It’s time to harness the arts and cultural sector in our fight against climate change

Anthony Garoufalis-Auger
QUOI Media

The Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pablo Rodriguez, announced he will soon be holding a national summit on the recovery of the arts and culture sector. Among the topics of discussion will be the critical role for the cultural sector in the fight against climate change.

That’s good news.

Arts and culture are usually absent from discussions about climate and environmental policy. Currently, the federal government’s Net Zero Advisory Group includes no representation from the social sciences or cultural sector. Neither do the climate mitigation models used in Canada to help guide government policy include culture and broad behavioral change in their parameters.

The assumption is that culture won’t change enough to challenge our obsession with unsustainable economic growth and that future technological developments will – fingers crossed – save the day.

The environmental challenges we are facing call for nothing less than having to rapidly transform our society to bring human activity within planetary limits to ensure the long-term viability of all species. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, the world needs to reduce planet heating pollution by at least 7.6 per cent per year, every year this decade, to limit global heating.

So, what role might the arts and cultural sector play in facing the climate and ecological emergency?

There’s a growing recognition that our planetary emergency can’t be addressed through an incremental approach. Calls for a WW2-scale economic and social mobilization have been growing in the United States, Canada, and Europe, thanks to groups like Sunrise Movement, World War Zero, Extinction Rebellion, and thought leaders like Joseph Stiglitz and Seth Klein.

We know that economic mobilization will require supply-side policies, like rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, transforming our food systems, and restructuring our built infrastructure accordingly. But alone, these won’t be sufficient. Without a parallel social mobilization – through the use of culture and information – the rapid adoption of lifestyle and behavioral changes at the population level needed will likely not materialize.

Multiple initiatives are now emerging around creating a larger role for arts and cultural institutions that both implement greening practices and imagine how culture can help shape the ecological values and norms needed to shift us from hyper-consumerism to environmental stewardship.

This is the mission of the newly formed Sectoral Climate Arts Leadership for the Emergency (SCALE) organization, which will be launching publicly in the coming months. In partnership with the Climate Emergency Unit, SCALE is attempting to catalyze the sector around addressing our planetary emergency.

SCALE was founded on the belief the arts and cultural community in Canada is uniquely placed to help with the emergency mobilization required. The organization recognizes the power of storytelling to help us embrace new perspectives and create a sustainable vision of the society we aim to build.

It’s through arts and culture we can win hearts and minds to engage citizens in rigorous, sustained individual and collective action and gain support needed for success of supply-side policies. SCALE is working to outline what exactly a green and just recovery for the sector would look like in the lead up to the summit.

It’s also time we revisited our cultural policy framework in Canada.

Canada’s cultural framework, infrastructure, and funding programs need to create an enabling environment for the sector to participate fully in such a mobilization. Many of the programs and institutions under Canadian Heritage date back more than 20 years and weren’t conceived with 21st century challenges in mind. It’s time we embraced the power of this sector to help meet our international climate and environmental obligations.

We urgently need to reflect on the essential role arts and culture have in addressing our planetary emergency and enabling a green recovery. The summit will be a welcome opportunity for artists and cultural workers to raise their voice about the emergency and imagine a stronger role for their sector in reauthoring our global discourse towards a sustainable pathway forward.

Anthony Garoufalis-Auger is an organizer with the Climate Emergency Unit. He is a founder and coordinating circle member of the Sectoral Climate Arts Leadership for the Emergency (SCALE). He lives in Montreal.