Climate Change: What Can Culture Do?

On 1 April 2021, we have invited Julie Ward, Farah Makki and Sebastian Schlüter to explore the pivotal role of culture in addressing the climate challenges ahead. Around 50 people from the MitOst and Tandem network have joined the online gathering, showing that climate change is one of the greatest concerns among cultural actors.

Culture Can Put the Necessary Pressure on Politics to Make Change

The conversation started with Tandem alumni Julie Ward who was a member of the European Parliament from 2014 until Brexit day. Prior to that, she worked in the arts as a facilitator for participatory practice, collaborating a lot with artists, but and with scientists too, “those are the things that I’m really interested in” Julie says, “breaking down borders and barriers, having different sectors and disciplines kind of bleeding into each other, that’s really important for me”. From the very start of the conversation, Julie confirms the importance of culture and its role in guiding politicians to create change: “politicians are not leading at all, they are mostly reactive, and they really have to be pushed and provoked, they have to have a lot of pressure in order to make change. And so this is one of the reasons why culture is so important. Because culture can put on this pressure in some of the most interesting, innovative and imaginative ways.” While highlighting the importance of culture, she does share her disappointment over the years in the way that culture didn’t rise to the challenges raised by climate change. “I think that this conversation that we’re having now, mirrors many conversations that are happening across the world”.

Julie reminded us that, just like the coronavirus crisis has shown, we have not been taking care of the environment, about what we are eating and where our food comes from, for example. We have been destroying natural environments. She also adds how everything is interconnected, which creates complexity. “It is very important that we find the words, the means, the different forms by which to explain complexity,” Julie says, “and for me, cultural actors are absolutely crucial in explaining complexity, through a whole variety of different methods. We’re also very good at asking questions, and a huge number of questions need to be asked.”

Another important role of culture that Julie has mentioned, is its capacity to break down the barriers between science and the arts. “One of the things that I was most proud of at the European Parliament was that I managed to change STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) to STEAM on a European policy level. So the new agenda for culture talked about STEAM, whereas before, it had always talked about STEM, and we’ve got to absolutely be on this, we’ve got to make sure that the policymakers and legislators don’t get rid of the “arts” in STEAM because it was a massive win!”

Julie is a strong believer in the role of culture to bring change, and as she mentions in her introduction, “we certainly don’t have quality democracy in many of our EU Member States right now. And democracy has become a cheap word. We have to claim that back so we have to rehearse for change and culture is absolutely a fantastic way for rehearsing to check for change.”

Putting Culture on the Agenda of Priorities for Our Present and Near Future

We continue the discussion with Tandem alumni Farah Makki, who has been starting from architecture moving towards urban, participatory urban placemaking and working today also advising on intercultural cooperation for sustainable development and teaching design for social change.

Recently, Farah presented MitOst at the structured dialogue with the EU Commission on the role of culture within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda; this was a first having a dialogue between the cultural sectors and practices with the EU directly in order to influence the upcoming agenda. “It was an opportunity,” explains Farah, “with the different realities from Europe, there were more than 45 organisations from different sectors that actually brainstormed about what role can culture have within the SDGs, and specifically within the SDG on sustainable communities, climate action, education, and also on the new economic models that we need to have.” Farah has focused with 12 organisations on delivering recommendations on how to accelerate the role of culture within this climate action and within the action for adaptation and mitigation (you can access the brainstorm report online).

Farah also explained that there are many policies for climate action at the EU level, citing the climate adapt plan of the EU, as an example. A lot of things are already set in the framework, so what is needed is “to build networks and systems that allow the translation from the EU level to the local level,” explains Farah, “and for that we are responsible.”

With the SDGs, we have a framework and a guideline, and Farah admits that “there are a lot of things that are not working, that are not clear indicators that can be applied at the urban level. But that doesn’t mean that the vision cannot be shared.” She invites us to apply these guidelines within our daily work and practices, whether it is in the culture sector or other disciplines since we are already having practices that are mission-oriented and can fit some elements of the SDGs whether it’s social inclusion, climate action, the preservation of natural heritage, cultural heritage, and more. Among our cultural practices and actors, Farah invites us as a sector to use our networks and existing work, and to move away from the polarized idea that we have politics on one side and the cultural actors on the other side, “we need something that works together, we need another innovative urban policymaking, and I think we really need all together to change, to unlearn our own bias, in order to build and really start to pilot.”

Sparking Imagination for Action

“We are in a part of history where we need to have this conversation,” says Sebastian Schlüter, Programme coordinator for Actors of Urban Change at MitOst, “it is more urgent than ever, and maybe, we should have had this conversation way before.”

Sebastian explains how this crisis has created a situation where the cultural sector is being forced to look at itself, its own behavior and practices. Linking back to what Julie mentioned regarding politics, Sebastian said that “In order to practice what we preach, politics needed a push yesterday. I’m all up for pushing politicians to get more concrete action, making their promises true. And yet I do believe, and I include myself in this, that we as a cultural sector have been quite comfortable in producing our cultural activities, such as exchanges. But have we really been true to the changes that we want to see? I would really question that. I really question if we have done everything that is possible in our hands to redirect the world to a better future.” This urgency and the pandemic have pushed people working in culture and citizens in general, towards acting with more care. Sebastian mentions the book The Care Manifesto (published by versobooks) on the importance of care and looking back at what we did wrong in the past, mentioning how the nation-state capitalist system has been failing us for a long time. He adds that we do have facts, science and data, “There is no lack of knowledge, there’s no lack of money, there’s no lack of resources.” says Sebastian, “There’s a lack of action, and there’s lack of care and lack of solidarity. And I think, to put this into practice, the cultural sector especially has to urgently sense what’s around. Listen carefully, and act accordingly. To spark imagination for people about what can be done differently in the future.” His call to action is also a call to look back at our practices as cultural actors, to be honest and open up the cultural sector for true change, “that also means, for me, to take care of those who actually take care of society: artists, nurses, doctors,… people who inspire us, who present a different alternative, people who are able to imagine a future that is different to what we experience right now.”

We all agree that right now, there is nothing to go back to. “We don’t want to destroy the world with our CO2 emissions. We don’t want to harm others that we love, yet we do.” says Sebastian, “But culture has, I think, a central role in showing people how we can actually be better humans be a better community, be a better society that takes care of each other. And hopefully manages to change things radically because it’s about time to do it.”

In addition to the resources shared by our speakers (linked in the text), we also invite you to explore the following tools and material: