Art and International Environmental Policy

Evolving Links and Opportunities

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 18, No 1 (Spring 2007)

Dave Pritchard

Over the past forty years, several hundred legal frameworks have been established for cooperative action by governments on ecological issues — treaties such as the Biodiversity Convention, the Climate Change Convention, the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. How do these relate to art?

Outreach

First, all these programs include communication, education, and outreach activities to increase public and political awareness and support. Experience and expertise from arts practitioners has been important in these activities. Music, poetry, and images can offer people more than simply intellectual reasons for accepting environmental ideals, and can move them to feel and behave differently, cultivating both moral sensibilities and ideas about what they can do as individuals or as a society.

Beyond the tangible things we value about the natural world (such as its productivity or the protections it offers against floods and disease), its more intangible values (such as its enhancement of people's sense of identity, connectedness, meaning, and spiritual renewal) are often best communicated by artists.

Sometimes, the aspect of a UN conference that makes the greatest impact on the negotiators present, and that they will tell their fami-lies about, is not anything on the formal agenda, but is instead a children's poster competition in the coffee break room or a sculpture in the entrance hall.

An important part of environmental planning is good community engagement. In some cases, a community arts project may be the best way of enfranchising people and consulting them about change.

Understanding

Beyond awareness and engagement, certain kinds of art can do more than science can do to deepen our understanding of the natural world. An aesthetic response to nature can be an accurate way of revealing some generalized truths of form and function, or of universal interconnectedness. Instead of knowledge based on collected facts or reasoning, this is understanding based more on intuition.

Our sense of how things come to be arranged the way they are — the constraints that operate and the ways in which the dynamics of an organism interact with the forces of its environment — gives us fundamental appreciations of how wind, growth, fluids, masses, and so on behave. Even with abstract or asymmetric forms and patterns, we can have a strong sense of what seems right or not quite right.

This is directly relevant to strategies for environmental sustainability: for understanding whether we are working with the grain of the realities of nature or not, and whether we are in tune with its limits to tolerance of change or not. These things are perhaps cultivated better with aesthetics than with science.

Science cannot help us decide what meaning to give to things, or how to be spiritually reconciled to those truths of nature that we perceive as randomness, waste, cycles, paradox, and death. For many of us, art helps with these more metaphysical dimensions.

In some cultures, of course, this distinction between “art” and other things is non-existent. In many traditional and indigenous con-texts, myth, imagination, and non-quantified, non-text-based artistic representation are the everyday language of social wisdom — in effect, this language is the science these societies use and they have no need of a word for “art.”

Values

Much environmental policy-making and management is based on frameworks of values and assumptions that are not well under-stood, not sufficiently explicit, and not complete. Good work has been done on things like quantifying the economic benefits for human livelihoods of a world rich in biodiversity. But we need better language for unraveling the philosophical, spiritual, and aes-thetic dimensions that are also there at a more unspoken level. For example, a site may be protected under legislation that prizes the site's importance for endangered species, without making any provision that allows the intangible values of the “sense of place” associated with it to be taken into account in decision-making.

Treaties and Conventions

Aside from the environmental sector, there are intergovernmental policy frameworks that aim to foster the creative industries, to pro-mote cultural expression, to protect cultural diversity, and to support the role of the artist in society. Some of these are operated by the UN cultural organization, UNESCO, such as the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Ex-pressions (which includes artistic expressions) and the Convention for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The World Heritage Convention (for tangible heritage) covers natural heritage as well as culture, and there are other initiatives that at least have the potential to link the natural and the cultural together, such as the UN Environment Programme's activities on cultural and spiritual values of biodiversity.

Some of the environmental Conventions have a small agenda on the cultural significance of the fields they embrace (e.g. biodiversity or wetlands), and a small part of the consideration given to this cultural significance occasionally refers to art.

One possibility for enhancing the place of art in future lies with global networks of special sites, such as World Heritage Sites or the “Ramsar sites” (wetlands of international importance) listed under the Ramsar Convention. Some of these sites have cultural significance that is linked with their ecological significance, such as sacred traditions reflecting a sense of connectedness with the land and with plants and animals, or a deep understanding of the way a place functions with its particular cycles and vulnerabilities. These values may be expressed through art. In some instances, the art produced may itself become physically part of the environment that is valued. In other cases, landscapes are conserved because they were the inspiration for paintings or literature.

Conclusion

Good potential exists to develop all of this further, and to build better bridges between artistic creativity and the processes of inter-national environmental policy. By enhancing awareness, engagement, and understanding, the world of art can make a unique contribution to global agendas for sustainability and to methods of decision-making that respect the natural world and properly holistic values. Consideration of our place in the natural world does of course define a field of creative endeavor that is hugely important in its own right and is fundamental to the human spirit. Beyond that, however, awareness of the limitations in the methods that the sci-ence and policy world uses for communicating, understanding, and valuing nature supports a conviction that greater synergy with the world of art offers broader and deeper possibilities.

Dave Pritchard has worked for twenty-five years in international nature conservation and is active in the contemporary arts. His own experience of the value of synergy between the world of science policy and the world of art has led him to be a proponent of bridges between the two worlds. This article is adapted from part of a paper given to a symposium at the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale in Gongju, Republic of Korea, July 2006. It is published with permission of greenmuseum.org.

© 2006 greenmuseum.org