Culture Shifts Slowly

For artists interested in the energy transition, I would argue that the three most important words in Bill McKibben’s latest essay in The New Yorker are: “culture shifts slowly.”

Culture shifts slowly. This maxim applies to all social change, not just energy transitions. But unlike previous energy transitions, the 21st century’s shift away from a culture of consumption towards a culture of stewardship does not have the luxury of time. As McKibben explains, “time is the crucial variable” for the climate:

As hard as it will be to rewire the planet’s energy system by decade’s end, I think it would be harder – impossible, in fact – to sufficiently rewire social expectations, consumer preferences, and settlement patterns in that short stretch.

Artists, this is where you come in: Enter, stage left and stage right! We need a tsunami of global artists – poets, architects, designers, musicians, playwrights, filmmakers, curators – collectively engaged in “rewiring social expectations” about the current energy transition. A transition that will inevitably shift our gaze from looking down into the bowels of the earth to looking up at our star. A transition that will liberate us from an unconscious, unsustainable, and unethical addiction to fossilized sunlight controlled by the few. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is just the most recent example.

As I mentioned in a series of posts last year, Barry Lord’s book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, is an excellent place for artists to start. It succinctly weaves together the history of the reciprocal relationship between art, artists, and energy transitions over the millennia. This book provides valuable insights for contemporary artists about the historical precedent where previous generations of artists contributed, in various ways, to earlier energy transitions by influencing the perception of and the cultural values associated with the incipient (“alternative”) energy source.

Image downloaded from Early Modern Literary Studies

Shakespeare, who witnessed the transition from the age of wood to the age of coal between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, mentioned coal disparagingly in the opening line of Romeo and Juliet: “Gregory, o’ my word, we’ll not carry coals.” According to Shakespearean scholar Marianne Kimura, Romeo and Juliet was written as an allegory against coal. For example, she suggests that in Act 2, Scene 2, when Romeo compares Juliet to “the sun”, this is Shakespeare’s not-so-subtle reference to coal’s thick black smoke belching from unfiltered chimneys that literally blotted out the sunlight in crowded Elizabethan London.

Four centuries later, our “modern” transition away from fuels (coal, oil and gas) back to non-fuels (sun, wind, water) offers artists a unique gift: the chance to express themselves through a medium that is invisible as well as infinite, i.e., non-fuels produce energy that is mostly electrons.

In the 21st century, the main incipient source of these invisible electrons is the Sun. McKibben describes the Sun as:

… a great ball of burning gas about ninety-three million miles away, whose energy can be collected in photovoltaic panels, and which differentially heats the Earth, driving winds whose energy can now be harnessed with great efficiency by turbines. The electricity they produce can warm and cool our homes, cook our food, and power our cars and bikes and buses. The sun burns, so we don’t need to.

Photo by Joan Sullivan, 2017

The sun burns so we don’t need to. Kudos, Mr. McKibben! To which I will add my favorite solar quote from the French philosopher Georges Bataille in his essay The Accursed Share (La part maudite): “The sun gives without ever receiving.”

I hope these two quotes may inspire artists around the world to re-imagine our relationship with the Sun – the central character in an unfolding drama that has yet to be written. A homecoming story, perhaps, since this energy transition involves shifting our gaze and our allegiance back to the ultimate source of light and warmth for all life on Earth: a radiant star that gives without demanding anything in return. Only artists can help us to “see” the light.

Between now and the end of this decade, if enough artists commit to writing / illustrating / singing a million different versions of this modern transition story – a return to our roots, a return to non-fuels – then maybe we can prove Mr. McKibben wrong about how slowly culture shifts. Together, we can redream society as the poet Ben Okri implored artists to do in his urgent call to arms on the last day of COP26. Together, we can unleash an avalanche of cultural and social change so rapid and profound that wars for oil will become a thing of the past. Imagine what a beautiful world that will be.


(Top image by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a new member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her eco-anxiety about climate breakdown and our collective silence. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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