Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
Recently, I gave a presentation at the U.N.’s COP26 Summit on digitization and innovation as the great enablers of systems change in my industry: culture.
While preparing, I had to think about boiling things down to their essence: Why should world leaders care? How to describe the industry’s problems and solutions in a catchy soundbite? Why is this important, when there are other industries with a much larger footprint? Because, as Maya Angelou is attributed to having said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
From my perspective, getting people to feel the need for action is not the work of the scientist, it’s the work of the musician, writer and artist. As Joe Romm, dubbed “the communicators’ communicator,” shared in his book, How To Go Viral and Reach Millions, “recent brain research has concluded that evolution has wired our brains to think in the narrative. Stories are how we make sense of the world, how we understand our role in it, and how we create meaning in our lives.”
So, we urgently need our storytellers to tell the story of us taking action.
“I Am Woman,” by Helen Reddy, helped galvanize the women’s movement in America. Picasso’s Guernica became a symbol against the barbarity and terror of war following the German bombing of the Basque town in 1937. When we envision the future, we think of utopian and dystopian science fiction. Google and Apple have made billions emulating the tech in Star Trek.
Culture reflects its time, and this is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, so it is inevitable that our visual, performing and literary arts have the power to address it. The question is whether we can address these issues in time to drive meaningful change. During COP26, I was talking with my Glaswegian friend Paul Thomson, formerly of Franz Ferdinand, about how all music is political. Naturally, the same is true of arts and culture in general. To ignore it artistically is to align yourself with those who think keeping business as usual is more important than, well, anything: human life, animal and plant life, cultural treasures, social justice, and so on.
At my favorite panel discussion at COP26, curated by Julie’s Bicycle and including an excellent poem by Xena Edwards, a member of the public mused on the fact that in the West we don’t have many spiritual leaders any longer, and wondered if artists, who observe, comment on and reflect culture, could fill this void. Later that day, I visited the exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in Glasgow, and was moved by a film by indigenous activist Priscila Tapajowara, featuring a shaman in the Brazilian Amazon. The shaman spoke of his role as a spiritual leader, therapist and doctor, and I was inspired to consider how we storytellers might become modern spiritual leaders and help guide society to rewild our minds.
But, of course, to take on this role we creatives must walk the walk. The band Massive Attack has called for government guidelines to reduce the carbon footprint of concert tours. Stella McCartney spoke at several events highlighting the immense carbon footprint of the fashion industry and called for ending the use of animal products, which she says are the biggest carbon culprit. She gave fantastic alternatives, featuring one of her mushroom leather handbags, and called on governments to end tax breaks for animal products, noting her 30 percent import tax would disappear if she included leather in a shipment. My talk was on how the visual arts can transition to more sustainable practices, and how innovative technology can help us do just that.
The good news, according to Börje Ekholm, CEO of Ericsson, is that because we all produce so much waste, a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 is not actually all that hard for many of us. He shared at COP26 that Ericsson has already managed a 70 percent decrease of their carbon footprint, even with a globally distributed staff of 100,000.
The key to success in our storytelling is to strike the right balance: We need to understand the level of seriousness but also have hope.
Apathy is the greatest enemy of our age, along with, as Greta Thunberg put it, the “blah blah blahs.” Systems change is difficult, but this is also an unprecedented opportunity to shake things up and move to a fairer and more just society in which more of us are happier. The pandemic showed us that we can pull together and take drastic action when needed, and progressive outcomes from that emergency include more flexible working and a greater focus than ever before on our mental well-being. Both world wars of the 20th century were, of course, horrible and devastating, but did lead us forward in ways: improved rights and access to jobs for the largest minority (women) and some of our greatest human innovations like antibiotics and the computer.
As veteran British broadcaster and documentary maker David Attenborough put it, “We are, after all, the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on Earth. If working apart, we are a force powerful enough to destabilize our planet. Surely working together, we are powerful enough to save it.” Even more powerful, 88 percent of people who saw Blue Planet, a documentary series about Earth narrated by Attenborough, have changed their lifestyle. It is possible to evoke change that can lead to positive, real-world change.
So, although COP26 did not deliver everything we need for a 1.5°C future, we did take a massive leap in the right direction. Now that we have some solid agreements and plans are taking shape, we need to convert that into action and be the heroes rather than the villains of history.