Illustration: Mark McKellier /

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Following the launch of a new sustainability network for cultural organisations in the City Region, El Gray looks at culture’s central role in affecting and promoting climate change action. 

Sometimes, I dream about tidal waves and choking, saturated lungs with salty water or smog. I dream of cities, crumbling. The Liver Birds slowly submerged under a relentless tide. I dream of the cathedrals and stained glass, shattering in hurricane winds, proof of the destructive gods we have become. Sometimes, the sunsets look like wildfires.

These images of rapture define imaginations of climate change, extremities and catastrophe. In reality the changes will arrive more subtly here; a gradual transformation of the physical environment. Stifling summers with thick air, a heaviness everywhere. Violent winters with storm surges that overwhelm the banks of the Mersey. It will be a slow and gradual kind of rapture. But it will come, and it will affect the most vulnerable first. In June 2019, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority declared a climate emergency, recognising the urgency of the threat and the scale of the response required to address it. This is the paradox of the climate crisis; preventing these subtle but devastating changes requires radical transformation, not simply modification or mitigation but a fundamental shift in the way we operate, individually and societally, a series of small revolutions.

This makes the climate crisis a cultural crisis. In March 2021, responding to this cultural necessity, Shift Liverpool entered Liverpool’s climate response. Established by Edge Hill’s cultural hub and creative catalyst Metal Liverpool, Shift Liverpool is a sustainability network for cultural organisations across the City Region. The new network aims to shrink the cultural sector’s carbon footprint, divert away from environmentally damaging practices and collectively promote carbon reduction. Shift Liverpool’s secretary, Nathalie Candel, defines its purpose: “[It’s about] how we look at ourselves as organisations, but also how we engage our audiences within that and bring change into what they do.”

Climate change is a systemic issue, created and perpetuated by an underlying system of values, norms and behaviours which promote unsustainable practices: overconsumption, individualism, dislocation from nature, inequality. Claire Buckley of Julie’s Bicycle, a national charity dedicated to mobilising the arts and culture to take action on the climate crisis, summarised culture’s role in 2019: “Policies, technology and investment alone will not be enough to address it. We need hearts, minds and a shift in our cultural values.” This is the new mission for culture, engendering a shift in practice and a shift in perspective.

Policies, technology and investment alone will not be enough to address it. We need hearts, minds and a shift in our cultural values Claire Buckley, Julie's Bicycle

A Shift in Practice

In 2019, the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority pledged to become net carbon zero by 2040 – a decade ahead of the UK’s national targets. This year the city published its Year One Climate Action Plan, outlining an impressive array of climate initiatives to achieve this ambitious target, including the Mersey Tidal Power Project, with the potential to power up to one million homes. However, achieving net zero will require rapid and concerted change across all sections of society, and culture is not immune. The arts and culture do not operate in a vacuum, they are part of a system of energy, transport and waste with a carbon and environmental impact. According to the Arts Council’s Environmental Report, it would take 115,000 trees 100 years to absorb the amount of CO₂ emitted by just 742 cultural organisations in 2018/19. The cultural sector is a vital part of Liverpool’s economy and future growth. If Liverpool is to achieve the pace and scale of reductions required to reach carbon net zero, culture must also change.

Some cultural organisations in Liverpool are already quietly responding. Meraki is pursuing an environmental mission incongruous with its industrial surroundings. In 2019, the venue eliminated single-use plastics, saving 4500 straws a year, and stopped serving exotic fruit in drinks, reducing their carbon impact from import emissions. Although seemingly small decisions, these choices contribute to normalising sustainable practices, entrenching them in the public consciousness and impacting the supply chain. George Griffin, Meraki’s director, is humble and pragmatic about the venue’s environmental actions. “We had the ability to do these things which are better for the environment, so we did,” he says. “We didn’t do it for a PR stunt, we did it because I think it’s something everyone should be doing going forward.”

This pragmatism is echoed by Dr Ariel Edesess of the Low Carbon Eco-Innovatory, a collaborative project between Liverpool John Moores University, University of Liverpool and Lancaster University supporting organisations in the city to understand and reduce their carbon impact. Sustainability can no longer be considered “a good thing to do, it should just be the thing to do… we have to stop putting these things on a pedestal – it’s just how it should be”, says Edesess. This kind of comprehensive change is multifaceted and complex and all encompassing. And that is the point. It requires recognising the environment as implicated within, and affected by, everything the cultural sector does and does not do. However, this awareness of the climate crisis often fails to translate into tangible action, remaining stunted in distant hopes or theoretical commitments. For Edesess, action on climate change can no longer be perceived as aspirational. “I think we’re kind of past that,” she admits, “it’s going to take everyone putting their foot down and saying, ‘Nope, this is how it is’.”

Undoubtedly, there are limits to the changes underfunded and under-resourced cultural organisations are able to make. As Sean Durney, PHD researcher for the Zero Carbon Research Institute and overseeing member for Shift, notes: “There are lots of things that are beyond the scope of the cultural sector, located within policy frameworks for things like planning and building regulation.” However, in recent years, there has been an awakening to the severity of the climate crisis and the international consensus is changing towards immediate action. “These things will change whether we like it or not, but I think the arts sector is ideally placed to smooth that journey and make it go quicker and better.”

