More needs to be done for the environment and for sustainable development and time is running out. In spite of witnessing increasingly unstable weather patterns, an increase of endangered species and disasters such as drought, out-of-control fires and unseasonal cold fronts, these events don’t always filter down to people’s everyday lives. At least not yet.

However, now is the time to think about what kind of world we want to see in 10 or 20 years’ time, but this requires a big cultural shift. That’s where the arts come in. The arts have a way of getting under the skin and help us adjust our view of the world.

An encounter with the work ‘Going Nowhere 1.5’ by British artist Simon Faithfull demonstrated for me how art can question the way we live. The piece is a video work in which a small sand-island in the North Sea is filmed from a drone as the tide gradually eats away at it. A tiny figure walks purposely around its edge, spiralling inwards as the waters rise. Eventually the dry sands of the island vanish beneath the waves and the figure is gone. This work was a metaphoric reminder about the pace of change in our world – why are we walking in the same circles while climate change is transforming the world around us? How can we adapt to these changes?

As artist and Artistic Director of the Australian-based Cad Factory Vic McEwan explains, ‘in order for people to explore complex situations practically, they must first learn to explore them emotionally’, a process that can be facilitated through experiencing art.  

Asking difficult questions 

The arts are a way to reach out to people with new ways of thinking through the seemingly insurmountable challenges of our world today. As Guy Abrahams, co-founder of Australian organisation CLIMARTE observes, the power of the arts lies in their ability to question the values we take for granted. ‘The arts is about posing questions, it’s not necessarily about providing answers. But you’ve got to pose the questions to start off with, and pose questions which aren’t about facts and data, but are about our values, how we want to live, how we feel, what’s important in our lives – those values that are fundamentally important to us but that we take for granted on the day-to-day.’

Posing questions can be confronting, especially when it means questioning strongly-held values or ways of living that have been taken for granted. But as Jorge Riechmann argues in the book Humanidades Ambientales, we have to ask difficult questions about sustainability and the relation people have with the environment, not shying away from reactions of denial. He highlights that ‘the social-ecological crisis could be an opportunity to live better: but that requires a profound personal change. Rethink, reinvent, redirect: change. And all changes are difficult…to be alive is to change, but change hurts.’ As economies start on the slow road to recovery after shutdown, this could be a time for positive change on the environment, rather than doubling down on environmentally harmful industries and ways of living. 

Having open conversations

The arts have the potential to create spaces for open and challenging conversations, involving participation from people from different walks of life. As organisers from the Spanish rural collective Imago Bubo explain, ‘the added value of working through art is the possibility to reach people—whether they are participants or spectators in the artistic process—through unexpected avenues, the act of involving people through artistic-cultural actions and the power to generate messages and works that can break with traditional forms of communication and transmission.’

But it’s important to have these conversations in a wide range of places, not just in cultural spaces. Artists need to step out of these spaces to reach out to new audiences, but creative ways of thinking also need to be embedded in the way organisations work and in policy decisions. Creative perspectives to challenging problems need to have a place at the table with decision makers. We need to have conversations with people we disagree with, but in a space that encourages curiosity and openness, rather than confrontation and closed minds. 

Inspiring people 

But there needs to be a balance between overwhelming information about the challenging reality we face with climate change and hope for a positive future. In increasingly uncertain times it is easy to lose hope and to believe that individual citizens are unable to affect a nation’s, or even the planet’s trajectory. Producer Charlotte Webster emphasises that it’s important to focus on hope, not fear, as ‘We will only act if we feel inspired, celebrating what we cherish.’

Yet finding inspiration can be a daily struggle, where it all feels like too much. At these times of doubt, what better way to focus on the possibilities of the future than through the diverse perspectives, creative possibilities and embracing new ways of living that the arts provides. As Hannah Van Den Bergh from Julie’s Bicycle observes, ‘As a society we need to build the confidence to believe that a different, sustainable way of living is possible’. By showing the possibilities alongside the challenges, culture can inspire people to act, rather than be overwhelmed by the problems.

As we approach World Environment Day on 5 June, we need to think about how we want to shape the future of our environment, because the small daily decisions we take today will have long term impacts. We need to be open to change the way we live. The arts have a way of making the abstract seem more tangible and they have a way of reaching out on an emotional level to evoke change, and the world needs these creative approaches now more than ever. 

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