07 February 2012

Our Future In The Making

Written by Published in Art & Culture

With recessionary trends set to continue and governments ever deeper in denial about the effects of fossil-fuels, a space is opening up into which artists can join climate scientists to bring beauty, clarity – and a warning

The climate conference in Durban has come and gone, and there is a proposed agreement to start curbing greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. I am tempted to reflect on Rome burning while Nero fiddled, but that is just my cheap take on, or total frustration with, the situation.

Economist Lord Stern has now called for a revised 2% of GDP investment in green technology to tackle the climate challenge, which, if viewed positively, could also be a solution to our global lack of growth and economic woes. A Roosevelt-type planned investment in social infrastructure to stimulate growth, a 2% investment per annum in green technology, green-energy production, building the future, and so on. Well, why not? Sounds like a plan to me.

In a recent address on climate, Bill Clinton clarified that investment in the fossil-fuel industry – coal, gas and oil – created very few new jobs when compared with the same investment in green technologies, which would return a significantly higher number of new work opportunities. This would seem to be a no-brainer, but governments worldwide continue to use taxpayers’ money to invest in the already highly profitable fossil-fuel sector. It makes no sense to invest in an industry that is destroying our habitat when the alternative is to help grow an industry that is part of the climate solution and creates jobs.

In November, we launched the Cape Farewell Foundation in North America. A concert at a packed 1,200-seat Kroner Hall in Toronto witnessed a brilliant performance by Montreal musicians Patrick Watson and the Wooden Arms and Amy Millan that brought the whole audience to their feet. The evening included David Miller (the last great mayor of Toronto and chair of the board of Cape Farewell North America), Laurie Brown of The Signal radio show fame and myself onstage, all championing the new.

The evening celebrated the legacy of Marshall McLuhan – the dude would have been 100 this year – and a celebration of Cape Farewell and North American artists who are working towards a cultural shift that embraces climate as a necessity for change. The Marshall McLuhan quote that ‘Spaceship Earth doesn’t carry passengers, only crew’ would have nailed his climate flag to fly fully in the face of Canadian Prime Minister Harper, an oil evangelist somewhere to the right of George W. Bush.

For the following two days, 40 artists, informers and environmentalists from Mexico, the US and Canada gathered for Cape Farewell’s first urban workshop or rather, expedition. These two days set the stage for a three-year intensive programme in which artists from all over the North American continent will engage with the cultural issues of climate, culminating in a major exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in September 2013. The exhibition is Carbon 14, the third in a series of Cape Farewell exhibitions featuring new work from more than 20 artists and climate scientists. Carbon 12 opens in Paris in May 2012, showcasing five artists who have worked directly with climate scientists. Carbon 13 opens in Marfa, Texas in September 2012, and will feature six international artists who position their work under the Climate is Culture umbrella.

Carbon 14 will be, like the isotope carbon 14, something edgy, unstable, exciting, electric, pioneering and subversive and will open at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Toronto in September 2013. My projection is that our atmospheric conditions will, by then, have become very edgy and unstable, and that the effects of our feverish human activity will have become pronounced and will demand immediate action to reduce CO2 emissions and methane release. It looks as if artists could be leading the charge, and again to quote Marshall McLuhan: ‘I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.’

The year 2012 opened with fanfares of gloomy economic predictions, but historically periods of recession have spawned landmark creative solutions. In times when the status quo clearly isn’t sufficient, we have had to create in order to exist with any sense of purpose. There is money out there to invest, but maybe the quick-buck profit motive – the age of greed – is passing and a new spirit of adventure is taking root. Witness the Arab Spring, the Occupy camps for change, new demands for democracy and banking reform.

At the Toronto urban workshop, I asked everyone to place themselves in a line according to where they each thought they might be in ten years’ time: better off, the same, worse off. I was surprised to find a majority in the ‘better off’ camp, given our economic forecasts, and interrogated them on their positioning. It was pointed out that I hadn’t defined ‘better off’ as an economic position, and that each thought they would be better off socially, with more time for friendships and family, in terms of cultural responsibility, especially with regard to energy production, and more creative lifestyles with less consuming, more adventure, greater equality. The ‘to do list’ for the second decade of the 21st century! Sounds like a plan to me.

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