Life-friendly impact and a role for the arts

For the past couple years I’ve been exploring the notion of ‘life-friendly impact‘. Here is my latest attempt to explain what it means, which I’ve just written for a new programme of work with artists and practitioners and the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester.

Life-friendly means to live and work in ways that support life  – all life – to flourish, to create a world that is environmentally sustainable, socially just and spiritually fulfilling.

Rather than going for the usual ‘less bad’ approach of reducing our negative impact on the world, which doesn’t solve our global problems but just ekes things out for longer, life-friendly re-frames it in the positive. It seeks to have an actively benign or restorative impact on ourselves, on other people and on the rest of the natural world: win-win-win.

This means fundamentally re-designing the way we do things, which is both challenging and exciting.

Imagine a workplace where you leave feeling as good if not better than when you arrived:

  • Interior design that helps you focus or to exchange information and is ergonomic
  • Furniture and equipment made of materials free of toxins
  • Plants that absorb toxins in the air
  • Sunlight
  • Windows with views of nature
  • Fair working conditions and practices
  • Working culture that nurtures mutual respect and trust, resolves conflict in healthy way, and empowers people to make their own decisions about how they fulfil their work objectives

These things are all possible to embed into the DNA of an organisation in a systemic way, if the commitment and knowledge is there. Likewise with impact on the natural world.

There is a lot of information out there to help us make ethical choices. ethicalconsumer.org ranks companies and products on a range of measures throughout the entire supply chain from extraction of rare earth minerals in conflict zones such as eastern Congo, use of toxic materials in manufacture, management of workers’ rights (see recent furore over Apple and its supplier Foxconn), air, water and land pollution in manufacture, product lifecycle, as well as fossil fuel consumption in manufacture, distribution and use.

There are organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that are exploring how to eliminate the concept of waste through a circular economy.

Recent social psychology research on values and frames finds that lasting pro-social and pro-environmental behaviour is motivated by certain types of values – intrinsic self-transcendent values. These are values that are greater than the self, and are associated with empathy for others and concern for human rights and the environment. These values are in opposition to extrinsic self-enhancing values  – values to do with self-interest – associated with status, power, wealth and material success. This opposition means that when extrinsic values are being activated and strengthened (e.g. through advertising), intrinsic values are simultaneously suppressed.

However, with almost 100 years of having our minds manipulated by PR and advertising industries who have very effectively harnessed the power of language and image to create false needs and desires, we have become insatiable consumers, deluded into believing we can satisfy our innate psychological needs through extrinsic goals.

The belief that we are separate from and have dominion over nature has led us to the brink of destroying the diversity of life on our planet. Yet on some level we know we are not separate. In evolutionary terms, the past few hundred years of industrial growth society is a mere blink of the eye in the millions of years that humans have lived intimately connected with the rest of nature. Ecospsychology finds that responses to the huge global ecological trauma we are experiencing are deeply emotional, although our distress is not necessarily in our conscious awareness.

Art, I would argue, has a unique role to play in creating the space and context to expose and explore the tensions, conflicts and contradictions that arise from our desire for a better world clashing with a reluctance to give up our current way of life; of holding competing intrinsic and extrinsic values, and of wanting short term gratification whilst also appreciating the need to take the longer view.

Engaging with art can provoke the uncomfortable state of cognitive dissonance  – when we hold conflicting thoughts, beliefs, ideas or values at the same time – and it can challenge the way we seek to reduce or resolve this dissonance.

And art can be playful, posing paradoxical questions that are Escher-like in their seemingly logical yet impossible nature “why should we care about future generations, what have they ever done for us?”

In order to play this role with integrity, artists and arts organisations need to first look at themselves. This is where the CAC life-friendly programme comes in. With a firm theoretical foundation, it offers a fresh context to explore practice in a positive, holistic and above all personal way.

I developed the concept of life-friendly through research I conducted for Mission Models Money on 21st century competencies in the arts and cultural sector in 2009/10. The concept has been influenced by thinking in the fields of biomimicry, cradle to cradle / circular economy, ecological ethics, social psychology and ecopsychology. For more on life-friendly see my life-friendly blog

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