Time for Classical Music to unblock its ears and listen to the ethical elephant

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a performance of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen performed by Spira Mirabilis, with their rich performance sandwiched between two informative talks. The first was from Stephen Jonhson on the piece’s structure and the latter from Roger Scruton on the piece’s philosophical backdrop. Complex ethical issues were raised, such as Struass’s involvement with the Nazi party, his complex anti-Semitism and the destruction and militarism of World War II. But Scruton also spoke about the piece’s ability to express something universal, which points towards a common humanity. He showed that something profound can emerge from a problematic piece by a controversial composer.

But there was a large elephant in the room. The concert was being sponsored by Shell, a company who gave approximately £44.2 million to the Nigerian Security Forces in 2009 alongside other ad hoc payments to militias and other armed groups. How could we speak about Metamorphosen’s ‘contemporary relevance’ without questioning Shell’s role as the sponsor of its performance? The concert symbolically condoned in the present the activity we were condemning in the past.

So, at the end of the concert in a discussion with the performers, I asked a question. As I outlined the ethical problems of performing Strauss with Shell’s money though, some audience members groaned noisily while others applauded against them. I was disappointed but not surprised by the reaction but my question was, in reality, an aesthetic one: did the players see themselves as archaeologists, rediscovering the piece, or as inventors, discovering it afresh in a contemporary context? For me, these are two sides of the same coin because the identity of a piece is shaped and renewed by each performance – when, where and how they take place.

The performer that responded was gracious: ‘I think we cannot judge from our point of view that historical moment, although I am personally convinced that we should judge it.’ If we are to judge the past effectively, we must also cast a critical eye over ourselves also. The latter part of his answer was also perceptive. He spoke of how a friend invited to their dress rehearsal was disturbed by the ensemble’s decision to perform Strauss at all because of his connection to the Nazis. Had she known, she would not have attended. He wasn’t certain he agreed with her view but conceded that ‘being so deeply involved in “what’s happening” is what makes music contemporary and part of our lives. So, in this way, I don’t like…[the audience’s] reaction, even if I don’t completely share your opinion or don’t want to get into this topic.’

Afterwards, I spoke to Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank who agreed that I was absolutely right to ask my question in this setting. She talked about how tobacco industry sponsorship is all but absent from the arts and how the likes of Shell and BP need to be part of a ‘climate of commitment’ on ethical issues. But the world of classical music must unblock its ears and stop ignoring or drowning out the difficult questions and unpalatable truths. The music we compose, perform and listen to does not exist in an ethical vacuum. All music, whether it is old or newly composed, has a political content (with a small ‘p’ at the very least) that we need to confront, examine and respond to. What, for example, is the value in composing new ‘relevant’ pieces about a contemporary world if we don’t include ourselves in the issues we raise? We are simply saying in the tired, elitist way, ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Or, here is my musing on such-and-such an issue but financed and performed in a manner that is at odds with the piece’s ethos. The argument that ‘at least there is a performance at all’ is no defence when the works we create are meant to emerge from higher values. Too many composers, performers and commentators have the capacity to speak out on injustice and inconsistency but bury their heads in the sand. Many claim to be music-lovers but if they can’t speak up for music’s integrity, then they do more harm than good. This has to change.

There are exceptions, of course. Daniel Barenboim and the late Steve Martland are notable examples of those courageous enough to speak out about the values of social justice that underpin their respective music-making. They acknowledge the value of an artistic integrity. In the post-concert discussion, Stephen Johnson shared an exchange between the Jewish conductor Otto Klemperer and Richard Strauss, where Strauss was bemused when Klemperer said that he and other Jews had been struggling to find work. Exasperatedly, Klemperer pointed out to Strauss the blatant anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party’s policies, to which Strauss simply replied, ‘But what’s that got to do with you?’

Too much injustice has happened, and still happens, in the name of the arts and we can no longer turn a blind eye. If perpetrators of injustices finance our concert halls or art galleries, then it has everything to do with us, especially if we are creators and makers of the art it contains. Strauss made mistakes and may have seen the error of his ways but this kind of shift in attitude only happens by listening and questioning. We need open debate about these ethical issues in the arts and must not disregard it because it is somehow inconvenient. We should enjoy classical music free of contradiction and definitely not at the expense of the voiceless or marginalised.

