Yearly Archives: 2018

Arts Council England Environmental Report 2017/18

Julie’s Bicycle has been working in partnership with Arts Council England since 2012 to inspire environmental action across the arts and culture sector, with a focus on long-term funding partners, the National Portfolio Organisations. The Sustaining Great Art and Culture report celebrates the successes of arts and cultural organisations in acting on national and international climate targets. 

“Arts and culture are some of the most effective drivers of transformation. They change our minds, move our hearts and spur us into action. So it’s wonderful to see the collaboration between Julie’s Bicycle, the Arts Council and the creative sector succeeding in bringing together so many different cultural organizations to transform the public conversation on climate change, while tackling their own impact as well. Thank you for all your commitments so far and let’s keep blazing the trail, this work has never been more important.” – Christiana Figueres, Founding Partner, Global Optimism and Former Executive Secretary, UNFCCC 2010-2016

Over the past six years, theatres, galleries, museums, music venues, festivals and other cultural organisations across the country have taken great strides to improve their environmental practice. From Royal Court Theatre and The Poetry Society, toTurner Contemporary and Glyndebourne Opera House, these organisations are emerging as leaders and key collaborators in sustainability. They are also presenting artistic and creative work that raises environmental awareness among their audiences in innovative ways.

Key findings of the report include:

Organisations are consistently reducing carbon emissions: CO2 emissions have decreased by 35% across the National Portfolio since the programme began.

Organisations are more energy efficient: Direct energy consumption has been reduced by 23% since 2012/13.

Organisations are increasingly financially resilient: The ongoing drive to reduce energy consumption has led to financial savings of £16.5 million since the programme began.

Organisations are experiencing benefits beyond reductions: Environmental practice and carbon literacy are being linked to improvements in other organisational priorities, including team morale and strategic decision-making.

Organisations are contributing to a new creative ecology: The above trends drive demand for – and generate new skills and knowledge that support – clean technologies, sustainable goods and services, greener waste solutions and the emergent circular economy. A quarter of the Portfolio are now on a green energy tariff.

In response to the growing commitment demonstrated by the sector, Arts Council England and Julie’s Bicycle will now shift focus towards accelerating impact and stretching ambition. This includes two new strands of work: The Accelerator Programme, which offers organisations resources and expertise to develop innovative ideas into deliverable projects for greater impact, and a targeted carbon reduction scheme for organisations with large infrastructures, The Spotlight Programme.

Don’t forget to follow JB on Twitter and use the hashtag #COPtimism to join in the conversation.



Image: Passage for Par, Rosemary Lee. Photo © Steve Tanner

Cultivating a Post-Carbon Vision

“We need a vision for what the post-carbon economy looks like… that is inspiring enough and delivers enough in terms of jobs, in terms of opportunities, in terms of health. It has to be exciting!”
— Naomi Klein

I have always loved this quote by Naomi Klein, from the 2014 documentary film Disruption by Kelly Nyks and Jared Scott. Over the years, I have adopted it as a guiding mantra for my photography, something I think about every time I visit a renewable energy construction site. Surrounded by heavy machinery, noise and dust, I seek moments of grace and beauty, like this sea of wind turbine blades in Québec:

wind, renewable, energy, blade, white, Joan Sullivan, photographer, Canada
Wind turbine blades. Port of Cacouna, Québec, Canada. Photo © 2014 Joan Sullivan.

I can’t think of anything more important than trying to inspire others to visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. As Project Drawdown‘s Katherine Wilkinson said recently in an interview with The Regeneration Magazine:

“We also need a clear and credible vision worth fighting for, beyond averting catastrophe.”
— Katherine Wilkinson

So how do we cultivate this post-carbon vision?

By focusing on the positive, on solutions, on the way forward. By changing the mood music, according to Jonathon Porritt. By not talking about climate at all, according to Paul Hawken – “Two degrees Celsius in 2050 is conceptually vacuous to almost everyone.” – and instead, focusing on something much more tangible: dignified, family-wage jobs for the millions of people who will build our post-carbon economy. This is my favorite Drawdown recommendation. It is also the subject of my current pan-Canadian photo project that focuses on job creation and the human side of the energy transition.

We can also cultivate a post-carbon vision by deliberately, consciously choosing to look beyond the doom-and-gloom climate narratives and instead, imagine ourselves in a world we would love to live in – clean air, clean water, living buildings, regenerative agriculture, access to health, housing, education and energy for all.

In the past, it was imagination that propelled homo sapiens forward. In the future, it is imagination that will ensure our existence in a rapidly changing world.

Imagination and inspiration are the heart and soul of the re-conceptualized Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center (formerly Visitor Center) in Seattle, Washington. This wonderful space all but guarantees that visitors will “leave inspired” from their hands-on experience with a variety of interactive exhibits, each of which explores innovative solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges being addressed by the foundation.

Gates, Foundation, Discovery Center, Seattle
Gates Foundation Visitor Center, now Discovery Center. Photo by Frank Catalano/GeekWire photo.

While stopping climate change does not fit neatly within any of the foundation’s five main program areas, many of the projects funded by the Gates Foundation – family planning, educating girls, clean cookstoves and women smallholders – are listed among Project Drawdown‘s top 100 solutions to reverse global warming. Furthermore, Bill Gates has recently written about his own investments in renewable energy storage and a five-point climate change plan on his blog. As a result, visitors to the Gates Foundation Discovery Center who are interested in creating positive climate narratives will gain valuable insights from the foundation’s best practices for inspiring people all over the world to take action on a host of global problems.

According to Aleen Adams, Curator of Exhibits at the Discovery Center, sanitation is one of the broader multi-pronged funding strategies of the Gates Foundation. “The foundation sees investing in sanitation solutions as a fundamental building block in the efforts to reduce the spread of disease, save lives and improve energy use.” Earlier this month, Mr. Gates traveled to China for the Reinvented Toilet Expo where several sewer-less toilet prototypes were on display, including the Cranfield Nanomembrane Toilet which is a popular interactive exhibit at the Discovery Center (see photo below). “There are few things I love talking about more,” Mr. Gates admitted on his blog. “Sanitation is one of the most important issues we work on.”

The Cranfield Nanomembrane Toilet, which turns waste into water and electricity, is one of the many interactive permanent exhibits at the Gates Foundation Discovery Center. By opening and closing the toilet’s lid, visitors initiate the turning of a screw that separates liquids from solids. A gasifier converts the solids into ash and heat that is used to operate the toilet. Photo reprinted with permission.

To get people involved, the Discovery Center has created a “Get Involved” gallery, where visitors can take a quiz to discover how their unique skills and talents could be used to help solve a variety of global problems. Visitors are then encouraged to take the next step by designing their own media campaign for a cause of their choice – clean cookstoves, eradicating polio, and off-grid toilets that generate their own water and power, to name just a few.

The “Get Involved” gallery also includes a hands-on workshop where visitors can roll up their sleeves and help assemble kits for Pacific Northwest-based organizations with local and/or international reach. In the past, visitors have helped make menstrual pads for girls and winter kits for homeless youth. The current action project involves making pet blankets for the Seattle Humane Society’s project that helps homeless people and their pets.

A new temporary exhibit at the Discovery Center called Design with the 90% is running from September 13, 2018 through May 11, 2019. Curated by Cynthia E. Smith, Curator of Socially Responsible Design for Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, this important exhibit demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force for social change.

