlife centres.

It is the legacy of Renaissance South East’s Science Links in Museum Education (SLIME) network. This network of museums and individuals was established in 2006 to support and promote museums as places for science learning. Green SLIME was one of the network’s initiatives, part of the MLA funded Strategic Commissioning Science in Your World programme. Its aim was to explore how museums can link with schools and communities to address environmental sustainability. We helped co-ordinate Green SLIME, by supporting eight museum projects, a professional event and producing this Toolkit.

The Toolkit takes a practical approach, that can help museums sustain their own organisation as well as local people, by pioneering the use of sustainable materials; protecting or growing green spaces for wildlife; becoming a base for local food knowledge and heritage, or starting a movement for ‘collaborative consumption’, helping communities share their possessions, skills and time. It shows how museums are the perfect bases for such work because most collections represent the different ways that humans have grown, exploited, invented, recycled and disposed of materials, in ways that are both damaging or healing to the environment. These collections can lead to an exploration of sustainable ways that we can use materials differently for a better future.

Dr John Stevenson, Director of the Group for Education in Museums, says of the Toolkit: ‘Climate change and environmental sustainability are not normally top of the agenda for most museums. This toolkit provides a balanced and realistic approach to tackling these issues not only with children, but also with families and other audiences – and not forgetting museum staff.’ It has also been received with enthusiasm by the team running the Happy Museum Project, because it supports the role of museums in promoting well‑being.

The Green SLIME projects and Toolkit were built on some earlier research done by Claire Adler. This suggested that young people actively want museums to educate them about sustainability, but that they also want parents and influential adults to be involved, so that the responsibility is not just placed on children’s shoulders. The Toolkit, with its case studies, suggests ways of drawing people of different ages together for intergenerational exchange.

To avoid taking an overly general approach to sustainability, the Toolkit suggests that museums choose a particular theme to help convey clear messages. It focuses on eight thematic pathways, indicating which kind of museum might be suited to each pathway:

  • Materials and things
  • Well‑being
  • Biodiversity stewardship
  • Green your organisation with people
  • Place-making and adaptation
  • Energy and new technology
  • Transition to a sustainable economy
  • Food, farming and horticulture

The kit consists of: an information pack; suggestions for a kick-starter event including a PowerPoint presentation; case studies from museums which piloted the different themes, and a comprehensive directory of resources.  It can be downloaded for free from:

To give your feedback or for further information, write a comment on this blogpost or email me on (and I can pass your query on to the right person at Renaissance SE).

Progress is sustainability

30 05 2011

“They killed me when they took my land” Sinan Akçal

“…progress is about being able to sustain yourself…” Maura Harrington

The problem is an extraordinarily complex one. Human actions have already breached or still threaten the nine planetary boundaries, with climate change the biggest actor of ecological collapse. Climate change is not the single issue but a giant one in a dynamic set of interrelated issues, although it is one of the boundaries that is easiest to solve. Easiest to solve, but still, not easy. That it is easier to solve than the others shows what a mess we are in.

Emissions in 2010 were higher than ever despite the recession, prompting alarm that 2C stabilisation of temperature would be impossible, with a much greater likelihood of a 4C increase by 2100. Governments and media will continue to talk about averting future disaster while failing to notice that anthropogenic disasters have been hitting for some time and are increasing in severity. More food riots and conflict are predicted, but media and government responses focus on increasing the flow of money and curtailing tyrants rather than preventing damage of natural resources.

Why is there an increase in emissions? Because the response to global distress by almost every country that is not entirely torn by conflict or slowed by entropy is to effect a rapid ‘great leap forward. For one of many examples, Ecuador is champing at the bit to destroy vast areas of rainforest to extract only a small amount of oil. These examples mean yet more deforestation, extraction, power stations, dams, factories and city infrastructure, always in the name of looking after the interests of a nation’s people. But, the benefits for the majority of people are dubious. These ‘great leaps forward’ mean overlooking or promoting corrupt, exploitative, ecocidal and ‘culture-cidal’ practices in the interests of what is considered the greater good of ‘more jobs’ and GDP. Many of these countries are forgetting to ensure the stability of local agriculture (and/or productive wilderness) because of the belief that jobs means money to buy food and other land-based produce from elsewhere. However, as we breach planetary boundaries there is less ‘elsewhere’ that food can be produced. Add to this, growing inequality which contributes to the statistic that 50% of all food is wasted (if all aspects of the production cycle are accounted for, including losses because of food’s transportation from ‘elsewhere’). The myth that rapid industrial progress will  benefit all a nation’s people remains a very powerful one, despite the fact that corporate executive pay increased by 32% in 2010 while workers’ pay endured the most prolonged squeeze since the 1920’s.

Why is this myth so powerful? Individuals conform to social norms based on what they understand will be optimal for them. Never before has it been so hard for people to decide for themselves, based on concrete evidence, what is optimal for them. (For more about social norms see the work of Dr Cristina Bicchieri.) Worldwide, normative values have switched massively away from those where cultural stability is achieved by having the means to thrive with the land, towards values whereby individual or family security is achieved by having a job away from (or against) the land. Those who uphold the former values can often be described as backward, foolish and standing in the way of progress. Those who drive the latter values can often project themselves as progressive, smart and caring for people. Of course, it’s much more complex than this polarity suggests.

