Is Culture the Missing Piece in Our Quest for a Greener and Humane Recovery? Five Ways the Cultural Sector Steps In

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Is Culture the Missing Piece in Our Quest for a Greener and Humane Recovery? Five Ways the Cultural Sector Steps In

Katya Gorbatiouk, Advisory Council Member, Global Leaders Program; Board Member, London Music Fund; Advisory Council Member, London Symphony Orchestra


Premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Arctica Symphony at the Kennedy Center 2019. Photo: Galya Morrell.

Indigenous Inuit elders have a lesson or two to teach us. Lera Auerbach, an acclaimed Russian-American composer who traveled to the Arctic before she wrote her Arctica Symphony, tells me that when two Inuit people are in conflict, they have no courts to fight it out. Instead, each has to present a parody of himself. The better self-parody wins.

Why does a composer venture into the Arctic? Perhaps because it is one of the places our global climate emergency is on clearest display. Auerbach’s collaborator, Enric Sala, the founder of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Project, observed that if you look at our Earth from space, the Arctic appears as its heart, a white heart expanding and contracting. The expansions are getting noticeably smaller every year.

But the United Nations reports that total pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions add up to a fraction of what is needed to be on track towards the 2050 science-based maximum target of 1.5 C degrees for global temperature increase.

Is something missing in the way climate emergency is communicated? For example, what does “Race to Zero” mean to most people around the world? How do we convince them to act as if their very house is on fire, if the fire is not visible to them?

Illegal mining machine on display at Galerie Wedding, Berlin, 2020. Photo: Ana Alenso.

Much of the global GDP is shaped by choices that billions of us make on daily basis—choosing a product, an investment, or a company to work for. “If one can’t see a problem, it becomes abstract and difficult to relate to, which is the main challenge in communicating the urgency of climate change,” says Cristina Vollmer de Burelli, Founder of SOS Orinoco, an advocacy group that sheds light on the ecocide taking place in Venezuela’s Amazonia and Orinoco regions. “Scientists and environmentalists rely on sophisticated technologies and data to monitor and report, and that actually makes the problem even more abstract and remote.”

She cites Venezuelan artist Ana Alenso, who, in collaboration with SOS Orinoco, has brought an illegal mining machine as a public art installation in Berlin, to open the eyes and hearts of city residents. Through art, she says, we can make problems more personal, emotional, and relatable.

We are no longer afforded the luxury of educating ourselves on this topic at our leisure. Elevating the urgency of the moment is of utmost priority. “If a lion walked into this room, everyone would immediately drop what they are doing and seek shelter,” says Miranda Massie, Director of the Climate Museum NYC, whose mission is to inspire climate action. “Climate change poses much more threat to each and all of us. How can art help us? — by making things tangible and proximate.”

Ice Watch Exhibit, Paris 2014. Photo: Olafur Eliasson.

Auerbach’s Arctica Symphony, for example, brings the sounds of cracking ice and the language of Inuit wisdom to the ears of concertgoers. Olafur Eliasson, a visual artist and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, brought giant pieces of Arctic ice to melt on display in public places in major cities, in his acclaimed Ice Watch exhibit. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what about experiencing a hug with a piece of the perishing Arctic ice? “With art, says Eliasson, “you can experience what you know together with what you feel. The potential here lies in turning thinking into doing.”

Now that we have moved a long way in recognizing the depth of the environmental crisis, the challenge is how to turn concerned citizens into the formidable force they can be. The sense of connection and determination that art cultivates is a catalyst. “In community, we know we can move forward, whereas as an individual, each of us is almost incomprehensibly out-scaled by the magnitude of the global crisis,” observes Massie.

As businesses large and small continue the journey of recalibrating their decision-making to balance the needs of investors, society, and the environment, the cultural sector is taking on the challenge of amplifying the climate narrative. The year 2021 saw the inaugural global summit of the Climate Governance Initiative (CGI), a project in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and a community of over 100,000 company board directors around the world. A roundtable called the Heart of the Matter, co-hosted as one of the side events by local CGI chapters of nations bordering the Arctic, brought together prominent artists and cultural organizations. Why was this panel on the agenda of a forum for corporate directors? “If companies are to embark on such an ambitious transformation, they need to take the whole of society with them,” explains Karina Litvack, CGI’s Founding Chairman. “Art and artistic expression are key motivating factors making people visualize the full scale of this emergency.”

Miranda Massie presenting at the Nest Summit during Climate Week NYC. Photo: The Climate Museum NYC.

What can you, as an artist or arts educator, do to move the dial of the climate agenda?

  1. Do away with siloed thinking. Your powers of persuasion, as an artist, can be far-reaching and immediately impactful.
  2. Engage with colleagues from around the world on climate change. Think beyond your discipline into other art forms—music, photography, poetry, theatre, dance, visual art, film. Exchange ideas and experiences, successes, and challenges, about reaching audiences, viewers, and listeners with your messages.
  3. Craft an engaging artistic program for the young; think Climate Arts as part of a curriculum. For example, storytelling and music will find their way straight into the hearts of this most important audience of all!
  4. Contribute your work to a local climate initiative. Your art does not have to preach about climate, but it will surely be a powerful amplifier and will help grow a community of like-minded citizens.
  5. Be fearless about pitching your artistic showcase to regional or international climate conferences and events. Consider a cross-disciplinary showcase. Do not doubt your ability to heighten the sense of perception and engage the hearts of decision-makers!

Arts leadership takes many forms, but all arts leaders must communicate a clear message: the climate agenda is not only a technical agenda but a human agenda. Re-humanizing the climate narrative through the arts can foster the very personal bonds needed for climate activism to become part of each person’s personal mission. In the words of Bard College President Leon Botstein, “We ought to develop values that are not about a private life that is in contrast with lives of others or the environment. Art can transmit ideas about what makes a valuable life that is not about consuming or accumulating. While its powers to transform are endless, it is a non-totalitarian force, as reactions are not imposed.”

As the Inuit elders have it, we must personalize and dramatize our messages for one another—and that is what the arts do. The best dramatizations will mean that humanity may have a chance in this race against time.

Katya Gorbatiouk has been a contributor to the Global Leaders Program speaker series. She curated/moderated panels on this topic at COP-26 and the inaugural summit of Climate Governance Initiative.


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