Gates, Gates Foundation, Discovery Center, design, 90%, renewable, energy

Eight out of the 26 projects (31/%) in this exhibit address clean energy and/or energy efficiency. Each of these eight projects contributes, in one way or another, to the energy transition, to our post-carbon future, in which communities will become distributed energy producers and consumers, simultaneously. This will help achieve universal access to electricity and clean cooking, as defined by the Sustainable Development Goal SDG 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for all by 2030.”

Many of the designers of these energy-related projects come from the country in which the project is implemented. For example, Bernard Kiwis, a Tanzanian electrician and bicycle mechanic, designed the Bicycle Phone Charger, an off-grid mobile phone charger made from scrap bike and radio parts. After several years of developing charger prototypes, Mr. Kiwis finalized his design to be able to charge all mobile phones, which are used by 75% of Tanzanians yet the majority of them do not have access to the electrical grid. Mr. Kiwis’ Bicycle Phone Charger fills an important niche.

In Bangladesh, the architect Mohammed Rezwan has collaborated with local wooden boat builders to convert discarded flat-bottom riverboats into floating schools, libraries, health clinics and training centers for parents. Collectively, these Floating Community Lifeboats  serve 115,000 people per year. The boats’ roofs are outfitted with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which charge computers, lights, mobile phones, medical equipment and solar lanterns.

Gates, Foundation, solar, Bangladesh
One of the Floating Community Lifeboats, with a solar panel installed on the roof. Photo reprinted with permission.
Gates, Foundation, Nigeria, pot-in-pot, refrigeration, farm, farmers, market
In Nigeria, the low-tech Pot-In-Pot helps small farmers to keep their market vegetables fresher for longer without electricity. Photo reprinted with permission.

The Nigerian teacher Mohammed Bah Abba has designed, in collaboration with local potters, the Pot-In-Pot Cooler, a simple low-cost solution that helps rural farmers keep their local produce fresh for weeks (instead of days). Based upon a simple passive cooling technique common dating back to ancient Egypt, the Pot-In-Pot system consists of one small earthenware pot nestled within a larger pot, with the space between them filled with sand and water. When that water evaporates, it pulls heat from the interior of the smaller pot in which vegetables and fruits remain cool without electricity. This simple yet ingenious solution helps rural farmers, especially women smallholders, generate more income for their families.

Founded in Guatemala, the successful Maya Pedal project designs, manufactures and distributes over 20 different models of bicimaquinas (bike machines) made from recycled bicycles throughout Latin America. Originally designed as human-powered agricultural machines, the Maya Pedal project expanded to include a broad range of applications, including a bomba (water pump) and a bicilicuadora (blender) used to make shampoos. The fully Guatemalan workshop supports micro-entreprises, energy independence and sustainable development to improve the environment, health, productivity and the economy of local families.

Kudos to the Gates Foundation for creating opportunities like these that push us beyond “seeking knowledge about a problem” to asking – and acting upon – a more important question: “How can I contribute to solving this problem?” The simple act of asking ourselves this question ignites a spark that is difficult to extinguish by those who would otherwise prefer to make us feel helpless in the face of global challenges. Instead of passive bystanders, we become active parts of the solution. And the beautiful thing we learn in the process is that many of the solutions to some of our greatest challenges – such as the Archimedes screw used in the nanomembrane toilet or ancient passive cooling techniques applied in the Pot-In-Pot – already exist. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but we do need all hands on deck.

Go ahead, take the plunge: Get Involved. That’s the critical first step to cultivating a post-carbon vision.

(Top image: Drone photography by Joan Sullivan.)


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to help others visualize – to imagine – what a post-carbon world will look like. Joan is currently working on a photo book about Canada’s energy transition. She also collaborates with filmmakers on documentary films that explore the human side of the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on Ello, Twitter and Instagram


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Valuing Nature: what do artists contribute?

Artists have been valuing nature probably since we first marked the wall of a cave or whistled like a bird – artists have always rendered nature visible. Artists valuing nature have explored human ‘value’ (Monet’s Haystacks and Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed both render human use of nature visible), but they have also articulated human meaning imposed on nature (Shakespeare’s King Lear thinking the storm is nature mirroring his mental state). ecoartists over the past 50+ years have focused not so much on the literally visible but on making visible the relational and systemic. Their motivation is often the destruction caused by our extraction of value from nature without regard to health or sustainability.

Most art, including the historical precedents mentioned and in particular ecoart, might be seen in juxtaposition with other forms of valuing nature such as ecosystem services. Dave Pritchard articulated the deeper history underlying the emergence of the ecosystem services in an email to the ecoartnework listserve on 9 April 2011. He wrote,

For a time, in the 1970s-80s, there was some of the kind of “reconsideration” you describe [referring to a previous post], with the “deep ecology” of Naess, Bateson, Berry et al. But if you analyse the evolution of the actual policy and advocacy discourse at 10-yearly intervals, for example from the 1972 Stockholm Conference to the 1982 World Conservation Strategy to the 1992 Rio Conference to the 2002 Johannesburg Summit (and then maybe in advance of the Rio+20 summit in 2012 look at the Aichi targets adopted last year), it has swung completely away from any ethics of “existence value” for the non-human component, to a forced justification (in adversarial arenas) in terms of “sustainable development”, “wise use”, “evidence-based conservation”, “ecosystem services” and (largely monetary) valuation of those services. The environmental movement (of which I am a part) congratulates itself on having found better ways of expressing the critical nature of ecosystems within broader mainstream audiences and processes, in this way. But this has all been done by becoming MORE anthropocentric and utilitarian; not less.

Dave Pritchard’s drawing out of one vector of the trajectory of valuing, away from the intrinsic and into the instrumentalised, provides a useful frame for understanding that what we see now as oppositional – arts and humanities approaches versus social and natural science-based methods of valuing nature. His marking of the moments in the intergovernmental conferences and his articulation of the key phrases is the beginning of a cultural history of environmental policy.

However, in the work of Helen Mayer Harrison (1927-2018) and Newton Harrison (b. 1932), known as ‘the Harrisons’, this split isn’t necessarily the case.

Professor Emeritus Anne Douglas and I have been writing about (and working with) the Harrisons, the pioneering post conceptual ecological artists, for some years now. Sadly, Helen Mayer Harrison died this year (aged 90), but we continue to work with Newton Harrison. You can find out more about that work by checking out The Barn website, and by searching this site

We are just in the process of finishing a new essay which focuses on the ways in which the work of the Harrisons might address calls for epistemologies other than the positivistic one which has increasingly dominated our understanding of the natural world. This builds on two other essays we have published recently on their practice and in particular their poetics.

The Harrisons’ work focuses on the lifeweb and in particular on points of inconsistency and contradiction saying,

We have come to believe that inconsistency and contradiction are generated by the processes of cognition, thinking and doing, and have the important role to play of stimulating and evoking creativity and improvisation, which are inherent in the processes of the mind that have led us to do this work.
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, ‘Public Culture and Sustainable Practices: Peninsula Europe from an ecodiversity perspective, posing questions to Complexity Scientists,’ (Structure and Dynamics: eJournal of Anthropological and Related Sciences: Vol. 2: No. 3, Article 3), p23

In our essay ‘Inconsistency and contradiction: lessons in improvisation in the work of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’ published in Elemental: An Art and Ecology Reader, we look particularly at the ways that the artists use moments of inconsistency and contradiction as points of intervention. We explore the way they engage imaginatively with metaphor – for them it is dysfunctional metaphors (such as calling places to live ‘developments’ rather than ‘settlements’) which underlie the inconsistencies and contradictions. The works take the form of policy proposals, manifest in poetic texts and images, installations and films, which offer alternative ways of imagining life where we put the health of the lifeweb first.

