A Just Transition Needs Transformational Cultural Strategies

When I first started working at the intersection of culture and a just transition six years ago, a small but growing part of the environmental movement was getting interested in arts and culture. Earth scientists and environmental activists were increasingly frustrated by the insufficient public response to climate change, despite overwhelming evidence about the urgency of action. Cognitive scientists, especially psychologists and sociologists, suggested that the problem was that the impacts were just too slow moving and far off for most people to comprehend, and the data-heavy language of science only compounded the abstraction. So, some in the environmental sector began turning toward culture and storytelling to help make climate change feel more personal, salient, and “emotionally resonant.” The idea was that by speaking to the heart as well as the head, art and culture could motivate people to care more, which would subsequently drive the public and political will for change.

Things are different today, though it may have less to do with the success of any particular advocacy approach and more to do with the progression of climate change itself. Many people now have visceral experiences of what climate change means for them in their place as intense hurricanes, wildfires, hundred-year floods, crop failures, and heat waves become our “new normal.” We are realizing that this existential threat that we’ve been warned about for decades is no longer some other country’s or future generation’s problem to worry about — it’s here, now.

So, people are waking up. And they are scared. A majority of Americans now believe climate change is real (72%) and caused by humans (57%), and a third are “very worried” about how it will impact their own lives. Belief and worry is even greater among people under 35 — regardless of political party, fully three-quarters of young people see climate change as a “serious threat” to their future. “Eco-anxiety” and “climate despair” are on the rise, and a new field of “eco-psychology” has emerged specifically to treat climate-related mental health issues.

And yet — despite a slight slowdown caused by COVID19 — carbon emissions and ecosystem destruction are continuing to skyrocket, keeping us on track to surpass planetary boundaries necessary for human life within a decade. It turns out awareness and worry are not enough to create the change we need.

Meanwhile, there is now an incredible outpouring of creative content and artistic activism focused on the environment, led by Big Green groups and grassroots environmental activists, independent artists and Hollywood alike. However, the majority of climate-focused arts and culture to date has been focused on trying to wake people up, based on the theory that if more people knew and cared, then things would change. The problem is, we now know that this theory of change is wrong.

Culture is powerful, and I believe there is enormous potential for artists and culture to contribute to a just transition — but it is also easy to mistake motion (a proliferation of expressive content) for progress (effectiveness). Those of us working at the intersection of culture and climate face a moral imperative to become more strategic in our understanding of the changes we need, how change happens, and how cultural methods can help. We must go beyond simply trying wake people up to the problem to supporting the process of actually making change. In other words, our cultural strategies must become transformational.

So, what would a transformational approach to cultural strategy look like? I believe it requires recognizing two basic facts.

First, we must recognize that we’re talking about is nothing less than radical transformation of ourselves and society, on both inner and outer levels.

Climate change won’t be solved simply by signing a petition, buying an electric car, using a hashtag, or switching a lightbulb —and that’s part of the problem. Our global economy and consumer way of life is unsustainable on a planetary level and incompatible with justice, and yet decision-makers are unwilling to explore solutions to climate change that might impede economic growth. Truly accepting the reality of climate change means, as journalist Naomi Klein says, being willing to quite literally change everything — what we eat, how we work, where and how we live, how we consume, how and why we travel, our political landscape, and, most of all, the assumptions underlying our economy. On the outer level, addressing our socio-ecological crisis will require coordination of diverse stakeholders (people, nations and sectors) around decisions and actions that are often difficult, unclear, and disruptive to the status quo. On the inner level, it will require a profound shift in worldview and values, including an understanding of ourselves as inseparably interconnected with other people and our natural world. As indigenous scholar Vanessa Andreotti asks, “how can we hospice a dying way of knowing/being and assist with the birth of something new, still fragile, undefined?”

Research shows that when it comes to “wicked” challenges like this, simply believing in the need for change does not automatically lead to change occurring. We have sophisticated mental processes of avoidance and denial to avoid things that conflict with our worldview and identity or that we don’t know how to deal with. Climate change may be the epitome of such a challenge— sociologist Kari Norgaard goes so far as to call it a “cultural trauma.” So, even if we are excited about a more just and sustainable future, which I am, we must acknowledge that parts of the journey to get there will be hard. We must be willing to embrace hard and not let that stop us from going forward.

Secondly, although waking up can happen in an instant, transformation is a process that takes time and effort.

More and more people are getting “woke” around climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality, and the many other interconnected failures of our social, political and economic systems. These awakenings are a crucial ingredient for systems change. But it took us many years to develop and internalize the worldviews, structures, systems, and ways of being we have now, and it will take time and effort to change them. We must understand waking up as just the first step in a journey of transformation. It is a precondition for change, but not the destination.

