ENCATC Interview to keynote speaker Dr. David Throsby
Yesterday we had an interesting discussion about how sustainability is pre-Westernized and how how can we think of sustainability beyond this Western perspective…
This is a very interesting matter and it is one that I do a lot of work at the moment with indigenous people in Australia, Aboriginal people. Their whole notion of sustainability is the same as the notion of sustainability for indigenous people all around the world, which is different from the Western view of sustainability. In fact, we have written a paper on a comparison between indigenous and non-indigenous concepts of sustainability (can be found in the journal of General Cultural Property). Because Australia is what I know best, but that would be the same in Canada and in South America, and probably in parts of Africa as well, where notions of sustainability are quite strong.
In the case of Australian Aboriginal people, their notion of sustainability is entirely built up in terms of their relationship with land. They have a very close spiritual connection with land and so it is all bound up with narratives of creation, the creation stories which they call “the dream time stories”. All the different components of nature, whether it is a mountain, a stream with some water or the stars, these are all connected in some way to this notion of the creation of the world and the place of people in it. And from that comes the language and the law that governs the ways in which they use the land. In the case of Australian Aborigines, they have been unchanged for 60,000 years, being the longest continuous civilisation or culture in one place for anywhere in the world. And they still have this notion of sustainability. This paper that I mention is called “Sustainability Concepts in Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Cultures”, has been carried out by myself and my colleague Ekaterina Petetskaya. We are the joint authors of this paper. We compared those notions of sustainability and the intrinsic qualities of the land and the ways in which people relate to the land with the contemporary notion of sustainable development as developed through the various Western processes (the Brundtland Report and other commissions), which have developed into the notions of sustainability we work with nowadays.
Governments which are trying to promote the notion of sustainability have to do this now in the Western context and have to do this within the context of the ways in which Western economies work and Western culture works, I suppose, but certainly Western economies. And so the notion of sustainability is still bound up, although it has very deep and important connections with the biosphere, with the environment and the management of the environment and the integration of the economy, the environment and the society as being the holistic system. Nevertheless, our observation is that it tends to be guided more or have a stronger emphasis on progress and development rather than sit steady state sustainability, as it is the case in indigenous societies. The notion of a society which is self-sustaining but not necessarily growing, but the notion of growth is very entrenched in the western concepts of sustainability and that is the difference that we talk about.
And when we take this notion, because you were saying when talking about environmental sustainability it is the first thing that comes out, but when it comes to cultural organizations or part of the cultural management programs it is more about surviving, continuing to survive in an economical way.
Sure, I mean sustainability is this sort of strange word because it gets used in many different ways and with many different nuances and different meanings. The notion of sustainability is connected with survival as you said. However, I think it is more than that, of course. In fact, I think that when we talk about sustainability of culture and sustainability of cultural organizations, we are really talking about economic sustainability, social sustainability, environmental sustainability and cultural sustainability and those four dimensions for sustainability are all important for culture in the large and in the complete notions of culture. But also when you narrow them to cultural institutions, it is essentially the same thing. Cultural institutions have to be aware of their economic sustainability, of the social sustainability, the ways in which they are contributing to the sustainability of the society, social cohesion, etc.. In societies where they have done environmental increasing, cultural organizations are becoming conscious of their environmental sustainability.
All over the place, museums and galleries, theatre companies are all much more conscious now than they ever were that they themselves have to set an example for environmental sustainability. And certainly very important is the sustainability of culture itself. And I look at that in the context of cultural capital (in the economic sense, not the sociological sense) and not only cultural capital, but also how that has to be preserved and maintained for future generations. The notion always in sustainability is that of future generations and the importance of the long term, whether survival or even well, I don’t know whether I would say growth. I mean when talking about sustainable development some people are uncomfortable with the word “development” because it sounds a bit too much like the thought that it is still linked to this notion of growth.
And that is where we learn from the indigenous people. That is what our paper suggests. We learned from them that there are ways in which we could modify the Western model of sustainable development to be more aware of the sort of things which underlie the indigenous models. We have not actually compared them very directly with, say Canadian indigenous people, but there are some references in that paper too to other indigenous people and not many people look at this, but some other people have looked at notions of sustainability in other indigenous First Nations cultures. And it is essentially the same. It is very interesting that they should be the same because they grew up separately… I mean, the Australian experience is completely separate. And there have been separate cultures and separate continents for 60,000 years.