The second essay, ‘What poetry does best: the Harrisons’ poetics of being and acting in the world’ published in the Harrisons’ The Time of the Force Majeure, a survey of their collaboration over 50 years, focuses on their language, in particular dialogue, and their understanding of improvisation. We explore the way that the works open up the possibility for the audience to imagine living differently, as part of a healthy lifeweb.

The Harrisons’ overarching project, which they have pursued for something like 50 years, is to put us humans back into the ecosystem. This is an underlying refrain in all their work, for example in Serpentine Lattice (1993) they said,

Harrison, Newton and Harrison, Helen Mayer, Serpentine Lattice, the Douglas M Cooley Memorial Gallery, Reed College, Portland, Oregon 1993

Within this the Harrisons have taken on issues of watersoilforests and brownfield. They have worked in watersheds and bioregions as well at the scale of the European Peninsula and the Tibetan high ground. The climate crisis – which they define as having three aspects – sea level rise, heatwave and biodiversity loss/extinction, is the manifestation of our dysfunctional relationship with the lifeweb. In essence their message is the message of Deep Ecology.

Yet Serpentine Lattice, created at the invitation of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in addressing the destruction of the Pacific Temperate Rainforest, includes a proposal for redirecting a proportion of Gross National Product to the restoration of the forest.

In Peninsula Europe (2001) they enumerate the amount of water that falls on the European peninsula annually (1,430 cubic kilometers per year and that’s just on the high ground). Based on this they propose a Water Tax to pay for the restoration of the soils and the reforesting of the land above 360 meters.

This might seem superficially similar to recent approaches which have moved from analysis of ecosystem services to natural capital accounting. These latter moves have resulted in statements such as the Great Barrier Reef is an asset worth $42 billion dollars to the Australian economy, or bees are worth £651 million annually to the UK economy.

Our essay addresses both how these figures and proposals operate as part the Harrisons’ poetics, contributing to the repositioning of human systems within the ecological systems. The Harrisons’ approach to valuing nature does not start with a financial given (eg the value of UK Agriculture, and then identify the importance of bees, quantify bees, and financialise bees). The Harrisons’ works start with an ecological reality, an intrinsic good, such as the Pacific Temperate Rainforest. Often this is an already damaged ecosystem. The art work makes visible the value of the whole ecosystem and offers quantification in order to propose new human systems (such as taxes) that begin to remedy the impacts of extraction.

Chris Fremantle will be presenting a case study on the Harrisons’ Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom (2007-09) in the ‘Valuing the Arts Valuing Nature’ session at the Valuing Nature Conference 2018 this week.

ecoartscotland is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. It includes ecoartscotland papers, a mix of discussions of works by artists and critical theoretical texts, and serves as a curatorial platform.

It has been established by Chris Fremantle, producer and research associate with On The Edge ResearchGray’s School of Art, The Robert Gordon University. Fremantle is a member of a number of international networks of artists, curators and others focused on art and ecology.</ br></ br>

Go to EcoArtScotland

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Julie’s Bicycle hosts Creative Climate Leadership session at COP24 in Poland

Thu 6 December 2018 – 11:00 – 17:30 CET

Łaźnia Nowa. Teatr
25 Osiedle Szkolne
31-978 Kraków


What can culture and creativity do for the climate challenge?

The climate crisis is unfolding all around us as the defining episode of the 21st century.

While the international climate change negotiations take place in Katowice, we will gather artists and those working in the arts and creative industries to share their inspirational projects, and tell the story of how culture and creativity are a critical part of the solution to climate change and other environmental challenges.

Creative Climate Leadership is a Creative Europe co-funded programme for artists and cultural professionals to explore the cultural dimensions of climate change, and take action with impact, creativity and resilience.

This one-day event will be a dialogue between the cultural sector, artists, environmental experts and policymakers.

What will the programme cover?

As our Creative Europe co-funded project draws to a close, this event will weave together the learning, creativity, and experiences of the Creative Climate Leadership programme and lay the foundations for what comes next.

We will explore the different ways artists and creative professionals are engaging with questions of climate change and environmental sustainability: from reducing the environmental impact of their own work, to programming, experimentation, creativity and design spilling over into environmental themes. We will discuss what it will take to support and scale up this work across the globe, how we can work effectively in different political and cultural contexts, and how we make visible the Creative Climate movement across the world.

Full agenda and timings TBC.

Who is this event for?

Artists and creative professionals, individuals working at cultural and educational institutions, culture and environment funders, national and regional policymakers, political and civic participants attending the COP24 international climate change conference in neighbouring Katowice – anyone who wants to learn more and be immersed and inspired by the spectrum of creative action on climate change and other environmental challenges.

How can I take part?

Register and show up! Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

Note: this event will be held in English.

Please inform us at the time of booking if you have any specific access requirements to participate fully in the event and we will be happy to accommodate these as far as possible. Please email directly with any queries.

How do I get there?

If you’re in Katowice for COP24, travelling to Krakow to join the Creative Climate Leadership event is easy.

You can:

  • Take a train from Katowice train station to Krakow Glowny train station, which takes around 2 hours and costs 35 PLN (ca 8 EURO)
  • Take a flixbus from Katowice bus station to Krakow MDA, which takes just over 1 hour and costs from 2 EURO (prices may go up if fewer seats are available)

Teatr Laznia Nowa is around a half hour tram journey from the train station (which is also where the flixbus terminates). Trams run every few minutes. Take the number 5 eight stops towards Wzgorza Krzeslawi to stop Czyzyny, then take the number 73 four stops towards Kopiec Wandy to stop Struga. The theatre is ca 500m or 7 minutes’ walk from the stop. 40-minute tram tickets cost PLN 3,80 per journey (ca 0.88 EURO).

Book train

Book flixbus

Tram journey planner Remember to stamp/validate your tram ticket on boarding!

How did this event come about?

Creative Climate Leadership is a Creative Europe co-funded project coordinated by Julie’s Bicycle involving seven partners from across Europe: Pina, On the Move, Ars Baltica, COAL, EXIT Foundation, and krug/Green Culture Montenegro.

Two five-day intensive residential Creative Climate Leadership training courses took place in Wales, UK and Koper, Slovenia in 2017, with participants from all over the world including Australia, Belgium, China, France, Indonesia, Ireland, Montenegro, Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK, and Zimbabwe. Participants included artists and cultural leaders and practitioners, freelancers and representatives from organisations, policymakers, and funders across a wide range of creative disciplines including theatre and performing arts, music festivals, fashion design and visual arts. Their work expresses the breadth of the creative movement: from activism to design, from institutional leadership to policy–making.

For more information, please visit

Leading on the organisation and curation of this event in Krakow on the occasion of COP24 are Green Culture Montenegro, EXIT Festival, and Julie’s Bicycle.

Art on a Damaged Planet: The Theatre in the Age of Climate Change Convening

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

From 8 to 10 June 2018, HowlRound, in partnership with Chantal Bilodeau (The Arctic Cycle), Elizabeth Doud (Climakaze Miami/Fundarte), and Roberta Levitow (Theatre Without Borders), hosted Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, one of four convenings selected as part of the HowlRound Challenge. This effort brought together a collection of artists, activists, scientists, and educators working at the intersection of climate change and performing arts for three days of reflection, strategizing, and sharing. Much of the convening is archived on HowlRound TV.

