Many would say that it is the number one issue of our times, a phenomenon that will dominate life in the twenty-first century. Countless other environmental challenges face this crowded world, but this one seems to both trump and embrace them all.
Acceptance of this argument delivers an almost unanswerable challenge to action. And if you work in the arts, it begs the obvious question of what your response should be.
This invites reflection: what has been the effectiveness of influences outside the world of politics (always assuming that climate change is a political issue) on social and political issues?
Let’s look at a few examples where outsiders have had a real impact: one of the most inspirational is the influence of sporting boycotts on South Africa in the removal of Apartheid.
To take examples from the arts, Dickens’ chronicling of social conditions certainly influenced Victorian social policy; and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a key part in inspiring the American Civil War.
It can work. In all these cases the action needed comes under the heading of changes in domestic legislation, even if those changes were radical in the extreme for those who opposed them. And all have a fairly clearly identifiable group of bad guys, a target audience, a policy or set of policies to overcome in a single part of the world.
Karen Moser Fossil: 3/P/1 Siemens Mobile Phone, UK South Coast, 21st Century Technology and Communication period., 2009
Local or global?
But we should not delude ourselves; climate change is different. Local action is fine, but if nobody else does anything what will result? We share the atmosphere! High on the list of objectives is achieving global agreement, which is a challenge of a very different sort.
Looking at existing artistic response to the subject some form of break-down is helpful.
At the top level two categories are useful: artistic practice – nuts and bolts – and the content of the work itself. Occasionally becoming indistinguishable, for the most part these are two sides of the same coin.
The first sees a great deal of work on decarbonising taking place at many levels – individual, organisational, regional, national and international – with Julie’s Bicycle taking a lead in the UK, and countless routes being explored by others
Cover of Solar, book by Ian McEwan, 2010
What should we do?
Is this response consistent across the sector? Of course not: at the risk of giving offense few regions have the energy and focus of the Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues. You can see Julie's Bicycle for other examples.
How far has this got us? The truth is that all involved, including, belatedly, Arts Council England, are just starting down the long road of decarbonisation.
A very few, such as Arcola Theatre have set challenging ambitions for a carbon neutrality.
The majority, lumbered with buildings and practices designed for a different time, are clutching at low-hanging fruit just now, and looking at significant investments in the future.
Our own main focus, and that of fellow-traveller Cape Farewell, is on the other side of the coin: the artwork.
What is the role of such artwork: raising awareness on climate science and what is going on? Bearing witness to what we are losing? Whispering or shouting a warning? Challenging us to act, politically or in other ways? Asking us to look inward, to understand what has brought us here? Exploring or revealing alternative ways of living? All of the above?
At least in part Ian McEwan’s recent book Solar takes on the first of these aims.
Through the mouth and personal journey of the obnoxious central character Beard we hear a considerable amount of climate science. In this respect it is not dissimilar to the largely forgotten 2008 TV thriller Burn Up by Simon Beaufoy (the Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire).
Both are, in part, vehicles for presenting the ‘facts’.
To that degree they lay themselves open to accusations of instrumentalism of a relatively crude type. Guilty, the authors might reply. If you think I am going to ignore this you must be crazy.
Dancing Brick’s show How Heap and Pebble took on the World and Won, is their own idiosyncratic evocation of what has been lost: a pair of figure skaters desperate to win a maximum 6.0 have a problem because there is no more ice. But they don’t let this deter them.
With humour, lightness of touch and real poignancy this work achieves remarkable things, as recognised by several 5 star reviews in Edinburgh.
Dancing Brick, How Heap and Pebble took on the World and Won, 2010
Warnings come in many forms. Marcus Vergette’s Time and Tide Bell project consists of twelve large bells, most still to be fixed at points around the coast of the British Isles.
The incoming tide causes the bells to strike, thus not only connecting people inland to the state of the tide, but also to the state of the sea and hence the weather; importantly if imperceptibly slowly, also to rising sea levels. We might not be able to hear it directly – but we know it is coming.
German artist Herman Josef Hack is more direct: his installations of Climate Refugee Camps in city centres tell the clearest possible story of what we are going to be seeing on our television screens as the years go by.
Do we listen to these warnings? It surely depends on how much we want to hear them.
Marcus Vergette, Time and Tide Bell, 2009
Then there is the activist agenda – examples include the work of Platform and John Jordan.
Simplifying horribly, here there is usually a clear target to campaign against – often the energy industry, or capitalism.
My own instinct is that the enemy is not external but internal, in our relentless, inbuilt desire to have yet more stuff – whether it is supplied by capitalists or the state. But the integrity and quality of much of this work is beyond doubt.
Hermann Josef Hack, Climate Refugee Camp, Pariser Platz, Berlin, 2008
'My own instinct is that the enemy is not external but internal, in our relentless, inbuilt desire to have yet more stuff – whether it is supplied by capitalists or the state. But the integrity and quality of much of this work is beyond doubt'
Finally, let’s look at the ‘other futures’ angle.
Two examples will have to do: the Trashcatchers’ Carnival (a TippingPoint Commission) which took place last summer, and which treated waste as symbol of our absurd levels of consumption, by creating a joyful community carnival to make fun of it.
With an altogether different scale and style, the remarkable Land Art Generator Project in Dubai is a competition running throughout 2010 to choose major sculptures that can also generate significant amounts of energy.
Project Phakama, Emergency Exit Arts, Transition Town Tooting,Trashcatchers’ Carnival, 2010
What to make of all this work, and the ever-increasing quantities of it? Is it having an impact? What would that impact look like?
For me the changes that are needed take two forms. Firstly there is a need for personal change, for all of us to cut our emissions.
If you are in doubt as to how much, and how relatively inconsequential a bit of recycling and light-bulb-changing is, have a look at one of the more iconic visions of the future, the concept of Contraction and Convergence.
Or if you are in the mood for some analysis of energy use, see David McKay’s Sustainable Energy – without the Hot Air.
Can art influence change?
Does going to a gallery or performance influence people to do this, to make radical change? My guess is that taken singly it probably does not; but that a really sustained barrage of stories, images and visions will.
But secondly, and I believe more importantly, we need to give politicians the confidence to take tough decisions.
We are not there yet, but it is not hard to imagine a widespread and consistent cultural message confirming that the electorate understands (more or less) what is going on.
Barring the odd maverick, at least in this country politicians are well briefed, and understand the problem; with the right nudges they might just be emboldened to take the tough decisions needed, such as a whacking increase in the cost of airline fuel – this year.
Marcus Vergette, Time and Tide Bell, 2009
The unique position of the arts
The arts obviously have a unique role here, with the potential to transcend the work of the activists, businesses, politicians and scientists normally associated with the subject.
A consistent, thoughtful, and single-mindedly determined recognition that the cultural sector understands this and sees it as central to its work could exert huge influence. This is what TippingPoint, the other organisations mentioned, and many, many individuals are trying to achieve.
It should be obvious that this is clearly not the same mechanism as starving sports-mad South Africans of international fixtures for their favourite games. It is much more subtle, far more difficult – and immeasurably more important.
If we don’t do this two futures beckon: a very unpleasant world for the next generations or – and for many this is a very real possibility – the discovery that democratic politics are not up to this challenge. Both are futures I would fight to avoid.