And about these four pillars of social, environmental, economic and cultural dimensions, do they necessarily go together? For instance, there are now some sort of consultancy companies when applying for European projects which help you to put the environmental perspective into your application. But afterwards, as an individual and as an organization, it is very difficult to be 100% coherent to all those patterns. So, how do these dimensions connect to each other and to what extent are they interdependent? Can you be environmentally sustainable as a cultural organization, but not socially sustainable?
I think it would be contrary to the concept of sustainability to think about all the dimensions separately, as if you can have one without the other. I mean the whole concept of sustainability is a holistic system. That was the first thing we learnt from the World Commission on Environment and Development back in 1984, or 1987, when they presented the report “Our Common Future”, which was the first time that the whole concept of sustainability and sustainable development had been articulated so clearly as a full system. And this is because they were looking at the fact that poverty in the world, the lack of development, the increasing gap between rich and poor countries was due to environmental exploitation and they were not only concerned about just tipping waste into the sea or into the atmosphere.
Economists have done the same thing because I mean, there was a specialisation in Economics since the 1960s called Environmental Economics, which was looking at how to deal with things like pollution, and it was all done on the basis that the economy was the central thing and the pollution was just a nuisance that had to be fixed up so that the economy could work better. But there is now a much newer and more relevant area of Economics, Ecological Economics, which puts economics within the context of the biosphere, the ecology. And that includes the social context as well as the environmental context.
About the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), you consider them a big failure for the cultural sector since culture was not included as an objective…
Yes, that was a big disappointment for the cultural sector, of course, because there was a big push by UNESCO and by the other international cultural organizations to have a specific goal about culture, but that did not happen. And culture now in the SDGs is only very minor. My own argument in relation to that is that in some ways it doesn’t matter too much because the SDGs are just goals, aspirations and targets rather than obliging governments to do things. I think that the 2005 Cultural Diversity Convention is a much more important instrument in the international sphere, because if a country signs up to that convention, then they take on certain obligations in relation to it, including sustainable development and how culture is and has to be part of that. It was disappointing that the rest of the world did not see culture quite in the same way as we would like it to be seen, but in the end, it may not matter so much, perhaps.
What do you think have been the main developments in this relation between culture and sustainability in the last years and which are the main challenges that cultural organizations are facing now and will or may face in the coming years with regards to sustainability?
Everything now is being affected by the digital revolution, of course, so I think that cultural organizations just like any other organizations are really having to work hard to update themselves to adapt to the new environment, to utilize its advantages. And we have only started within this path, we don’t know yet what the impact of social media will be on cultural consumption, cultural production or cultural and social attitudes. We are starting to get some indications, which is really good because we are increasing connection between artists and people and there is a lot of intercultural dialogue that goes on through web.
But at the same time, there is are downsides, like the spread of fake news, for example, on the social media, which is something we don’t seem to be able to control and which can be manipulated and used and can be very dangerous. So I think in a way it is a bit too early to make predictions as far as cultural organizations are concerned. I think it is really a question of being absolutely alert to both the positive and the negative, and being very aware that the environment is changing very rapidly. And so cultural organizations like some of the art of museums or galleries that have been the same from year to year, for the last hundred years, now are starting to wake up and realize it is not going to work anymore like that.
Last question: we did not talk much about the connection between diversity and sustainability, while culture and the cultural sector very often deals with diversity. It is always a concern how to deal with diversity and how to be inclusive. How can the cultural sector contribute to this diversity contributing to sustainability?
I guess that the connections can be quite complex and it is not as if there is some obvious answer to that question. So if I had to be clear, I would probably say that the thing in relation to the way that culture can contribute to sustainability is probably through intercultural dialogue, through the notion of communication, cultural communication. This includes not just to the sustainability but also to peace in the world. I am involved with the peace economists group in America, called “Economists for Peace and Security” (EPS USA), which has branches all around the world, and in particular we have a chapter in Australia. But it is worth having a look to how economics can be used for peaceful purposes and it is very much opposed to the notion of building up of arms races and the international arms trade and so on.
But to come back to the point in relation to sustainability and diversity, I think intercultural dialogue is such a strong means of breaking down barriers between people, increasing understanding, etc., which we need in order to reduce conflict, and in due course contribute to the goals of sustainability, which have to do with quality of life and communal wellbeing and all the things which are in the SDGs (improve health, improve education, etc.). So they are all there. I mean, one would not want to criticise the stage. They are all very worthy. But there is no formal obligation there and I think that international conventions are often more powerful as means of knowing people’s attention to these things.