I accepted my invitation to the convening with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, insecure with my qualifications as an attendee. Perhaps you feel it too: this sense of confusion and inadequacy about what it means to be an artist-advocate. When HowlRound invited me to be the designated report-writer, I felt a huge wave of relief – this meant I could bear witness to the events of the weekend, participate to an extent, and put my anxieties about being among the incredibly accomplished folks in the room aside. But the event was inviting – it was a place for everyone to provide what they could towards a shared goal. By bringing together folks of different backgrounds, affinities, and – yes – experience levels, the convening was uniquely aligned to create a sense of shared culture and identify next steps. If I have a seat at this table, you do, too.

In this report, I will present a summary of themes and outcomes from the convening. The outcomes, of course, continue to form, grow, and change. Those who are interested should be inspired to affect and support their development.

The “How”

The convening used every possible detail as an opportunity to demonstrate its values – sustainability, equity, and collaboration – from the amenities to the format of the weekend itself.

In their proposal for the event, Bilodeau, Doud, and Levitow wrote,

Up until now, artists and organizations have been working in isolation without an identity or service entity to guide organizing efforts. But we can’t afford to let things emerge organically anymore; we must organize and leverage greater networking and resources to do this work, so that deep thinking can translate to more numerous and impactful projects by a wide range of practitioners.

To that end, the premise of the convening was unique: without hierarchy, every participant’s contributions and experiences held equal weight. Where most traditional conferences are often concerned with showcasing individual accomplishments and applauding progress (whether or not those are stated goals), this convening was concerned with critical reflection, idea-generation, and looking ahead. During her welcome to the group, Doud acknowledged the reality that the convening was conceived by three white women and shared that this element inspired them to connect the dots to racial justice through the weekend’s format. “We deliberately decided not to bring in an outside facilitator; we decided in the end it would be best to call on the wisdom in the room to do the facilitating… to share that charge.” Doud also placed a critical theme of the convening front and center, stating: “The work of undoing racism is paramount to the work of climate and environmental justice, and it feels like we need to have more conversations about that.”

Elizabeth Doud speaking to convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

The format succeeded in decentralizing leadership, providing frameworks for collective thought, and ensuring synergy among artists and ideas. Here’s what I mean:

  • Inner/outer circles: Three discussions were led (“What’s the reality? What’s working?,” “How do we double our impact?,” and “Are we thinking radically enough?”). In each, ten participants began a conversation in an inner circle, while the other participants listened actively from an outside circle. Eventually, the inner and outer circles melded and the conversation continued with all participants invited to speak. This format fostered active listening and discourse.
  • Creation of working groups: The group was invited to share specific and actionable next steps for advancing the goals of climate-concerned practitioners in the performing arts world. Some of the more outside-the-box ideas that came up included:
  1.  An app designed to promote the use of eco-friendly and reusable materials for theatre design.
  2.  A performance-art traveling tent revival focusing on testimonies related to environmental racism and injustice.
  3.  A campaign to inspire theatre companies from around the world to each present a “theatrical season for change.”
  4.  A series of public-facing residencies focused on stories about sustainable lifestyles, particularly food sourcing.
  5.  A curated series of cross-university collaborations of courses in dialogue with each other.

The group identified themes and links among these ideas and grouped them accordingly. Categorizing the ideas was, at times, contentious, but the group ultimately conceded that ideas could touch multiple themes. Participants then divided themselves into working groups, each connected to a theme.

  • Working group meetings: Each working group met three times with the stated goal of identifying actionable steps around their chosen theme. Participants were invited to move freely among working groups for maximum cross-pollination.
  • Open mic night: Participants from the convening and outside guests shared monologues, poems, trailers, videos, and songs demonstrating their own artistic practices – I even got up and read a monologue from my play (We Are) The Antarcticans. While, yes, the entertainment (and libations) made this especially fun, I found the open mic to also be among the most valuable events of the weekend: it was our first opportunity to directly encounter each other’s artistic work and sensibilities. The intimate sharing, opened up to members of the interested Boston public, allowed for interpersonal appreciations that became invaluable for final steps the next morning, and a rewarding opportunity to share our work more broadly.
  • Closing: Participants made pledges of individual goals to the group. While the premise of such an act may seem focused on discrete actions, this discussion led to an examination of our individual skill sets, networks, and resources and, by extension, opportunities to snowball them into collective and cooperative change.

A More Intentional Vocabulary

One of the benefits for a novice like me was clarification about some of the common vocabulary in this burgeoning field. Here’s a quick look at some terms that were unpacked:

“Extraction” was a new term for me; I only thought about “extract” as far as vanilla flavoring goes. “Extraction” may refer to the acquiring of naturally occurring resources – oil easily comes to mind. A movement exercise on Saturday morning led by Annalisa Dias and Jayeesha Dutta invited participants to create images with their bodies to illustrate “extraction” and “regeneration.” (If you’d like to read more about this powerful exercise, please read Dias’s HowlRound article “The Possibilities of Generative Futures and Embodied Practice.”) I won’t presume to quantify (or qualify) the artistic success of the exercise, but I would argue that it highlighted how these terms are rough opposites. The movement exercise seemed to resonate powerfully for many participants, opening up emotional and visceral sensations using a planetary point-of-view. In conversation with Dutta, I learned about StoryShift’s principles and praxis, which highlight ways in which storytelling itself can be extractive and provides frameworks within which storytelling can occur thoughtfully. It’s worth a read.

I always knew “sustainability” in reference to the endeavor of sustaining the environment, and I was surprised to be presented with its logical but contradictory other meaning: when “sustaining” means preserving problematic patterns and practices as they are. Practitioners in the room are largely interested in interrupting current patterns and practices, not sustaining them. For our purposes, “sustainability” was accepted to refer to “sustainable practice,” wherein businesses, organizations, and individuals match all their life practices with environmentally conscious methods.

“Climate change” is a phrase that requires unpacking and examination. “Global warming,” once popular, made way for “climate change,” as “warming” does not adequately describe all of the consequences of human activities that damage the planet, cause sea levels to rise, lead to the accumulation of toxins and ocean desalinization, etc. Because, yes, some regions cool rather than warm. During the Saturday morning reflection, Una Chaudhuri directed the group towards Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, a book whose title resonates with her as a concise description of current affairs. My understanding is the most basic: our climate is changing, and, political implications aside, the term “climate change” endeavors to describe that obvious fact.

“Climate change theatre” was not ever identified in strict terms. In fact, some participants represented disciplines that, though closely related, would not fall directly under “theatre,” including podcasting, filmmaking, television, education, scientific research, dance, and other performative modes. Among the practitioners in the room, there was invitation to challenge the premise of “climate change theatre.” In their own work, many practitioners regard climate change as a lens through which to examine stories whose features are not directly about climate change. Perhaps the term “work at the intersection of arts and climate change” is sufficiently all-encompassing.

Personally, I find this broad understanding of “climate change theatre” hugely relieving. By resisting the temptation to define it as a strict category, it keeps the door open to a plethora of styles, aesthetics, scales, genres, contexts, contents, and interpretations. In other words, nobody can tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Major Themes

1.  Culture and difference

Part of the work of thinking about climate change expansively requires imagining beyond one’s lived experiences. The convening offered opportunities to gain deep insight about culture and difference that illuminated not just the “what” of climate change, but how we understand its realities and how it impacts various communities around the world. We began to see climate change as less monolithic and more nuanced even across the individuals in the room.

