We live in spectacular times. On one hand we have the incredible advances of medicine, art, science, education and entertainment. In the developed west, our material wellbeing and life expectancy have increased dramatically over the last century. In fact, if you have the means, you can have most of the things you could ever want. You can listen to a perfect digital reproduction of traditional Tibetan flute music, whilst watching wide screen 3-D images on the beauties of the lower Nile, eating authentic Chilean cuisine with fresh New Zealand kiwi fruit to follow. If you wish, you can even go there and experience them all in person. Modern life offers an incredible range of experiences which we all, to a lesser or greater degree, participate in.
One the other hand, from one day to the next, we must live with, or bury, the pain of the destruction, corruption, exploitation, globalisation and capitalisation of our eco-sphere and the peoples who inhabit them. Many of us carry this sadness in quiet solitude, often unconsciously as we progress through our busy lives. But as the eyes and ears of the media reach out, there is a growing realisation that as a result of the choices we make, all is not well in the world. Right before our eyes we now experience the destruction of the very systems which support us: a spectacle we all, to a lesser or greater degrees, are obliged to participate in.
Living with this paradox and trying to reconcile it from day to day is a real problem that is seriously affecting our wellbeing, leaving many transfixed and confused. We may think of how we live today as ‘normal’, but by any historical or geographical precedent the amount of energy behind a typical modern western lifestyle is right off the radar. We are held fast, sleepwalking through the shopping malls, paralysed and overloaded from the continuous barrage of information we receive.
This destruction of our planetary life-support system is becoming the deepest and most pervasive source of anxiety in our time. Initially environmental groups assumed that people did not act simply because they lacked information. Experience suggests however that such numbness and apathy do not stem from ignorance or even indifference. As our understanding deepens, we also find we have become trapped by our dependence on modern high-energy living systems and so inevitably are obliged to conform.
Although increasing fears arising from our global frenzy of production and consumption are increasingly manifesting on our deepest level, society has created taboos against the public expression of such emotion and anguish. We simply put it away in that locker, just out of our conscious thought, where smokers keep the knowledge about lung cancer or where heavy drinkers keep their awareness of liver disease. We get on with the immediate challenges of life.
There simply isn’t any historical precedent for the scale and speed of the challenges we currently face. We lack the psychological and emotional tools required to understand or to react, which is why so many refuse to believe it is happening. Rising to such challenges is currently beyond the boundaries of what is ‘politically thinkable’. It is much more of a challenge for our society and our democracy than it is for our technology.
Yet if we do not deal with our feelings they will manifest as problems in our physical or mental condition. Over the past couple of decades these collective fears have already transformed the way contemporary culture portrays our future from an exciting new world of progress and wellbeing – to a dark and uncertain world. Today, almost every time our contemporary culture looks ten or twenty years ahead, we see dystopia and ecological collapse. Be it a novel, a film, a TV series or even a computer game, the setting is always dark. From Children of Men, The Road and 28 Days Later to The Survivors – the list is endless.
If people are unable to imagine a positive future, they won’t create it. The Zero Carbon Britain project was developed at the Centre for Alternative Technology to help give context to where we are in the world and enable us to re-think how we talk about the future. It sets out to develop robust scenarios that show how we can meet both the scale and speed of the transition from fossil fuels required to fulfil Britain’s international obligations to deliver on our climate challenges and offer energy self-reliance. It aims to stimulate debate and build consensus over this new and challenging terrain, through integrating cutting edge knowledge and experience from a wide range of disciplines into a single framework that can be clearly and effectively articulated to endorse urgent action across all sectors of society.
To bring these scenarios to life we must integrate our arts, science and politics into a single discipline. Science tells us things; but it is art that can help us take things on board at a deeper level. Addressing themes such as race, class and gender, for example, creative practice has shown how we can break through prejudice and catalyse a transformation of attitudes and behaviours. The arts and creative practice can offer an urgently needed mirror that can help individuals and societies reflect on where we really are, revealing a wider picture by exploring the incredible story of how humans access energy, and how it defines our lives and how we see ourselves and each other. It can help us recognise the 1950s fossil-fuelled ‘American Dream’ still quietly pervades the global subconscious.
It is increasingly clear that our 21st century challenges can no longer be met with 20th century approaches, including how we think about the future. There is a pressing need to broker much wider links between the arts and those working in sustainability to create a new ‘community of practice’. It is only when we join the dots that we can really begin to think differently – and doing this can help us access tools, technologies and techniques that enable us to imagine what it would be like to live and love in a world were we have risen to our global challenges, and transformed our anguish into empowerment.