Peacebuilding and the Arts

2021 Learning Exchange

A drawing of 2 hands holding the world"Hands" by Georg Engeli, 2021

Culture and/as Sustainability: Overview

 by Ameer Shaheed, Learning Exchange team member 


IMPACT, a global network strengthening the field of Arts, Culture, and Conflict Transformation (ACCT) has been organizing Learning Exchanges (LEs) since 2018. These consist of online conversations taking place across the worldwide ACCT ecosystem, connecting and fostering exchanges. This year's discussion took place Nov. 2 and 4, 2021. The theme was "Culture and Sustainability," and invited participants to explore culture not as a mere addition to or a separate dimension of sustainability, but as "a necessary foundation for meeting the overall aims of sustainability." (Soini and Dessein 2016)[1] The premise was that we are living in a time beset by systemic challenges affecting humanity and the planet; these challenges are linked to a dominant global culture that is inherently unsustainable. The changes we need require major transitions that comprise a paradigm shift away from the dominant, underlying "culture of unsustainability" to a "culture of sustainability."

Alongside the core IMPACT team, a number of co-conveners helped organize and facilitate the conversation. This included Hans Dieleman, Vikram Iyengar, Mike Van Graan, the Community Arts Network, +Peace and the European Youth Parliament for Water

The event took place on Platform4Dialogue. To increase inclusiveness and coverage, two separate conversations were held around the same topics, one in Spanish and the other in English. Overall, 213 participants joined the Spanish language discussion, sharing 466 comments. The English language platform saw 219 participants in total, generating 557 comments. Participants registered from over 70 countries and had a wide range of affiliations, from grassroots organizations working in the ACCT field, individual artists and consultants, to academics working in the sustainability and/or ACCT fields, members of institutions involved in sustainability and international development, and organizations involved in funding or promoting cultural initiatives. 

The discussion was organized into four different topics, each one taking place on a different discussion board.

  • Topic 1 was entitled "A Paradigm Shift." It invited participants to discuss whether they see a new paradigm coming into being today, following the last major shift, which was linked to the philosophical, scientific, and industrial revolutions that created the modern era. Participants could explore what the new paradigm consists of, how these transformations play out in their communities, and the role of culture.
  • Topic 2 delved further into the transitions that are taking place today to form a new zeitgeist, focusing on the obstacles, challenges, paradoxes and polarities that are apparent in such transitions.
  • Topic 3 explored the emerging understandings, approaches, and visions of the future that are brought to bear in this transition.
  • Topic 4 aimed to discuss actions, present and future, that speak to the role of culture and sustainability, while also making special mention of the youth as key players in the action for the future, and climate change as one of the preeminent issues of sustainability. All of the topics invited participants to underline the role of the ACCT sectors in addressing these issues.

The conversation

The conversations followed an organic path across the four topics, inspired by the introductions and questions set forth in each discussion board, and saw the emergence of several key points. Below is a selection of key points that came across to the author after several readings of the English language discussion boards. They were shared with the core IMPACT team, who concurred with them while noting that additional points were to be found. Forthcoming work emerging from the LE will seek to do better justice to the richness of the conversation.

The role of the arts and cultural sectors in creating a culture of sustainability

Engaging with and in the arts invites different forms of paying attention and modes of knowing than we are accustomed to in everyday life, considering both our inner and outer worlds. This may be an important feature of the paradigm shift that is needed, as a major feature of dominant modern thinking and problem-solving is an overemphasis on rational reasoning, with its dualistic way of framing issues, materialistic outlook, and problem-solving processes that rely on reductionism. Several participants addressed roles that the ACCT ecosystem can play in addressing the changes needed for a more sustainable, equitable and balanced future. 

  • Providing an essential counterbalance to the current era's dominant ways of understanding, attending to, and working in the world.
  • Inviting other ways of connecting to issues such as climate change, beyond rational reasoning, and including the importance of connecting to these issues with our hearts and emotions.
  • Nurturing the imagination, helping us come up with creative and sustainable solutions,
  • Using the imaginative ability to dream of new possibilities, and depict the future we want in an emotionally compelling way. On the other hand, it is also important to depict the present and future we must avoid, and to do so in a manner that resonates with us in a deeper way than disembodied facts do.

There was critique of mainstream modern capitalism, the dominant philosophies that uphold it (overemphasizing rational reasoning, dualistic Cartesian thinking, categorical "things" as opposed to "processes," Western-focused perspectives, etc.), and the major social, psychological and environmental discontents related to this approach.

Participants explored whether a culture of sustainability could be born within the current dominant system, or required openly working outside of it. A range of views were shared along this spectrum, from working completely outside in a radical way and supporting more radical grassroots changes, to sustainability initiatives operating from within. The conversation also addressed how the arts and culture sectors should live in accordance with the change that they want to see in the world by implementing reforms in their own institutions. 