These two news stories about Ireland and Turkey show us people who for generations have provided food from their land but are now being ousted by government-commissioned industrial schemes. The long battle of the people of Erris against Shell has been narrated as a film, out now, called The Pipe. Maura Harrington, one of the activists, says: “This is about a sense of place and its people. We may not qualify as indigenous people, but we have our land and culture, to which we belong. All those people who emigrated from Erris through history, Erris never left them. They say we are opposed to progress, and laugh at us. But to me, progress is the ability to sustain yourself, and those who come after you. It’s nature and nurture: what we here call muinhin, which means of the place, and cointeann, which means to get a little awkward when that place and its people are about to be torn apart.”

I find these words very potent, an inspiration for those of us in the arts and heritage sectors. Museums have traditionally been about gathering and protecting the artefacts and knowledge of dislocated cultures and environments, as well as collapsed civilisations. We were trained with a normative mindset which said that this dislocation and ‘culture-cide’ had happened in the past. We accepted that the later 20th Century had settled into a state of post-modern multiculturalism, and we worked positively to promote tolerance of dislocated peoples. That was not wrong but we took our eyes off the ball: in the ‘great leap forward’ of the developed world we failed to notice the ongoing and escalating destruction of habitats.

One key problem is that we are distracted by arguments about the right approach. Aside from, or beneath, the technical arguments about nuclear, geoengineering, carbon tax and so on, I see two dimensions to the disagreement: Between people-centred thinking and systems-thinking; between transitional economics and growth-based economics. See this matrix for a visual version of the two dimensions. The disagreements between those who are closest in their views can be the most intense. The ‘growthers’ concerned about climate change accuse organisations such as NEF of being too weak, that solutions for social and environmental injustice depend on boosting economies to get people out of poverty. The ‘transitioners’ assert that economic growth must be decoupled from resource use growth, and that growth does not have to be measured in money. Growthers tend to see climate change as the big issue, which needs to be tackled rapidly with big engineering and social change projects. Transitioners tend to see ecological collapse and resource scarcity as the problem-complex, to be resisted gently but urgently by locally-scaled alternative tactics. It was in reading this post by Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition movement) that I wondered if it is possible to reduce the polarities between them. As he says, everybody is choosing to act primarily for their families and communities. We all have common cause. On the whole, those of us who see our communities as including wildlife and who see the life-giving land as our home are more likely to take a longer view, looking further back to sustained traditions in places but also further ahead to ensure that they are sustained. We need to overcome the argument about growth by focusing on prosperity through advanced technologies (and revived practices) that restore the land’s capacity and we need to come together to be resilient in the face of runaway climate change.

The Sustainability Conundrum

20 04 2011

Today it is one year since the Deepwater Horizon accident, which filled my Summer of 2010 with anxiety for the people and wildlife of the Gulf, and anxiety for the effect of this and other spills on global ecosystems, as the oil gushed week after week into the sea.

Since then BP has been working hard. Working hard to fix its image and its bank balance. Supposedly it has a renewed focus on sustainability, but you don’t even have to read between the lines to see that this is pure greenwash. The headline of BP’s new sustainability strategy is this: “We are determined that BP will be a safer, more risk-aware business. We will deliver on our commitments from the Gulf Coast incident and work hard to earn back the trust in our operations. We will rebuild value for our shareholders by re-establishing our competitive position within the sector by playing our part in meeting the world’s growing demand for energy, as well as participating in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

This says, quite overtly, that BP can only be sustainable by sustaining its own wealth, which depends on increased extraction, which depends on safer methods so they don’t lose share value. It is true that BP is also investing something towards renewable power. But how much? Over the next 5 years, it will spend only 25% of what it costs them to clean up after the Gulf incident. At the same time, it will spend vastly more on new techniques for tar sands extraction and fracking. The Albertan Tar Sands is the most destructive project on the planet. If it continues, it alone will contribute to a 2C temperature rise. BP’s Sunrise project is helping to expand the operation by enabling more and more extraction. As Bill McKibben reminds us, we have raised the temperature by 1C and look what impact this has had so far. Our actions look set to raise the temperature by 4C to 5C before the century is out, unless we outlaw fracking, deepwater drilling, tar sands, deforestation and other ecocidal tactics, and replace them with alternatives already proven or within our grasp.

I have to say, BP is not alone in its perversion of the concept of sustainability. There are 3,000 large companies causing $2.5 trillion environmental damage a year. Many organisations twist the triad of economic, social and environmental sustainability by isolating and diminishing the importance of the environment.  This is the ‘sustainability conundrum': that it is possible to call yourself sustainable while actively destroying the planet or being implicated in its destruction. I argue that very few cultural organisations have really addressed this conundrum in order to put environmental sustainability at the heart of their mission. Tate has over 70 green champions across the organisation. Are they ever invited to address the ethics of sponsorship, as they work towards raising over £200 million in sponsorship for expansions to Tate’s London sites? There are two keys to an institution becoming sustainable: one is involving all staff (which Tate and BP have both done), the other is addressing the very core mission of its organisation (which BP has not done at all, and which Tate may still need to consider).