So, one season of Shell-sponsored concerts has come to an end. Paradoxically, it is the conductor who will lead the first concert of the next season, Claudio Abbado, who once spoke powerfully about challenging injustice and drawing ethical red lines: ‘My line is very clear. I am for freedom. Everything that is not for freedom, I protest.’ It’s time the world of classical music unblocks its ears and listens to the ethical ‘elephant in the room’. If we don’t, we damage not only the integrity our music, but do disservice to the musicians, composers and listeners of future generations by leaving them a less just world to inherit.

Chris Garrard is a doctoral candidate in composition at the Faculty of Music at the University of Oxford. He is also an environmental and human rights campaigner.

Oil sponsorship of the arts: Getting rid of some myths

From the powerful interventions of the art collective Liberate Tate to the impromptu performances by The Reclaim Shakespeare Company, the media are gradually being prompted to raise the issue of oil sponsorship of the arts. As a consequence, the arts institutions in question are now under much greater scrutiny regarding their consistency of ethics and values. The logic behind opposing oil sponsorship of the arts is not complex, if anything, it is quite straightforward. However, as has been the case with climate change denial, the arguments by those defending the status quo are used to “flatten” the debate – analogies and generalisations that sound compelling as linguistic devices, in reality, lack substance. These generalisations are repeated to the point that they are then accepted without question. The effect is to direct discussion around the issue into dead-ends that prevent a deeper understanding of how we value the arts and the environment. Frustratingly, this is the quality of debate that meets the needs of a media interested in sound bites and the entertainment value of strong dividing lines. But it’s time to open up the debate and try to put maybe a few of the weak arguments to bed…

“We are all entitled to our opinion…”

Thanks to a recent tweet by the comedian Marcus Brigstocke, I came across a blog by an American philosophy lecturer, Patrick Stokes. Stokes says to his students in their first lecture, ‘You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.’ The purpose of this opening statement is that his students learn to recognise the point at which a belief has become indefensible and that there is a need to shift position in light of new information. Also, Stokes outlines that there are two different kinds of statement: those that are subjective and can be said to be true because it is specific to your own experience, and those that are drawn from a large body of expertise and insight. But often the two get confused…

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

 So, at a very basic level, the judgment of the ethics of a given company or their decision to sponsor an institution is an issue where I may hold an opinion. However, the value of my opinion is limited according to my level of expertise or insight in the relevant area, my ability to argue for it. So at the point where my own knowledge reaches a limit, I refer to the expertise and research of others who can speak with greater authority. For example, Jeremy Leggett has worked in both the oil and renewable energy sector and has the ability to respond to different aspects of the debate. A supporter of the Tate can be in favour of BP’s sponsorship but if they are uninformed as to the full extent of BP’s activities in Canada’s tar sands, they lack the capacity to fully analyse the ethical implications of that sponsorship. As Stokes suggests, they cannot expect that their opinion should be treated as a serious candidate for the truth. Their opinion is valid but not of the same value as that of an expert such as Leggett. It is not a weakness to accept that our opinion occupies a different place to the arguments of someone well informed and working in the field. In fact, we should allow ourselves to be challenged by those who provide these fresh insights and allow our position to shift accordingly. This is how effective debate is meant to function rather than fixing rigidly to a position that has become untenable.

 “These oil companies are just large businesses who want to engage in philanthropy and support the arts sector.”