Grisha Coleman leads convening participants through a movement exercise. Photo by Carolina Gonzalez.

For example, a series of important distinctions were made early in the convening during an exercise that asked participants to place their bodies on a spectrum between points that represented the statements “My community is directly affected by climate change” and “My community is not directly affected by climate change.” When one participant asserted they felt less affected and vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of their location in a city, another participant asserted that their location in a different city actually highlighted their vulnerability. Later conversations would further underscore the nuances of climate change impact across regions, but the group widely accepted the reality that lower-income communities (including globally) generally feel the impact of climate change soonest and most deeply, and that wealthier communities and individuals have the privilege to “buy” their way out.

During the first inner circle, Meaza Worku recounted the cancellation of the climate change–themed festival Crossing Boundaries because “there was a set of emergencies in Ethiopia, and lack of funding, and also very few applications.” Later, she elaborated, “Most people think, especially in Ethiopia, climate change is a Western issue or it’s a luxury.” This highlights the reality that theatre – or, indeed, any kind of arts – that addresses climate change is a form of privilege. This is an urgent concern, given that developing countries have the potential to contribute an enormous amount of carbon emissions to the atmosphere as they inevitably try to catch up with Western standards of living.

David Dower leads a small group discussion. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

Societal norms are powerful forces, capable of both inhibiting change or promoting change in attitudes, behaviors, and perspectives. Memorably, Xavier Cortada posited that while it may have once been culturally acceptable to spit on the floor, he would likely fail to persuade anybody in the room to do so today. Peterson Toscano did oblige, but the surprise in the room – I was shocked – highlighted Xavier’s point.

2.  Disruption

In her welcoming address, Levitow shared that one of the convening’s intentions was “to look at what lies beyond what’s wrong, and to imagine what’s possible.” The pervasive sense of doom that often accompanies conversations about climate change has kept me from fixating on “the apocalypse.” So, reimagining accepted notions was a welcome portion of the conversation for me.

Several methods of disruption and innovative thought came up throughout the weekend:

  • Dismantle denial: “I hear so many climate presentations where basically it’s saying see, it’s really happening, which is a tremendous waste of time and energy,” complained Toscano. (In the video of this moment you can totally see me nodding enthusiastically.) “And I often wonder,” he continued, “what if there was no climate denial? What would we be doing?” With this mode of thinking, artists could create stories that simply operate within the reality that climate change is happening and begin to strategize about what to do to address immediate threats.
  • Reclaim sustainability as fiscally smart: Opponents to environmental regulations often dismiss advocacy for the environment as costly and fiscally wasteful when, in fact, several methods of cost-effective media production—and energy production, for that matter—can have it both ways. For example, cooperation among theatre designers to support recycled use of scenic elements would be both cost-effective and resource-efficient. (Broadway Green Alliance has emerged as a leader in this kind of effort.)
  • Divest: Annalisa Dias wondered aloud, “What if we in this room could create a call out to the American regional theatre or universities that have theatre departments, that have endowments, that are invested in fossil fuels… Can we call the arts community to divest from fossil fuel interests?” Concern came up that such a plan’s impact may feel numerically negligible in the grand scheme, but it would be an opportunity to make a clear statement even when the content created by performing arts practitioners is not addressing climate change.
  • Employ arts practices towards protest: There is a rich tradition of activism in the arts and performance as protest. Some participants discussed opportunities to directly disrupt the meetings of those whose work reinforces the status quo through artistic demonstration and other forms of civil disobedience.

During the second inner circle, Alayna Eagle Shield commented on the tendency for audiences to feel overwhelmed by the threats of climate change, sometimes to the point of denial or paralysis. She drew a direct parallel to the suppression of Indigenous language education:

Each and every one of you were meant to not know anything about me or my people, and that was intentional. And I think when it comes to climate change it’s the same thing: we were meant to think it was a hoax and not real. I think we’re building the sidewalk as we’re walking, and so we almost have to do how-to… so people aren’t overwhelmed and they can be entertained at the same time.

Thus, as Julia Levine added, theatre can be reframed as a way to talk to audiences, rather than at them.

Worku suggested, during the Saturday morning reflection, that the answer may not involve theatre as we know it. After the final inner circle opened up, Cheryl Slean added: “What we’re all talking about moving towards is the same, and it only seems radical because we live in this insane system.”

3.  Reframing

After the final inner circle expanded, Rob Davies brought up President Eisenhower’s quote, “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger. I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.” Along those lines, the group sought ways to think expansively and radically about the problem faced in order to find more expansive and radical solutions.

Eagle Shield looked for opportunities to examine what climate change–themed theatre is for rather than what it is against. Lydia Fort stressed that it may be framed as non-Western and anti-empire, but that it is more inspiring when it seeks to offer an invitation-to instead of—or in addition to—a prevention-of.

During the first inner group, Levitow celebrated the merits of having a wide variety of climate-themed performance works available—especially if we go so broad as to include SpongeBob SquarePants and The Broadway Musical—but offered the following caveat: “Yes, a strength is that the field is burgeoning, that the enthusiasm is growing, that things are becoming more ‘normal,’ that it can be present in the world and seen and received, but, to me, I’m worried that what we’re struggling with is wanting to have an impact that’s greater, broader, and at the tiers of power: political, economic, the media, and the public at large.” Others were similarly interested in the challenges and opportunities presented by broadening impact and scope. There may be an opportunity to employ humor even (and especially) as it shines a light on complicity and hypocrisy. Toscano suggested that a useful way to frame our mission is, in the broadest sense, that we are working towards an “increase in human wellbeing.”

“There’s this regenerative model that nature is giving us that we can apply to the arts,” Georgina Leanse Escobar posited, adding, “We’re [currently] not mimicking nature in how we’re creating the arts, we’re mimicking our social structures.” In their lives and work, many folks in the room are invested in identifying ways in which the relationship between the theatre and science communities could be stronger. I was tickled by the tendency of participants to invent clever science metaphors, and can’t resist sharing a few:

  • Davies likened the potential for change to the phenomenon of creating huge waves using small slaps on a pond.
  • David Dower invited a comparison of the currently disconnected state of climate change-themed theatre to chaos theory.
  • Robert Duffley drew inspiration from Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World while discussing the less commonly seen systems responsible for generating “fruiting bodies.”
  • Marda Kirn discussed how Eastern and Western approaches to medicine are differently necessary and an individual’s health is best supported by those willing to consider both, in the way that embracing multiple approaches to creative problem-solving offers a both/and approach.

4.  Impact

A quick digression: I’ve recently begun a friendship with a PhD candidate in glaciology at UMass Amherst who has been to Antarctica several times; I have a bizarre fascination with the “white continent,” and reached out after her name – Ruthie Halberstadt – caught my eye. During our conversations, I learned that she and I each have something that the other envies: she has a wealth of knowledge about climate change patterns, and I have access to an audience. Both are valuable, but in order for our work to have maximum impact, we each need the other.

As I came to understand, part of the urgency in reframing theatre with a climate lens comes from this longing for urgent and significant impact. The general undervaluing of theatre (in the theatre field in general, academic institutions, city planning, civic budget initiatives, and contexts where more immediate needs are unmet) may lead us to underestimate its potential impact. Lani Fu highlighted her company Superhero Clubhouse’s counterintuitive discovery that audiences are less willing to attend free performances (especially of student-written work) than they are to pay for tickets. This is further complicated, she continued, by a culture that invites theatre artists and students to undervalue the work they do in theatre. If we don’t value our own work, we can never achieve the impact we seek.

