Australia’s Existential Crisis in a Climate Changed World

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I recently attended a fortnightly gathering inspired by one of the arts’ most prescient projects of recent times, Refuge. For the last four years, it has imagined scenarios around disaster-preparedness involving emergency services, artists and local community.

The knowledge generated within that project is now vital and immediate, privileging First Nations peoples discussing land management and custodianship, the displacement of peoples due to climate change, and protocols for communities to deliver in the event of a disaster. The gathering, called in direct response to the summer’s climate fires, was held at Melbourne’s Arts House, the project’s host and producer. The most disturbing discussion centred on the question of species extinction: is our task now, to manage as best as possible, the extinction of the human species?

Make no mistake, Australia is in the midst of an existential crisis.

How do we cope with the attendant feelings of disequilibrium, of meaninglessness, of despair?

In a democracy, we are hard-wired to expect government to provide a meaning and purpose which we all might share. Problem is, our existential crisis enfolds government. This summer’s litany of evidence covers smokos in Hawaii, news vision of distressed citizens refusing to shake the hand of the Prime Minister and boastful, insulting videos from the same source.

But it’s not just the Coalition. Of all the elected peoples and parties that constitute the Parliament who are responsible for decisions being made, values being set, promises being kept, I cannot recall one political leader making a statement that made me feel like they knew what to do.

What meaning does government have when our leaders have no aptitude for it? When their careers have been built on exacerbating social division for political advantage? None of them know how to bring the nation together.

This summer, as often happens in the midst of disaster, the democratic project found its saviour in civil society. So many acts of bravery, generosity, considered support, so much time given to help others by those in need, by those who lost so much, some who lost loved ones. This summer we lost government capable of action. In its stead, we found our soul.

Art inhabits this gap between action and meaning. Making their work, artists ask hard questions in relatively safe environments and practise solutions with the least amount of distress. Their way of seeing problems, offering up unlikely solutions, testing social relationships, imagining other worlds, mixing elements like chemists, they are geared to amplify the present and create multiple futures. They can make ugly things beautiful – and therefore encourage us not to look away – and new things comprehensible. For years, I’ve been banging on about giving them more money when all any government or institution or political party does is take money away. My argument has been based on the arts being a public good in a democracy seeking to do its best by all citizens all of the time. Now, it’s about survival.

In the last decade, there has been a lot of back-of-house, art-and-climate change labour expended by foresighted individuals like producer Angharad Wynne-Jones, who instigated the Refuge project and is a member of TippingPoint Australia, Guy Abrahams who co-founded Climarte in 2010 with Fiona Armstrong and Deborah Hart, and Tim Hollo, a musician and activist who established Green Music Australia in 2013 and last Saturday, at the National Climate Emergency Summit, proposed a matrix for building new power as an antidote to creeping authoritarianism.

Where cultural operators like these have built infrastructure for action, our biggest cultural institutions have been missing in action. Why is that?

One of the recurring themes of the Summit was our relationship with fossil fuel producers. In the arts, this has a direct bearing on support for Australian artists who, until the last few years and with a few exceptions, have struggled to consistently generate a body of work around climate change. This has much to do with the board, sponsorship and partnership arrangements that Australian arts agencies and cultural institutions have entered into with fossil-fuel producers, a disturbing nexus of complicity brilliantly exposed by artist Gabrielle de Vietri.

Writing in Thee Guardian last year, co-founder of disrupter Wavelength Foundation, Oliver Krug, lays it out:

“For decades arts institutions have effectively engaged in self-censorship to pay for their productions, putting on amazing programming and covering critical topics, as long as it wasn’t a thorough debate of our addiction to fossil fuels. This strategic exclusion of a topic from public debate over more than a generation has led to ignorance, with repercussions in education, academic and public life.”

Given this summer, our arts agencies and cultural institutions – arts centres, museums, galleries, funding agencies – must comprehensively audit their energy use, invest in low-carbon operational strategies and divest themselves of relationships with fossil-fuel producers and their representatives.

They need also engage in deep and serious commissioning relationships with artists to help materialise their ideas. Programming needs to shift towards art made for and about the severe changes our climate – and by extension, our society – is experiencing. Beautiful works to inspire the imagination to help us dream up new ways of being, acting and behaving. Controversial offerings that tell of the realities we might face and ways we might change our behaviour in order to mitigate and cope with this future. Considered examinations of our relationship with the land, the landscape, the environment. Courage is not a word often associated with leaders of our major cultural institutions but if they don’t find it now then they need to leave.

We require a massive overhaul of the arts and culture sector to help deal with the existential, climate crisis our country faces.

This article was also published at the Daily Review.

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