 It can appear that way and to be honest, some people in some oil companies, might. Not all workers for Shell or BP are the same. It is often difficult to believe that companies that have become household or ‘roadside’ names should be manipulating our perceptions of their brands. But they are. Sadly, that is a large part of how capitalism functions. I am not trying to discredit capitalism but instead suggest that we should recognise that brand management is central to how companies and corporations function in a capitalist system. Studies have been undertaken which show that by sponsoring events, particularly in sports and the arts, many corporations have enhanced the public perception of their brand. However, what discredits the philanthropy argument further is that we need not even look for this kind of study. The directors of oil companies often refer to the concept of ‘social licence’, the ability to be perceived by governments and the public as legitimate and responsible in order to continue undertaking high-risk, unconventional oil extraction. (Here, unconventional refers to methods such as deep water drilling in the Arctic or tar sands extraction in Canada.) The concept of social licence is not a secret. To some extent, these companies are dependant upon this chain from perception to approval to legitimacy – the acquisition of the social licence. (Once the perception of the the tobacco industry became shifted, they became stigmatised and the tide turned with regard to advertising and sponsorship.) Unlike the official licences issued by governments to allow companies to drill for oil in specific territories, the social licence is intangible and as is acquired by shaping perception. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to associate your brand with culture, community and the socially responsible – perhaps, to sponsor the biggest and best-known arts institutions. So, even if there might be some philanthropic intentions somewhere, it will be one (very small) part of the motivation because much more besides can be gleaned from appearing to be generous.

“But the arts sector needs the money…”

 The arts sector needs money. But it does not need this money. We are regularly presented with the argument that arts institutions are heavily dependent on the funds they receive from oil companies and others, and should the funds be taken away, huge swathes of programming would disappear or the institution would collapse altogether. The removal of funds would, of course, affect the activities of an institution but these dire scenarios are misleading. Firstly, the contributions made by BP to the Tate or the RSC, and by Shell to the Southbank Centre, are a tiny proportion of overall budgets, which would be unlikely to affect the core activities of these institutions. The accounts are available online – go and have a look. Secondly, there are other ways to fill the gap or potentially other more socially responsible sponsors to make up the shortfall. For the most part, the taxpayer is the main contributor of funds to these institutions via the Arts Council. (There are peripheral debates here about the extent to which the government should fund the arts and questions of austerity but I’ll stick to the main point.) Oil companies make small contributions to arts institutions, negligible amounts in their working budgets of billions of dollars, and in return, are able to craft the perception of their brand in a big way. Paradoxically, your tax money, which pays the majority or a large share for many of these institutions, is being co-opted by an oil company at the other end, who pay a tiny share. In some respects, they are piggybacking on the good work of your tax money to sustain the arts, to sell their brand image back to you. If anything, the taxpayer should be calling the shots, not the other way around. We are the larger stakeholders in many of these institutions.

“But historically, the arts have always taken money from big business or sponsors… Why should things be any different now?”

This argument has several aspects to it that are based on fairly weak assumptions. Firstly, there is an objection to specifically oil sponsorship that is being proposed by groups such as Liberate Tate, Rising Tide and Reclaim Shakespeare – not all sponsorship. Some might prefer that the arts are entirely publicly funded and some the opposite, but it isn’t the concept of sponsorship that is being challenged. Secondly, this argument appears to promote the values of capitalism, big business and, by extension, accepts the dynamics of the market place. But if the situation is truly dynamic, an open ‘market place’ of the arts, then there is also the possibility for new and more effective methods of sustaining the arts to emerge and replace the old. If you want to embrace the sponsorship model, you have to accept that it is subject to competition and challenge too. Another argument, which might seem simplistic but is worth mentioning, is that knowledge, understanding and social justice have developed over time. For example, the world is a markedly different place in light of the civil rights movement. Also, the tobacco industry has now become stigmatised to some extent and gradually excluded from advertising in many settings, in light of research about damage to health. Our moral and ethical values evolve as our knowledge and understanding develops over time, and our laws, conventions and behaviours change to reflect this. The body of evidence about the damage oil industries are causing to people and to the environment is vast but they are still allowed to sponsor arts institutions. Objecting to this sponsorship is not a case of environmentalists arbitrarily drawing their own ‘ethical’ red lines, but bearing witness to a body of evidence that dictates where those red lines should lie. The suggestion that the status quo should be maintained because it is the status quo is particularly misguided here, given the dynamism of both the arts and the environment. To argue that the framework should stay constant while the content shifts over time is an unsustainable position.