Knowing what we know now, cultural organisations can no longer continue to be consciously complicit with this ecocidal industrial
system. Humans are the only known animal species to destroy their habitat. How can we live with that indicator for humanity without seeking to change it? The only really sound function of a cultural organisation is to ensure the evolution of humanity to build its capacity to sustain life on the planet. This means working towards overcoming: infantilism, addiction to money, the lack of empathy and the hubristic competitive thrust that destroys life in its path to success. More positively, it  gives cultural organisations opportunities to help us imagine non-destructive ways of living, using new materials and smart technologies. To do this they can form partnerships with companies for mutual benefits, not just a simple transaction of money.

This is the challenge often put to me about my position: Isn’t it better for bad money to fund good things than for it to fund more bad things? I say, perhaps a little, but this is not really very much better than the bad. It is much better for ecocidal companies to be going through a root and branch transition towards zero carbon now, and we must all demand that they do so. If cultural organisations are sponsored by ecocidal companies through a transactional relationship, they are not in a position to make that demand. I’m extremely pleased to see that Tate has taken a vocal role in campaigning for the release of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei from unjustified imprisonment, bravely posting the words ‘Release Ai Wei Wei’ to its walls. This shows Tate is prepared to be radical. Conceivably, they would they do the same if Ai Wei Wei was persecuted for resisting the tyranny of the fossil fuel industry, but where would that leave them in relation to their fossil fuel sponsors? My signature is on this letter to the Guardian asking Tate to rethink its relationship with BP. I feel anxious about being seen to take a radical position, especially given that my family’s income depends on bodies like Tate trusting me. However, longer-term reasoning overrides this. We need to think differently now about what it means to be radical. Bill McKibben said in his speech to 10,000 young people at Power Shift: “you are not the radicals in this fight. The radicals are the people who are fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere. That is the most radical thing people have ever done.”

Agonising, Agonism and Nuclear Power

19 03 2011

‘A body of water: water’s body that seems to have a mind (and change it: isn’t that what makes a mind, its changing?)…’ From Philip Gross, Betweenland 1, The Water Table

It’s been a truly painful week for the people of Japan and all of us watching their tragedy unfold. Only a few hours after the horrific tsunami we heard that the Fukushima reactors were in trouble and straightaway there began a tense debate about nuclear power across the media. By ‘tense debate’ I mean that the discourse was quickly more agonistic than usual. Agonism is dominant in our political culture. It assumes conflict is inherent and enduring in politics, that harmonious agreement is a myth and that the object of politics is to win. Agonistic debate tactics include:

  • Perceiving and portraying another as an opponent rather than as a partner in truth-seeking
  • Only responding to points you disagree with, not acknowledging points of concurrence or mutual interest
  • Characterising your opponent’s view as more extreme than it is, or focusing on the most contentious aspect of their position
  • Making predictions about a scenario that don’t take into account all the influencing factors, focusing on certain factors in order to make a point. For example, taking what your opponent proposes and predicting that it will lead to negative outcomes.
  • Accusing opponents of being ‘blinkered’ or ‘having an agenda’ as a bluff to conceal the partisan nature of your own position.
  • Characterising opponents as typical of a certain group, and making ad hominen attacks.

It is very easy to get sucked in to using these tactics because they are the acceptable norm, there is little critic awareness of them and we are not taught alternatives in education or by example. The less I know about a subject and the more I feel my position is attacked the more likely it is I will succumb to agonistic tactics. I found I was arguing too much about nuclear power on Twitter so I took a step away and decided to reflect by writing this post.

I’ve wavered on nuclear power and my current position is not fiercely against it but neither am I for it. I wore the yellow No Thanks badge in the 80’s but then came to acquiesce, thinking the threat of climate change requires a diversity of solutions including nuclear. But in recent years I started to question nuclear as I considered how climate change impacts (rising seas and storms, as well as more conflict and terrorism) might threaten its security.

In acknowledging views of those who promote nuclear, I accept the following:

  • That there have been advances in nuclear safety
  • That the Japanese scenario is exceptional (the megaquake and the ageing reactors) so this shouldn’t be the only indicator for global decision-making
  • That we shouldn’t let fears about nuclear allow ageing reactors to continue in service while we delay decisions about next steps (but I differ in that I think we should now invest in renewables not new nuclear stations)

My concerns about nuclear power are not just about the risk of radiation from accidents (although that is one big concern). They include:

  • The slow timescale of planning and building power stations is not rapid enough to tackle global warming
  • When nuclear power stations are damaged through accidents, natural disasters or potential terrorist/wartime attack, they are damaged expensively and even catastrophically
  • Peak uranium
  • The dangers of radioactive waste disposal (although I acknowledge these problems are increasingly being solved)

For a very convincing round up of the arguments against nuclear read this post by Thomas Bjelkeman (the founder of Akvo).

