Is Your Cultural Institution Wavering on its Climate Change Stance?

Health, peace, and education are the foundations for inclusion, equity, and access, all of which foster diverse organizations and communities. These are the building blocks of healthy societies. Those building blocks depend upon a clean, stable, and healthy planet. That healthy planet is critical for creating the society we want, and the society we already believe cultural institutions have a responsibility to create. So why are far too few of us including the planet’s climate in our work? I have a few ideas….

February 2019 presented unprecedented learning opportunities for me. After two conferences, travel to other countries and museums, and meetings with collaborators, I am still distilling the learning into serviceable chunks. After the inundation of ideas, questions, examples, quandaries, challenges, and pressures around how to most effectively leverage the cultural sector in climate action, I know more about how to proceed, am more encouraged that we’re making progress. But. I am painfully aware that many of us are still fighting within our institutions to make any, not to mention an urgent, case for change.

Repeatedly I hear that the first barrier is money. That is mere deflection: the struggle is much broader than that.

Here’s a call-and-response version of the many climate conversations I’ve had recently.

It costs too much money, other sectors have far more money than ours does. Why should we spend money on this?

The finances are a red herring. First costs, premiums, return on investments are part of any change; this is not exclusive to work on climate change.

Lack of funding, real or perceived, is a symptom of the larger confusion over what matters. When we in this field decide that something matters, we fund it. We have funded or are funding ADA, social media, decolonization, inclusion/access/equity/diversity, yet we’re not yet funding climate conversations and actions substantially. Am I right then that we don’t yet think they matter? If so, this is a grave mistake operationally, financially, organizationally, publicly and morally.

Really? Why does it really matter to my institution to address climate change in exhibits, operations or programs?

Because the environment and climate are changing worldwide in a way that seriously threatens a peaceful and healthy life for all humans on this planet – including all the humans who are your staff, volunteers, members, advisors, donors, visitors, peers, vendors, advocates, funders and neighbors.

Why us; why not government and business?

Parts of every sector are changing and have been changing their practice around climate for a decade, but this is a global problem, so it requires a global solution. Everyone and every organization and individual must participate. The alternative is either we don’t make enough change to survive, or you get left behind when others do.

But we have a day-to-day struggle to run our programs and keep open the doors, why do we have to take on this extra burden?

First, we’ve been given much of our money by the public, shouldn’t we use it for public good? Failing to help solve the climate crisis and to protect our institutions from threats is an incredibly poor use of charitable funds.

Second, do you think the companies who have voluntarily made changes continue to find it a burden? “Opportunity” is more like it because they expect longer-term security in resources, income, and market support.

Here’s an example of an opportunity: An historic house in the American Midwest currently provides free water and a chair in the shade to visitors as they wait to tour the historic site. It is a welcoming, thoughtful approach. But. The chairs are molded plastic from a box store and the water is in a single-use plastic bottle. A more sustainable approach that strengthens the site’s brand and connection to visitors is to provide replica benches and chairs based on those on the porch of the historic house (buy some and invite members, guests and businesses to buy others), and provide a pitcher of water with paper or glass cups. The act of pouring the water for yourself and others is a social one, the on-demand water use is less wasteful, and any cup instead of a petroleum-based bottle saves water and petroleum and greenhouse gas production. The site can accomplish the same goals without significant burden yet gain an improved visitor experience. (If you have so many visitors that you cannot provide glasses, maybe you can afford a dishwasher and time to load/unload it).

Why us? Businesses have way more opportunities to change than we do.

Cultural institutions are businesses. We too need security against climate-induced weather events and service interruptions, meanwhile, we have a responsibility to care for our collections, our institution, and our community. Are businesses running themselves into the ground? Neither will you.

Use what you know about strategic planning and just start. Energy is likely your largest budget item after staff, so start there. An energy audit will tell you exactly what to do and what it is likely to cost. Align the audit information with your budget and strategic and capital plans, then get to work. You’ll make better short- and long-term investments that way.

Then talk about your energy changes with the public and peers, make the connection between climate and your mission to educate people and protect knowledge and your own resources. Talking about climate raises awareness, builds familiarity, and is the critical first step to fostering action among those around you.   

Why us when we don’t have the expertise?

When the Internet became a thing and we all needed Web pages, did we have the expertise? What about when social media became a thing, and handicapped accessibility, and decolonization, and inclusion/ diversity/equity/access?

What did we do then and what are we doing now when confronted with new challenges? We learned. We shared with each other, we hired-in talent, we studied, we practiced, we figured it out. We are the creatives and the scientists and the humanists, we ARE the expertise.

Now, I have a “why” for you:

Why isn’t it a priority for members of the cultural sector to protect the health of the place you live in, the humanity we’re part of, and the stuff we collect, preserve, interpret and share? Why the heck isn’t that the trend today?

Before you answer, consider that on a healthier planet we can expect this:

  • Enough healthy food is produced that everyone has access to it
  • wherever people live, the air and water are clean
  • a more stable environment with fewer shocks from climate-exacerbated weather events and resource-scarcity, and with a more stable society better able to cope with and rebound from any shocks more easily
  • an economic shift that creates more jobs and cleaner ones as people work in land and water management, restorative technology and clean energy generation and transport development, and cleaner food production,
  • with more work and better pay and fewer shocks, people have more time and opportunity for activities that strengthen their wellbeing and that of their communities
  • more families can now spend more time with families or support children as they spend more time in school
  • women and girls with educations can contribute to the well-being of their families and communities
  • increased jobs and food and education and well-being mean that the reasons for competition for resources and therefore crime and armed conflict are significantly reduced

So the next time someone asks why should each of our institutions make addressing climate change a priority (not just an activity, but a priority), my answer will be Why not? Health, equity, peace, and education are the foundations for inclusion, equity, and access, all of which foster diverse organizations and communities that are healthier, that can thrive.

A clean, stable, and healthy planet is a trend worth spreading.

Thanks to Henry McGhie for discussing this material with me.

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