Lani Fu speaks to the convening group. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

5.  Ownership

Participants expressed a hope that theatre created in response to climate change do so within frameworks that are restorative and that combat patterns of colonial thought, which have traditionally suppressed certain voices and threaten the environment. As such, the models of theatremaking must challenge ideas and ideals that are popularly associated with “mainstream” theatre, including the prioritization and overrepresentation of white male–centered leadership and story subjects.

Challenging these norms invites ways of reimagining or subverting many phenomena of dramatic storytelling: production methods, distribution models, and even the intellectual property of dramatic texts.

In one breakout group, Escobar described a project in which she relinquished authorship in order for her play to be more easily produced in low-budget venues. This was useful to help sidestep the obstacles presented by attaining performance rights when communication with Escobar was difficult or impossible.

During the third inner circle, Jayeesha Dutta meditated on the ways in which layers of privilege inform an artist’s relationship and accountability to story and subject. “So, for me, radical transformation would look like the people who are the most impacted telling their own stories, visioning the future they want, being given access to the resources that they need to transform their realities.” Later, Dutta brought StoryShift up with the whole group, introducing the extensive work already done in creating the valuable document, which helps guide people in how to make sure that stories are told by the people living those stories.

The idea of “ownership” connects back to climate change, given the implicit presumptuousness of colonial expectation: I can claim this land, and once it belongs to me its resources may be exploited for my own purposes and gain. Grisha Coleman compared the colonization of the planet to the behavior of those who make attempts to claim or own others’ bodies. In that light, resource extraction can be seen as a form of rape, and claiming land as a form of slavery.

Within the idea of “ownership” is the oft-unexamined assumption that humans belong at the center of the story of the planet. Many of the writers and storytellers in the group are interested in interspecies and non-human stories as ways to challenge and subvert this paradigm, and to invite audiences to recognize the singular role humans play among a larger cast of characters. Along those lines, the group invited questions about what the primary value of theatre with a climate lens should be: Is the priority humankind—or is it the planet?

Conclusions-In-Process/Expression of Hopes

Towards the end of the convening, the working groups reported back to the full group to share imagined projects. There was notable overlap in the ideas that were generated, and – at least from where I was sitting – the themes that we had painstakingly identified began to feel rather fluid again. To be clear, this is not a criticism – perhaps it’s just testament to the ways in which progress in one “area” inevitably supports progress in another, and the group’s ability to unintentionally address multiple needs at once.

One group expressed the need for a digital “gathering place” of ideas, individuals, organizations, projects, and strategies. In many ways, this is the natural progression of the convening itself, with an eye towards inviting new voices that were not present in the room. The hope with this would be to generate toolkits meant to support efforts in their early stages.

Another group presented concepts towards a Climate Commons for Theatre and Performance as, similarly, a “location” for ideas to gather and intersect. The major difference was that this group emphasized bringing people together in dialogue with one another, whether remotely or physically. Given the challenges of fostering a widespread community, this group imagined ways of leveraging already existing nodes where the intersection of arts and climate change are presently being examined. Very quickly, individuals in the room suggested ways for their networks to support these efforts, demonstrating the potential for this dialogue-making to expand quickly.

A third group expressed a desire to find ways to participate in divestment and direct action campaigns. Suggestions for doing this involved methods of performance as protest and finding opportunities to interrupt the efforts of organizations that threaten the planet.

Convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

What Now?

The “second act” has already started, including the following developments:

  • Bilodeau’s annual Artists & Climate Change Incubator took place in early August.
  • HowlRound will begin publishing a Theatre in the Age of Climate Change interview series, which will continue to grow over the next six months.
  • Preparations for a thematically similar convening in Brazil (helmed by Adilson Siquiera) are underway.
  • Efforts have begun during Climate Commons group phone calls to support syllabus development.
  • A third biannual Climate Change Theatre Action is in its planning stages for 2019.
  • Plans are underway to coordinate a pre-conference at TCG’s Annual Conference in Miami.
  • An application has been submitted to convene a working group at Hemispheric Institute’s Encuentro in Mexico City.
  • Alyssa Schmidt is planning to spearhead a syllabus exchange where folks who are teaching courses on eco-art—or are looking to incorporate eco-art into existing courses—will be able to exchange resources and otherwise assist each other.

I feel personally empowered as I watch these efforts snowball, and I also feel impatient. Dias articulated a similar feeling about halfway through the weekend when she shared, “I’m having a complicated response, because I’m feeling the collectivity in this room, but I’m also like: But what are we actually doing?” Many of us feel emboldened by that nagging anxiety that comes from the urgency of the problem. As concerned citizens of a damaged planet, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to feel ready to bring forth our individual actions; it’s time to get going now. As a writer and a teacher, I’m excited to try more creative, curious, and risky ways of addressing climate change, now that I know there is a network available to help improve, reinforce, and amplify individual efforts—and then allow me to share with anyone who may find my discoveries useful and thus make them a part of collective actionDuring the final intentions, Alison Carey told the group, “I’m going to talk about climate change constantly, even when people get mad at me.”

“As pioneers in a burgeoning field of theory and practice, we have much to offer and learn from one another,” wrote the convening’s core leadership in their initial proposal. “Face to face, lengthy and in-depth meetings are essential to substantive relationship building, and we believe our individual cultural efforts can coalesce in a way that is timely and mutually beneficial.” In the time since the convening, ideas are marinating, and the seeds have been sewn for meaningful long-term endeavors to flower.

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 16, 2018.


MJ Halberstadt is a Boston-based playwright who has been honored with the Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script, the Huntington Playwriting Fellowship, and the 2019 SpeakEasy Boston Project. He is an adjunct professor at Emerson College, Founding Playmaker Emeritus of Bridge Repertory Theater, and member of the Dramatists Guild.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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Ben’s Strategy Blog: Complexity theory, cultural practices and carbon reduction policy  

This post comes from Creative Carbon Scotland

Creative Carbon Scotland’s Director Ben Twist has completed his PhD! In this blog he shares a summary of how complexity theory, cultural practice and sustainability work together.

At about the same time that Creative Carbon Scotland was formed I started work on a part-time PhD at the University of Edinburgh’s department of Sociology. Seven years later (it was very part-time!) I’ll be graduating in November. The subject of the PhD has both shaped and been shaped by the work of Creative Carbon Scotland, and I provide here a summary of Taking the Complexity Turn to Steer Carbon Reduction Policy: Applying practice theory, complexity theory and cultural practices to policies addressing climate change. (I can provide a version with references to anyone who wants one.) My practical research focused on increasing the sustainability of audience travel to His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen and relates to the useful skills and attributes that cultural practitioners can bring to work on climate change, even in non-arts settings. 

The Scottish Government has a problem.  

The Scottish Government has committed to an 80% cut in CO2-e emissions from the 1990 baseline by 2050 (to be increased to at least 90% in the Climate Change Bill scheduled for 2019). A 37.6% cut had been achieved by 2015, but largely through decarbonisation of the electricity supply, which has involved dealing with relatively few large companies in a field where regulation is seen as acceptable. Most of this low hanging fruit has now been plucked and the next stage will be much harder as it will require changes in the way in which millions of individuals and small organisations travel and transport goods, heat and power their homes, buildings and appliances, and changes to individuals’ diets. The Government broadly follows a commonly held view that individual behaviour is none of its business, and so thinks it has very limited control over these smaller ‘agents’. What is it to do? 

