Making sense of sustainability by promoting environmental futures dialogue: an arts and social sciences collaboration
Can social scientists, arts scholars and artists work together to develop creative and imaginative strategies to address some of the major environmental risks that face us in the 21st Century? Is it possible to develop cross-disciplinary ways of working to promote ideas about ways of making possible the changes that are necessary in order to deal with the risks and uncertainties involved for people and their communities, and the rapid pace of change in human-ecological relationships? Can artists and social scientists envisage possibilities for living with the environmental transformations that are already under way, and to help promote ways of creating more sustainable lives, places and futures?
We are building a new social science-arts network within Wales and beyond that will directly address such questions.
The network will:
- Enable social scientists, arts scholars and artists to work together to foster intellectually and culturally creative work - also involving people and communities - on ways of making sense of uncertainties, ambiguities, dangers and risks posed by natural resource depletion, climate change and environmental transformation
- Elucidate contested meanings of sustainability (including sustainable energy), and consider how ‘sustainability’ operates as a set of scientific, political, ethical and arts discourses
- Explore how and why arts scholars, and artists who are producing and performing works on the theme of sustainability, promote awareness of the importance of the aesthetic value of those artworks
- Develop cross-disciplinary ways of working so that artists, arts scholars and social scientists can envisage and promote generative, future-oriented actions and activities that are capable of contributing to more sustainable lives and place-making.
Two of the main foci of our investigation will be sensing and sense-making about risk, home and place, and diversity in sustainability discourse. A central theme will be experiences of ‘being at home’, as such experiences are fore-grounded within some contemporary performance arts scholarship. This research suggests that transformations in ecological knowing are encouraged by imaginative attentiveness to the place where one lives, particularly the everyday surroundings that are most tangible to people. Thus, movement towards sustainability is seen as grounded in a form of ecological awareness made possible by our experiences of “being at home”. Yet scholars in this field also accept that ‘home’ (as a concept) and ‘homing’ (as a practice) need to be interrogated and rethought.
Interpretive social sciences make available approaches and methods for extended study of what home and locality means to people when studied close up. These allow researchers to acknowledge the challenges associated with taking into account the kinds of affective, semiotic and social flows that characteristically occur across and around occasions of practical, everyday sense making. Such work involves asking questions about embodied and sensate processes of homing and place-making in a way that introduces spatial and temporal complexity. These forms of complexity tend to be obscured in our social routines and daily practices while helping to create, fragment and mobilise forms of environmental subjectivity.
Interpretive social scientists working on environmental futures turn the spotlight onto ways of remembering and expecting that actively endure in time, and on narratives (e.g. of care, attachment and security) that might provide people and communities with meaningful and affective connections linking place and identity together. They seek to understand the difficulties of creating and sustaining action-enabling connections at different temporal and spatial scales.
With these intellectual routes into our subject, and through the collaborative activities of the network (initially over the course of one year), we will be opening out ways of thinking about processes of sensing and sense-making in relation to environmental risk. In addition we will build understanding of the principles and practices of sustainability practice and sustainable place-making.
We have scheduled a set of academic development and public engagement activities over the course of one year (February 2013-January 2014). They will be designed to promote dialogue on the theme of environmental futures.
The public activities will feature two local cafes at which environmental thinkers and performance artists will share their work with one another and with members of the public. Diary dates are June 14th (Aberystwyth) and July 16th (Cardiff) leading up to a World Café event in the Millennium Centre in Cardiff on the 6/7th December.
Invitation to Register Your Interest In the Network
If you wish to register your interest in becoming a network member, please send an email with this request to DunkleyRA@cardiff.ac.uk.
Our next event is:
'Homing in: the aesthetics of sustainability', Friday 14 June, Aberystwyth
This one day event, organised by Aberystwyth and Cardiff Universities, is part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project investigating the relationship between arts practices, sense-making and sustainability in Wales. The event draws on the successful format used at the Philosophy Cafe in Cardiff, and aims to enable dialogues between artists, activists, local people and academics interested in ecology and environment. There is a particular intention to think through what is at stake in developing a sustainable future. The day will consist of a series of showings, panel discussions and café-style conversations exploring how artists might contribute towards the production of sustainable places in ways that are aesthetically coherent and non-instrumentalised.