“If we engage more people in the arts to learn about life and philosophy, then that has to counteract issues with where the funding came from…”

This argument starts from the weakened position of acknowledging there are ethical issues about accepting oil sponsorship. The difficulty is that it is impossible to compare the quantifiable environmental impacts caused by oil companies with the intangible benefits of art making – they are of markedly different qualities. However, those that pose this argument are not inherently wrong but have fallen victim to a narrow view of the issue. Those arts events supported by oil companies are worthwhile but reach a relatively limited audience, both in scale and demographic. Up until now, our frame of reference might perhaps be the UK, US or Western world though. The injustice perpetrated in the developing world and against Indigenous peoples may lie outside of our immediate sphere of consideration. This argument is inadvertently proposing that damage to the environment is acceptable as long as it furthers the intellectual nourishment of those with access to the arts in the developed world. Perhaps I am now comparing environmental impacts with the benefits of art making which I suggested is difficult to do. However, there is an implied environmental racism being played out in this argument, even if it is unintended. We perhaps need to question how the funds that support our arts institutions have been generated. Lastly, and at a more abstract level, art can be interpreted as a reflection of the socio-economic forces that underlie its creation. (I am very loosely borrowing from the critical theorist, Theodor Adorno here.) The more we might strive to make art autonomous or separate from these external issues, the more they acutely reflect and embody the surrounding context and society. Programming Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, his ‘plea for peace’, with Shell’s money stands at odds with the company’s financial support of the Nigerian military and other armed groups. Also, Shakespeare’s own words about justice will sharpen the distinction of why it is unacceptable to use BP’s money to produce his plays, that the ‘the quality of mercy’ should not be strained.

“Money is money. It doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

 To some extent, this statement is true. Money and economies are, at a theoretical level, neutral. In practice, economies become politicised as a certain set of values and beliefs are articulated through them. Money can be seen as a set of numbers, bits of paper or chunks of metal that allow transactions within an economy to happen. There are those political types of considerations about whether it’s good for money to flow or become concentrated and whether governments or others should engage or interfere with that. Obviously, if an evil dictator signed a set of ten-pound notes, those ten-pound notes don’t become inherently evil by extension. However, it is significant where money becomes concentrated and what kinds of behaviour it is then able to facilitate. In this context, there is more than just a passing symbolism that gets attached to the ‘financial capital’ of BP and Shell. It is their large concentrations of wealth that allows these companies to exert influence over governments and people in order to continue with their activities. Sponsorship payments represent an offshoot from this concentration of wealth, the direct outcome from a particular kind of profit-making activity, which in this context is environmentally damaging. The funds have not emerged from a pool that is ethically neutral. As highlighted earlier, the amounts spent on environmentally damaging methods of oil extraction heavily outweigh the amounts spent on sponsorship. Our arts institutions are therefore receiving a small slither of a larger, more sinister pie. The environmental damage and the arts sponsorship are both traceable back to that pie and it is the company that is determining that capital flows, in particular, around these points. Admittedly, sponsorship money could also flow to the same destination by going via the tax system – such as BP to HM Revenue and Customs, assigned to the Arts Council then given to the Tate. However, that chunk of money flowing from the tax system to the Arts Council could have come from any number of sources and the taxes from BP could have gone to a vast number of destinations – the likelihood of BP meeting Tate in a chance financial encounter in cyberspace is pretty slim. Within that chain are a whole series of other motivations and political concerns being played out. The Arts Council though is the most proximate body to the arts institutions in this particular chain and although it receives and directs flows of funds, it primarily exists in order to disperse those funds in order to enhance art making. There is a marked contrast in purpose, motivation and scale between oil company and Arts Council and their respective roles in supporting the arts. So, money might be neutral as an object but it allows certain kinds of activities and values to be played out. In the hands of Shell and BP, relationships of influence, exploitation and unequal power exist because of their use of that money. If you receive money that creates or sustains those relationships, then it certainly does not exist in an ethical vacuum. As Shakespeare put it, ‘All that glisters is not gold’.

