Yearly Archives: 2008

Pessimism, optimism, pt 2

After hearing the latest news about the increasing rate of Arctic melt, Bibi van der Zee burst into tears.  She wonders whether it’s time to give up. Conventional social wisdom says that bad news does not make people act. Maybe she’s an example of that.

The current poll question on the RSA Arts & Ecology page, posed by Gemma Lloyd,  is, Are apocalyptic facts more effective in motivating people to change than positive messages? As it stands, the voting is Yes 52%, No 40% and undecided 8%.

Photo: Museo Aero Solar, by Tomas Saraceno, as mentioned by matthew here. A more heart-lifting artistic act of collective intervention.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Blog

Pessimism, optimism, pt 1

There is a massive gulf between what we now know about climate change and what we’re prepared to do about it. There’s a phrase that people use at the RSA to describe the difference between what we say we want to do and what we actually do; researchers here talk about the social aspiration gap.

I caught up with this post from Bill McKibben on Grist yesterday, about Al Gore’s speech at Poznan. McKibben was there to observe and to proselytise for, the campaign to hold the allowable limit for atmospheric CO2  concentrations at 350 parts per million.

This figure is based on research by NASA scientist James Hansen’s paper released in April this year which concluded baldly: “If humanity
wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and
to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate
change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at
most 350 ppm.”

Recent research – including new reports that the thawing of Arctic permafrost is already releasing methane quantities that suggest warming feedback is already galloping away – is not  particularly good news for the UN process leading up to COP15 at Copenhagen next year. The world’s political machinery is already having a very hard time dragging reluctant governments to the target of between 445 and 535ppm, numbers which this newer research says are way too high. Our current idea of civilisation is unstustainable at the targets that the UN is already struggling to meet.

McKibben writes about the mixture of euphoria and despair, pessimism and optimism, in the response to Gore’s speech:

And then, on the last day of the talks, Al Gore gave his speech,
which drew everyone into the main conference hall. It was a good talk,
but by far the longest and loudest applause came when he formally
announced the new reality. “Even a goal of 450 parts per million, which
seems so difficult today, is inadequate,” he said, adding that we “need
to toughen that goal to 350 parts per million.” People erupted —
probably not the Chinese and American delegations, and definitely not
the Saudis and the Russians, but all the people who’d spent the last
few years struggling with the idea that their work was getting
increasingly off-the-point. It was a way of saying: We’ve been engaged
in saving the treaty, not saving the world — and we’d rather save the

Currently, projections of CO2 emissions for this century put the world at somewhere in the region of 680ppm. In RSA-speak, we’re looking at a quantifiable social aspiration gap of a whopping 680-350= 330ppm.

Photo: Villagers threatened by flooding in Munshiganj, Bangladesh, 2007. Photo courtesy of the Canary Project which uses photography and artwork to help visualise the consequences of human-induced climate change to stimulate people to action.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Blog

Art, peak oil and imagining the future

David Cross of Cornford and Cross writes on the RSA Arts & Ecology website today about how he believes the rules of artistic engagement are about to change :

As producers of visual culture, our moments of autonomy can be
frustratingly elusive. We must inform and persuade, and appeal to both
reason and emotion if we are to replace passive spectatorship with
conscious action. But in the market, attention is finite, and the
demands on our audiences’ time are many. Even our most original and
radical messages are assembled from borrowed fragments and framed by
preconceptions. To be meaningful, they must be palatable to audiences
accustomed to more familiar narratives.

Following established procedures can bring acceptance, and conforming to received ideas is often well
rewarded. But now the cheap oil is gone and the climate is badly
damaged; we are entering a new era. Though the nature of the coming
risks cannot be exactly predicted, a safe bet is that their reach,
scale and variety will demand many different responses. We cannot
prepare for all the uncertainties and surprises ahead, so diversity
offers a better chance of success than centralization and uniformity.
Besides, experiments are more interesting than blueprints…

Of course it is vital that visual communication is used to promote a
massive reduction in consumption. But if society is to adapt in time,
the issue is no longer simply about raising awareness. Rather, it is
about developing more radical ideas and alternatives. In
addition to producing aesthetic and contemplative experiences,
contemporary art and design should test concepts, assumptions and
boundaries in everyday life, and imagine new ways — material and
intellectual — of going about the world.

More here.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Blog


Marc Quinn reimagines Santa for The Guardian. “Santa is usually seen as an old man, but I imagine him as having a one-year lifespan. Every January 1 he’s reborn as a baby, in an eternal cycle”.

See also the contributions from Bob and Roberta Smith, Polly Borland and Gillian Wearing’s Disgraced Santa of Selfridges.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Blog

Green is the New Peach: Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit

The green economy is ready for take-off, and most Americans are jumping aboard Obama’s sustainable bandwagon. Will theaters join in the movement?  Imagine that you’re a non-profit arts organization competing for funding in a sector where financial resources are quickly dwindling. And that you’re based in a major American city plagued by drought and situated within a community that has just begun to realize its role in our growing environmental movement.

When Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, GA embarked on a search for a new home in 2003, the company settled on the building right next door.  Its new facility was formerly one of Atlanta’s most cherished restaurants, Herren’s. Theatrical Outfit’s use of the space is inherently green, in that it utilizes an existing space for the new building; but the restaurant-turned-theatre also carries rich historical and social meaning.  Herren’s was the first restaurant in Atlanta to voluntarily desegregate, and in fact, the first African-American couple to dine at Herren’s are now Theatrical Outfit subscribers. The building’s rich history matches Theatrical Outfit’s mission to present work indigenous to the culture of the American South. I can’t think of a better setting to tell stories of Atlanta’s past, present, and future than in a space that was once a leader in progressive social interaction among Atlanta’s important cultural groups.

