What’s Your Vision for a Post-Carbon Arts Sector?

The emergency deadline has been announced: 2030

Sounding an alarm in October 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report to warn the world about the impact of the smallest decimal point changes in global warming temperatures above pre-industrial levels. The report also stated that, in order to prevent even larger scale human suffering than we are currently on course to collide with, the world has to commit to drastically reducing global emissions starting now until 2030, or face a point of no return for humanity. This hard deadline implies not just a profound shift in our current lifestyles, but also the creation of entirely new systems and cultural values for how our civilization operates.

This pivotal moment in history begs the questions: How do we—the institutionally supported nonprofit arts sector, primarily in the wealthiest and most polluting countries—continue to justify our business-as-usual, fossil-fueled programming, which relies on one of the worst contributors to emissions, air travel? When we create long-term plans for our arts organizations, are our designs implicitly informed by our current fossil-fueled way of thinking? How can we revise our missions to address the existential emergency that human civilization finds itself in while not inadvertently propagating the crisis and our cognitive dissonance with our institutional travel practices? How do we reconceive of our art-making systems for a post-carbon world?

Air travel is a carbon bomb

Many nonprofit organizations that serve and support the artistic, educational, and cultural field in some way have come to depend on the commercial aviation industry to make their programming and fulfill their missions. We have decades of habitual practice of flying dozens—if not hundreds—of people all over our large continents for conferences and productions. For many of us, this is programmatic activity central to our organizations’ missions.

In terms of the types of fossil-fueled activity in the arts sector, air travel is the major area that we can collectively focus on in order to develop alternatives. The reason to focus on air travel specifically is that there is no near-term post-carbon technology for flying. Only slower land-based and water-based transportation systems have the eventual potential to be low-carbon or zero-carbon in the near term.

Thousands of airplanes represented over a map of Europe.

17,000 airplanes are flying somewhere in the world at any one moment on a Friday in April 2019. Screen capture of live air traffic over Europe from flightradar24.com

How can we process this ethical quandary?

In the United States, our nonprofit missions and programming were devised in the latter half of the twentieth century when climate change—understood by scientists even then to be an existential threat to organized human life—was successfully ignored by most everyone. Those arts organizations developed, professionalizing the fields and creating the vibrant artistic communities we have today. Parallel to that growth was the acceleration and proliferation of air travel, and then, with that, a total dependence on it. However, revolutionary experiments, actions, and visions for another way forward have yet to flow into the mainstream of our field’s practices—even given what we cultural workers know now about climate change. There is an opening and an opportunity for collective leadership and deep systemic change here.

How do we—the institutionally supported nonprofit arts sector, primarily in the wealthiest and most polluting countries—continue to justify our business-as-usual, fossil-fueled programming, which relies on one of the worst contributors to emissions, air travel?

Difficult questions to examine around our field’s dependence on air travel

For arts-presenting and arts-producing organizations: Can we continue producing shows and booking tours that require and depend on fast travel and that consequently unleash massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions? What can we learn from the not-so-distant past, before air travel was the de facto mode of transportation?

For professional networks and service organizations: Can we create alternatives to in-person conferences and meetings as a default feature and habit of our programming?

Solutions and examples for the change that’s needed now

1. Accountability and divestment

Our field’s funders could decide to lead and encourage their grantees to design artistic programming that’s not fossil-fuel dependent, especially in the United States where a significant percentage of funding for the nonprofit arts sector comes from private nonprofit philanthropic foundations. These private foundations may have more agility in terms of creating post-carbon policy than government arts funders, and many of these private foundations’ pro-social agendas are already aligned with mitigating the impacts of climate change. All funders, perhaps inadvertently, have an enormous influence on the culture and behavior of our sector, and they can use that power for progress, creative stimulation, and a revival of how we all operate. They can invest in our transformation.

In addition to stimulating our arts sector to re-envision itself, foundations and other institutions such as universities that support the arts should live out their stated values and divest their financial investment portfolios from corporations that contribute to climate change. Fortunately the divestment movement, as tracked by DivestInvest, is now in the mainstream with major institutions participating worldwide. Find the full list of universities and private charitable foundations that have divested or have committed to divestment. If your institution has not joined this list, encourage them to do so.

All funders, perhaps inadvertently, have an enormous influence on the culture and behavior of our sector, and they can use that power for progress, creative stimulation, and a revival of how we all operate.

