The arts and the environment are inextricably linked. The climate crisis is already having substantial impacts in our communities, including artists and arts infrastructure. This blog focuses on connections between the arts and the environment through artistic storytelling and subject matter, creative activism, environmental impacts of the arts sector, the sector’s environmental practices, and shared policy issues.
The research findings indicate that more can be done to align the arts with climate solutions, given the importance of the arts in environmental activism, the quite average level of environmental practices and policies by arts organizations, and a policy disconnect between the arts and the environment.
The arts in environmental awareness and activism
The arts sector can make a unique contribution to climate awareness and action through its storytelling. As noted in PACT’s introduction to its Green Sessions: “We believe that artists have an essential part to play in the climate battle. We know that our role as storytellers and communicators can be instrumental in delivering a societal shift.”
The climate crisis is directly addressed in many works of art, including fiction, non-fiction (e.g., A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency), theatre (e.g., Lighting the Way: An Anthology of Short Plays About the Climate Crisis), opera (e.g., Namwayut, an Indigenous-led work commissioned by Calgary Opera), music (e.g., Tanya Kalmanovitch’s Tar Sands Songbook), as well as visual and media arts projects (e.g., Anthropocene, the ReSurge Festival).
A manifesto from the international Climate Heritage Network identifies important aspects of the relationship between culture and climate change:
Culture anchors people to places and to each other. It can create cohesion in ways that enable community-building and collective action. Artists and cultural voices drive public awareness and action; their work can be a powerful tool for climate mobilization. Through public accessibility and trust, cultural institutions like museums and libraries provide platforms for listening to communities and hubs of multicultural and inter-generational exchange, capacity building, and knowledge-sharing.
Along the same lines, a recent report from Julie’s Bicycle calls culture The Missing Link to Climate Action and outlines how artists and arts organizations influence environmental action:
- Many artists, arts organizations, and networks are already deeply connected to environmental issues.
- “The arts, creative industries, and heritage offer unique opportunities to accelerate environmental action…. They are highly innovative and intimately connected to place and to community; they influence our tastes and lifestyles, and tell powerful stories.”
- Many artists, activists and arts organizations have made the environment an important part of their creative practices, “highlighting issues of justice and equity, and asking to contribute to policy development”.
Laurence D. Dubuc, one of the advisors to the Arts Insights Canada initiative, is involved in organizing a community conversation of artists and arts workers regarding the relationships between climate change, income insecurity, and community resilience. The gathering, led by Amanda Vincelli and supported by the Green Resilience Project as well as Environment and Climate Action Canada, will take place at the end of January.
The arts can be an effective tool in activism. Researchers compared the effectiveness of “artistic activism” and conventional activism. For example, artistic activism might highlight the environmental impacts of methane gas through interventions by people dressed as cows and by placing cow dung on a bridge. Conventional activist methods would use public speaking, petitions, and flyers to attempt to achieve the same goal. The research found that:
A creative approach was more effective than conventional means at delivering upon traditional advocacy objectives like awareness, engagement, and receptiveness. In addition, the affective responses of most of those we interviewed and observed were decidedly more positive towards the creative interventions than the conventional methods. Creative activism also proved to be more memorable and resulted in more follow-up actions on the issues.
The finding that creative activism is more memorable than conventional activism has similarities to arts education research that found that students are better able to retain knowledge of non-arts subjects, including science, that are taught through arts-based methods.
Arts organization actions
A recent Culture Montréal forum recognized that the environmental consequences of artistic production are not negligible. The forum highlights the environmental consequences of ephemeral installations, stage sets and props, water bottles, food packaging, printing of posters, festival and program signage, transport of materials, national and international tours, and more.
In this context, how widespread is climate action in the arts? A 2021 Statistics Canada survey highlights, in very general terms, the types of environmental actions taken by not-for-profit organizations and for-profit businesses. We analyzed this dataset for actions taken by organizations and businesses in the “arts, entertainment, and recreation” grouping (the closest approximation of the arts sector).
Overall, the data show that arts, entertainment, and recreation organizations and businesses are neither particularly engaged in nor disengaged from environmental practices. Nearly two-thirds of arts, entertainment, and recreation organizations and businesses have some type of environmental practice or policy (63%), a percentage that is close to the average for all Canadian organizations and businesses (60%) but slightly lower than that for all not-for-profit organizations (70%).
The most common environmental practices among organizations and businesses in the arts, entertainment, and recreation are:
- Encouraging employees to adopt environmentally friendly practices: 43%
- Reducing waste: 39%
- Reducing energy or water consumption: 30%
- Choosing suppliers based on their environmentally responsible practices or products: 26%
Relatively few organizations and businesses in the arts, entertainment, and recreation:
- Have a written environmental policy (9%)
- Measure their environmental footprint (9%)
- Have obtained or maintained one or more eco-responsible certifications (5%)
The fact that these percentages are not particularly high might be surprising, given the connections between the arts and the environment (outlined above). Money is probably a major factor here: many arts organizations may not have sufficient funds to buy “green” products and services.
A survey of Canadian publishers (conducted before the pandemic) examined more specific environmental actions than the Statistics Canada survey. Although this research is not directly comparable to the Statistics Canada survey, it does appear to show that a relatively high proportion of publishers have adopted some environmental practices: “74% used video conferencing instead of travelling, 62% sourced paper for sales and supporting materials from a certified forest management system, 53% used print-on-demand technologies, and another 53% sourced paper for books and manuscripts from a certified forest management system“.
Policy opportunities and challenges
Research indicates that, on a policy level, there tends to be a disconnect between the arts and the environment. The report from Julie’s Bicycle on culture as a missing link in climate action contains several policy-related findings, including:
- “National policies for culture and the arts generally are still not yet aligned to climate science, nor to national commitments under the Paris Agreement.”
- “Requirements for climate action are still quite rare in national cultural policy”, as are connections between government departments that are responsible for culture and the environment.
- The cultural community needs “the policy frameworks and authority, funding and accountability to be fully mainstreamed into national environmental planning”.
At the local level, an international report published in November 2021 highlights the cultural policies and programs that have been put in place to respond to climate change in “major cities around the world”. The report includes findings from a survey of members of the World Cities Culture Forum (which includes Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver), interviews, and four case studies (Buenos Aires, Chengdu, Lisbon, and Oslo).
An interesting finding of the report is that “the environmental crisis is a high priority for world cities [but] is not always reflected in a city’s cultural priorities”. Given the climate emergency, the report outlines “five imperatives for cultural policy”:
- Climate change is everyone’s job
- Assess the climate impacts of every decision
- Big cities need big ambition
- Tell the right stories
- Green infrastructure is cultural infrastructure
A quick note about our own actions
At Hill Strategies, we have not yet pursued certification on our eco-responsibility. In late 2019, however, we recognized the importance of carbon neutrality – hopefully even carbon positivity – by purchasing carbon offsets and investing in tree planting to compensate for our typical air, vehicle, train, and bus travel, as well as our natural gas usage. Regarding electricity, Hill Strategies has long been powered by green provider Bullfrog Power. (Note about carbon positivity: Our calculations were based on pre-pandemic levels of travel, and we estimated our typical travel distances quite high, even for pre-pandemic times. However, we have not yet examined other potential supply chain impacts.)