This post was originally published on May 28, 2015 on the CENHS blog.
Our current energy consumption is to human civilization what an affair is to a marriage: the manifestation of a deeper problem. While the appeal of instant gratification is compelling, most of us wouldn’t jeopardize the emotional, psychological, and financial security of our marriage unless we felt significant discontent. In the same way, society’s impulse to consume energy to the point of self-destruction suggests nothing less than an existential crisis. The frame we once created for ourselves, that was meant to provide structure and meaning, has become too restrictive. We are longing for something else, but instead of addressing the problem head-on, we are spending precious energy (pun intended) trying to get metaphorically laid.
On the scale of civilization, the frame that gives structure to our lives is culture. Culture is how we communicate the values that shape our economy, education and governance. It is what guides our choices on a day-to-day basis. But the values that form culture are so embedded within it that we often cannot distinguish them. We act as if we have no choice, as if the reality we perceive and the actions we take are the only ones possible, while in fact they are the direct results of the cultural story we have constructed. Luckily, we have the means to take that story apart. At some point in our evolution, we created a lens that magnifies our beliefs and values and reflects them to us. This lens is called art.
Art is how we tell the story of who we are. It is how we make culture apparent. Whether through visual arts, music, dance, film, theatre, or the countless other means of artistic expression available to us, art provides a space where we can become aware of, and reflect on, our values. And not only does it tell the story of who we are; it also tells the story of who we might become. By giving reign to the imagination and seeing problems as challenges to embrace rather than obstacles to overcome, art opens up avenues of exploration and gives us permission to dream. Who are we? Who do we want to be? How does energy fit into this picture? Are our energy needs justified or are we trying to make up for something that is missing somewhere else?
Projects such as the Land Art Generator Initiative, the traveling exhibition Transmissions, Coal: The Musical, and artists such as glass designer Sarah Hall, photographer Edward Burtynsky, visual artist Richard Box, dance company Zata Omm and its project vox:lumen, and many, many others raise these questions for us to consider. They invite us to transcend binary thinking and reductionist ideologies, and to enter a space where we fully engage, with our mind and our emotions.
For decades we have been living with values that support a hierarchical, competitive, and individualist worldview. In a world that was less populated, less connected and seen as predictable and linear, the hierarchical model served us well. It centralized power, gave us control over the means of production and led to the explosion of knowledge that defines our society today. But it also created an energy-intensive, consumer-driven culture where the assumption was that there wasn’t enough for everyone.
With a growing population now globally connected, a conception of the world that has shifted from machine to biological system, and technological innovations that are making the means of production accessible to huge numbers of people, centralized power is no longer possible. Trying to control our vast network of knowledge only leads to conflict. Given this complex reality, the creation of a just, nurturing and sustainable world requires that we move from a hierarchical to a heterachical worldview, and embrace values such as creativity, collaboration, and interdependence; values like the ones set forth by the Earth Charter. It also means working with the assumption of abundance. There is enough for everyone. We just need to learn where and how to look.
Our affair with energy was exhilarating. There is nothing like the thrill of adventure combined with a heightened sense of possibilities to make one feel vibrantly alive. But as the novelty wears off, as the consequences of our actions come back to haunt us, it is time to pause and take stock. The good news is that while an affair may be a red flag, it is also a unique opportunity for renewal. We get to shed old habits, acquire new strengths, and build a life that is more in accordance with who we are. The bad news is that change is not easy. We usually embrace it as a last resort, and go through it inelegantly, with a great deal of kicking and screaming.
Artists who are exploring these issues can serve as a beacon. They may not offer practical solutions (though many of them do), but they can help us weave together the fabric of values that will inform our future decisions. They can help us integrate the parts of ourselves that may have been previously dismissed, lost or forgotten. They can make visible the possibilities laid out in front of us.
Reality is not inevitable, it is not immutable, and we do, in fact, have choices. Thank God, we can count on the arts to remind us of that.