2. Institutional travel policies

In the cultural and educational sector, a few universities are leading the way for post-carbon, sustainable travel schemes by favoring alternatives to air travel, such as trains or buses, for attending conferences or restricting air travel entirely when alternative travel falls within a certain distance or duration. The University of Ghent has a university-wide sustainable travel policy, which allows for individual departments to make their own agreements on travel sustainability.

On the funding side, the European Cultural Foundation’s STEP Grants for cultural workers have a simple and effective funding scheme designed to encourage land travel instead of air travel. Individuals can ask for more funding if traveling by train or bus compared to airplane. Their guidelines state that, for environmental reasons, they encourage applicants to travel by land, which is widely accepted as the least polluting means of mass transportation.

3. Virtual conferencing, livestreaming, and live performance experiments

There is much experimentation and development left to do when it comes to organizing meetings, assemblies, conferences, and performances through video conferencing and livestreaming technologies. One promising concept is replacing the traditional large-scale conference in a destination city with multiple mini-conference hubs in different cities, which are all connected through live video presence and communication. This would be a kind of hybrid in-person meeting with video conferencing that ties all the hubs together. Participants would use slow travel methods to get to the cities they are closest to in order to participate in the conference. The HowlRound TV livestreaming and video archive project has a decade of experience helping organizations to experiment with video and conferencing, and we see these technologies now as vital tools for transitioning into a post-carbon present and future.

Valuing inspiration, creativity, and deep change

Because we’ve unintentionally designed much of our arts programming by adopting our dominant culture’s values of energy abundance, conveniences, and speed, change will be difficult. However, I believe that if we collectively decide now to step out of the business-as-usual model and proactively work toward rapidly transitioning into an alternative, systemic way of supporting and making art, we will find new meaning and relevance for our work.

HowlRound’s longest-running journal series, Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, is vital to shaping the present and future of the field. In it, you’ll find dozens of examples of inspiring artists and cultural workers dedicated to making an impact in their communities.

On the political front, discourse and consciousness is rapidly changing. The 400 declarations of climate emergency from worldwide municipal governments, the converging movement work like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, the hundreds of thousands of children activists, and the potential national government commitments such as the Green New Deal offer inspiration and motivation for the rapid and massive systems-based change that’s needed as our time is quickly running out.

If you know of other bright spots and examples of how people in the arts and culture sector are rethinking their travel practices and our collective future in a systems-wide manner, please share them generously in the comments section below.

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When George Bartenieff and I attempted to interest the TCG community in Climate Change Plays, we took the train to the annual conference which was in Cleveland. I love train travel, but our trains obviously need enormous upgrades to make them energy efficient and faster. It took us 14 hours from NYC to Cleveland. I am sorry to say, that the regional theaters in this country are enormously uninterested in presenting work that is ecofeminist, or eco-anything. I have said this in the Guardian and elsewhere, the Boards of Directors of our major theater institutions are invested in fossil fuels, as are many of the foundations, like the Edgerton, Sloane, etc, that fund new work. Artists addressing the fossil fuel industry are not going to get produced. Re: plane travel, I think we can ask ourselves to limit our professional flights to one or two per year. I am trying to stick to even fewer.

Thank you, Karen, for your comment. I agree with everything you are saying. We shouldn't just lean on individual, freelance artists to change the theatre culture in the US given their dependence on institutional theatres and organizations for support and careers. I believe, however, that rapid change in our field's culture around this question can happen very soon — like this year. All it takes is just a few progressive charitable foundations and professional service organizations to decide to encourage new thought around travel and gatherings and how their grant and service programs can be redesigned. This kind of leadership from our supporting institutions has the power to change our field's consciousness really quickly.

As a heads up, there's a group of folks (myself included) who are coordinating a series of events related to climate justice at this year's TCG conference. One of the sessions will be a Lab (on Wednesday, June 5, 9am-12pm) called "Green New Theatre." We're hoping to do some collective visioning and movement building around how to transform systems, structures, and individual practice. If you're planning to be at the TCG conference, please join us. Also, Vijay -- we're looking into possibility of digital participation for people who won't be there in person (and to cut down on necessity of people flying to the conference) -- maybe this is something HowlRound can support?

All best, Annalisa

Thank you Annalisa for pointing this out! Yes, HowlRound is happy to be partnering again with the Theatre Communications Group National Conference to livestream many of their sessions from Miami in June. The full livestreaming schedule is in the works and we're aiming to publish it in a few weeks. The session you mention is definitely on our radar for livestreaming, and we can figure out ways to make it interactive with any participants who will be watching online.