The film “Don’t Look Up” (2021) directed by Adam McKay with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence tells the story of two astronomers attempting to warn humanity about an approaching comet that will destroy human civilization. The work aims to set the alarm bells ringing on our collective indifference to the climate crisis and to criticize governmental, political and media’s apathy in the face of scientific warnings. It shows the ability of art to convey messages in a more powerful way than scientists or environmental advocates because a film has a better capacity to reach out to an international audience in a universal language. This matters as media have an agenda-setting effect where people tend to assign greater importance to topics that receive more media coverage (known as “issue attention”). The film’s success underscores the meaningful role the arts play in portraying alternative imaginings of the impact of ecological disasters. It encourages the audience to react against cynicism, injustice and greed as well as to challenge public disengagement examining events with a critical eye and by calling for international action against indifference. Moreover, the artistic vision enables the expression of value-based narratives that build on human’s capacity to empathize and behave with altruism.
The new world challenges imply a better understanding between its inhabitants to create the conditions of a common future. This adventure requires national and ethnic prejudices to be overcome so that a common space where various cultures find their place can be built. The role of culture, and its representatives in cinema, music, literature, fashion is to imagine this future beyond the economic and technological perspectives, to give it humanism, meaning and spirit as well as to trigger forces of change.
Artistic contribution is essential at a time when unsustainable human activity is threatening the foundations of life on earth. The environmental dangers are well known: climate change due to greenhouse gas emission and less biodiversity with more than 1 million animal and plant species threatened with extinction. Technological progress in genetics, artificial intelligence, data processing and digital communication are challenging human values and ethics, cultural diversity as well as the democratic model of governance. With the emergence of pandemics, Covid-19 having killed, as of today, millions of people in the world and infecting hundreds of millions, billions of individuals shared a common painful experience, a prelude of more to come.
We know the origin of these global challenges. They encompass our unsustainable industrial, agricultural and economic activities with energy production responsible for 75% of greenhouse emission in Europe but also the misuse of technological progress. They also stem from a poor appreciation of our interdependence as humans living on a single planet, the lack of collective empathy and solidarity to act together as well as individual behaviours leading to over-consumption, poor waste management and our perception of nature as a disposable good. At the same time wars and conflicts, are dividing countries and nations in antagonistic blocks threatening further the capacity to act collectively against existential threats.
The Covid-19 crisis has shown that humans across the planet are facing the same issues. Global challenges are the opportunity to confront our ability to cooperate and as a result our capacity to survive.
Culture, notably through rituals, celebrations and performances is a strong trigger of universal emotion (fears, angers, happiness, pride or desire), which in turn drives motivation to do things and guide our thoughts and decisions. Artists and cultural workers can play an important role in generating the collective will to act and the solidarity required to address global challenges. The cultural world is already internationally oriented with its collaborative and networked way of functioning. This paper argues that it should be invited to contribute to fight apathy and to create the foundation for intercultural collaboration.
It should be acknowledged that the capacity of scientific and technological progress to safeguard and improve living conditions is closely related to development in parallel to cultural progress that nourishes humanity’s values, aspiration, cohesion and conscience. Culture is of extraordinary importance today, and of necessity as it shapes values. Responding to global challenges requires a new vision whilst we are still looking backwards and using yesterday’s terms, prejudices, myths, values and narratives.
This blog stems from research work undertaken at the request of the Council of Europe in summer 2021 to propose and coordinate the work on the drafting of a Recommendation on culture to help address global challenges. The recommendation, which can be found here, was adopted on 20.5.2022 in Turin.
Culture to impact behavioural changes and technological innovation
Ecological issues, notably climate change and the loss of biodiversity, have strengthened the growing awareness of the need to transform our individual behaviours (less consumerist, greedy, less polluting, more responsible) to support sustainability objectives. The historical root of biodiversity’s tragedy is eminently cultural with the Bible (Genesis 1:28) granting humanity the right to use nature at will. The situation implies a cultural reset acknowledging the interdependency between people and nature with a common understanding of the importance of our individual ecological footprint. It also requires our appreciation of the need to safeguard our cultural and natural heritage and the recognition that culture and the arts are key for the quality of life and well-being.