In every transformational process there is a moment when we have left the shore of the familiar and the old structures have broken down, and yet the new way of being has not yet been established. Anthropologists call this the “liminal” phase where we are “betwixt and between” what was and what is to come. This phase is defined by fear and disorientation, even a loss of our sense of identity. But there is also a powerful creative energy that can be harnessed and directed toward change. In fact, it is a realm of pure possibility. The liminal stage, I believe, is where we are now as a society. One way of understanding the growing phenomena of climate anxiety is that we are struggling to orient ourselves in a world that no longer makes sense according to the old rules and stories, without a clear map of where we are going next.

Far too often, well-meaning activists (including artists and cultural strategists) seek to provoke an “aha” moment and then leave people adrift in liminality. Using the lens of transformation makes it clear that stopping at this stage is insufficient, and perhaps even irresponsible. To move forward in the context of a difficult, confusing, and traumatizing situations most of us need more support and structure.

So, how might culture (in the form of artists, cultural strategists, rituals, creative practices) meet people at this threshold and help us get to the other side of a just transition? There are some essential stages that appear repeatedly across disciplines that study change — anthropology, systems theory, psychology. Below I offer an interpretation of these “post-woke” stages of transformation— feeling and healing, radical imagining, and creating (and iterating) the new. Within each, I suggest ways that arts and culture might contribute.

What excites me, and gives me hope, is that supporting collective transformation is one of culture’s most ancient, essential, and enduring societal roles. All cultures and wisdom traditions have rituals, practices, myths, and guides to help people make sense of and navigate moments of disruption and change. These practices and stories help by grounding us, helping us heal and make meaning, and most importantly keeping us moving through this process.

1. Feeling and Healing

To transition to a more just and sustainable society, we need to be able to first feel, and ultimately heal, the harm our system has caused and continues to cause, especially to poor people and people of color. Our economy relies on “sacrifice zones,” places where resources can be extracted, polluting industries can be located, and people can be exploited for cheap labor. Stopping the harm is the first priority, but it is not enough. Creating spaces for frontline communities to heal, both on their own terms and as part of a larger society-wide process of acknowledgment and reparations, is also necessary if we want to move forward together. If we want the outcome of a healthy society, the process must be healing.

But it isn’t only frontline communities who are harmed by imperialism, racialized industrial capitalism, and neoliberalism. Even among middle and upper-income citizens of the U.S (ostensibly the “winners” in this system) there is a widespread “epidemic of alienation,” manifesting in declining happiness, lack of trust in other people and institutions, social isolation, depression, anxiety, addiction, and obesity. These and other social ills, like gun violence, crippling debt, widening inequality, and deaths of despair are different symptoms with the same cause — a deeply inhumane and alienating economic system that perpetuates inequality and separation by design. Over the past several decades we have become more and more disconnected from each other, from nature, from our bodies and from our own deeper humanity. Climate change is another symptom of this collective trauma — the state of our outer environment reflects this inner wound.

We have to begin to heal our psyches and our communities so that a different consciousness can emerge from which we can create a different future. Otherwise, we are certain to replicate the same kinds of dysfunctions with many of our so-called solutions. As Einstein famously said, you can’t solve a problem from the same mindset that created it. In fact, we are already are seeing perverse false “solutions” emerge from our current mindset: massive renewable energy farms that destroy ecosystems, toxic mining for rare earth minerals for electric batteries, governments and businesses that achieve their “green” goals by exporting their waste and emissions, and eco-fascists who blend their environmentalism with a desire for racial purity and violence.

Finally, we need to find a way to acknowledge and work with the feelings that arise as we begin to let in the full reality of climate change and its implications for our way of life. According to eco-psychologists, feeling depression, anxiety, grief, vulnerability, and/or guilt about the climate crisis is not pathological, but actually a “sane, healthy response.” In fact, it is the repression and denial of these real and appropriate emotional responses to the situation we face (often because we feel like it is the only way we can keep functioning within the system) that compound our anxiety and prevent our decisive action. Seen this way, creating the space and societal permission to allow these feelings is not a sentimental distraction from the “real” work of solving climate change, but a necessary part of the change process.

How can culture help?

Culture is a powerful tool for healing and navigating uncertainty. People have always told stories to help make meaning out of chaos, and interpret and convey moral lessons across generations and communities. Sometimes cultural expression can be the only socially acceptable place to grapple with and process pain. Culture is a way we grieve, as well as how we acknowledge and lift up what we value, what we love, and what we hope to carry forward. It provides languages for the paradoxes and complexities of life, allowing us to express and experience seemingly contradictory things, like joy and pain, at the same time.