Behaviour change 

Since 2009 the Government’s policy has focused on behaviour change to achieve this reduction in the carbon emissions of individuals, and it set up a useful research programme to explore how to go about it. This revealed that such behaviour change is in fact difficult to bring about and seldom achieves the degree of change that is required for this enormous social, cultural and economic transition. The research points to interventions being required at individual, societal and infrastructural levels as well as working in a coordinated way across sectors to avoid conflicting changes, and it raises the issue of ‘rebound’, where financial savings made by improving energy efficiency are ‘recycled’ by consumers into increased consumption, reducing or removing the desired carbon reductions. Behaviour change is more complex than it might seem. 

‘Behaviour change’ is in fact a term that was seldom used in sociological writing before the 1970s: until then, government in the UK was openly involved in organising social change. In the early 70s the post-war consensus between government, unions, companies and society broke down and a post-Keynesian economics focused on individuals and their choices – rational choice theory – leading to the concentration on the ‘rational actor’ approach to individual behaviour change. A feature of this approach that continues today, although it has been partly undermined by the financial crisis, is the view that government should get out of the way and intervene in individuals’ decision making as little as possible. 

Relying on the Rational Actor 

Rational choice theory sees the human being as a ‘rational actor’, capable of making a choice to act so as to maximise their personal benefit, and fundamentally self-interested, so making that maximisation of personal benefit the reason for all choices and behaviours (and the influence of economics on policy is so strong that this doesn’t apply just to the economic sphere but has spread to thinking about social fields). Thus people constantly weigh up the various options they have in any particular circumstances and choose the course of action expected to result in the highest net benefit or the lowest net cost. This model relies on the individual having good and complete information about the courses of action, and it makes no comment on the ‘preferences’ that the individual uses to evaluate the various benefits on offer. In an assumption with implications relating to concepts of sustainability it also assumes that the individual has endless, insatiable desire for benefit, for otherwise the whole model would fail to work when there was no longer any further maximisation of benefit that would lead to any behavioural choices.  

This focus on the rational choice theory of behaviour led to a host of theories about how to achieve behaviour change when governments wanted (most research was government led: government is of course quite a lot about influencing the activities of citizens). These include: 

  • Improving the individual’s knowledge so they would make ‘better’ choices; 
  • Widening the understanding of the personal benefit to include social, psychological and moral benefits, not just material ones; 
  • Considering longer term rather than just immediate benefits to be gained from a choice. 

The problems with rational choice theory are however both legion and well documented (search for Motivating Sustainable Consumption by Professor Tim Jackson, for example) and to address these the theories of behaviour became ever more complicated to the point where they seemed impossible to apply in practice. The behaviour change theories suffered similarly and a core problem is that individuals lack ‘agency’ – the ability to make changes when their actions are influenced by a complex web of other factors and agents. Other people, material things, habit, commercial, financial and social pressures, the weather etc all combine to intervene between what someone might want to do (or think they want to do) and what they actually end up doing.  


In an attempt to overcome these problems whilst avoiding seeming to interfere in individuals’ choices, both the US and UK governments leapt upon ‘Nudge’, a rag-bag of techniques owing a great deal to the marketing world’s success in changing behaviours. Nudge accepts that individuals don’t make very good rational choosers: we are influenced by all sorts of things (including of course marketing). Nudge therefore applies various techniques to help us choose ‘better’, and to some extent it works practically. There are however ethical questions about this ‘choice architecture’, as people are being manipulated without their knowing, whilst laws and regulations do it openly, but moreover the focus on the individual and his/her behaviour is not enough, and this forms part of the problem of what I call ‘the sheer muddle of everyday life’.  

A personal example of this might help show why consistent behaviour change is so difficult to achieve. My decision to cycle, take the bus or drive to a performance at the theatre is influenced by many different factors. Who I am going with (my wife doesn’t cycle), who I am going to meet there (cycling gear won’t impress some people); the state of the roads/cycle lanes/traffic conditions (cycling feels dangerous in Edinburgh but is often faster than driving in heavy traffic); the cost, timing and convenience of the bus (does it go there, does it come back after the show, how long will I have to wait?); the cost of parking and fuel, the likelihood of having a drink after the show; the weather; the time the show starts (am I going to be rushed to get home from a meeting, eat and get there by bus?).  

All these factors vary from occasion to occasion and they are not all in my control: indeed, they are in the control of numerous different people and agencies. Whilst the various theories of behaviour can explain or predict my behaviour in certain circumstances and Nudging might influence my behaviour to some degree, it can’t actually address the issues that stop me cycling to the theatre. What is required rather than a focus on the individual is system-level analysis of the factors that lead me to behave in a particular way and, if we agree that intervention is necessary and acceptable, system-level intervention so that my individual desire to travel to the theatre in a sustainable way is not thwarted by any combination of frightening cycling conditions, discouraging social norms, expensive, inconvenient buses and cheap, convenient car parking. 

Practice Theory 

From early this century another approach to behaviours was taking shape. Practice Theory moves up a level from the individual to the social, considering that rather than individuals choosing to ‘behave’ in a particular way, ‘practices’ exist in society outwith the individual and individuals ‘perform’ or ‘enact’ them, constantly re-interpreting the practices in their performance of them and so strengthening and reinforcing them in a dynamic way.  

This is exemplified well by the practice of daily showering. When I grew up, daily showering was unheard of and indeed impossible: it is a function of everything from showers existing in people’s homes, a good source of hot water and warm bathrooms to a social expectation of frequent showering, even the existence of shower gel – a whole complex of technological, social, commercial and practical factors, some of which didn’t apply in the 1970s. Today no-one chooses to be a daily showerer, but the combination of all those factors makes it a very common practice in UK life. Daily showering therefore exists outside of the individual but many individuals perform it, changing and influencing the practice as they do so. A useful diagram from Elizabeth Shove’s influential paper helps here: 

Shove's 'Pinning Power Showering in Place' (taken from Shove ‘Converging Conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience’

Figure 1: Shove’s ‘Pinning Power Showering in Place’ (taken from Shove ‘Converging Conventions of Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience’. Journal of Consumer Policy, 2003 (26), pp395-418

Practice Theory has influenced the Scottish Government’s approach to behaviour change, whilst not quite removing from it the focus on the individual: the Government promotes the Individual, Social and Material (or ISM) Model, which asks users to think about all the different factors in the different areas that might lead to individuals’ ‘behaviours’ to consider how to change them. And Practice Theory has a great deal to offer – I find it a compelling description of how people come to do the things they do in the way they do. While it is good, however, at describing how practices come about, the ways in which they change and how they die out, it is almost totally silent on how to deliberately change existing practices or create new ones. Indeed some of the main proponents of Practice Theory in the UK argue that seeking to bring about a transition is fundamentally problematic as it perhaps wrongly assumes that there is an agreed state to transition toI understand their concerns but argue that since the democratically elected Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Climate Change Act including its targets in 2009, we do have an agreed endpoint we want to reach, and the discussion is more about how we achieve those carbon reductions. 