Innovation and technology advancement play a central role in addressing global challenges such as the research on vaccines to fight pandemics, more energy efficient manufacturing and mobility solutions to contain climate change and global warming for instance. Such progress goes hand in hand with cultural and social transformation. In human history the radical invention of the printing press led to the development of the publishing industry (the very first cultural industry) which changed the dynamics of society in Renaissance time. To the same extent the digital revolution is influencing cultural and social upheavals today by contributing to the connection of people throughout the world. Powerful digital networks and media use cultural goods (music, fashion, TV series, games, performing arts and sport) as a main resource to gain precious commercial and political power. Both the printing and the internet inventions led to an explosion in the dissemination of information and ideas (protestant reformation that would lead to the emergence of early capitalism in Europe, libertarian theories today), networks (fostering global liberalization or populist movements including fake news and manipulation), money (bitcoins today). Both technological innovations are promoting disintermediation from traditional institutional filters (schools, traditional political parties, churches, financial or art institutions). They contribute to advance on one hand individual freedom of expression enabling user-generated content whilst at the same time on the other hand consolidating the monopolistic positions of a few powerful global digital gatekeepers in the US (the GAFAN) and China (such as Tencent, TikTok).
With technology and artificial intelligence, we are gradually evolving in a virtual space, a world in which computers are becoming smarter than humans. Human bodies are promised to mutate with genetic transformations and interventions aimed at augmenting physical capacities to delay decay. It is predicted that one day humans will design forms of life that do not exist in nature. This will help humans cure some fatal diseases. This is also creating important cultural (legal and ethical) concerns about the future of humanity. A future without culture would be a cause for great concern as nothing would prevent humans from being shaped like machines (a neuronal being) devoid of autonomy, ethic, freedom, values, convictions and consciousness. In such a future, the human species would be denied any specificity, incapable of establishing a distance with “reality”. Today artificial intelligence is affecting our freedom to decide whilst reinforcing our cultural bias. Ethical questions will determine the balance between machines and biological beings showing the extraordinary importance of culture as it shapes values that determine our future.
Our European ancestors based their cultures on beliefs from the Greek and Roman times, the Bible, the Church, the State and local stories. The digital generation are evolving in a setting influenced by the ease to interact and travel. Knowledge and news are available at the speed of an Internet connection in an increasingly virtual world that’s shaping our social relations, love and friendship. This generation is already living in another spatial dimension, with more freedom to choose their information source, less dependent on traditional institutions whether schools or cultural institutions. They are confronting traditional story telling because of the latter’s cultural bias (gender, ethnic). They are more exposed to international realities notably because of global environmental and migration issues. Youngsters have a larger understanding of the universal and the need to address global challenges through cooperation rather than competition. These changes need to be acknowledged for culture to continue to play a transformative role.
The Art of collective mobilization
The importance of collective mobilization and action is a major lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst reminding humans of their fragility, the crisis also showed our inter-dependency where national health systems cannot ignore COVID variants whether from Asia, Africa, North America or Europe. Contamination and infections are independent of languages, cultures, religions or skin colours. However, the response to health threats is dependent on the capacity to exchange information on the origin and the nature of the virus, coordinate life-saving mechanism and discover remedies (vaccines or medication). The Covid pandemic shows that the absence of collective trust and engagement is slowing down the implementation of an efficient global response. This exacerbates inequalities between nations. International tension nourishes suspicion against what is foreign thus justifying the erection of mental and physical frontiers that make the fight against a common enemy more difficult if not impossible. The same is true in relation to climate change. A much-needed global response becomes harder if refusal to transform is grounded on the pretext that others are to blame. Countries pooling resources, like Member States of the European Union, have been more efficient in protecting their population and in addressing the health challenge showing the importance of building solidarity and collaborative practices for a collective well-being.
At individual level the crisis is a reminder that individual freedom is closely linked to obligations towards the community (the elderly or the less wealthy for instance), society and that personal interest needs to align with the general public’s interest. This is the logic of a society based on solidarity: freedom is the freedom of others. As stated by Albert Camus a freedom that would entail only rights would be a tyranny. This would be life at the expense of others.
