I went to a talk yesterday in the Fine Arts department about the role of Art in the development of sustainable lifestyles. The talk was given by Benn Todd – the president of the Arcola theatre in East London, and the topic was basically what that theatre does, its history, and its future. Todd is quite an interesting character – trained as an engineer, and worked on a project to turn waste biomass into carbon-neutral electricity. He left the profession when he realized that what we lack are not solutions, but the demand for solutions – what’s the use in perfecting a technology which is already basically working, when what truly makes it un-viable is a lack of demand, not a lack of development.
What really struck me about the talk is that, for an Engineer, he was quite good at not getting caught up with the primary effects of actions. He believes strongly that we can’t deal with climate change with facts and technologies – we need a cultural shift. The example of smoking is enlightening – the facts about smoking have been known for decades, but strong declines in smoking seem to be motivated not by rational knowledge about its ill health effects, but by its becoming un-socially acceptable. Todd quit smoking the day the U.K. banned it in pubs. It’s hard to know what motivates cultural shifts – but Todd figures it isn’t crazy to think the cultural elite have something to do with it. So, taking over Arcola, he didn’t start putting plays about sustainability – rather the emphasis was on putting out first rate theatre productions, run sustainably.
One of Arcola’s big things is fuel cells – they run all the lighting in their cafe/bar on a fuel cell, and they run the lights of their shows on a fuel cell. Todd is very up front that using a fuel cell does not directly lower their carbon footprint – the hydrogen after all is made out of methane, and the whole procedure probably would have produced more power per carbon released if it had been burnt at the power plant. However, since the fuel cells are only 5kw, running on fuel cell forces the lighting in the cafe-bar to be extremely energy efficient, which at least in the summer, reduces overall energy consumption. More importantly, however, the production lighting runs on a fuel cell – this requires the productions to be lit on 5 thousand watts – a paltry amount. To run on such a small amount of power they use LED theatre lighting – they basically pioneered this against a theatre industry that insists on the colour rendition of tungsten light. But they’ve also run shows on fluorescent and tungsten light, still limited to 5k watts. Of course, they could just make a rule that they will be limited to 5 thousand watts and not use a fuel cell – but this would ignore the central secondary benefit of doing things low-energy – it’s a source of excitement for the community, it’s a source of free advertising, and using a fuel cell shows to others what is possible more loudly than facts. They are also involved in community theatre, and they have space for technological development in their building as well. Once a month they host something called “Green Sunday”, which is a kind of monthly conference / seminar / community workshop on sustainability.
It’s a mistake to think that even if Arcola can spur a revolution in theatre lighting, that this would be significant in itself – the total power consumption of Arts in the U.K. is simply not big enough to make a difference. However, it’s a very visible quarter, and making changes here first shows what is possible. This emphasis on the cultural shift as the primary goal, with energy-efficiency and new-technologies as derivative, preliminary goals, is what excites me about Arcola’s approach. It’s impossible to know how to effect a cultural shift – it might be a mistake to think you can “effect” one at all, but it is possible to try to work towards it as a goal.