Standing up for Olympic Spirit

Friday’s Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games was a vivid blend of colour, sound and British humour that has got people talking. It might not be for everyone, but it has certainly shifted the general mood of scepticism around London 2012 to one of celebration. It serves as a reminder of the power the arts and sport have to create a space to bring people together. At school, I was consistently picked last for teams (and to be honest, I understand why!) but despite this, I do recognise the potential for sport to promote values of fair play and unify otherwise disparate groups. At the end of last year, I found myself playing football in South Africa with some teenage boys, and my inability to play football actually helped to bring us together, with my incompetence being the butt of many jokes!

This ethos of the games, a sort of ‘Olympic Spirit’ is expressed in the Olympic Values. These values were created by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Olympic Movement. De Coubertin’s Olympic values were:

  • respect – fair play; knowing one’s own limits; and taking care of one’s health and the environment
  • excellence – how to give the best of oneself, on the field of play or in life; taking part; and progressing according to one’s own objectives
  • friendship – how, through sport, to understand each other despite any difference

When the run up to the games was primarily concerned with infrastructure, funding and corporate interests, it is interesting to note that the games itself is, in theory, the expression of a movement. This has the potential to shift our perception of the games in quite a decisive way. Like any social movement, a commitment to agreed, fundamental values is essential. Also, the expression of those values must come through collective activity and shared behaviours. Without these aspects, the term ‘movement’ becomes meaningless because it is, in effect, motionless. (You need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.) It is easy to identify these values in the aspirations of of athletes, with many overcoming adversity to even attend London 2012. For example, Haiti have sent 6 athletes to compete, despite the country still being in a state of instability.

If the notion of the games being an expression of a movement is to be meaningful, then the internal structure of the games should reflect the structure of the movement at large. If underlying values become negotiable or flexible, then the definition of the larger movement, and its collective power, is diluted. The particular sports included in the games, the number of countries involved and the exact number of fireworks can, and do, vary from event to event. If the actual sports can change and not undermine the identity of the movement, then it emphasises the significance of having consistent values. And of course, values are intangible until they find expression in human activity.

My concern, along with others, is that these values were, and are, under threat. Commercial interests have come into the foreground with their own values that are not thoroughly ‘Olympic’. BP, the sustainability partner, have committed acts of environmental damage, most notably in the Gulf of Mexico. Dow Chemical are sponsor of the Olympics and Paralympics, and are liable for the Bhopal Gas Disaster where the local water supply has been left contaminated. And Adidas, the main clothing sponsor, have workers around the world that are often paid as little as 34p an hour and lack job security and safety at work.

However, it can be argued that these are legitimate issues but that the Olympics is an example of where these companies are using their money for public good. Some would counter this, suggesting that they merely use the Olympics as a distraction from poor  working practices. Or, it can be argued that now, during the games themselves, it is best to focus on the positive aspects of the event, the unity and co-operation of the teams of athletes. Again, some would counter this, arguing that the majority of spectators can’t participate in this unity, excluded by overpriced tickets. These debates are ongoing…

Depending on your knowledge of the issues, your background and, to some extent, political view, you will sympathise with some of these arguments more than others. I personally take issue with BP’s ethical values, while others do not. The same is true of Dow and Adidas. Many are opposed to corporate sponsorship of the games completely and take a strongly anti-capitalist stance. However, the issue need not be so politically coloured but more empirical. BP have perpetrated environmental damage and have not yet fully satisfied those affected that they have dealt effectively with that damage. Dow and Adidas, in statements and through a lack of dialogue on these issues, consistently overlook the values of respect and fairness.

Respect and fairness are basic liberal values accepted in liberal democracies (which the UK, US and many countries claim to be). Therefore, respect and fairness are not necessarily divisive terms, in relation to ‘left’ and ‘right’ on the spectrum of contemporary politics. In an evaluation of attitudes and values, those being demonstrated by these sponsors do not correlate with those of the movement at this point in time. It is impossible to remove politics from this discussion because values are  inherently political. But we need not even consult our own opinion or political values to identify that there is a disconnect between the politics that the Modern Olympic Movement freely selected for itself and those of many of the sponsors.