Global crises question the role of humans in relationship with nature, with science and technological progress and with other human beings. This impact on the political and economic order, the way governance is organized, decisions are taken and freedom nurtured. Global crises are testing collective sociability, the capacity to accept complexities, differences and contradictions. The world community in its cultural diversity has to develop a global response.
The survival of humanity is largely dependent on humans’ capacity to agree on the roots of such crisis as well as the ability to collaborate across cultures to address those challenges and find solutions as a shared responsibility. The emergence of a collective ambition requires new modes of participation and deliberation, new skills calling on creativity and imagination to overcome (often cultural) divisions as well as to set the conditions for a more altruistic mindset. The new world order is emerging but we are using yesterday’s terms, prejudices, myths and narratives. Artists and cultural stakeholders should have a bigger say on considerations linked to a future society. As put by Professor Yuval Noah Harari: “in the twenty first century, fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selections. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meanings to the world”.
Progress and policies cannot do without ideals and values that trigger human imagination and spirit which nourish and inspire actions. By making art cultural workers help us gain a clearer understanding of the world’s shortcomings, the upcoming tragedies or the possible futures. They have this capacity to call on values and ideals to trigger collective ambition against barbaric, greedy or technocratic visions. The importance of values and culture is currently being demonstrated in the conflict in Ukraine. The war is foremost a fight for the defense of individual freedom and democratic values. Artists and cultural workers throughout the world (and this includes Ukrainian President Zelensky – an AV producer, former actor and comedian ) are playing an important role in promoting freedom of expression or in contributing to peaceful moments of unity and fellowship (through concerts, exhibitions and happenings).
The shift towards global sustainability encompasses a cultural shift towards a consciousness of global interdependence. This requires a cultural reset to confront cultural prejudices (racial, religious, national, traditions), to consider our position in relation to science, progress, logic but also religion, beliefs or emotional choices (love, humour or beauty for instance). A reset whose first objectives would be the respect of differences, recognizing that diversity can unite and that human rights and cultural diversity as essential components of co-existence; the second aim would be to strengthen our commitment to preserve hopes, dreams and illusions whose transcendental power are essential to human existence and its meaning. The building of cultural bridges, not with the goal of securing some form of uniformity, but by acknowledging and nurturing differences, is a necessity to rouse a collective will capable of addressing global challenges.
This implies important cultural changes in the way we communicate, decisions are taken (within an organization or institutions). It requires new sets of values embracing the transnationality of the objective, transcending the familiar, the locally rooted cultural heritage to address the global.
In which way can culture and its stakeholders contribute and be mobilized to initiate the transformation required to address global challenges? How can the power of imagination and creation contribute to save the world?
Develop a new understanding on the contribution of culture
Culture is a social necessity that delivers a wide range of outcomes both socially and economically. Modern economies, still characterised by industrial productivism and the optimisation of results, are giving more importance to creative, emotional, aesthetic and intuitive dimensions. In parallel the societal demand for qualify of life, meaning and self-enrichment is driving an exponential growth in cultural services, practices and experiences. These trends require a renewed vision of culture and its transformative capacity.
Cultural investment is foremost and traditionally a public policy goal:
- to educate on artistic disciplines and achievements,
- to sustain a network of cultural institutions whose mission is to cater for artistic experiences and their dissemination,
- to support artistic creation and innovation,
- to express territorial and cultural identities,
- to promote tolerance and freedom of expression.
Cultural investment is increasingly taking a broader policy dimension contributing to a wide area of public interest objectives ranging from social cohesion objectives to economic growth. This broader dimension is best represented by the following picture.
Contemporary history has shown the extraordinary power of art and artistic movements in triggering political and social changes:
- abstract art and surrealism in the representation of the world,
- modernism , including the Bauhaus Movement, in architecture and design,
- fashion design in the expression of individualism and social concerns,
- heritage in maintaining traditions threatened by ideologies and dictatorships,
- rock, pop, punk and rap music in social emancipation,
- literature, performing arts, Hollywood, new wave or dogma cinema in fictionizing or interrogating the human condition but also in imagining the future in a universal language.