Admission is free
Other events of interest: in Aberystwyth, on the previous day (13th June), there is a related event organised by the Climate Change Consortium of Wales (C3W)/Consortium Newid Hinsawdd Cymru
For more information about this event, please visit: www.c3wales.org/events/category/non-c3w
The event on June 13th at Aberystwyth Arts Centre will feature art/documentary film, performance and installation and is free to all and welcomes students. Please visit the website for more information: www.cargocollective.com/artscienceclimatechange/Future-Climate-Dialogues
Network events in Cardiff in July 2013
Two Philosophy Cafés on the themes of sustainability, futures, emotions and creativity have been developed in order to promote environmental futures dialogue.
The future is not simply a projection on a graph to be taken into account in the present. It is also the destination of our actions, and the source of emotions like hope and fear, desire and dread. If the issues facing us require choices about and commitments to future paths, then the prospect of making these difficult choices – and of what might be implied by making them – can evoke powerful emotions, particularly a dread of loss, or fear of possibly radical and uncontrollable change.
This emotional aspect of how we face an uncertain future was recognised by the German philosopher Hans Jonas, who wrote in his The Imperative of Responsibility (1976) that a ‘heuristics of fear’ was necessary in order to motivate people to take responsibility for the future, rather than hope of creating some better world. Scientists and other experts would therefore have to set out the worst case scenarios that could follow on from the uncontrolled use of technologies, resource depletion and so on, in order to provoke people in the present to change course.
Yet the experience of people involved in communicating information about climate change and other global environmental issues seems to demonstrate that such an approach is ineffective. Summarising such work, Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser (2010) argue that it can result in people "becoming apathetic, pursuing hedonistic pleasure, or projecting guilt onto others". It is perhaps increasingly recognised in social change movements that, as bell hooks puts it in her Belonging (2009) “we cannot look to the hills and find strength if all we can see is a landscape of destruction”.
So might fear block action, rather than motivate it? Is the seeming insolubility of complex issues like climate change a major factor in how people respond? What is the relationship between emotions and action, when confronting an uncertain future? Is it possible to open up more contemplative – rather than reactive - spaces that bring to the fore questions about our emotional awareness of environmental change?
The first Café on 16th July will examine the role that the literary and artistic imagination can play in creating a ‘secure space’ here in the present for people to explore their emotions about the uncertain future, and the ways in which imagination can contribute to shaping agency and action. The Café will be followed a week later on July 23rd by a special ‘Creativity Café’ in which arts practitioners will present examples from their work that encourage us to explore our emotions about the future, and where members of the audience will also be invited to contribute their own works.
Venue: Both the main event on the 16th July, and the subsequent creativity café on 23rd July, will be held in the usual Philosophy Café venue which is the Gate Arts Centre, Keppoch Street, Roath, Cardiff.
The network is supported by the following research groups/institutes, policymakers, NGOs and members of the arts community
Karen Henwood is a Professor in the School of Social Sciences. Her research interests include how members of the public and local communities make sense of, and respond to, environmental risk. She has written extensively on social sciences methods (including interpretive and temporal) for studying the dynamics of time, identities/subjectivities, and socio-cultural change.
Dr Carl Lavery is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at Aberystwyth University, where he teaches theatre and performance through the lens of ecology.
Dr Chris Groves' work focuses on how people and institutions negotiate and deal with an intrinsically uncertain future – one increasingly imagined against the backdrop of global environmental change and accelerating technological innovation (such as in personalised genetic testing, and bio-/nanotechnology ). The monograph Future Matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics (Brill, 2007), co-authored with Professor Barbara Adam (Social Science, Cardiff University), examines these themes in depth.
Dr Ria Dunkley is a Researcher at the Sustainable Places Institute, Cardiff and the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) at the University of Warwick. Her research interests include arts and cultural movements that support sustainable development and Education for Sustainability at all levels, within both formal and informal contexts. She also has an interest in emergent research approaches.