On Saturday, the Counter Olympics Network hosted a protest in Mile End in the East End of London. There were a range of interests and issues being represented but there was a general consensus around fairness, respect and friendship. As a protest, it represents a form of dissent or disagreement with the Olympics as expressed in ‘London 2012’ but not the Olympic values themselves. As a peaceful protest, it both demonstrated, and campaigned for, a genuine Olympic spirit. As John McDonnell MP said in the subsequent speeches, ‘They [BP, Dow and Adidas] are dragging our Olympic dream into the gutter…’

The magnitude of some of these issues and their associated controversy often makes it difficult to have a clear debate – positions can quickly become polarised. But I have been reassured in the last 48 hours, perhaps just slightly. Frank Cottrell Boyce, the script-writer for the opening ceremony, has shared his experience of putting together the performance with Danny Boyle in a blog entitled London 2012: opening ceremony saw all are mad dreams come true. Frank invested in the opening ceremony vivid symbols of Olympic values from Britain’s history. But this symbolic expression is underpinned by his commitment to the Olympic values in a more direct way, writing:

With reality comes responsibility. Pretty well everyone feels some reservation about the Games – the money, the missiles, the McDonald’s. For me, the issue was Dow’s sponsorship of the stadium wrap. Dow are – to use a value-neutral word – connected to the terrible Bhopal disaster. Whatever the legal position, it was insensitive and tawdry to take their money.

Consequently, Danny Boyle met with Sebastian Coe, who then set up a meeting between LOCOG’s lawyers and Amnesty. Perhaps it was too late in the day but definitely a step in the right direction. However, it demonstrates the courage of those who are at the heart of the games to speak truth to power, which is often easier said than done. On Sunday, Frank issued a political invitation to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Dow and the IOC, calling it The Dangerous Conversation. He proposes that the games offers the opportunity for a creating a neutral space, where meaningful conversations can happen on a level playing field. (That pun was very much intended!) Maybe it is too aspirational and optimistic, but there is something powerful about overriding the cloying aspects of corporate sponsorship through instigating a conversation which symbolically disarms. And it’s not hard. The Occupy Movement has clearly demonstrated the ability to sit down with a range of ideas and viewpoints represented and find consensus, wherever you happen to be.

So, if Boris Johnson is right and it is time to get on with celebrating London 2012, it is also time to rediscover and celebrate Olympic spirit more strongly than before. Paradoxically, this means standing firm for the values of the movement so that the sport emerges from a foundation of fair play, respect and integrity. It means talking more, and not less, about the behaviours we wish to challenge. On the face of it, ‘standing firm’ may seem like promoting negativity and dissent. However, demonstrating respect through competition, speaking out in protest at injustice and celebrating cultural values in the arts are all necessary, affirmative expressions of an Olympic spirit. To have scripted the opening ceremony celebrating, among other things, the Suffragette movement, and then continue to outline the injustice perpetrated by Dow in an original way – that, for me, is Olympic spirit…

The future we want from Nick Clegg

Friday saw the end of the Rio+20 conference and, rather appropriately, outside it was wet and rainy. During my time in Rio it has been uncharacteristically wet and stormy, a subtle indication of the shifting seasons and weather patterns that this conference was meant to address. On Thursday I had access to the plenary hall, a vast cavernous space in semi-darkness with row upon row of desks and laptops, where delegates and leaders were constantly coming and going. The day was filled with them exchanging speeches about the plans within their country for living more sustainably. Oddly, it seemed to be acceptable to give your speech and leave, meaning that the exchange of ideas was purely symbolic.

On Wednesday, the opening day, I managed to track down Nick Clegg at a reception for organisations and groups from the UK. Looking just slightly jet lagged (he had arrived only a few hours earlier!), he gave a brief speech about how we should see Rio+20 as a ‘trampoline’ for making advances in sustainability, given that the written agreement here is vague and lacks commitment. In the dense crowd of people eager to speak with him, I lined myself up alongside a security guard and then my moment came. I reminded him of the fantastic petition Oxfam supporters had presented him with back in the UK, highlighting the need to promote stronger support for co-operatives and better rights for small scale farmers.

The previous day, I had been at the People’s Summit, a large gathering of members of civil society happening alonside the main conference. Oxfam and other organisations were supporting the event, creating an exciting and vibrant space for new ideas to be shared, along the length of Flamengo beach in downtown Rio. Amidst the groups of Indigenous people, activists and passers-by, I spotted members of the Rural Women´s Assembly, a group who I had met on a march in South Africa last year. These were the people our petition aims to support, them and many others like them around the world. Simple steps to support small scale farmers creates real change that ripples outwards.