One accusatory tactic of the pro-nuclear camp is that anti-nuclear campaigners are opportunistically using the Japanese tragedy to push their agenda. I do feel that the focus on Fukushima in the media is overshadowing the humanitarian crisis. But it is true that crises like these are powerful stimulants for public discussion and education, especially if we avoid shutting down debate through agonistic tactics. The media (in the broadest sense, including publishers, education, museums, anybody who is communicating) must seek to raise the bar in educating for a world of complexity and promoting ecological literacy as the most essential competency. For example, on BBC Question Time, Dimbleby allowed a panellist and questioner to get away with a conflation of green energy solutions with windpower. High profile events like this, which are amplified by social media and BBC web resources, should be opportunities to underpin debate with raised understanding of green solutions, including:

  • Drastically reduce energy consumption, for example through efficiency measures and incentives that favour sustainable local food, industry and transport. (This above all is the priority.)
  • Aquamarine: Investment in wave and tidal power
  • Wind: Investment in 4,000 new turbines, half at sea – UK has 40% of all Europe’s wind resources)
  • Sun: Investment in solar, in particular supporting microgeneration
  • Creative solutions such as Biogas (poo!), Motion power (e.g. powering devices while you walk or cycle) and smart solar materials
  • Geothermal (e.g. piping geothermal power from Iceland)
  • Biomass gasification
  • Hydroelectric power
  • Clean coal and gas (including coal capture and storage)
  • Nanotechnology.

The assumption that nuclear is the best alternative to fossil fuels, and seeming the cheapest because of its public subsidy, prevents us from exploring this range of safer alternatives. There is a conundrum here: that the climate crisis sharpens our knives rather than our wits as it should. We need to put down our knives and focus our collective wits on the problem. My interest in overcoming this knives-out agonism came from a phase of reading Hans Gadamer, when I applied his ideas to develop more dialogic forms of interpretation in museums and galleries. I do believe that cultural organisations and practitioners have a special role to play in nurturing skills in dialogue in order to help us all address these big problems in more diplomatic and pragmatic ways.

Do please take me up on this article, though maybe without using any of those unhelpful tactics.

Fearful Sightings

5 02 2011

This post is intended for Dougald Hine’s new project New Public Thinkers. I’m just a bit trepidatious about being read alongside some exceptionally sparky and knowledgeable writers so would be grateful for any comments on errors or omissions:

Right now, this is an unprecedented moment. More and more people can see the possibility of throwing off their ‘mind forg’d manacles’, to use William Blake’s phrase. This is the time of mass protests across North Africa and the Gulf but I’m thinking more broadly about global problems and the range of demotic and legislative action taking place to overcome them. The impetus for these resistant actions is a great deal of very real and shared suffering, combined with what I’m calling ‘sightings’, images which help people to see more clearly and systemically. In North Africa, the root cause of protest is rising food prices, but it’s not just what they feel in their bodies but what they can see. Egypt’s people are not insulated from imagery which directly links their hunger to climate change, and which shows them that only a 0.25 meter sea level rise would devastate many of its cities.  In Australia, moves were announced today to revive climate action following extreme storms and floods exacerbated by climate change. Seeing images like this and this and, for some, experiencing this violent reality must have had an impact on policy.

This thought train about the importance of ‘sightings’ began when I read Andy Gibson’s piece ‘Nudge vs #big society?’ Andy expressed cognitive dissonance with the UK Government’s enthusiasm for ‘nudge’ techniques (or ‘choice architecture’) to achieve mass behaviour change, combined with their expectation of a mass rising up in capacity to deliver the Big Society. Nudge is essentially a behaviourist approach which to a certain extent makes use of Persuasion Without Awareness tactics. Capacity for the Big Society requires metacognitive learning, or Self-Persuasion Through Awareness. Andy asked the Coalition’s Behavioural Insight team, ‘Have we abandoned learning?’ Of course, their answer would be ‘no, we think education is vital’. But I think no recent UK Government has ever really embraced it, the principle of self-determined lifelong limitless learning, or enlightenment. They never wanted anyone to see quite so clearly but, conversely, they fail to see that a mix of deprivation and access to knowledge will inevitably clear people’s sight. Jesse Norman, Conservative MP and author of The Big Society (on Any Questions, BBCR4 Feb 4th) said that a positive outcome of the outcry against the privatisation of public forests would be increased learning and stewardship. Now, I do believe that learning through challenge is effective but this veers towards learning through chaos, trauma and coercion. Moreover, I’m dubious about how much influence an enlightened public will be allowed to have and that this will constrain their learning. For example, if people tell the Government, having discussed and learned, that breaking up the Forestry Commission means an end to Forestry Stewardship Council membership, threatening efforts to curb global deforestation, will the Government acknowledge it? The Government has access to all the resources to give them clear sight but, in fear of losing status and status quo, they choose to obfuscate and deny the value of public wisdom.

Much has been said about the Twitterisation of the Revolution but I’m most interested in the impact on the public consiousness of imagery which makes us see a bigger picture of an anthropogenic planet, and our planet amongst others. It’s said that the first astronauts who were privileged to travel into space to see Earth as a ‘blue marble’ returned as environmentalists. In recent months, we’ve seen extraordinary advances in technologies for visualisation. Improvements to satellite imagery means, for example, that we can clearly see the effects of drought on the Amazon. NASA shows us a wealth of images of a changing planet and not only are they showing our world from a satellite view but looking outwards too: The Kepler Telescope has detected over 1200 candidates for planets in just a tiny portion of the universe, around 50 of which could host life.

Everyone with access to a screen is able to see increasingly spectacular and accurate maps, models and witness photographs of systemic change affecting land, sky and oceans, and the animal and human societies which make our community. They are also more able to place this world view in relation to the potential of other planets, which I believe must have a powerful effect.

