Art leading Culture – On Sustainability as a Secondary Effect

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.

13 thoughts on “Art leading Culture – On Sustainability as a Secondary Effect

  1. You might call this the “hollow example” approach – doing something highly visible that looks green, but isn’t especially so.

    Most people will absorb the message superficially. A few technically minded sorts will start raising questions about where the hydrogen comes from, whether the money could have better been spent on insulation, etc.

    I don’t know what the net effect is on either awareness or behaviour.

  2. Milan, I think you are really missing the point. No one can make a real difference as a primary effect. “Nothing could be weaker than the feeble strength of one”. Todd’s point is to concentrate on secondary effects, and if there is any truth to Art being a cultural leader, then this might be a good place to look for secondary effect production.

    The changes humans need to make concerning climate change are large scale political, not individual people insulating their houses. Therefore, it makes more sense to commit to actions which have some chance of building political will and awareness rather than making quiet sacrifices.

  3. One positive secondary effect running his theatre on a fuel cell is societal awareness of the safety of fuel cells. Apparently in the UK everyone is afraid of everything, and there is a general perception of fuel cells as unsafe. And they are, but no more unsafe than lots of other unsafe things we absorb the risks of without thinking on a daily basis (i.e. driving in cars, gas heaters etc…).

    Even if fuel cells are not a technology for the future, getting people use to accepting new technologies is still a valuable secondary effect.

  4. “You might call this the “hollow example” approach – doing something highly visible that looks green, but isn’t especially so.”

    How do you figure it isn’t especially so? If you look at the effects of his individual actions on the climate, sure it’s not green. But if you look at a corresponding individual action which does reduce carbon substantively, it still doesn’t make “especially” much of an effect.

    One way of evaluating whether an action is green, is to ask what would happen if everyone did it. This is always a bit arbitrary, because it involves assumptions about how the action would be scaled up, which parts of the action count as the action can change whether the act is green or not. But for the sake of argument, lets look at the choice of running your bar/theatre on a fuel cell.

    What is running your bar/theatre on a fuel cell? Well for one thing it means spending a lot of money on power in order to be green. However, the final effect does not actually produce carbon neutral power. If we call its final effect “the action”, scaling it up would produce more nothing. But what if we call the commitment to paying a high premium to be green – what if everyone were willing to spend such an amount to be green? Well, the costs of the fuel cell would drop, and quite possibly the previous total cost (price commitment “to be green”) could pay for higher cost carbon neutral energy and its conversion to carbon neutral hydrogen.

    Say we get a hydrogen economy running – quite soon you would likely be able to purchase hydrogen, or carbon neutral hydrogen. (And hopefully through taxation, eventually they would be the same price/only co2 neutral hydrogen would be available). In order to get to this zero carbon energy economy, we need to be willing to spend more on power to do it.

    Being willing to spend more on power is exactly what buying a fuel cell today represents/enacts.

    The worst kind of environmental “green” power is the one that costs less than it would if it were scaled up. I.e. selling power from existing hydro dams at a slight premium does not represent the cost of scaling up c02 neutral power – the low price you pay actually depends on the low demand!

    I say it’s better to be willing to spend more on power, even if that doesn’t reduce your CO2 footprint, if it’s helping create the energy-costly economy which can reduce CO2 overall.

  5. ” A few technically minded sorts will start raising questions about where the hydrogen comes from”

    He is explicit about the fact the hydrogen comes from methane, and the carbon footprint is not reduced one iota by running fuel cells. There is no pretence of immediate effect.

    He’s a former engineer, remember? But he’s a former engineer whose realized that the biggest impediment to eco-technological revolution isn’t engineering, its market/public demand.

  6. As you know, I am very skeptical that there will ever be a hydrogen economy. Setting that to one side, it seems we agree that this is a hollow gesture. I am not saying that makes it pointless; perhaps that just underscores how hard it is to do anything that is visible and also moves us towards sustainability.

  7. I dispute the connotations of the term “hollow gesture”. It presumes the content of a gesture is normatively internal. Which is absurd, all gestures have as part of their content their external effect – i.e. the content of me flipping the bird to a motorist is them seeing it and getting angry.

    Whether the gesture is “hollow” can’t be determined in advance, it depends on what kinds of effects it has.

    I think the demand for the “unified good action” – the one which is both visible and a real improvement, is a false god. Secondary effects are of such greater importance than primary ones, therefore all primary effects must be considered only as values for-the-sake-of secondary effects.

  8. But what if the secondary effects produced are equally meaningless?

    Al Gore buying carbon offsets to cover his flights has encouraged others who are environmentally concerned to do so, but that outcome is not environmentally beneficial, for the most part.

    Given the seriousness of climate change, the actions people take can’t be some meaningless fad. They need to bite into the problem.

  9. “what if the secondary effects produced are equally meaningless?”

    Well, that would be bad. You don’t get to know what secondary effects are going to happen. Did you read my post? I already responded to this issue of meaningless secondary effects – re the irrelevance of the Arts sector as a whole to climate change.

    “They need to bite into the problem.”

    Individual actions can not bite into the problem. The problem is not something we can each individually bite into a little bit. Individual actions, qua individual, are meaningless.

    We can bite into the problem as a society, as a democracy. I can’t electrify Canadian rail, invest in nuclear and other carbon neutral energy with a specific personal action. I have to live my life in such a way that such political choices become possible, and become demanded/required. I don’t have to pick a lifestyle which happens to harm the planet slightly less than some other one.

  10. Tristan: “Just to be clear and fair here – I’m all for symbolic actions. But symbolic actions are only symbolic if they demonstrate themselves as being a step on the way to non-symbolic actions. I.e. installing one wind turbine is only a symbolic step towards significant alternative energy if its an integral part of a plan to install many wind turbines. If the turbine is itself the end goal, then it isn’t a symbol but a token effort.”

  11. My logic is exactly the same here as it is in the case of Grouse.

    “If the turbine is itself the end goal, then it isn’t a symbol but a token effort.”

    Where did I say Todd installed a fuel cell as an “end goal”? This whole post is about deferred goals, that’s why I called it “On Sustainability as a Secondary effect.”

    What I need to change about my previous position is not the logic of primary/deferred goal, but the relation between the primary goal and the secondary effects.

    “installing one wind turbine is only a symbolic step towards significant alternative energy if its an integral part of a plan to install many wind turbines.”

    In this post, I’m simply including in what counts as “integral plan” has to include the results of complex social forces which we can’t understand, but we can begin to say some intelligent things about (i.e. the arts might have some influence on culture). This is necessary, because if “integral plan” only includes things we can have control over, i.e. building a few more wind turbines, it will never be enough. The goal has to be building wind turbines in the hopes that it helps others pick up the torch, and helps politiciens find it politically possible to begin diverting the huge subsidies or taxes required to shift the economy to carbon neutral.

  12. This is related:

    “Contrastingly, Professor King railed against what he termed “eco-bling” – the tendency for many new building projects to fail to reduce their overall energy consumption and then tack on energy generation schemes such as wind turbines or solar panels in a high-visibility effort to make up for some of the wasted energy.”

    Though, as you say, part of the idea with the fuel cell is to impose a cap on energy use, in this case.

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