Climate Activism via Letters To Power

Declaring climate emergency
Photo by Kristaps Mednis, ISSP
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Years ago (in the last century) I attended a conference at Lancaster University on arts and the environment where I met ‘artivists’ from Platform, a London-based collective of artists, educators and researchers who were undertaking extraordinary projects such as ‘Unravelling the Carbon Web’, which partly consisted of Platform members walking around all BP establishments including petrol stations, refineries, ports, offices, etc., to document the amount of land owned by the multi-national for running its fossil-fuel extractive business, often polluting indigenous land in the process.

Platform is still operating today but they are no longer the weirdo kids on the block. Over the past two decades the arts and cultural sector has made huge strides in establishing its green credentials, with organisations such as Julie’s Bicycle leading the way. Now, a whole host of diverse artists and cultural organisations have taken up the cause, specifically around the climate emergency, recognising the unique role they can play in raising awareness and opening up the science in a more human way. Many of these entities have been gathering together under the campaigning banner of ‘Culture Declares Emergency‘ with the simple mission of truth telling, taking action and seeking justice.

Die in at the European Parliament, photo by Julie Ward

When it launched in April 2019 CDE represented the first professional sector to declare a climate emergency and now has many spin offs such as Architects Declare, Music Declares, Scientists Declare, Business Declares, Tourism Declares, Citizens Declare and so on. The list of cultural declarers includes large organisations such as Sadler’s Wells and familiar names such as Antony Gormley and Brian Eno, but it is largely composed of small organisations and individual arts practitioners who are the bedrock of our creative and cultural sector.

The Declare Initiatives are designed to envision and create the actions needed to decarbonise the UK by 2030, all the while underpinned by climate science, socio-ecological justice and a transformative energy sector. Whilst there is an understandable focus on the UK government’s hosting of COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, CDE has already flexed its campaigning muscle with a Letters to the Earth project which encouraged people to formulate powerful messages to the planet that sustains us and which we have so badly mistreated. Letters of love, loss, hope and action were written by over 1000 people from all over the world – from 4 year olds to great grandparents, artists, scientists and nurses. These were published by HarperCollins as an award-winning collection with an introduction by Emma Thompson and illustrated by CILIP Kate Greenaway prize-winner Jackie Morris. The book features letters from Yoko Ono, Kate Tempest, Mark Rylance, Jay Griffiths and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. 

Photo by Julie Ward

Here in the North East of England we have a paucity of declarers with notable exceptions such as the poet Linda France who is currently New Writing North’s Climate Writer in Residency at Newcastle University, Durham-based photographer and filmmaker Matt Jamie, the new media collective D6 (formerly known as Isis Arts), the community arts practitioner Dr Stephen Pritchard who has recently been working in Durham coalfield communities for Northern Heartlands, and the North East Arts and Health Network. I made my own declaration at a summer school in Cēsis, Latvia, where I had been working with biologists and analog artists exploring ‘Natural Phenomena’, making sun-prints and developing film using soil and Baltic sea-water rather than the traditional chemical processes. But, we existing North East declarers are a small eclectic group and desperately want the rest of our sector to follow in our footsteps and join in with meaningful actions of their own determining.

The public aspect of declaring is important because it instantly makes a connection from the personal to the political, from the individual to the collective, from the organisational to the sectoral. Like Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture actions, we are building a mass movement for systemic change. However, beyond the initial making of a declaration I admit it has been hard to know what to do next, especially as the pandemic makes large public events such as protests, performances, rallies, festivals, etc., both dangerous and illegal unless strict adherence to social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing is observed.

But with the re-opening of Parliament on September 1st after the summer recess, the CDE community has found its perfect moment and is now organising a Letters To Power campaign which will bombard returning MPs with strong demands linked to the up and coming Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill due to be brought before MPs a year after the British parliament declared a climate emergency. If passed, the CEE Bill will substantially amend the Climate Change Act 2008, tightening the framework and accelerating the speed in which the UK has to act, as well as taking account of our extensive global carbon footprint not simply domestic emissions. The draft Bill, created through a participatory process with a wide range of stakeholders, also includes provision for a Citizens Assembly so people can have a real say in the way forward, bringing social equity into decision making, something that has been seriously lacking in our broken democracy.

In addition to encouraging many Letters To Power in support of the CEE Bill, the Strategic Working Group at CDE has also written an open letter to Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which asks the government to recognise not only the multiple crises facing the cultural sector caused by the pandemic, Brexit and a decade of austerity, but to use the opportunity to recalibrate the arts funding eco-system in favour of greening the sector. Whilst we welcome the belated £1.57bn arts bailout package we are critical of its lack of vision and failure to seize the moment for systemic change. This letter remains open for signatures until August 31st on the CDE Facebook page and the website contains toolkits for organisations and individuals wishing to declare a climate and ecological emergency. Please join us by writing your own Letter to Power and put pressure on your MP to back the CEE Bill throughout the month of September.

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