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.”

The Happy Museum is Go

8 04 2011

The Happy Museum project was launched last week at the October Gallery, launching a £60,000 open commission fund for small projects which explore wellbeing and sustainability in museum communities. It’s funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Breakthrough Fund, is the brainchild of Tony Butler and is being developed by Hilary Jennings and Lucy Neal. I was one of the contributors to the provocation paper and especially focused my attention on the manifesto, the headlines for which are below (read the paper for more):

  1. Make people happy
  2. Pursue mutual relationships
  3. Value the environment, the past, the present and the future
  4. Measure what matters
  5. Lead on innovation towards transition
  6. Think global and be networked
  7. Support learning for resilience
  8. Find your niche

This project is so welcome, arriving in a year which is blighted by cultural funding cuts in a bigger context of environmental and economic crisis. It’s really important for cultural organisations to remain positive and to focus on what really matters, the wellbeing of biodiverse communities that they depend upon and can contribute to. That said, I have struggled very slightly with this project’s title as I fear that it may be perceived too narrowly as being about mental health, rather than more broadly about transition towards the systemic wellbeing of the commons (commons being human and all life).

Paul Hamlyn has also funded a similar project called (Re)think, led by Mission Models Money. This is a new action-research platform dedicated to understanding the role that cultural and creative practice has in finding solutions and responding to the current challenges, which are identified to be largely environmental. Like the Happy Museum, this also ‘docks’ with the New Economic Foundation’s Great Transition work. Apparently, Paul Hamlyn doesn’t see a connection between (Re)think and the Happy Museum. However, both projects have inclusive definitions of museums, culture and creativity. So, I wonder how these two projects might make most efficient use of their proximity in terms of scheduling, mission and network.

There are also other initiatives in similar ground, including A Case for Optimism supported by the Clore Leadership Programme, also kicking off at the moment. I’m also about to launch a training toolkit called Museums for the Future, commissioned by Renaissance South East, enabling museums to become centres for sustainable communities. Watch this space. Also Common Cause is launching an Arts and Creativity working group. On a practical level for those of us going to all these seminars, launches and online networks, it can be time-consuming and sometimes repetitive. Emotionally, on the other hand, this feels like the zeitgeist I’ve been waiting to happen. I started this blog over two years ago, hoping that it would be become a big co-authored blog and network, continually asking people to write for it and raise awareness in CACH weeks each year. That didn’t happen. I think I went about that in the wrong way. Others probably saw this as my personal sounding board and didn’t want to piggyback on it. In that time, only a handful of people have actually read the Framework for Climate Action, the centrepiece of this blog, and nobody has responded to it. (On the other hand, many of my posts have received some really interesting and valuable comments, for which thank you.) So, I’m considering merging the posts into my personal blog and letting all these other funded projects carry the weight of the networking challenge.

The Happy Museum is Go, which means others are taking their own reins on the issues that I am really passionate about, and that makes me happy.

Grounded route to a Big Society

31 03 2011

On the New Public Thinkers site, Dougald Hine wrote a really useful analysis of the criticism that has been flying around about the Big Society. It was a great example of cutting through the agonistic culture of politics, where something like the Big Society idea is used as an arena for two-sided contest. Dougald suggests that whatever your political colour, the necessity for social reform to reduce alienation and increase agency is being forced on whoever has any power to make change, by the erosion of economic security and social fabric. I commented on Dougald’s piece but as I was doing so, Paul Kingsnorth sent some provocative tweets about arts funding which I wanted to respond to in relation to this Big Society debate. So, here’s a  post to explore this further.

I’m not a political theorist so, although I appreciate structural analysis of the Big Society and think it’s essential, I can’t contribute greatly to it. What I can do is to advocate for persistent and pragmatic action in communities. Eleanor Saitta commented that we need to develop alternative organisational structures that skirt both market and state, but that without large-scale wealth distribution all these efforts will still leave us as ‘starving peasants fighting in the gutters over scraps of food puked up by the rich’. While I’m shocked by wealth inequality, I’m not sure the scenario is currently quite as stark as this. Because, for me, hope lies in imaginative participatory strategies to grow nourishment so that we don’t have to scratch around in the gutters of the rich.  By nourishment, I mean food but also all the other goods that will help us eat, help others eat, and otherwise allow us to stay well. By ‘us’ I mean all life, not just humans.