Once Theatrical Outfit decided upon their new space at Herren’s, they were approached by a local donor who had been funding various green building projects throughout Atlanta. Theatrical Outfit voiced their commitment to explore green building to the anonymous funder, who was donating through the Kendeda Fund. Along with the anonymous donor’s $1 million dollar pledge, a gift of $1.4 million from two board members enabled the company to purchase the old restaurant. A three-year capital campaign raised the additional funds toward the $5 million required to build green. When the Balzar Theatre at Herren’s opened in December 2004 it was America’s first LEED-certified theatre. The building has earned a LEED Silver rating and the company’s management staff was able to keep their promise to the anonymous donor.

Locally supplied materials and recycled content constitute approximately 33% of the total material cost of the building. Additionally, all adhesives, sealants, paints, coating and carpets emit low or no volatile organic compounds. For example, the building’s carpeting was made from recycled glass. More than 75% of the demolition and construction waste, by weight, was diverted from the landfill.

The theatre utilizes a HVAC system that provides clean (and quiet) air to the facility by measuring the amount of carbon dioxide expelled by the audience, bringing in more fresh air as required, so the audience does not become oxygen-deprived and stays comfortable. Patrons using Theatrical Outfit’s restroom facilities will find light sensors, low-flow toilets and waterless urinals (with signage educating patrons about the purpose of the devices). Rainwater collected on the roof in a 7500-gallon tank is used in place of fresh water for toilet and sewage systems.

When purchasing concessions, patrons do not receive a plastic bottle or aluminum can. Instead, Theatrical Outfit serves soft drinks out of 2-liter bottles which are then recycled when empty. The City of Atlanta doesn’t pick up materials for recycling, so the company has developed an on-site recycling center where items are separated and transported to a local recycling conversion center. Additionally, patrons are encouraged to recycle their programs at the end of each performance.

Located in between two nearby public rail stations and with two county bus systems dropping off patrons directly in front of the facility, Theatrical Outfit was able to thrive in a time when rising fuel prices kept many Atlanta citizens from attending cultural programming. With a staggering person-to-car ratio, many in metropolitan Atlanta still view the act of driving into the city as part of the greater theatrical experience. The staff at Theatrical Outfit is exploring ways to increase patrons’ use of public transit, especially with the nearby downtown revitalization that enables safe, convenient mass transit options. Staff at the Balzar are already working toward reducing their own car travel, thanks to bicycle storage and shower and changing facilities for bicycle commuters.

The management team has further helped their employees reduce car transit by instituting a monthly “Green Day”, when staff are encouraged to work from home and save the round trip drive into downtown Atlanta. The Green Days are planned around holidays and breaks in the organization’s programming. On each Green Day, the building’s heating and cooling are turned off to further increase energy savings. The organization’s Green Days have been a cost-saving hit with management and staff. When they are working on-site, the administrative office space is built with massive windows to utilize daylight, with personal lighting at work stations to decrease energy normally utilized for overhead lighting.

Theatrical Outfit’s artists have commented on the positive benefits of working in a green theatre. For example, skylights in the company’s rehearsal hall, which help save on energy costs, provide actors a much-needed connection to the natural world outside. Accounting for efficient lighting when building the new space has led to a 25% reduction in energy use compared to comparable structures.

Building green enabled the marketing team to pursue additional public relations opportunities beyond the simple arts feature stories and production reviews. The increased exposure the theatre has received from local newspapers, national arts organizations, green building websites, and curious eco-artists has helped quadruple their subscriber base in a period of only three years. Thanks to local colleges and universities, as well as a successful $10 student ticket program, the company is seeing its audience trend younger each season. With a majority of young Americans identifying themselves with green living, arts organizations who present works in green spaces may beat out the competition. With 118 theatre companies in Atlanta, any edge (green or otherwise) is crucial. 

The majority of Theatrical Outfit’s programming deals with issues of civil and social rights. While the company doesn’t necessarily seek out plays and musicals that explore green living, they certainly look for opportunities to educate patrons about local ecological issues. During the company’s fall production of “Big River”, the company provided information about Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a local non-profit dedicated to preserving the most heavily used water resource in Georgia. Theatrical Outfit is a shining example of a forward-thinking theatre positioned ahead of the curve to ride out this current wave of fiscal and ecological uncertainty.


“Green News” at Theatrical Outfit’s website’s overview of the Balzer Theater

The Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Building Technologies Program overview of the Balzer

“Visions of vibrancy come to life downtown” in the Atlanta Business Chronicle


Go to the Green Theater Initiative

Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions. by Matilsky, Barbara C

Fragile Ecologies was a travelling exhibition that focused on activist, environmentally oriented art, and the role of artists as agents of change. It brought together material documenting the work of a dozen ecology-minded artists, or artist groups, working in diverse environments and situations.
Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Reading List

Europe, Globalisation and Sustainable Development. by Baxter, Brian

This book explores whether Europe can produce a sustainable future and the difficulties presented by globalisation. Focusing on politics and policy, this edited volume considers the ways in which European states and the European Union can and should organize themselves economically and socially in order to address the challenges of sustainable development.
Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Reading List

Making ‘People-Friendly’ Towns: Improving the Public Environment in Towns and Cities by Tibbalds, Francis

Francis Tibbalds provides a new philosophical approach to the problem of urban environments and town planning, suggesting that places as a whole matter much more than the individual components that make up the urban environment such as buildings, roads and parks.
Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Reading List