This week I organised an event about Museums, Learning and the Environment. Anne Finlayson, CEO of Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd) asked the whole room to choose where to stand on a line with two opposite world views at each pole:  Arcadian (Mother Nature is the only force that can fix this planet) and Imperialist (we’re smart enough to fix this planet). I wanted to stand outside of this line, in that I don’t think we’re smart enough yet, because we won’t accept and work with the Force of Nature. To become smart enough, we have to evolve through a mass re-vision of our world view, and visioning technology will play a major part in that.

This may seem an odd leap, but I want to shift focus from planetary sightings to sightings of exoplanetary beings. You might or might not be aware that UFO sightings have quadrupled (or more) in the past 3 years. ET chasers are galvanised by the witness statements of Stanley Fulham who has held sustained communication with the ‘regional galactic governance authority’, about its plans to save Earth from ecological collapse. The aliens gave Fulham some recent dates on which their spaceships would be disclosed over major cities. There were reported sightings on those dates but nothing quite like the scene in Independence Day. Although my father has seen what he describes as a flying saucer, I remain extremely sceptical but intrigued. I’m most interested in the stories ascribed to UFO sightings, and the effect these have on our ability to imagine an evaluation of the Earth from an alien perspective. Whether or not there are alien saviours, the imagining of them in this light is spreading the notion that if others value a biodiverse planet enough to want to keep it that way, we should value it likewise.

There may be many people who wish to be rescued by Mother Nature or angels from other planets, but the Imperialist world view dominates and will continue to do so.  God is made in the human image and we are driven by imagining ourselves as gods, as benign colonialists of other planets. The only way that we can transcend to such a capacity, is to take a radical position now, to see the prevention of ecological collapse as the only priority and as a global challenge.

Vinay Gupta wrote this week: “To act on what we know about climate and environment, to suggest a one planet lifestyle be made possible and socially acceptable brands one as a political radical of an entirely different stripe from any conventional political group, including the greens.” This really struck home. I am a Green Party member but I’m missing their local day of action today, because I’m scoping a major international learning project. I care about UK issues, such as the forest sell-off, but my prime concern is how this might affect global deforestation. Am I afraid to be branded in this way, entirely different from any conventional political group, outside the line from Arcadian to Imperialist? I used to be but I see now that the situation is too serious for that kind of fear.

National Trust consultation on forests

31 01 2011

I just posted this comment on the National Trust’s Outdoor Nation blog,

which is inviting views on the Government’s proposed sell off of forests:

Many thanks for opening up this conversation to help people articulate thoughts about the commercialisation and/or communisation of forest ownership.

I have a particular concern about the terms of the debate used to evaluate (or summarise the value of) forests. We now have a number of local, regional and specialist campaign groups (from Forest of Dean, Scotland, Woodland Trust etc) and now, it would seem that your helpful intervention is providing the platform for an alliance, a strong advocacy voice.

The terms used by the existing campaigns to advocate the value of forests focus on:
– the health/wellbeing benefits of amenity access
– economic value of tourism and other activities in forests
– conservation of local ecosystems
– the conservation of beauty and local character

By far the most important reason to protect forest on a global scale is that deforestation is a major cause of climate disruption. Although the UK’s forested land is relatively small, I believe it is vital that our Government shows leadership with other countries. They must do all they can to protect our forest assets as a global public good, to demonstrate to Indonesia, Brazil, Canada etc the absolute importance of forests in maintaining a life-sustaining planet. As some of the UK’s forests seem to be beset by species-jumping Sudden Oak Death and potentially other diseases and impacts of climate change, it is vital that the work of the Forestry Commission continues in this area. I just don’t believe that a number of distributed local trusts can step up to the required challenge of tackling climate impacts on forests (and increasing diverse tree cover to mitigate climate change). One might also ask the question, can we be sure of the commercial value of forests if they become increasingly beset by climate change-related problems?

In summary, I would urge the National Trust to first prioritise raising awareness of the global value of forests, and the changing responsibilities Governments have to maintain them in the face of climate disruption. Then, it may be appropriate to support moves to convert some forests into community assets. If the Forestry Commission is abolised, then bodies such as the Woodland Trust and National Trust and others (CPRE etc) would need to be resourced adequately to form a Forest Conservation Alliance, with greater capacity than the Forestry Commission ever had in order to face these challenges.

Onwards and upwards

19 01 2011

The more we know, about the rapidity and devastating impacts of climate change (which you can discover if you dig into science journals and obscure blogs, because you wouldn’t know it from many public media sources) and about the mindboggling corruption of big business, especially fossil fuel companies (which you can now discover from newspapers like the Guardian thanks to Wikileaks) the more obvious it is how the attempt to tackle the former is being derailed by the efforts of the latter. As Bill McKibben said the day after COP16 at Cancun, ‘we cannot rely on our Governments to do the job, we have to do it ourselves’ and that the biggest task is to tackle the influence of the ecocidal businesses who are now bigger than nations.

Polly Higgins in this audio slideshow about why and how ecocide should be made an international crime against peace, provides statistics from the 2010 UN report on the value of biodiversity. This report expresses environmental damage in financial terms so that it can be comprehended by the dominant culture which only acknowledges financial value.  It explains that in 2008 the top 3000 companies caused $2.2 trillion damage, in 2009 that doubled to $4 trillion and in 2010 that is expected to double again.