The world of the UN conference and the People’s Summit are miles apart, both literally and symbolically. Rio+20 was frantic and intense while the People´s Summit was outside and vibrant. What we need is to build a bridge between the two worlds so that the energy of the people permeates the official process. So far, it has been missing, apart from an exciting youth-led action yesterday, where 150 people voiced their dissatisfaction with Rio+20. It may be too late for Nick Clegg to change words and phrases here but there is still time for him to begin trying to bridge the two worlds, by amplifying the voices of the people gathered in Flamengo inside the corridors where new agreements are made…

This blog was also published on the Oxfam Campaigns blog at: 

A safe and just space…for making decisions?

I have a short amount of time. Mind you, everyone in RioCentro at the moment seems to be short of time. Today, the Preparation Conference for Rio+20 is meant to come to an end. Although the impression of Rio+20 to the outside world is perhaps of one big conference where leaders and the like get together, exchange greetings and share pictures of new (grand)children before sitting down for a photo shoot and knocking out a few bits of international policy. In reality, hard-working negotiators attend hours and hours of meetings for months and months (even years!) before the official Rio+20 bit. So, after all that time you would think something exciting is afoot…

It is easy to be cynical, but despite all the hard worked hours from government representatives it is now 6 hours or so before official discussions of the Rio+20 text comes to an end. Have they finished discussing? In my opinion, they aren’t even close. Although keeping your ahead above everything that is going on is next to impossible. Even if you decide to follow just one area, there are side-discussions, protocol and chats in corridors. Or by Email. Never before have I seen so many people preoccupied with their laptops. (It sometimes makes me wonder if people are really playing Farmville or checking Facebook while giving the appearance to be in deep thought!)

I want the best agreement possible to come from this conference – unexpected things can and do happen sometimes. But my trouble is that I am Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And I’m not just saying that. The favelas or communades are urban slums (which I visited last week) and despite being an example of the extreme inequality prevalent in Brazil, their random layout looks like an intricate network that weaves and covers the many mountains and hills. As the sun goes down, they start to glow and the sky goes purple. You can often hear many musical styles and lively chatter beginning.

In the conference centre, negotiation rooms have no natural light. Every wall is lined with brown/beige carpet so that every sound and voice is dampened. The richer frequencies of sound are all missing here. It is a bit of a dead soundscape. Except for the eternal whirr of air conditioning keeping us uncomfortably cold (and when broken, the opposite). Like being on a plane, you adjust to the whirr and it becomes a dull soundtrack inside your skull. In the larger food court, you hope for atmosphere. But here it echoes and the enforced background music from Brazil and elsewhere comes out over poor speakers just making a mushy attempt at something vaguely cultural.

I am a Music student, so I am a bit obsessed by the sound stuff. But while Rio is alive outside, a rich symbol of why we even need a Rio+20, the UN have chosen to contain the people with the important job in the equivalent of a carpeted Tupperware box. Is it a surprise then when the outcomes don’t measure up..?

Rio+20: The start of the world’s biggest shoe swap?

As an experiment, I recently took a list of organisations who were present at the COP17 in Durban and attempted, just through reordering their various names, to write a poem. I have to confess the poem wasn’t particularly successful and hopefully it will never see the light of day. However, the exercise highlighted that our debates about climate change and social justice are based upon a common vocabulary of symbols and metaphors. While this shared vocabulary aids building large-scale movements of social change, we have to be careful that we constantly reclaim and refine our language in a bold, radical way. Otherwise, we are susceptible to “greenwashing” and political spin, where our language of aspiration can become hollow rather that substantive.

At the centre of Rio+20 is a complex hub of symbolism, ideas and aspirations but in our campaigning and activism, we strive for tangible outcomes and policy frameworks such as  ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. However, Rio+20 marks a symbolic anniversary and its key theme of ‘The Green Economy’ is, to some extent, a metaphor yet to be defined. There are tangible outcomes we need from Rio+20 but they may only be achieved if we creatively bridge the gap between symbolism and substance, and critique the philosophical aspirations with as much focus as the policy ones.