Through introducing small sustainable changes, the arts and culture can challenge audiences to reflect on their own lives and practices, creating the new perspectives and expectations that underpin change. For Edesess it’s about “making it the new norm and culture and art can really influence what we consider the norm”. Griffin encapsulates the reality of the climate crisis: “The onus is on everyone to do their individual part and I don’t think cultural organisations can use the excuse that no one held their hand all the way through it.”

Culture in is ingrained into Liverpool’s identity, epitomising the city’s defiance, innovation and resilience. Culture has a legacy of transformation in Liverpool, a proven ability to lead in action and narrative. It is ideally placed to lead the city’s response to the climate crisis. Nathalie Candel encapsulates this natural role for culture in the city: “Throughout history, Liverpool has been so important for culture, if there’s something that we’re good at – it’s culture. So, it makes sense that our culture sector is pointing attention towards sustainability as well.”

In 2020, Liverpool was chosen to host a Massive Attack “super-low carbon” gig as part the band’s project with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, experimenting with renewable power sources and alternative sustainable transport options for audiences.

The collaborative project with Culture Liverpool and various city authorities is testament to the city’s history of cultural innovation, experimentation and pioneering potential. Although postponed due to lockdown, there is hope that the sustainable ambitions of the event will filter down through the city’s cultural sector, provoking cultural organisations to create and depict imagined futures.

There are similar strides being made across the Mersey. Future Yard’s name defines their existence in the realm of the potential, the prophetic. The Birkenhead venue is committed to a long-term goal of becoming the UK’s first carbon neutral grassroots music venue, addressing its energy consumption, building design and venue operation. “We all have a responsibility to the environment,” Future Yard’s director Craig Pennington asserts in the venue’s eco-manifesto, and he wants to “create a place that has a net positive environmental impact… not one that adds to the problem”. It’s an ambitious vision, but as Dr Ariel Edesess indicates, by setting a standard of zero carbon in music and culture “Future Yard is changing the standards and leading the way as we all navigate this new normal”. This encapsulates culture’s distinct role, ideally placed to embrace the creative challenge of reimagining a more sustainable world and leading Liverpool’s transition to a greener future.

To really get [sustainability] inbuilt into the way we live, it’s down to the people who are much better at influencing populations

A Shift in Perspective

Culture’s role extends beyond internal change, surpassing the technical and the measurable into the abstract and the emotional. Liverpool’s Year One Climate Action Plan states that avoiding the climate crisis depends on “individual people making choices in their life and work”. However, there is a powerlessness that pervades climate change action, a resigned futility in the face of intricate statistics and prophetic warnings. “It’s hard to care when it’s not personal,” Edesess admits. But culture is intensely personal. Cultural organisations inhabit a privileged position with direct and intimate access to individuals, capable of educating, inspiring and challenging audiences. “Culture affects everything,” Sean Durney explains, “the way you dress, what you listen to, what you look at, visual aesthetics. [Cultural organisations] are already so embedded into our daily lives, whether we’re aware of it or not, and that’s where their influence can be really strong.”

Durney highlights Toxteth local Squash as a “shining example” of cultural organisations’ potential to promote and normalise sustainable behaviours. The creative community organisation embraces an arts, food and environmental focus, educating and inspiring the local community, through local food growing projects and art celebrating the seasons. “It’s an environmental message, but it’s not a depressing one,” Durney indicates, “it’s embedded in their programme, and it’s embedded in their building [which is] very ecologically friendly.” Squash epitomises how cultural organisations can transform sustainability into something accessible, inclusive and engaging, localising action and integrating it into people’s everyday lives.

Meanwhile, Metal Liverpool is responding to this cultural responsibility through a range of creative climate projects, designed to increase awareness of and engagement with climate solutions. ‘Nine Earths, One Planet’ is a project commissioned by the British Council preceding the COP26 summit in Glasgow this October. Combining sound, imagery and interviews, the online broadcast explores ‘how our lifestyle choices unwittingly contribute to the destruction of our one planet’, imbuing scientific facts with emotional resonance. As Dr Ariel Edesess summarises: “At this point, we know the science. The science is proven over and over and over again, but to really get it inbuilt into the way we live, it’s down to the people who are much better at influencing populations.” In short: culture.

I try to imagine this level of cultural change. It feels impossible. How do you shift an entire population’s behaviour? How do you force people to care about an invisible and amorphous threat? And then I think about the past year. The pandemic has altered the realm of possibility, demonstrating our capacity for transformation. The mass messaging that adorned the walls of railway stations and office blocks, that flickered on TV screens and billboards, filtered through cultural organisations and their messaging: stay safe, socially distance, wear a mask. What would happen if this same messaging were directed towards sustainability? “If you’d said a year ago, ‘This will be our life’, it would have felt completely overwhelming, but bit by bit we just adapted and got along with it,” Edesess reflects. What would happen if this same level of messaging were directed towards sustainability? If we began to perceive the climate crisis as personal, as immediate? Culture can contribute to this transmission of green thinking, making sustainability as defining as any lockdown measure.

The future does not exist to race towards, we create it in the racing. Now, and now, and now. In every action and inaction. Sustainability isn’t about avoiding dystopian images of the future; it’s about creating a more just and sustainable present which continues with us. Sometimes, on better days, I dream of greenery, an abundant verdancy woven through city streets. I dream of flowers and birds infiltrating grey facades. I dream of a tide that powers music and wind that turns up the volume. I dream of a culture that promotes, celebrates and reflects sustainability. I dream of a different world, our world, just shifted.

For more information on the work of Shift Liverpool and the role of culture in promoting sustainability follow the link below.

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