What does culture have to do with climate change? Everything

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Introduction to ‘Carbon 14: Climate is Culture’ by Claire Sykes, Curator and Programming Director, Cape Farewell Foundation


The scientific evidence tells us that the global climate system is changing at an unprecedented rate and in increasingly destructive, self-accelerating ways. But this alarming information alone can be bewildering without narratives and expressions that connect it to our lives and our communities, to our fears and our aspirations. Creating those connections is the work of culture.

A cultural response to the problem of climate change harnesses the powers of creative insight, human emotions, and understanding to effect change. Collaborating with scientists and confronting the facts around global climate change, the artists participating in Carbon 14: Climate is Culture are all responding to different aspects of this climate challenge in poignant, nuanced, subversive, often humorous, and always passionately human ways.

“We need to embrace change and unleash the power of our creativity, ingenuity, innovation, and ability to cooperate — in short, to demonstrate our humanity.”
Claire Sykes


The exhibition features 13 art installations, including seven new commissions. Subjects include explorations of a changing Arctic; the health of the oceans; biodiversity and extinction; sustainability and new, clean technologies. Central are questions of politics, economics, and ethics.

Climate change is a difficult subject, open to misrepresentation, denial and confusion, yet it cannot be ignored. Nor can we talk about it in isolation as a purely scientific matter. While climate change presents as an environmental problem, it is — as this exhibition insists — fundamentally a cultural one.

Meaningful change must happen first at the level of culture — how we choose to live, and what we choose to do. The questions raised by the climate crisis are about innovation, economics, politics, and essentially, ethics—our responsibility to future generations and the common good—and these are all questions of culture.


A Cultural Shift
What we do now matters on a scale that previous generations could never imagine and will affect future generations in ways we are only beginning to understand. Mitigating climate change will require both the development and delivery of clean and renewable energy sources, and changes in our behaviours and patterns of consumption to reduce our dependence upon fossil fuels.

We need to embrace change and unleash the power of our creativity, ingenuity, innovation, and ability to cooperate — in short, to demonstrate our humanity. We have a unique opportunity to make all the difference. The time is now and together we can.

Claire Sykes


The above text was republished from capefarewellfoundation.com with permission from the author.

More information about ‘Carbon 14: Climate is Culture’

‘Carbon 14: Climate is Culture’ was produced by Cape Farewell Foundation in partnership with ROM: Contemporary Culture. It is the inaugural programming coming out of the North American office of Cape Farewell – the Cape Farewell Foundation – which is based in Toronto.

Carbon 14 is a two-year project that began with an intensive workshop on the shores of Lake Ontario in the fall of 2011 and continues with a wide range of programming activities, culminating in this exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) Centre for Contemporary Culture, a performing arts festival with The Theatre Centre (Toronto), and a rich series of public programs and events.

» ‘Carbon 14: Climate is Culture’ media coverage:

» ‘Carbon 14: Climate is Culture’ website: capefarewellfoundation.com/carbon14
» North America: capefarewellfoundation.com
» UK: capefarewell.com

Culture|Futures article – October 2013:
Canada: ‘Carbon 14: Climate is Culture’ exhibition

Culture|Futures is an international collaboration of organizations and individuals who are concerned with shaping and delivering a proactive cultural agenda to support the necessary transition towards an Ecological Age by 2050.

The Cultural sector that we refer to is an interdisciplinary, inter-sectoral, inter-genre collaboration, which encompasses policy-making, intercultural dialogue/cultural relations, creative cities/cultural planning, creative industries and research and development. It is those decision-makers and practitioners who can reach people in a direct way, through diverse messages and mediums.

Affecting the thinking and behaviour of people and communities is about the dissemination of stories which will profoundly impact cultural values, beliefs and thereby actions. The stories can open people’s eyes to a way of thinking that has not been considered before, challenge a preconceived notion of the past, or a vision of the future that had not been envisioned as possible. As a sector which is viewed as imbued with creativity and cultural values, rather than purely financial motivations, the cultural sector’s stories maintain the trust of people and society.
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