When life is at risk and models requires to be challenged , artists and cultural workers can contribute through their disruptive skills to confront social determinism, cultural routines, ideological or technological complacencies. Artistic interventions have this capacity to empower people to regain trust in their ability to be actors of change.
A blueprint for cultural policy to address global challenges: The Council of Europe Recommendation
A step towards the global advancement for policy making to take a more creative and inclusive approach resides in the adoption by the Council of Europe of a Recommendation to its Member States. The Recommendation calls on culture and cultural workers (artists, creative professionals) to be mobilized to address global challenges. The policy document considers the multi-dimensional impact of cultural activities notably in:
- promoting citizen’s engagement through participation,
- raising awareness on ethical, environmental, technological or political issues,
- inspiring new politics through imagination that is triggered by values and ideals,
- imagining new creative ways to anchor global solidarity and build the necessary collective will needed to address global challenges.
Like the Rome Declaration of the G20 Ministers of Culture adopted on 30 July 2021, the draft Council of Europe Recommendation affirms culture’s transformative role in sustainable development and calls for the full recognition and integration of culture into relevant policies. The draft recommendation also builds on the UN Resolution on Culture and Sustainable Development of December 2019.
The Council of Europe’s Recommendation goes a step further by identifying the assets and skills of cultural stakeholders (artists, cultural workers, creative professionals, industries, institutions, associations) to be mobilized. Notably, the Recommendation identifies the capacity of cultural actors:
– to engage with people through their art across frontiers to help build empathy, trust, mutual understanding, solidarity through social interactions and cultural exchanges, with the aim to foster a conscience of interdependence and to generate a collective ambition to act.
– To empower people and local communities through art practices and participation with a view to trigger emotion and the determination to act.
– To engage with imagination, beauty, design and critical thinking to contribute to the definition of the future, to innovate and to impose a new ethic on economic and societal development.
– To question progress (scientific, technological, economic) notably its ethical and cultural impact.
– To propose heritage techniques and craftsmanship to find sustainable solutions.
The Recommendation calls on the recognition of artistic and creative skills to support innovation respecting sustainability goals. It recalls that the cultural and creative sector is an essential driver of the digital and creative economy as well as a motor of social, political and technological changes because of the transformative power of art, stories and aesthetic as well as the demand from people for a new ethic to respect environment and sustainable development.
The Recommendation also highlights the specific role of public cultural institutions and media to reach out to the largest number, including the socially and economically disadvantaged to act as a lever of communities’ engagement.
It stresses the importance of challenging social behaviours, mindsets and new cultural patterns. It calls on governments to entrust cultural stakeholders in enabling and contributing to social transformation. It asks for a new understanding of culture – and hence policies – as a strategic element to address global challenges. It proposes various policy objectives and measures aimed at fostering a local (to engage with people and communities) and global (to encourage international collaboration) approach to generate a collective ambition and international cooperation based on empathy and solidarity.
The policy document suggests ways to ensure the cultural dimension of digital technology. Artificial intelligence and market dominance are addressed as threats to cultural diversity objectives. The Recommendation states that technological progress should not be conceived without considering the cultural and ethical dimension. It also calls on giving better consideration to the social status of artists and cultural workers.
For the first time an international instrument -although “soft law”- is calling on arts and humanities to shape tomorrow ’s world. It is suggesting concrete measures to policy makers to make the most of cultural resources to achieve sustainable goal objectives. It shows ways to generate, with the support of cultural stakeholders, a collective ambition and global cooperation across the Council of Europe ‘s membership to achieve greater unity for the purpose of fostering the ideals and principles of the organisation, founded upon respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, a common European heritage.
 The film is Netflix’s second most watched film ever with 360 million hours of viewing during its first 28 days on the service.
 “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
 GAFAN for Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Netflix.
 Albert Camus in Conférences et Discours, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2006.
 Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, Vintage Publishing, 2018
 The text of the Declaration : http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2021/210730-culture.html