For communities that are already experiencing land loss and displacement due to climate change, finding ways to preserve and pass on place-based cultural traditions is urgent. Organizations like the Bayou Culture Collaborative in Louisiana and Re-locate Kivalina in Alaska are helping their communities document and pass on traditional and land-linked life ways as they are forced to resettle. For some communities — including African-American, Native American and immigrant groups in the U.S. — climate change continues and intensifies a historical pattern of disenfranchisement and forced migration. In these instances, cultural practices have long been a lifeline to simultaneously stay connected to tradition and adapt to change. The severe and disproportionate impact that Covid-19 had on these same communities, especially elder culture bearers, only further amplifies the urgent need for cultural healing at this time.

Moreover, to navigate the changes we face ahead in ways aligned with justice, we will need to have empathy and care for one another. The impacts of climate change are not hitting us all equally or at the same time. Addressing climate change will require us to come together and coordinate across ideological and geographical divides. Culture can be another line along which we divide ourselves, but it can also be a way we connect with others and our own deeper humanity, and can be a critical tool for building trust across difference. Artist projects like the Water Bar, which uses storytelling and conversation to engage people with different perspectives on water management, can help nurture relationships and enable people to find common ground. Or Clear Creek Creative which uses participatory theater, storytelling, and shared meals to help their Appalachian community heal from the legacy of coal and activate collective resistance to the fracking industry trying to take its place.

2. Radical Imagining

For a more just and sustainable future we will also need a radical imagination that goes beyond the boundaries of our current socially constructed reality. We must conceive of a new way of living, and living together, that is different in almost every way than what we know or have experienced. There are few rules or guidelines to follow because most of the values that undergird our current society are at the very root of the problem.

Some of the problematic assumptions of our dominant culture include the ideas that land and natural “resources” can be owned, money equals value, growth is always good, and technology can solve any problem. These things that seem like common sense to us have “utterly dumbfounded” people from other cultures. If challenging some of these norms seems impossible, it is because we have so thoroughly internalized them. We relate to our economic and social system as if it were a fixed, inevitable and objective reality, and we are merely living in it. It is only from this perspective that talking about tensions or “trade offs” between the environment and the economy makes any sense. Otherwise, it would be obvious that only the environment has intrinsic reality. And, as labor and climate organizers point out, “there are no jobs on a dead planet.” The late, great Ursula le Guin urged us to remember: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Many movement leaders have embraced the idea that the lack of imagination about how things could be different is one of the biggest barriers to change. In response, the last few years have seen a shift towards solutions-focused communications and disseminating positive visions of what a more just and sustainable future could look like. While visionary ideas can help break the trance of the status quo, inspire hope, and expand the Overton window, selling people on a particular (fantastic) future has some potential pitfalls. First and foremost, addressing the climate crisis is not simply a matter of lifestyle tweaks and techno-fixes that leave the basic features of our way of life and economy untouched. As Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation notes, our insistence on techno-solutions is actually the same old thing, and reflects a profound lack of imagination about how our world could be radically different than it is. Our journey towards a better future will take real work, and there will be challenges as well as pleasant surprises. We need people to be prepared to persevere. As Carlton Turner from Sipp Culture recently said in a panel on Land and Liberation, “Transformational change takes time. It takes a level of patience and consistency that we have not been well-prepared for in our culture. We must learn to be producers of the culture we want to see.”

The truth is that we can not know what the future will be, nor can we control the outcome. So rather than selling an appealing vision of a particular and preferred future (the standard consumer paradigm), what the climate movement most needs is for people to remember and reclaim our ability and our responsibility to re-imagine and re-create our world. We have to remember ourselves not as consumers of change, but as co-creators of it. And we must have the wisdom and the humility to claim the true scope of our human power —which is both more and less than we think.

How can culture help?

Artists are specialists in imagination and have expert skills at rendering creative ideas in tangible and compelling ways. But while artists may be masters of the creative process, imagining our shared future cannot be outsourced to specialists, be they artists, engineers, technologists, or policy makers. To achieve the necessary scale and scope of change, we need creative people power widely distributed across all communities and at all levels, something that organizations like Springboard for the Arts, the Village of Arts and Humanities, Cornerstone Theatre, Arts and Democracy, and the US Department of Arts and Culture are doing by supporting the creative agency of everyday people. We also need to build cultural power — that is, our ability to organize and exercise collective influence to shape and shift society’s dominant narratives and norms and how they manifest in and are replicated by our policies, practices and systems.

Over and over again, we have seen through research and the on-the-ground practice of grassroots groups that people reclaim their imaginative capacity through directly engaging in artistic creation and sharing cultural practices. Even when the activity is “purely” artistic with no overt message — like dancing or making a mural— the simple act of making something new sparks a sense of agency that translates to other areas of life as well. This is one of the reasons why frontline organizers such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, UPROSE, Movement Generation, The Point, and PUSH Buffalo often embed arts and culture in their work for a just transition.

