Culture: the New Deal for Society?!

Our society, our Culture

Arts institutions in Dresden, Germany have implemented an ecological strategy that includes the sustainability of their social and economic structures and processes. During the last week of May 2020, the department of culture and preservation order of Dresden ran a digital symposium as a kick-off event for the development of a joint strategy for the future of art. One of the keynote speakers was professor Harald Welzer, a sociologist and social psychologist who addresses the need of a reboot of our culture which, according to him, has never been as obvious as in these times of crisis. Besides teaching at universities in Germany and Switzerland, he is  the director and co-founder of FUTURZWEI. Stiftung Zukunftsfähigkeit, a magazine which presents social ideas that strive towards a viable, worthwhile and sustainable future.

Welzer emphasises that our (Western) society lives in an illusion of constant growth. Growth that is measured in numbers only as it allows comparability. If we as a society are not growing in terms of numbers (better, faster, stronger) then we feel as if we do not function properly. We are ‘not efficient’. We need some make-up, remodelling or optimization. With growth comes higher consumption levels comes more growth and more competition in the race for the profits of growth. It is a vicious circle. In the sustainability debate higher consumption is a contra indicator for a resource-friendly or cradle-to-cradle, recycle-based lifestyle. Instead, it stimulates a ‘throw away’ culture: buy, use, throw away – repeat. All this happens at the expense of our natural resources.

By-product sustainability

The key problem is that we see sustainability as a by-product, something that is nice to reach comparable to a finish line. But it is rather an ongoing process, one that will not have been solved for good once you reach it almost ‘by chance’ as we had experienced it in the last few months. The pandemic had brought global air traffic to a halt. Since then, global Co2 emissions reduced (why not to as much as we expected will be subject in an upcoming article).

At no point can reduced emissions in a specific moment in time be perceived as a finish line – in a ‘homework done‘ notion. They do not stay low for good, they cannot be ticked off the list and discarded as ‘problem solved’. They won’t stay down if we go back to business as usual. Input equals output. Co2 emissions have risen again and we find ourselves back at the same point racing towards an imaginative finish line.

It is like a turntable with the same record on repeat if we don’t transform the by-product into the main product.

Request for new narratives

We need better storytelling“, says Welzer. One that focuses on the advantages of a conscious and environmentally-friendly lifestyle rather than on restrictions and set-offs. Nowadays’ storytelling is still dominated by the pursuit of happiness of consuming and owning more. The equation goes as follows: Happiness = tangible goods = consumption. Compared to this, we still tend to link sustainable choices and actions to loss, loss of convenience, comfort and last but not least choice (i.e. travel, food, fashion). And loss just feels so damn unattractive as if something has been taken away from us without our consent. The bottom line is that sustainability is still perceived as a tiresome duty. One that has to be done, like doing the dishes, laundry or the annual tax declaration.

The result: a conflict of goals. On the one hand, we ‘want to’ engage in more conscious behaviour but it seems to be ‘more effort for a lesser outcome’; it does not pay off (enough!). We do not experience, yet see the payoff. And ‘what we don’t see does not exist‘?! Our 9-to-5 imagination stops right here. Like a glass that is half empty. On the other hand, choosing to be sustainable is a strong statement that might still have social and political entanglements for institutions and individuals. Not everyone consents to such a change of priority and behaviours or considers it ‘important enough’. It needs devotion, strong willpower and consistency to be an advocate.

Lack of alternatives is in reality a lack of imagination.

Prof. Dr. Harald Welzer

Where is the fun? Where are the gains? What will a full glass be and look like? How does the future taste, feel, smell like when we become more conscious and resourceful? What do we have more time for? This is what storytelling needs to focus on! According to Welzer, this is where the arts come into play. It can boost our imagination and literally paint a vision of the future, a proposal of a different reality; one of a liveable future where quality is valued more than quantity.

How can a new society look like? How do we live with less – less wastefulness, less ignorance, less separation? What will we gain? Better food, better well-being, better relationships? Here, the imagination and intelligence of the arts is key: How can a proposition of less be made attractive to society? Or rather:

how can we dismiss the idea of less completely and replace it with more?

Learnings from the pandemic

The pandemic has adequately revealed to us what is relevant for us and in our lives; what really matters. It has exposed that the previous journey of our society end economy in a constant pursuit of growth has not led us to more resilience, but rather to more vulnerability. Our aim should not be to go back to pre-pandemic circumstances and certainly not business. We need to set new priorities. We must insist on a sustainable and resource-friendly business practice to be an unshakeable prerequisite in all industries including the arts. 

Policy must help to set the right green criteria for funding and fundraising. Statements of intent towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must be monitored. Orientation towards the SDGs must become an obligation and not just a ‘nice to have – let’s boost our image’ kind of notion. We must get to the core and make sustainability the main product. Companies that cannot operate within the ecological boundaries and thus, are not sustainable in the long-term should not be allowed to survive. Culture, backed up by policy, has to be part of the solution.

Doing comes first

Last but not least, Welzer proclaims that we need a fundamental change in the way and especially the sequence we think. We need to shift from 1) what do we need and 2) what then needs to be changed to 1) what can we change (now!) and 2) what do we need then?! We need to stop thinking and debating, and start acting. According to him, doing must come first:

Societies that talk about sustainability are not sustainable.

Prof. Dr. Harald Welzer

We, the societies and the culture that permeates us have more power than we think. Our consumption decisions make a difference. The producers have to adapt otherwise they become irrelevant. Artists and art institutions have a strong lobbyist power themselves. They bring to attention, criticise and show alternatives .They reach people, bring them together and mobilise. Doing; going for it is key. How do we envision our future? And how can artists bring this vision to life?

If you are German speaking then you have the possibility to watch Harald Welzer’s keynote below. He has a very refreshing way of presenting this topic – as for the liking of his cat;)

„Kunst & Kultur als New Deal für die Gesellschaft“ – Harald Welzer moderated by Gunda Röstel

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