People identified several areas that needed greater emphasis in society, and which could contribute to the culture of sustainability we seek. These included:

  • A greater connection to the Earth and Nature, including ecological principles.
  • More emphasis on interdependence and interconnectedness between the individual and society, between systems, between the human world and the rest of Nature.
  • Listening deeply, particularly to views that are different from one’s own.
  • Integrating traditional and Indigenous knowledge, perspectives and culture into the emerging culture of sustainability. Aspects of traditional cultures from all over the world can be important sources of wisdom, while being mindful to avoid the errors of movements that glorify the past in a divisive manner, such as those seen in right wing conservative circles. Participants underlined the wisdom in Indigenous cultures from across the world and how they naturally espoused sustainability and interdependence. One key aspect was their relationship to Nature with its greater ecological awareness and respect along with sustainable approaches to consumption and production. The other aspect was philosophical traits that differ from Cartesian dualism, focusing more on relationality (one participant mentioned Included Third Logic), which do not focus as much on opposites and separations and allow for more complex pictures of the truth (which may seem paradoxical when viewed through a purely logical lens).
  • A greater role for the youth and education.
  • One of the major ways to change cultures is working with the younger generations, both within and outside of the formal education system. Participants underlined the importance of education that gave more space to the arts and culture, and other non-traditional approaches that provide a more holistic way of addressing and relating to sustainability.
  • Feedback from younger people in the conversation underlined the feelings of frustration they felt towards the older generation’s approach to the climate crisis, ranging from outright denial and exacerbation to over-cautious, reluctant, and unenergetic responses.
  • A greater role for the elderly, including the bridge between the elderly and the young, and the integration of the collective wisdom in this group. This is particularly important in light of demographic shifts in higher income nations with growing elderly populations that are mostly sidelined and isolated from the rest of society.
  • Integrating the previous points on the importance of connecting to issues with the heart and the mind, combining rational reasoning with other modes of awareness and creative thinking.

Going forward

Several participants noted the importance of spaces and initiatives that empower connection, conversation and multisectoral collaboration in the space integrating ACCT with other sustainability initiatives (including science, education, politics, etc). Activities such as the LE were seen as positive steps in this direction.

Participants highlighted several existing initiatives, including their own projects. Many voiced an interest in connecting after the LE and potentially collaborating in the future. Those identified in the English language LE can be found listed here

All told, the LE successfully brought together people from across the globe into conversation. IMPACT, their co-conveners and partners will take stock of their findings, and carefully consider how to build upon this year’s LE and the follow-up activities that could take place. 

Selection of quotes from the English language LE

The role of the arts and culture sectors

"I'm thinking that many different forms — poetic works, visual works, musical works (perhaps especially those that operate without language) — are resources for us to practice the "muscle" of imagining new worlds. This is how human creativity works, right? First we make things up, and then we make them real." — Cynthia Cohen

"[Sometimes] the arts can continue operating within and [perpetuating] the system [they are] criticizing...I wonder about what the arts may need to sacrifice in order to truly be in alignment with the culture of sustainability that some [art] aspires to evoke." — Emily Forsythe Queen

"We've touched on the possibilities of art-making (not only of an imagined future but also to bring into focus the bitter reality we are facing now); and also on education, the economy, and reimagining the relationships between humans and the natural world." — Cynthia Cohen

Critique of the current culture and the changes that are needed for a more sustainable culture:

"I think…a lot of the problems we are facing come from the way humans are conditioned to think: our brain/mind divides things into categories, where one thing is opposed to the next. This is Hegelian/Platonic (etc.) dialectic logic. So 2 things are opposed to each other (e.g., better/worse, yes/no, black/white, good/bad, subject/object, etc.) rather than existing in parity. The way to make change is to upturn how we think, and lay out a flat plane of immanence (df. Deleuze and Guattari, French philosophers), where everything exists on the same level - a proliferation of difference… The only way I have found to initiate this change is through the aesthetic experience, i.e. engaging with art. When we make art, or engage with art, we have the subject (ourselves) and the object (the art) — and the dichotomy/opposition dissolves in the pure sensuous experience of interacting and being with art." — Lorna Collins

"We must decrease our consumerism and learn to live with less. We almost must be less focused on individual rights and more on collective rights. We need to clearly connect rights to responsibilities… There is no consideration for how one's actions affect others and what is one's responsibility as a member of society to others based on an unspoken social contract. Thus, there is a need for attitude/value shifts from the personal to the collective and an openness to recognize the other as a neighbor who needs to be considered. —Christine Vertucci

"Living a zero waste lifestyle; giving up cars; organizing for renewable energy use in our communities; giving up (or radically reducing) flying; planting butterfly gardens; planting native species; planting trees." — Monica Raymond

"While we have the reputation as the most politically active generation, I believe that this is because we are the most desperate. I wish I saw as many adults my parents/grandparents' age advocating for a sustainable future, but the truth is that their future isn't at stake. It's discouraging to see older people care so little about an issue that affects our livelihood." — Lily Lawrence

"Going beyond the conceptualisation of art as just communication, and instead creating transdisciplinary linkages in the curriculum, with a focus on involvement 'in,' 'with' and 'through' arts. This may involve including art 'in' the climate change curriculum, teaching art 'with' other disciplinary concepts, and teaching 'through ' art (using participatory methods)." — Juliet Oduor

"Besides taking into account the privileges of time, resources, and access, we should factor in power relationships, racism, classism, and cultural shame. Sometimes even well intentioned interventions can reinforce structural violence and silence local forms of admiring 'the beauty of the world.' That said, I totally agree that art and culture are keystones to build a world in which many worlds coexist as the Zapatistas put it." — Thor Morales

How to imagine the future from within the present moment, and what actions can help:

"How can we possibly imagine our future while embedded in our existing culture and narratives?" is a tough question to even begin to answer on our own as any answer will come from that culture or those narratives. It's why exchange and connection points like this are so deeply important. They allow us to imagine together. The answer lies for me somewhere in that process of exchange — we use that process of examining and understanding them to find ways forward (or backward — "progression" isn't always positive) — what do others think? What other solutions do others have?" — Thom Louis 

[1] Soini K,Dessein J  Culture-Sustainability Relation : Towards a Conceptual Framework. Sustainability 2016, 8(2), 167;

Read Carmen Olaechea’s Thoughts on Culture and Sustainability exploring paradigm shift, interdependence and the need for action for sustainability.