Ray Kurzweil, author of Singularity and maestro of the Google University, demonstrates with utopian verve the law of accelerating returns, creating an exponential curve of technological progress. This uptick, with innovation feeding innovation and computing power acting like rocket fuel, will lead us to a point of singularity where machines and humans are integrated for mutual benefit. He sees climate change as a positive driver for rapid innovation so I appreciate his thinking. However, I wonder, what are the side effects and what is the fuel for this upward curve of technology?

If we see Kurzweil’s big uptick alongside two other global big upticks, the hockey stick curve of runaway climate change and the annual doubling of environmental destruction, two questions arise. The first reflects ‘pessimism of the intellect’ and the second reflects its corollary, ‘optimism of the will’.

The first: Does this widely shared optimism about the rapidity and potential of technological progress, based on the current trend of exponential progress, arise only because of a related exponential increase in environmental destruction? I’m not suggesting that we couldn’t innovate rapidly without exploiting the environment. (In fact I believe our only option IS to innovate rapidly without exploiting the environment.) I’m suggesting that the current trend of progress has depended on exploitation, which has taken us to the brink of ecological collapse. If the trend of progress does depend on exploitation, the grounds for optimism based on the upward trend so far are very shaky, because our only ‘grounds’ are earthly.

I have placed hope in our ability to learn, helped by the massive opening up of information with the internet. For 25 years, there has been serious concern about climate change and widespread understanding that ecocide causes climate change. This knowledge has intensified every year along with the evidence in the form of human suffering. However, it is hard to keep this faith when you see how companies double their destruction annually in the face of this evidence. The media today brings us news of climate-change related devastating flooding spreading down Eastern Australia. In the same news we hear that BP has negotiated to exploit Arctic oil fields of Siberia, potentially yielding vast amounts of hydrocarbons.

No connection made. In the context of this continuing behaviour, it’s hard to see how humans will develop the right technology to overcome mass loss of infrastructure, food supply, biodiversity and human life in the right timescale.

This video from NASA intends to shift our frame of reference to look to a distant future to see space colonisation as human destiny. It’s very impressive but it glosses over a major issue while also somehow making much of it. The video opens by saying that humans are incapable in their current state of evolution, of being stewards of their planet. It says that we need to evolve in order to colonise space, implying that we first need to evolve in order to stop ecological collapse and discover resources that will make them capable of space travel. Putting my project manager’s hat on, how will this work in terms of scheduling I wonder? Perhaps NASA and the technological elite imagine that some of us will be able to retreat to a number of high tech biosphere arks or bunkers whilst simultaneously evolving, restoring Earth’s ecosystems and in turn developing the capacities to travel to and terraform other planets. But the video leaves such details to the imagination.

The second question is the more optimistic one: Is the combined challenge of attaining exoplanetary space exploration and arresting global ecological collapse enough to make us overcome the weaknesses which have mildly slowed the former and rapidly accelerated the latter? In my view, the most fundamental political global split is between those who believe we must restore the health of the planet and those who believe we must focus on human prosperity. On the whole, the ruling elites who focus on the extrinsic goals of prosperity are also inspired by the potential of technology, and in many cases, by the possibilities of the colonisation of space.  Perhaps the goal of human enlightenment and subsequent evolution with the promise of going into space is more motivating as a common enterprise, than the challenge of tackling the environmental collapse per se. Perhaps this combined challenge is what it would take to unite people with different views.

By asking this question I’m not saying that I believe in a positive answer. But, it’s a more optimistic view than I’ve had in the past. It’s in keeping with the publication of Mark Stevenson’s book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. Mark is my co-founding director in Flow Associates and over the past 5 years we’ve had many discussions on these topics. I think a bit of his optimism has rubbed off on me.

Digital culture, monetisation and value

2 12 2010

This post is a response to a lively thread on the Museums Computer Group e-list about the Cost of Sales, which was sparked by a Twitter chat about whether museums should fully assess the cost of running an image sales operation. When it transferred to an email discussion it became much more philosophical and political, especially after Nick Poole raised a challenge from an international financier about the lack of clear monetary value  in digitising cultural heritage. Now, my thoughts on the discussion may seem so philosophical and political that I’m not even posting it on the MCG list but on my blog.

I agree with Nick on the need to talk with financiers, to appreciate their perspective and learn from business. This may seem very unlike me, but I have partly been stirred to say this by his rousing keynote at the UK Museums and the Web conference last Friday. My take is that we need to proceed towards a more business-like mode in a way that is profoundly ethical and ecological, to the extent that we need to lead bankers and business to see value very differently, and that by doing so we can help change the world.

I’m not an economist or a business specialist, but an educationalist above all, so I maybe have no right to contribute to a debate about monetisation but I want to raise the issue of rapidly changing relevances and the importance of shifting our frames of reference. The key to advocating and generating value is establishing, and stretching, contextual relevance. I think digital culture & heritage people must shift from being technologists who are servicing the dominant modes of value, into leaders capable of transforming their organisations. As a sector we can then join the vanguard alongside the Commons and Social Enterprise movements, where technology enables an opening of access to  culture, for widespread change. (I say ‘vanguard’ but it’s worth remembering that the earliest dated printed book, the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, was marked as for free universal distribution nearly 1200 years ago.)

