Culture can drive green recovery

| 6th July 2020
Cellist - We Make Tomorrow
Julie's Bicycle
The cultural sector has been decimated by the Covid pandemic. Yet it should be at the heart of a just and green recovery.

We should be shoring up our poets and musicians, our places and spaces, our communities, and the rich cultures with which this country is blessed.

How profoundly different does the world need to be to protect our life support systems? Nothing less than a radical reset, a system change, is required.

We must look forward when modelling a safe world but also back, to understand the values and assumptions that have stewarded this sorry tale of hubris and destruction.

The structural flaws revealed by Covid-19 and amplified by the Black Lives Matter protests map directly onto climate and nature. Poorer communities have less green space, substandard housing, higher pollution and no money for clean energy, organic food, solar panels.


In fixing those flaws, culture matters. The arts matter. Yet culture is on the brink of collapse.

The disruption to the artistic community because of the pandemic cannot be overstated. Theatres, live music, and other sectors are staring at mass redundancies and the permanent loss of long-established skills and experience. 

Even by the metrics of the day - GDP and GVA - those working in the UK’s fastest growing sector have been left furloughed or abandoned.  The creative and cultural industries contributed £111.7bn to the UK in 2018 (the last year for which figures are available).

We should be shoring up our poets and musicians, our places and spaces, our communities, and the rich cultures with which this country is blessed.

These industries are worth more to the country than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined. Moreover, and unlike many of these other industries, the cultural sector is already demonstrating a commitment to reducing its carbon emissions. 

Countless examples of cultural action on climate and nature already exist, and over the last three months climate justice has been elevated to its proper place. Across the sector, retrofits, energy assessments, and climate and social justice initiatives are building the foundations of the recovery we need. 

Action on culture’s environmental impact is researched and ready to implement, partly because the national arts funding body, Arts Council England, has implemented the world’s largest climate literacy programme for culture since 2012. An economic loss will also be an environmental loss.


Preserving the cultural sector via public funding makes both hard-headed economic sense and a compelling opportunity. Yet the the Government's Cultural Renewal Task Force recognises a need for investment but offers no financial guarantees nor time frames to help the sector back on its feet. It has also remained silent on social justice and the climate and nature crisis. 

Public investment is not a ‘bailout’. Every £1 invested in the cultural sector yields £5 in taxes. Nor is it without net gains, whether financial or environmental.

Under the guidance of Julie’s Bicycle, those National Portfolio Organisations on the Arts Council England Programme have saved £16.5 million and reduced energy consumption by 23 percent since 2012. 

In a scenario where the Creative Industries Federation predicts a combined revenue drop of £74bn for the UK’s creative industries in 2020 the case for immediate investment is clear. Yet the case for green investment, whilst equally clear, is absent from current government consideration. 

In a letter to Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State at DCMS, we outlined the centrality of culture to action on climate and the necessity of recovery programmes that align the cultural sector to net zero requirements and promote biodiversity. In a robust demonstration of the cultural sector’s commitment to those principles, our letter has been endorsed by over 700 leading cultural figures.

The letter outlines a pathway for such investment. It draws on thirteen years of work at Julie’s Bicycle within the cultural sector improving environmental practice and understanding whilst advocating for the necessary changes to avert a climate catastrophe. It also asks that any transition is oriented to justice and fairness.


So, what is to be done?

Prioritisation of so-called shovel-ready actions, such as energy efficiency retrofits, heat networks and community energy projects, should include the creative and cultural sector. Given that 72 percent of adults visited a heritage site in 2018/9 and 50 percent a museum or gallery, these spaces are ideal sites for EV infrastructure for ‘on the go charging’. 

Education must be at the heart of the recovery. The creation of a task force on Green Creative Skills and Curriculum Reform with representation from across government would harness the expertise needed to prepare the future cultural workforce for a green future. The environmental expertise and leadership already in the sector offers a blueprint for such an undertaking.

And recovery must ensure that people who have been excluded or made insecure are properly recognised and represented -we must reach out to freelancers in the sector and to communities that have been systematically discriminated against.

The industrialisation of the global North was contingent on land and labour, much of it stolen from the global South. This history has left a stubborn legacy of systemic racism, inequality and environmental degradation that is grotesquely unfair and is every bit as much a domestic issue as a global one. No lasting change can be achieved without recognition of this exploitation. 


Without a government rescue package the performing arts in this country may well collapse. We need a compelling policy package that builds on the previous commitments and that looks ahead.  We have a responsibility to take the lead in the run up to the delayed COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in 2021.  We must start now. 

Instead of letting the cultural community wither, we should be doing exactly the opposite, shoring up our poets and musicians, our places and spaces, our communities, and the rich cultures with which this country is blessed.

By putting cultural renewal at the centre of a new strategy of green investment, the UK can rejuvenate culture, nature and the values we live by. 

At the time of writing we await a response from the Secretary of State, Rt Hon Oliver Dowden, to our letter. We will continue to press the case for a rapid, just, and green recovery for the cultural sector, for all our sakes.

This Author 

Alison Tickell is the founder and CEO of Julie’s Bicycle, the leading organisation powering climate action across the global cultural community.

Image: Performance at We Make Tomorrow. Ben Darlington, Julie's Bicycle. 

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