Art and Sustainability: Reflections From My Time Across Both Professions

My thoughts today are not directly about Bristol Green Capital Partnership, but actually they underlie my commitment to it as a space of potential and change at city scale. Of opportunity and doing things differently in three core areas: Behaviour Change, Innovation and Cities.

My career has deliberately ranged from being a visual arts curator to arts manager, from city development to Greening Australia and, over the past year, development director with Bristol’s Green Capital Partnership. I’m a polymath working at the intersection of art and sustainability. 

It can sometimes be very difficult when talking about art and sustainability issues not to dip into a set of platitudes. I have occasionally heard myself say in sustainability forums that poetry is the most powerful tool that we have. I only half know what I mean by it.

There is the danger of viewing art as some sort of funky marketing tool, an attention grabber, a slightly more curious way of imparting practical information. Of ‘selling’ the low carbon message. But it’s so much more. We are dealing (or not dealing) with complex issues when it comes to sustainability, and we make heavy weather of it because we’re human. Poetry – read art – is in home territory here.

Credit: Bristol 2015

1. Behaviour Change

The other morning I was listening to The Life Scientific on Radio 4 in conversation with the ex-head of UNAID, Professor Peter Piot, an immunologist and scientist. He reflected on a simple mistake he made in the first part of his career. He thought that if you provided evidence, then solutions would be adopted as a matter of straightforward logic. He quickly realised that the relationship between evidence and solution was almost irrelevant. Politics, culture, greed, finance, laziness, hate, indifference, power… all of these things are much more important and powerful in human culture.

In the sustainability game you might enter a conversation about ‘behaviour change’ (i.e. what works) at this point. You might suggest making something fun, or easier to achieve… and we’ve heard all of these before. I feel both obliged and gently conflicted to say that yes, I can see the merit in these things. Of course we should encourage more people to eat local, bike not car, insulate their homes etc. Why? Because it makes financial and community and carbon sense. But above all, I am constantly reminded of my own humanity in these things – that complex mix of judgement and choice. That recognition that I can only take minor diversions to the side of the mainstream, even though we hold onto these markers like talismans and make statements in the way we present ourselves to the world, “I am a bike rider”.

In fact, the science of behaviour change remains as challenging as ever. There are the unintended consequences of public policy (congestion charging led to an increase in cycling), the whole world of nudge politics, and the perverse desire for autocratic leadership (turning out the lights in Chinese cities).

We might consider that it is love, desire, or opportunity that are the far better motivators for change. These, again, are much more the domains of poetry. And, of course, I don’t mean people sitting down and reading a book. I mean the profound, agitated state that is poetry.

2. Innovation

I love the overuse of the word ‘innovation’ these days. Every city strategy talks about the importance of innovation and creativity. Every arts project falls into the same trap: ‘the innovative work of…’ It is a bit like saying that you need to eat to live. I am not sure that there has ever been a village or town or city that has not needed these qualities to thrive.

It is also a term that is increasingly owned by the technology sector: big data and driverless cars, city sensing and rubbish bins that tell you when they need emptying. All in the name of efficiency. I don’t mind any of it. It may be the solution to a few things. It won’t be the solution. Naomi Klein‘s book, This Changes Everything, over emphasises this as she reflects on that very serious group of scientists that are quite genuinely inventing ‘carbon hoovers’ to entirely recalibrate the world into a manmade machine. Not in my name. Her solution is people power. She has written a kind of literature. I am not sure it’s poetry.

We can also talk about social innovation – and I find this interests me much more. Bristol is a genuine hotspot for it. Street closures and local food growing, reintroducing goats onto the street, food walking trails and community energy projects: ideas fostered by communities of locality and interest and put into action. In many cases they are anti-technology, they are slow not fast, they are small not grand. I see real hope in this movement: a space where outlier behaviours gradually become the mainstream. Bristol has the conditions – intelligence, wealth (as currently defined) – to lead this movement. It seems to me that art and creativity are natural partners to these things.

3. Cities

"In 1994, PJ O’Rourke calculated that if the world’s population were gathered together in one place with the same density as Manhattan ‘everyone on earth can live in the former Yugoslavia’ ... Today the world’s population might need slightly more wriggle room, but no more than Nicaragua. Therefore, living together in a crowded place is clearly not the problem: how we live, and how we are allowed to live together, is what matters most.” (Quote from Leo Hollis: Cities are Good for you)

Cities are perhaps the fastest evolving representation of human ingenuity on the planet. This is a big moment for cities – 50% of people live in them and this will rise to 75% in a generation. At a local level (for many of their citizens) they are fraught – filled with poverty and opportunity, and infrastructure – but globally, the great emerging cities of Africa, South America, China and India will change the world irrevocably.

Cities tend to be owned (in the sense of ‘designed’) by engineers and architects and the prominent discussion around cities has always been about the hard infrastructure; the hubris, actually, of manmade control – to channel water, to design in solutions, to overcome flooding, transport, disease, sanitation. This is a fundamental post-industrial revolution mindset and we are still stuck in it. Whilst there is much to celebrate in the creativity of it, we must also allow space to reflect on whether it is really working, and by what means we can provoke, reflect, sideswipe and challenge this orthodoxy. Somewhere in this reflection there is a talent that poetry uniquely has: to juxtapose things and create new insights.

This is the polymath’s space, where we recognise that it is only by applying, engaging, colliding and bringing together a wide variety of ideas that we might make the necessary and complicated progress that is demanded of us.

Theaster Gates expresses it like this:

“Let’s imagine that the South side of Chicago could be different. A preacher might imagine the South side being different by saying, ‘I could grow my church and we could maybe get some housing for our parishioners and then make things better’. That’s good and practical. Or there is the mayor, who says,’ These are the tools that I have as mayor.’ Or the police, who say, ‘Well if we had more police, we could help reduce violence.’ All good but actually we need a greater symbolic act than any of those instrumental acts could ever offer. But few people are imaging the great symbolic acts.” (Theaster Gates: Phaidon)

I will end with a quick story:

I am not a botanist. But I, like you, am innately programmed to enjoy the natural world. I engaged with it for the first four decades of my life in Europe. I walked in it and rode my bike through it, read about it and enjoyed it. Then I went to another place – Australia – and I didn’t understand it, I could not read it. Birds everywhere, unspoilt wilderness, an entirely different language of landscape. I was baffled by it. By good fortune I started managing bush reserves (parks!) and then took over as CEO of Greening Australia – a landscape restoration NGO. My team of botanists and scientists taught me how to read the landscape. I became more intoxicated by it than any other landscape. One day my colleague urged me down onto my knees and gently revealed a tiny lily. The chocolate lily. Yes, chocolate, if you taste it.

I am not sharing this to educate you about the Australian landscape. I am sharing it because it is a story, and its real power is the power of storytelling. If we are to make new “great symbolic acts” possible, we will need the courage to tell stories, to imagine different stories about ourselves, our cities, and how human culture relates to the natural world. 

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Gary Topp at Powering Change in Bristol on 19th February 2016.

“Art is a voice that is required to be listened to in every age”

– Elizabeth Frink 1982
Sustaining Creativity