Complexity Theory 

Complexity theory, which derives from the natural sciences and mathematics, is often expressed in language similar to that used to describe practice theory, and it may offer a solution to this problem of how to apply practice theory practically, as it were. In very brief terms, complexity theory holds that complex systems – as distinct from merely complicated ones – are open systems consisting of many elements or agents which interact dynamically between themselves and indeed with influences outside the system. These interactions are rich, in that one agent may influence and be influenced by many others. They are non-linear, in that small changes can have large effects or vice versa. This non-linearity is an essential condition of complexity and means that the system cannot be collapsed into a smaller equivalent system. For the most part, interactions are likely to be at fairly short range, although the ramifications of an interaction can be felt at greater distances as subsequent interactions are triggered in other agents. However, this means that the influence of one agent may be altered, increased or diminished by further interactions along the chain. There are therefore feedback loops, both positive and negative, as interactions lead to changes that bring about further interactions to multiply or cancel out the effect of the first. 

As a result of the feedbacks, the interactions and their non-linearity, complex systems are not in equilibrium – a particularly important change from a view of science, economics and other disciplines that have traditionally assumed a tendency towards stability and equilibrium. Complex systems have a history: not only do they develop and change over time, but their present and future are determined by their past. Crucially for this discussion, complex systems have ‘emergent properties’: properties of the whole system, not individual elements therein, which cannot be foreseen just by looking at the individual parts.  

Complexity theory is usually applied to the natural world and physics, but there is a growing view that it can be used to describe complex social systems, in that phenomena seen in society can be understood as emergent properties of the complex social system that is society. Thus traffic congestion can be seen as an emergent property of a system in which car driving seems cheap and convenient, public transport is unfashionable, expensive or inconvenient, road systems are designed for outmoded traffic patterns and utility companies have a disconnected approach to planning roadworks.   

I argued that practices – the result of a complex combination of technological, social, historical and other factors – could usefully be seen as emergent properties of complex social systems. To change the practice it would therefore be necessary to focus not on the individual, nor on the practice itself, but on the complex system from which it emerged. But this raised the question, is it possible to deliberately act upon a complex social system in order to bring about such a change? 


In order to test this I decided to employ a case study to influence how audiences travel to attend His Majesty’s Theatre, a large theatre in Aberdeen, audience travel being a significant but largely unmeasured source of carbon emissions for the cultural sector. Through audience surveys and focus groups I discovered that although a high 70% of people travelled to the theatre by car, for many driving was the least inconvenient mode of transport rather than something they wished to do, emergent properties of the system such as lack of safety on the Aberdeen streets and mistiming of transport services and theatre performances putting them off taking the bus or train.  

Pinning car travel in place -Bus services and timetables difficult to understand, street parking expensive, poor evening bus service, unpleasant atmosphere on union street, high bus fares, bus station not very nice, drunks on buses, dark seedy streets on walk to bus station, oil city: strong car focus, discount car park deal with theatre tickets - with apologies to Elizabeth Shove

Figure 2: Twist’s ‘Pinning car travel in place’, 2018

A ‘behaviour change’ approach to this problem would have focused on the individuals, seeking to change the motivation to drive through increased information, financial or other incentives to use public transport etc. A complexity approach led me to bring together three organisations that had agency to influence elements of the complex social system within which this practice of audience travel took place: the theatre management; Stagecoach, which runs the buses from Aberdeen to destinations in Aberdeenshire; and Aberdeenshire Council. Using His Majesty’s knowledge from their box office data of when and to where people would be travelling, the bus company’s knowledge about bus travel and their resource of buses, drivers etc, and Aberdeenshire’s strategic role to promote sustainable travel and its ability to secure funding for the project, we ran TheatreBus, providing services to popular destinations from right outside the theatre, guaranteed to leave at a time matched with the performance end.

Working on the project revealed time and time again characteristics of complex systems, some of which helped and others hindered the project’s implementation, confirming the importance of complexity in considering such projects. This has implications for how future interventions are planned and evaluated. It also highlighted that skills that I had developed as a theatre director and producer were essential to managing an intervention in a complex social system: we in the arts are comfortable with complexity – we even seek it out! 

Ben’s Strategy Blog: Complexity theory, cultural practices and carbon reduction policy  

Figure 3: A simplified map of the complex system within which audience members travel to His Majesty’s

This last point was informed by our interest at Creative Carbon Scotland in the work of the ‘civic artist’ Frances Whitehead and her Embedded Artist Project and has encouraged our own work on Embedded Artist Projects (we’re now involved in at least three relevant projects), development of the Library of Creative Sustainability, and our Creative Europe project Cultural Adaptations, so the research has already led to practical outputs and ‘impact’, as the academic funders like to see! 

Although TheatreBus was a great success with those who used it we didn’t manage to change that many people’s travel practices: all involved thought that this would have happened but needed a much longer experiment. We did however manage to change the system in which travel took place. His Majesty’s, which hadn’t previously considered itself to be part of the transport planning system, recognised that, as the trigger for around 1m journeys per year and holding unique information about those travelling, it had a vital role to play. Stagecoach and Aberdeenshire similarly reconsidered their omission of travel-triggerers from their lists of partners to work with. Moreover, I learned a great deal about how to go about changing a complex social system, including the need for collaborative and partnership working to achieve this, and some lessons this has for policymakers seeking ‘behaviour change’. Perverse incentives within policy around climate change encourage Public Bodies (such as local authorities, health trusts, higher and further education institutions etc) to focus on their own direct carbon emissions rather than emissions that they may not control but over which they have influence. Collaborative working is essential to address these emergent properties of the systems in which Public Bodies play a major role. 


My evaluation of the TheatreBus project pointed to the need to consider complexity in the design, implementation and assessment of interventions in complex social systems. Collaborative working is hindered by some aspects of current policy and requires particular skills, including the willingness and ability to manage complexity. As I noted above, many cultural practitioners are trained and experienced in handling complexity and might well be useful project managers for this sort of collaboration, but wouldn’t normally be considered for these roles. Perhaps they should be added to the list. 

My thesis concludes with the following main recommendations for policymakers: 

  1. Since all interventions seeking to achieve changes in individual ‘behaviours’ will take place within the complex social system that is society, policy and policy making should fully acknowledge the implications of complexity theory. 
  1. Policymakers and those implementing it could therefore benefit from learning about complexity theory in higher education and continuing professional development. 
  1. Results of interventions in complex social systems have long lead-times and cannot be exactly replicated in other circumstances, no matter how similar. The assessment of success may therefore need to be different and the range of acceptable evidence widened. 
  1. Accordingly, methods of evaluating complex interventions in complex system need to be more widely developed. 
  1. Public Bodies are important agents in complex social systems. Refocusing the Public Bodies Duties in the Climate Change Act, shifting Public Bodies’ attention away from reducing their own direct emissions to addressing society’s overall ones, would help achieve the overall carbon emissions reductions. 
  1. A strong Duty to Collaborate, able to encourage Public Bodies to divert resources to relevant projects and to over-ride other less important duties, should be considered to help the Public Bodies in this change. 
  1. Collaborative projects to intervene in complex social systems require particular skills, qualities and backgrounds from project managers and these may be found in people from a wider range of unexpected areas, including for example the arts. 

This is a very brief summary of my research and I’d be happy to discuss it further with anyone who is interested. And if you want to read the full 82,000 words, just let me know! 


Finally, I couldn’t have completed this project without the help of my collaborators at Stagecoach and Aberdeenshire Council and especially my supervisors Dr Claire Haggettand Professor Nick Prior,  and Andy Kite and Jane Spiers‎ from Aberdeen Performing Arts. Enormous thanks to them all.

The post Ben’s Strategy Blog: Complexity theory, cultural practices and carbon reduction policy   appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.


Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

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