The Creative Climate Movement
Welcome to our fifth year of the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change series! In honor of spring, the season of hope, we’re keeping an eye on two promising US policy proposals: the Green New Deal, spearheaded by Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and endorsed by Citizens’ Climate Lobby. And, to add to this well of positive energy, HowlRound is featuring some of the most hopeful work being done at the intersection of theatre and climate change. Among my favorite organizations, with innovative and groundbreaking programming, is UK-based Julie’s Bicycle. — Chantal Bilodeau
I joined London-based charity Julie’s Bicycle in September 2013 to work with artists, organizations, policymakers, and funders on embedding environmental thinking and action across cultural activity. For over ten years, Julie’s Bicycle has been supporting the creative community to reduce their impacts and advocate for action on climate change, delivering a rich program of events, training, tools, and freely available resources.
I believe culture is a tool for transformative change—and what better time to transform. Human’s impact on the natural environment—our life support system—has reached a critical stage, threatening to destabilize society and economy. The result: mass involuntary migration, biodiversity collapse, conflict, and famine. The challenge is not confined to climate. In a new report published by UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research, scientists are warning of a potentially deadly combination of factors including climate change, mass loss of species, topsoil erosion, forest felling, and acidifying oceans. And there’s a pretty pressing deadline: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe.
How do we stay resilient in such challenging times? Where do we draw our strength from and find hope? For me, the answer has been in the myriad exceptional creative communities I have worked with. It comes from the DJ who splices recordings of melting ice, the immersive protest performances of artist-activists, the cultural centers that open their doors to flood victims, and the festivals that allow you to experience a microcosm of sustainable society.
Julie’s Bicycle is building a movement at the intersection of arts and culture and environmental sustainability. We believe climate change is a manifestation of human values that are incommensurate with the finite resources of planet Earth. These values uphold the individual over the collective, the extractor over the regenerator, the consumer over the steward, and the present over the future. However, the opportunity is this: if climate change is driven by cultural values, logic suggests it can be tackled by shifting them. The climate change movement is, in fact, a cultural change movement. The good news is that this movement of cultural change is well underway across the world. It’s happening on theatre, concert hall, and festival stages; in museums, parks, and public libraries; at music labels and recording studios; and in the products and ideas of countless creatives, designers, artisans, experimentalists, and visionaries.
If climate change is driven by cultural values, logic suggests it can be tackled by shifting them.
The first project Julie’s Bicycle undertook, back in 2007, was to calculate the carbon footprint of the music industry. The aim was to gain an evidenced-based understanding of climate impacts and to generate carbon targets based on data (which launched an enduring partnership with the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute). The project fronted a way of working—collaborations between the arts and science communities, with an ongoing commitment to scale what works—that has stood the test of time. This approach has informed our theory of change: to build, act, share, and lead. More specifically: to build environmental literacy and understanding; act on impacts to drive efficiencies and carbon reductions; share and catalyze change through networks and partnerships; and lead and advocate for and within the sector.
This theory of change is encapsulated in our first major support program—a partnership with Arts Council England, the first cultural funder anywhere to require all its national portfolio organizations and major museums partners to submit environmental impact data, policies, and action plans. This powerful partnership demonstrates how a light-touch policy intervention can galvanize a sector into sustained action. The momentum from this consistent policy priority enables cultural organizations to connect climate change and the environment to their work across all activities, including governance and finance, building management, programming and curation, audience engagement, and learning and outreach.
However, there was still an undercapitalized aspect: the deep internal shifts that, when nurtured, reinforced, and channeled, could shake the foundations of what we describe as “good governance.” In short, we needed a new leadership agenda centered on ethics and the environment. Our response to this was Creative Climate Leadership (CCL), an international, interdisciplinary program for cultural leaders.
Launched in 2016, CCL connects and enables a community of global cultural leaders to take an active leadership role in shaping a sustainable future for the sector. If there is a place to feel connected and uplifted it’s there; in my own experience, I have never felt more professionally and personally inspired as when I am collaborating with this community. CCL enables organizations and practitioners to share stories of creativity, optimism, and action, focusing on fostering a critical mass on the ground through capacity and community building. Our course—hosted in Wales, Greece, and Slovenia—has brought together leading cultural voices from across Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia, covering topics such as authentic leadership, change management, climate science and policy, and environmental justice. The program includes ongoing support for course participants to use their learnings to develop new projects, helping them share and distribute their expertise across creative communities.
By bringing together an international, supportive, and entrepreneurial community, we can create better conditions for innovation and develop appropriate solutions faster.
Amazing creative expressions have emerged. Creative Climate Leader Budi Agung Kuswara, from Bali, launched Kekasih Hati Sang Bumi (the Sweethearts of the Earth), a creative intervention that takes place at “tumpek uduh”—a ceremony devoted to Sanghyang Sangkara, Lord of all food. On this day, offerings and engagements are made for and with the trees, reminding people to express gratitude and establish a positive relationship with nature. The project uses art as a catalyst to convey traditional values and bridge the gap between ancient philosophy and the current generation; it aims to preserve traditional knowledge and respect its roots.
In Istanbul, Jessica Sim received a CCL in Action grant (support allocated to eleven CCL alumni to develop their local dissemination projects), which eventually led to her co-founding NADAS, a new creative co-working house dedicated to urban biodiversity. NADAS aims to support projects that value the diversity of urban life and the interconnection of people and environments. It hosts creative workshops, gatherings, gardening and planting, private art studios, and co-working spaces to build a community around living slowly, mindfully, and empathetically. As Jessica explains: “CCL is still a big part of my everyday life and work—it gave confidence to me and credibility to my work, and has given me the endurance to continue in a difficult context.”
By bringing together an international, supportive, and entrepreneurial community, we can create better conditions for innovation and develop appropriate solutions faster. Building this movement doesn’t just benefit the climate, but culture too. With it, we are seeing new jobs, goods, and services arise. And the Arts Council England program alone has provided momentous value to the sector. For the organizations involved, there have been savings of £16.5 million since 2012 due to reductions in energy use. On top of that, 65 percent of the organizations have produced creative work with an environmental theme, and 70 percent of them have reported annual improvements to staff well-being. Imagine if all the cultural funding bodies across the world followed suit.
All of these new partnerships, designs, systems, and investments are supporting the sustainability of our sector and prompting a new way to articulate cultural value. The creative climate movement is unveiling itself everywhere, though it can manifest in different ways. From the very beginning, Julie’s Bicycle’s methodology has been about focusing on actions relevant to local contexts—whether it’s improving energy efficiency, protecting local wildlife or heritage, fighting pollution, or supporting climate justice.
Culture is the answer to the climate challenge. It provokes and encourages us to think bigger and beyond ourselves, it strengthens community and empathy, and, most critically, it connects us to our common humanity. In all its diverse expressions, culture belongs to everyone, and it is a tool for social change. As Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”