The least significant aspect of our context is the economic crunch. You could even argue there isn’t a money problem, but that there’s just a money flow problem. There are great reserves of money, for example the top European companies are sitting on around 500 billion euros, not to mention the wealth of other internationals and the high net worth individuals. Public money isn’t flowing to UK culture so much now because the response to the deficit is ideological, and there is an entrenchment of values that favour financial growth for the sake of corporates over the wellbeing of the commons. This entrenchment is allowing a backlash of philistinism, allowing the multivalence of culture to be overlooked, only valued when it is a valuable commodity due to rarity or celebrity or market demand. The few public cultural organisations that have managed to work that system of commodity, brand or celebrity have been more successful at tapping those reserves. The Tate is one of those few, having just announced a £45 million revamp alongside their £215 million extension at Tate Modern. This magnetism is partly related to the oiling (in two senses) of the worldclass value of the British market for modern and contemporary art. None of this critique is meant criticise the Tate, especially as it plays a great role in education and in showcasing radical and participatory art such as Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds. (Incidentally, to monetise this artwork, have they considered selling 10 seeds for £1 after the show? I’d pay that, especially if some of the profits went to charity.)

So, if smaller organisations in the MLA & arts sectors want to tap that corporate source too, they may want to emulate the operations that attract money, by using digital media to build brand, a sense of glamour around a place, a sense of aura around the originators or cultural objects, and to present the artefacts themselves as totems of power. That approach can certainly make a great visitor experience, and can stimulate support and even learning. But it can also be very superficial. I want to propose that they should look elsewhere for their relevance.

I’m not just talking about looking beyond the financial value of culture to alternative ways of defining capital that are ‘softer’ and, well, indefinable. So many reports or pleas about the value of culture, though they may say much that is heartening and useful, are either circular (‘people want that soft indefinable something and they’ll pay for it, so, look it yields money) or self-defeating (‘you can’t tarnish the softer indefinable stuff with money, you just have to accept its otherness’). The problem is that our dualistic model holds hard economic value in opposition to soft cultural value (cultural = ethical, aesthetic and spiritual). If we synthesised the two, with money and culture not in opposition, we would see something I call ‘biosphere capital’. This is about resources for survival, and that is as hard-headed and sensible as you can be, harder in some ways than money, which is pretty abstract. It’s also about drawing on all the resources of the human spirit and memory to achieve it.

If the sector wants to embrace relevance, this is what matters: The scientific consensus that the planet is heading, at current trends, to a temperature increase which may not sustain mass human life before the end of this century. Also, wrapped up with the causes and effects of global warming are resource scarcity, biodiversity loss and chemical pollution. As these take effect, there will be a major increase in conflict (ranging from low level crime to the threat of nuclear war) unless we can counter dominant values that separate humans into civilisational clusters, to foster a spirit of collaboration and tolerance.

The time may come soon when we start to say that if cultural & heritage organisations aren’t pulling out all the stops to tackle this overarching ‘wicked problem’ then they don’t deserve public funding. Also, given that corporate wealth is really commonwealth (in private hands), we might argue that they don’t deserve corporate funding either.

So, what are all the stops you can pull out to make an almighty noise, and how (in the brackets) might you afford it?

You can work with financiers and corporations to change what business is, to change the way they work, to enable the success of a knowledge economy that does not harm the environment. (That’s why I think digital people in the cultural sector are important, because knowledge is the key, and also because knowledge & technology companies tend to be more keen to forge a sustainable future. Can you make a case for their investment? Can you innovate together?)

You can work with educationalists to help people be more creative, resilient, tolerant and better able to access knowledge to apply it to action.(The education business is set to grow massively in countries like India and China. Can you package and sell expertise and assets internationally?)

You can work with Governments and civil society organisations to promote cultural democracy and diplomacy. (If gentle respect for human craft and natural diversity becomes the norm, it can help counteract aggressive and destructive attitudes, and you can generate income by developing trade in craft, ideas and knowledge.)

You can work with scientists and academics, and wider communities of enquiry, to unlock the knowledge that is in archives, biodiversity banks, and in living cultures, and also to help protect and preserve that knowledge. (Can you work as partners with Knowledge Transfer teams in Universities to seek financial investment?)

You can work with contemporary creative and cultural practitioners to develop metaphorical and participatory outcomes that can accelerate public understanding and ethics. (In UK, if the MLA sector is drawn under the Arts Council, there will be more opportunities for arts & museum joint programmes.)

They can work with social and health services to ensure that cultural resources and spaces aid wellbeing. (NHS reforms mean a greater localisation of services, with needy individuals given personal budgets for their care.)

What has this got to do with the Cost of Sales debate? Maybe not a lot. Or maybe everything. It’s a plea not to think too small, not to regress to past practices of business in being more business-like. If being business-like is like being a farmer, it’s about making a shift from vast agri-business (monocrops, forced fertility, asking for public subsidy, ultimately unsustainable), to permaculture (where you mix and match, experiment, always have something to eat, and you swap seeds & glut with others). It’s a plea to think as broadly as possible in mapping all the assets that can generate value (not just your digitised collections, but ideas, venues, brand, supporters etc), and all the ways they can generate value (especially ecological value or Biosphere capital). It’s a plea to invest in digitising a collection not because it’s immediately clear how it will make money but because it’s immediately clear why that knowledge helps sustain life. It’s a plea to remember that knowledge only wants to be free.