I recently attended a talk by cultural thinker Roman Krznaric on ‘The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People’. He suggested at the outset that empathy ‘…is a source of radical social change, empathy can be fiery!’ What if empathy could be the way to bridge the gap between symbolism and substance? In his talk, Roman differentiates between affective empathy, where you mirror or share in the emotion of another, and cognitive empathy, the experience of ‘stepping into the shoes’ of another. This ‘cognitive empathy’ could be powerful stuff. However, as many campaigners might tell you, inviting people to empathise across space as ‘global citizens’ is difficult enough. In addressing climate change we need to invite people, particularly political leaders, to empathise across time, into the future: we need to foster ‘inter-generational empathy’. But if the political notion of ‘the future’ at Rio+20 is just symbolic, then any Sustainable Development Goals that emerge will inevitably lack substance. Margaret Atwood, a Canadian science-fiction author, has written in a recent blog:

‘The future is like the afterlife: no one can actually go there and return. So I can’t predict the future; it just looks like that sometimes. I don’t stargaze: I read the newspapers. And the magazines. And the blogs. They don’t tell me the future, either, but from them I can gather bits and pieces that might be fitted together into something fictional, but plausible.’

While climate data offers predictions that engage the mind, empathy could be its necessary counterpart for conceptualising the road ahead in an emotionally grounded way. This needn’t be abstract and wooly. For example, the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ) has established a network where women political and grassroots leaders are in dialogue with one another, an approach where the policy-makers can ‘step into the shoes’ of those marginalised by other democratic processes. At a recent talk, Mary Robinson reflected on a meeting of this kind she had hosted at the UN Commission on the Standards of Women:

‘A sense that I took from that meeting was that this bottom-up and top-down women’s leadership can really change the narrative on climate change, because women are instinctively intergenerational and usually practical in being able to change behaviour…’

This observation, which engages with the inter-generational as a reality rather than a concept, emerged from a cognitive empathy across geography and lifestyle. Those where the affects of climate change are no longer an anecdote but a reality have a profound insight into what lies ahead, particularly women. Therefore understanding the inter-generational in a symbolic and meaningful way comes from a context of openness and empathy, a free exchange of ideas and experiences. Contrastingly, the World Food Programme (WFP) recently hosted a web-chat between a Kenyan girl called Molly and her friends, with some school children in Italy. Molly formed a focal point for part of the WFP’s work as a person we can empathise with in a very direct way, a point of contact with a broader issue. With Molly as the focal point though, the issue of malnutrition begins, and returns to, a human reality and does not remain abstract. As a youth, Molly offered a different insight into the inter-generational as well, her personal goals and aspirations being a reflection of Kenya’s stage of development. Also in Kenya, the photographer Rankin has attempted to capture ‘the human face of hunger‘ for Oxfam. His photographs protrude through the large statistics about hunger and malnutrition, engendering empathy in an artistic, expressive setting. Like Atwood, it is perhaps by gathering ‘bits and pieces’, human insights from contrasting sources such as politics, activism and art, that a meaningful sense of the inter-generational becomes plausible.

The formal proceedings for Rio+20 last only three days. But the numerous side events, official and unofficial, will establish an energy and the many related events happening around the world will draw from, and shape, the conference’s symbolism. The more innovative and creative those events are, the better. The more distinct and original our experiences of empathy, the potentially deeper our sense of the inter-generational might become. Roman Krznaric has the exciting plan to one day create an ‘Empathy Museum’. I wonder though, if it doesn’t need to be physical but an imaginary museum instead. What would happen if Rio+20 embraced empathy like Mary Robinson, between civil society and policy-makers? How would we then understand the ‘inter-generational’ in a context of empathy? And what would emerge if that first plenary session began something like this..?

“Ladies and gentlemen, please find a partner who you have not worked with before. Now, please…swap your shoes.”


This is a blog I am entering into the tck tck tck Rio +20 Blogger Prize.

Their website is http://tcktcktck.org/