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Sustainable Development and the Arts

Published April 24, 2013

by igarrett

Why do we care about environmental sustainability in the arts? As art makers, It is already difficult to keep our doors open, get audience in seats, sets on stage, paintings on the wall and so on. Is this another restriction on how we can do things? Are these more restrictions on what we can create?

Why do we care about the arts in environmental sustainability? We're already trying to cut carbon from private automobiles, change over to renewable energy sources and figure out what to do with all of this plastic. What makes the arts any different from what people are doing in their homes and offices? Are the arts unique in this equation? As a small percentage of our economic engines how can the arts drive innovation like the construction or another industry?

As director of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, an organization devoted to exploring the intersection of sustainable development and the arts, these questions are the center of every decision we make. It is clear to us that these issues are intertwined, but how do we express this to our partners and stakeholders?

The truth is that these questions aren't easily answered. Not like ones about why we should choose electric mass transit versus private vehicles powered by fossil fuels. The issues of cost of living, emissions and pollution, political holdings and global conflict bombard us constantly. Billions of dollars are spent on both sides of these issues. There are constant global discussions on trying to make sure our planet will be livable, in a quality way, for our grandchildren and beyond. So who has time to worry about art? Isn't it a luxury in these times of extreme crisis?

I ask about what we're trying to save, if not our culture and way of life. If art is lost in our efforts to carry on, what is it that we're carrying on? Our earliest record of how we interacted with the world is artistic. These elements of our identities and culture define "us"; not just who we are, but that we are. These signifiers of humanity and what we value establish the very things which we're attempting to sustain. If we're to consider the quality of life and ability to function in keeping a person on life support, shouldn't we attempt to do the same for our entire civilization? Looking at the cultures of the pacific, threatened by rising sea levels, erasing their homes and the culture that ties them to their place, how can we not say that the entirety of sustainable thinking has a cultural element?

And for the converse, how can we say we represent the ideas of our culture unless we are mindful of how we act within it? If we don't think about how we make, being mindful of resources important to our creative output, how can we claim to speak for a society where resources are limited? If we don't think about what we are making, being mindful of how our creative output represents ideas, at the forefront or in the background, which are at the center of our thinking on the ability of our civilization to continue, what exactly are we talking about of merit anyway?

We do live in an era where we see a division between art and science... or anything we can measure and quantify. It is easier to predict how many degrees the planet will warm, or that sea level will rise based on parts per million of definable elements than it is to say how many children will lose touch with their ancestry because of catastrophic climate change or how the stress of forced migration to pursue arable land will cause traditional dances to be lost. It's easier to express what will happen than it is to express how we will experience the change.

But as seemingly difficult as this might seem, this is our fourth dimension of sustainability, which is what we are trying to sustain. And, without this, who and what are we beyond another invasive species?

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