Cleansing culture of fossoil sponsorship

30 11 2010

You may have seen my previous post about the Liberate Tate protest. The campaign continues with plans for a participatory exhibition. More information here sent to me from PLATFORM:

Liberate Tate: Collected Works 2010

In 2010, in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, art activists staged a dramatic series of performances in cultural institutions to protest against oil companies like BP and Shell sponsoring gallery spaces like the Tate. Gushing from floral skirts, spilling elegantly from giant white eggs, jetting from paint tubes across the floor of the iconic Tate Turbine Hall, the flood of oily resistance that followed has generated a fierce debate in the art world around oil, ethics and sponsorship.

This collection of beautiful postcards, made in collaboration with PLATFORM and Art Not Oil, documents both the striking images that the performances have generated, as well as a number of choice quotes that have come out of the ensuing public debate.

Please make a donation on the site and we will send you a collected set of the post cards.

All the proceeds generated from the sale of these postcards will be used towards a participatory exhibition in a London-based arts space in 2011 that will further the campaign to liberate art institutions from the clutches of some of the most destructive multi-national companies on the planet.

Do you have a backbone?

6 11 2010

Thermogeddon is a new term to me and a useful one. The word Climate Change is inadequate on its own. It sounds like something heavenly and abstract, a mild adjustment to the rain and shine we can expect. Global Warming can only sound pleasant to people from Northern climes. I tried following Obama’s advisor in using the term Global Climate Disruption but it had no traction with people. It sounded too technical and I had to explain it even if nobody asked me to. Thermogeddon has the advantage of sounding like a movie title and being intriguing. The other plus is that it relates to our bodies rather than the ether. It arises from research by some scientists in Sydney about how higher temperatures will affect (ie kill off) creatures with backbones. That means us, and most of the creatures we eat, and otherwise appreciate. This state may come in the 23rd century but within 100 years it could apply to large areas of the planet. Rather than the analysis focusing on weather systems, it shows how those big systemic changes directly affect our bodies and the resources we are dependent on. Thermogeddon is a term that points us to the outcome of climate change not so much the process. It may be helpful to shift the entrenched notion that environmentalists don’t care about humans (i.e. that they’re too science-bound…although that notion is contradicted by just as common criticism that environmentalists are anti-science).

This thermogeddon research comes along at the same time as another report which shows that many populated areas of the planet may become a vast dustbowl, with widespread drought. There will be heavier rain but that falling onto dessicated deforested soil, so causing fluvial flooding on devastating scales.

So, that’s what we face. I’m interested to know: Do you hear anyone talking about it, I mean, referring to or visualising these scenarios? I expect the answer will be no. I think about it a lot, write about it less, and speak about it to my family hardly at all. I’m anxious about the moment when, because I have to be honest in answering questions, I have to convey the full detail of what I have seen and heard about the projected future to my 10 year old. When she imagines her own future, from being at university to being an old granny, I don’t want to say ‘Sorry to disappoint you sweetheart but scientists tell us that things are going to get worse and worse, and none of our leaders are doing enough about it’. I encourage her to imagine a great future, but I also explain why I’d rather she didn’t have another piece of plastic trash or why we’re not having a foreign holiday.
The reason I ask if you hear people talking about this is because I think our culture (in the hegemonic sense of our culture led by mass media) is going through an extraordinary phase of denial, ranging from the outright to the constructive. In the debate that followed last night’s controversial C4 programme ‘What the Green Movement Got Wrong’, presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy said that the environmental movement had learned at last that it didn’t do to tell people how terrible the future looked, because it puts them right off.

I think that is questionable. Firstly I question it because I don’t think environmentalists (or anybody concerned about the planet, whatever they call themselves) have a past track record of talking ‘doom and gloom’. Science-based reporting or writing has told what scientists are discovering and modelling, often very cautiously. Others who focus on green culture and lifestyle have been relentless in trying to motivate people. Even writers such as Clive Hamilton and Alaistair McIntosh, whose book titles might sound the epitome of doom (Requiem for a Species, Hell and High Water etc) keep a strong wellspring of hope mingled with despair.

I mainly question it because it is part of a patronising conception of the masses as passive recipients of messages from a governing and industrial elite. It assumes that people are so disconnected from their own means of making sense of the world that they must ‘be told’ rather than enabled to find out. Should we censor scientific research which models future scenarios so that the people won’t find out? Of course not. I don’t want to hear dirge-like messages coming daily from the media about how ‘we live in the end times’, obviously. But I want honesty and transparency. I want our media and cultural organisations to stretch their empathy and imagination to the limits so that they can help us deal with the projected scenarios. In the case of the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK, they are resting in a position which ranges from:

  • The positive (mostly from the BBC): encouraging public to celebrate and conserve biodiversity and celebrating green architecture in the occasional episode of Grand Designs
  • The neutral: An absence of reference to environmental politics across current affairs (for example, no references to climate change in coverage of the Pakistan floods)
  • The negative: An assumption that we want to be entertained by spurious storytelling and bogus binary debates between the ‘two sides’ of climate denial and acceptance.

The majority of coverage which gets attention and stimulates debate is the latter, but this is not useful debate. It is time-wasting, agonistic and does not help us design a better world.

So, if you have a backbone, and are one of those creatures that won’t survive thermogeddon, and if you have any way of influencing the way that environment is represented in our cultural and media programming, get noisy and get positive.


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