Greening the arts: from values to actions

This is a full version of the article I’ve written in Arts Professional issue 244.

Denial, fear, anger, grief, despair, guilt, smugness, hope.  How are you feeling today?

These are some typical responses to the enormity and complexity of the global challenges we face. Challenges of climate change, ecological overshoot, economic instability, poverty and social injustice. Inextricably intertwined, their threat is growing ever larger despite years of effort to deal with them.

Turns out some of our most commonly used approaches have not only been in vain, they’ve actually undermined the very changes they sought to bring about. How unfortunate Is that!

When less is not more

The story begins with eco-efficiency. Reduce Reuse Recycle – way to go, right? Well actually… no. It is fundamentally flawed. As Dame Ellen MacArthur says “it just ekes things out longer” [1]. It’s not a solution it’s a delaying tactic, and it struggles to take the other interconnected issues into account.

Improving eco-efficiency with better-insulated buildings can affect indoor air quality to the detriment of human health. Even tiny amounts of dangerous chemicals like the endocrine disruptors found in many plastics and consumer goods can adversely affect our health. Shockingly, less than a quarter of chemical substances used by industry today have been tested for their effect on living systems. Materials like paper and plastics were never designed to be safely burned and so can release toxins into the air when incinerated. And just because something is reused or recycled doesn’t make it benign. Clothes made from recycled plastic bottles may be made of fibres containing toxins not designed to be work next to the human skin [2].

Eco-efficiency also doesn’t address the huge looming issue of peak oil that marks the end of a cheap and plentiful oil supply. Our society has become dependent on oil in all aspects of our lives from energy and transport to fertilisers and pesticides involved in food production. Many products are derived from oil: plastics, synthetic fibres, drugs, laminates, paints and inks. The Transition movement has been working on ways to wean society off oil for several years [3]; governments are still in denial.

Biodiversity loss and habitat degradation are also missing from the eco-efficiency model. Encouragingly, attempts are being made to factor the value of the natural world into global economic systems with the UK as the first nation to produce a detailed assessment of its natural capital [4].

The eco-efficiency approach of the low carbon economy has other unintended negative consequences in the rebound effect, a phenomenon that is seriously undermining attempts to tackle climate change. This occurs when some of the benefits from energy efficiency are cancelled out by changes in behaviour in other areas – money saved on energy bills being used on flights abroad or using the car more [5]. One study finds that people who perceive themselves as leading green lifestyles are often in reality the most-carbon intensive, rewarding themselves for their good behaviour with skiing holidays abroad [6].

The wrong sort of values

An explanation for the rebound effect lies within recent psychological research into values and frames [7], that finds that lasting pro-social and pro-environmental behaviour is motivated by intrinsic self-transcendent values associated with empathy for others, concern for human rights and the environment. However, the research found that organisations seeking to influence behaviour often use tactics highlighting savings that could be made, status that could be enhanced, or competitive advantage that could be gained, and in so doing were inadvertently activating extrinsic self-serving values [see Schwartz’s values model]. Values associated with concern with wealth, material success, status, and power. Intrinsic and extrinsic values act like a see-saw; when one type is activated the other is suppressed. In other words, these organisations have been activating and strengthening values that work against the very behaviour changes they are interested in!

Re-frame to positive

Rather than focussing on having ‘less negative’ impact, there is an emerging global movement towards designing new business models with net positive value – having benign or even restorative impact on the natural world and human quality of life. This is radical stuff, and hugely challenging to those who prefer to tinker around with business-as-usual.

I get the sense the private sector is ahead of the arts sector here, with several market leaders already transforming how they do business – Interface FLOR, NIKE and Puma are notable examples.

In 2009 I conducted research for Mission Models Money into 21st century competencies, qualities and attributes (CQAs) that equip people working in the arts to thrive in complex, uncertain and fast-changing environments. The findings suggested that the arts sector was in denial with something of a ‘some-one else’s problem’ attitude to environmental issues.

However, I feel hopeful. In writing this article I re-analysed the survey data to search for clues about the strength of intrinsic ‘self-transcendent’ values of universalism and benevolence held by people working in the arts. I discovered that around half the sample felt they had a set of qualities that I thought could be associated with these values. A similar proportion had qualities that would seem to relate to ‘openness to change’ values of stimulation and self-direction [see how I mapped CQAs to Schwartz’s values model here. Diagram of all CQAs here].

So it seems the arts sector has the potential to transform itself. In recognising its interconnection with nature and society, it can play its part in creating an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just world.

There are enough people in the arts with strong intrinsic values. It’s time to act on them.



[1] Keynote speech at BASE conference, London 16/2/11

[2] Michael Braungart & William McDonough, ‘Cradle to Cradle: re-making the way we make things’ Vintage 2009

[3] Transition Network website

[4] UK National Ecosystem Assessment

[5] Jesse Jenkins et al, Energy Emergence: Rebound & backfire as emergent phenomena, Breakthrough Institute Feb 2011

[6] Research by Stewart Barr from Exeter University, reported in The Guardian 24/9/08

[7] Tom Crompton, ‘Common Cause: The Case for Working with Cultural Values’ WWF Sept 2010; also Andrew Darnton & Martin Kirk ‘Finding Frames: new ways to engage the public in global poverty’, Bond Jan 2011. See Common Cause website

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2 Responses to Greening the arts: from values to actions

  1. marcusampe says:

    In the clothing industry they should be careful with the materials they want to use in the recycling system. Clothes but also other household materials made from recycled plastic bottles may be made of fibres containing toxins not designed to be work next to the human skin, therefore governments should require analysis of the materials used and safeguard the possible wearers of those materials.

  2. Pingback: Frames about nature | cultureprobe

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