While we must talk about capitalism, we must also eat and help all the places where eating is going to be increasingly difficult. The way to do that is to harness technology to art in the service of ecological innovation. Note, technology is just a tool whereas art is the force that generates ideas, motivates people to participate and helps spread spores of ideas. Here are a couple of examples:

Farm:Shop is an urban farming project led by artists in an empty shop in Dalston. It uses hydroponics, aquaponics and other technologies to grow food indoors. Some may this isn’t art, it’s growing food. Partly the art comes through the creative social activities they are doing with visitors. But fundamentally, this is the kind of art we need to develop. Francesco Manacorda calls it an “emerging kind of art…that is interested in cycles, natural materials, growth and roots rather than ‘original’ creations that hang disconnected, in time and space.”

Another example is the vision of ‘bioregions’ to replace the outdated idea of developing places through ‘high-entropy knowledge hubs’ and ‘iconic cultural buildings’. These ‘bioregions’ can still be cultural without a new build major art museum. John Thackara writes here about how artists are working on such projects in the Basque Country. An example in the UK is Heartlands in Cornwall, a new bioregion which is also a cultural centre.

The triad of sustainability where economic, social and environmental capital are held in balance has to be challenged, and it is by these examples. If you focus on generating ‘biosphere capital’, then prosperity, social wellbeing and biodiversity can ensue. The Big Society discourses have not easily admitted talk of ‘bioregions’ or ‘biosphere capital’. That, I think, is because in order to develop such capital you need to bring both techne and poiesis into play together, both technology and the imagination. UK society is profoundly technocratic, and is extremely uncomfortable with metaphor being applied in arenas of work and public planning. On the other hand, the cultural elite are profoundly resistant to art being instrumental to social and environmental wellbeing.  The two domains of culture and public services resist porosity with each other (while there are many examples of partnership experiments of course).

Back to Paul Kingsnorth’s challenge. Yesterday, ACE issued its funding news, and many organisations had 100% funding cuts, some lesser percentages and some had an increase. So, there were a lot of hurt feelings at the unfairness of it all. Paul asked “Is there any cut to our services which we in the rich world would be prepare to tolerate? And if not, isn’t the Earth screwed?” and said “the arts, like all human industry, rely on an economy fed by a dying planet. We have to live with less.” This is a fair question and a good one. But I do profoundly believe in state funding of experimental and participatory culture.  Public funding doesn’t have to mean salarying middle class artists and discounting the purchase of culture by middle class audiences. However, ACE made decisions yesterday which cut many of the organisations, like Proboscis, who are doing the kinds of work that is most likely to generate biosphere capital and most likely to bridge the gulf between public planning and culture. Moreover, almost invisible in media coverage of culture cuts is the devastating reduction of museum and archive services, especially in education and outreach. These services directly help with community cohesion and place-making. If their funding is cut, then we need to show philanthropists and corporations that their future prosperity depends on collaborating with creative thinkers and creative communities to generate biosphere capital.

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.

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.

Your money or our lives?

12 10 2010

I’ll be taking part in an online discussion on the Our Place network called Greening Up Your Projects on thursday 21st October 2010 11am to 12.30pm.

The network co-ordinator Rebecca Vallins invites heritage, museum and cultural outreach professionals: “Environmental sustainability is one of the most important issues of our time, even – especially perhaps – in a time of economic decline. Come and chat to our two experts about how and why the green agenda matters in engaging communities with heritage and breaking down barriers to inclusion. Our experts leading the debate are Maria Adebowale, director of Capacity Global and author of Social Inclusion and Environmental Concern, and Bridget McKenzie, director of Flow Associates and author of the blog Climate Action in Culture. Previous chatroom debates have been very lively indeed. I look forward to meeting you there.”

It will be the day after the Spending Review announcements so funding cuts will be top of everybody’s mind. But the funding crisis is absolutely woven in to the need to shift to more sustainable practices. The world faces a ‘triple crunch’, a credit crunch, the need to shift from fossil fuels and due to the impacts of climate change. The crunches are coming one after the other, each one likely to be much worse than the next, but they are entirely connected like nested Chinese boxes. The Coalition Government response to the credit crunch involves ignoring the fossil fuel and climate crunches, cutting investment in approaches that will help us tackle them. It’s really vital that the cultural and heritage sector looks ahead, and sees the interdependence of these crises.


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