Generation “No Title”
- written by - Malene Lundén and Cecilie Meyer
The future of activism depends on art, local ownership, and an entirely new language
I am always thirsty at the falafel store I refuse to buy a bottle of water and they won’t give me tap water So I stood at the cash register with a zucchini in my hand, only me and you, it and I but I couldn’t feel it because it was wrapped in plastic green skin my skin I asked the boy Who are you protecting us from?
Excerpt from Tale of Downfall in a Collective Tone by Other Story and Goodiepal & Pals, read during a happening at the art gallery Kunsthal Chartlottenborg in Copenhagen, March 2018.
More than ever, there’s a need for popular movements in the political arena that can provide independent input for the energy and climate change debate in Denmark, including on the global, national, regional and local levels. We are living in a time when politicians are cutting back on frameworks and compromises, where political agreements within the areas of energy and the environment are being delayed, and where NGO’s and popular movements are fewer and less powerful than before.
In this newsletter, Professor Frede Hvelplund, former EU Commissioner for Climate Action and current Chair of the Danish green think-tank Concito, Connie Hedegaard, artist and student Madeleine Kate McGowan, and Associate Professor at the Danish Technical University, John Holten-Andersen, were asked about their thoughts, because they each in their own way are among those Danes who are trying to make Danish society aware of this matter.
When John Holten-Andersen wrote his column “Obituary: The Ministry of Environment has passed away” in the left-leaning Danish daily newspaper Information in March, he was overwhelmed by the reactions. “The article really created an uproar. People called and wrote to me. The seemed shocked and wanted to know more. Could things really be as bad as I described them?,” says John Holten-Andersen.
Apparently yes. John has been an active participant in the Danish environmental movement since the 1970’s, when he was a co-founder of NOAH – the strongest Danish climate, nature and environment NGO of its time. It played a significant role in swaying politicians in 1971 to create a Ministry of the Environment, which seriously put the environment on the political agenda.
John Holten Andersens kronik:
Other Story – hele undergangsfortællingen fra aktionen på Charlottenborg:
Photo credits received of Madeleine:
– GogG: Goodiepal & Pals, photo: Dagbladet Information
– MK: foto af Madeleine Kate McGowan, credits: Sarah Liisborg
– OSimage: pictures taken from website
Yet even though John and his colleagues celebrated the news back then, they also knew that they had created a double-edged sword: “We sensed that things would now be brought to an entirely different bureaucratic level. Totally different mechanisms would come into play that would be beyond our sphere of influence. However, I don’t think we ever imagined that the Ministry in the future would be suffocated so much that it would become a lever for the societal growth that we were so much against back then.”
That’s why he declared in his newspaper column that the Ministry was dead. The question is, who will create an alternative to take its place?
What can we do to once again reawaken civil society’s activism, and how do we create a future where citizens hold lawmakers accountable within the areas of energy and the environment?
John Holten-Andersen feels that the answers lie in one of his great passions: Language. “For years, the environmental movement has been much too technocratic, turning things into a question of lots of complicated technical and bureaucratic details which the broader public couldn’t relate to. The environment and climate change have become specialist domains where you have to know a lot of academic words and be able to calculate very abstract figures. It’s too far removed from what people otherwise feel and experience. That’s why we’re now in a situation where we don’t have the same popular support as we did 20-30 years ago. Instead, we have to revert to a more immediate language describing what we see, smell, feel and hear. Techno-language allows government employees to communicate all over the world, but it has also made the environmental movement incredibly fragmented. As soon as you meet people face-to-face in a specific local context, then the context becomes part of the conversation, because you can’t disregard the reality you sense around you. That’s why activism has to be inspired though the same local involvement that the environmental movement had in the beginning. These are specific tangible projects, for instance like we had on the island of Samsø with the Renewable Energy Island project. And it’s absolutely important to have support from the cultural sphere. Recreating activism is also recreating the entire artistic environment. In the 1970’s, musicians, writers and poets backed up the environmental movement, and we need them again. It’s the artists, those who work with language and make things poetic, who can awaken our feelings and once again create connections to nature so we want to fight for it,” explains John Holten-Andersen.
Listen here, leading country – this just isn’t working!
The fact that language is also about the appropriate historical tales is something that former EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard points to. Like John Holten-Andersen, she has noticed that it’s difficult to gain momentum in the press, and that the reality of digital media places new demands on those providing the message.
“In the old days, things that went wrong risked being splashed all over the media, but now there is so much media and so many platforms that it’s not the same impact. Today, the message has to be very precise and catchy to break through, and this is a reason why it’s difficult for activists to set the agenda. Many in the media think that climate change is something we’ve already heard about. Popular movements need to look at how they handle the media and find angles that can motivate readers and turn them into potential activists, giving them a positive vision. We have to say, “Hey, leading country, this just isn’t working, and now we’re going to show you an alternative!”
However, Connie Hedegaard doesn’t think that the crisis for activism lies in the fact that NGO’s have become too large, quite the opposite: “I think it’s important that activism can gain power through large organizations which provide a true counterbalance to those who are trying to limit efforts to fight climate change. NGO’s are under economic pressure due to fewer grants, while those who they’re fighting have increased their funding, and this is causing the climate change movement to lose momentum.”
When opting out from the sin of climate change becomes an esthetic expression
On March 23, 2018, Madeleine Kate McGowan walked onto the stage at the art gallery Kunsthal Chartlottenborg in Copenhagen and read the poem “Tale of Downfall in a Collective Tone.” It was during the film festival CPH:DOX, and she wasn’t alone: Madeleine Kate was surrounded by the artistic community Goodiepal & Pals as well as by colleagues from the film project Other Story, which was also shown at the film festival. During the reading, they all mingled with the audience, interacting with them. In the weeks leading up to the happening, they worked on the story by logging into the text from around the world and writing about angst, anger, and frustration with the situation of climate change and of refugees that are leaving marks on their daily lives:
“The group working with Other Story was created for inspiration, and because the media doesn’t live up to its purpose of constructively telling about the world we live in. Instead, they just present opposite opinions, thereby creating conflict. Other Story is organized in groups that travel around the world. Which is why when we’re planning a happening, we get-together online, writing directly in a Google document that we read aloud when we meet at the happening,” explains Madeleine Kate.
She studies Art History, IT Design, and is writing a thesis about climate change narratives. Yet Madeleine Kate is also a good example of the artistic involvement that John Holten-Andersen is calling for, and the different ways some young people choose to organize their activism today:
“We know that we are all hypocrites – no one can live a ‘pure’ life in terms of climate change, so we need to show our vulnerability by doing performances and actions in a way that creates empathy, involvement, and respect. We are artistically investigating the expression of limits, because what happens when you don’t fly but take the train around the world, when you don’t eat meat, or when you are giving a reading but have to leave early because you don’t drive a car and have to take the bus home? There is an interesting potential that happens with spatial things when you can’t follow your desires anymore. In that way you change the uncomfortable renunciation of climate change sins to something positive,” concludes Madeleine Kate.