3. Creating (and iterating) the new

We can wake up, heal, and imagine, but ultimately, for a just and sustainable future to become a reality, we have to actually behave in new ways, as individuals, as communities, and as a society. The climate movement has a long-standing debate between individual behavior and systems change advocates. This false dichotomy is a distraction — the truth is we need both, and research shows they are deeply interconnected. Individual actions spark self-persuasion, causing us to become more committed to a cause and take more significant actions, and in aggregate can create new social norms and influence systems directly. We need to reinvent and rebuild our systems and structures so that they embody and reflect different values and mindsets — values and mindsets we may only be able to learn through living into them. In other words, we have to make the road by walking it.

There have been cultures that have known how to live in ecologically and socially harmonious ways in the past (and even some who manage to do so in the present), and we can and should learn from their practices. But there is no example of a society as large, complex, diverse, and globally interconnected as ours that has managed this kind of massive transformation at the speed and scale we need now. This stepping out into the unknown can be challenging and often terrifying. But if there is anything we have learned from the pandemic this last year, it is that we can meet and overcome tremendous challenges, especially if we join with others.

How can culture help?

The creative process is about confidently walking into and through the unknown, again and again, and coming out on the other side with new ideas, new insights and new pathways to pursue. Through active experimentation and iteration, as well as paying attention to subtle feedback from the environment and making adjustments in response, the creative process hones the skills to re-make the world. This is one of the greatest gifts that culture can offer right now, and indeed some artists are embracing a “world-building” role, often in collaboration with their own local communities. Sweetwater Foundation, the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, Cooperation Jackson, Ekvn Yefolecv, Appalshop, Little Tokyo Service Center, Thunder Valley CDC, and Utah Diné Bikéyah are all place-based interventions that seek to reclaim power and establish a way of being that operates according to different values. Many of these are working to re-learn values and practices that are indigenous to the people in the community but were forgotten or eradicated through the colonial process. While the examples above are primarily by and for BIPOC people, addressing climate change will require people of all backgrounds and cultures to re-establish right relationship to the land and their neighbors, which means creating or re-learning cultures of care, interconnectedness and reciprocity. Judith Le Blanc from the Native Organizers Alliance calls this a need for us all to “re-indigenize.”

Often these creative prototypes of new systems and ways of living are small and local, leading some critics to dismiss them as insufficient relative to the scale of the problem. But climate change has global causes and local impacts, so local adaptations might be just what we need to flip the paradigm on its head. As Dayaneni has said, “the scale of the problem does not dictate the scale of the solution. In fact, the scale of the problem is part of the problem.” Moreover, who knows which of these local experiments might carry the seeds of systems change — seeds that can germinate and spread? After all, many aspects of the original New Deal were incubated in local places first. Regardless, they are vital laboratories for living in new ways, shifting consciousness and building a library of possibilities beyond what currently exists.

Conclusion

Adapting to new conditions and remaking society is a process of transformation, but it is also a profoundly creative process. This is one of the reasons why I believe that artists and culture can be particularly helpful in helping us navigate this transition. We need cultural guides, shamans, alchemists, death doulas, healers, priests, teachers, and midwives as well as communicators, agitators, problem-solvers and visionaries.

To play these myriad roles, artists and cultural leaders must be authentically engaging with transformation themselves, on both inner and outer levels. In the words of the late activist Grace Lee Boggs , “in order to transform the world, we must transform ourselves.” Thankfully, there is a growing number of resources for people of all backgrounds to engage with multiple dimensions of transformation, including movement offerings from Movement Generation, AORTA, and People’s Hub, spiritual offerings from Emergence Network and Deep Adaptation, support for cultural organizing and creative activism from Alternate ROOTS, the Center for Story Based Strategy, Julie’s Bicycle’s Creative Climate Leadership and Art and Democracy, and individual teachers like Charles Eisenstein, Prentis Hemphill, Mia Birdsong, Bayo Akomolafe, adrienne maree brown, and Joanna Macy, among many others.

Culture and creative practice allows us to see new truths, feel and heal, connect to each other and the world around us, and empowers us to imagine and make change in our own lives and in the world. It develops our capacity to be both resilient and visionary, able to respond to what this moment is demanding while we create a better future.

Climate change and our adaptation to it will change almost everything about how we live and who we take ourselves to be. While the path ahead of us has no roadmaps, the “post woke” stages of transformation I’ve outlined here — waking up to the truth, feeling and healing, radical imagining and creating the new — might offer a bridge.

This is an updated version of an article commissioned by the Center for Cultural Power. It draws on research and writing supported by Judilee Reed when she was at the Surdna Foundation. Most of this piece was written prior to Covid-19, though some updates were made to reflect the changing context.

Cultural strategist, researcher, and director of Helicon Collaborative.