World Environment Day: is sustainability finally getting a prominent role in our lives?
This World Environment Day inevitably leads to thoughts concerning the changes that have enormously affected our lives in the past few months. The draconian measures undertaken to stop the spread of the virus have fasted-forward us into a future in which a number of climate actions have been taken all at once. However, whilst the evidence would seem to suggest that recent restrictions on travel have led to a drastic drop in CO2 emissions, a number of authoritative sources have recently shown that the situation is far more complex. Notably, they argue that environmental sustainability is not so easily achieved.
Beyond this scientific data, the exceptional conditions in which we have been and continue to be living have led to drastic and tangible changes from a social, political, and economic point of view. These changes have meant that environmental sustainability has, in some cases, taken on new centrality. The art sector is one of the most emblematic examples to quote in order to grasp the extent and importance of the changes currently taking place. We know that the discourse on the environment has been one of the fundamental engines of artistic expression for decades. However, events in recent months have led to a radical reformulation of these discourses, bringing about new synergetic relationships between sustainability, the environment, and art.
As discussed in our previous article, the “digital turn” triggered by the coronavirus emergency has further elicited cultural institutions to rethink their identity and role. By talking about “digital revolution”, we commented on ways in which museums, foundations and, more generally, cultural institutions found new strategies to enhance and to share their collections and heritage. This progressive change does not only refer to the need to establish new relationships and ways in which these institutions can connect and get engaged with their public. Nor can it be simplified by addressing the unprecedented ways of experiencing art and the artistic process caused by this unforeseeable situation.
Art as a go-between to devise impactful sustainable solutions
It is clear that, under these conditions, the role of the public itself has radically changed. Matteo Lucchetti, co-curator of the Visible project, recently discussed how and to what extent the environment and the issue of sustainability can currently be addressed in more impactful ways. He proposes exploiting the new relationship that has been established between cultural sites and the public sphere. Visible, Lucchetti explains, is a research project revolving around socially-engaged artistic practices and a collaboration with Judith Wielander and Naples Madre. A dialogue with the new director Kathryn Weir (the founder of the project “Cosmopolis” at the Centre Pompidou), and the inclusion of many other international sites, created the premises for addressing the issue of environmental sustainability. The project seeks to include a number of artistic processes which concretely tackle the issue of sustainable policies and climatic emergency in the collections of museums.
There are plenty of other examples one can quote when reflecting upon the new directions taken and the efforts made by the Art sector towards sustainability. Among these, we shall mention the Seasonal Podcast of the Serpentine Gallery. Presented by artist Victoria Sin in collaboration with the Serpentine’s curator of General Ecology Lucia Pietroiusti, the series brings together prominent voices, points of view, and campaigns whose focus lies in the crossroad of art and environmental sustainability.
The Serpentine Gallery deserves special mention also for hosting Cambio — the exhibition by Formafantasma, a duo of Italian designers based in Amsterdam. The exhibition is now closed to the public due to the current state of emergency, but much of it can be experienced for free through the Serpentine Gallery’s new digital guide Bloomberg Connect. Cambio examines the use of wood in global industry by addressing the impact it has had on the environment. The exhibition, as Formafantasma discussed in a recent interview with Deezen, is part of the designers’ broader reflection on the industry of wood and its supply chains. As the duo emphasises, a lack of communication between institutions, corporations and consumers often prevents meaningful large-scale changes from making the industry more sustainable from taking place, and stressed the role that designers can play in facilitating better communication.
Formafantasma has enriched the Serpentine exhibition by organizing a series of interviews related to them, which can be seen on the studio’s Instagram profile. Among the remarkable guests who took part in the initiative, we shall mention Philipp Pattberg, Political Scientist and Professor at the University of Amsterdam. Pattberg spoke about his research, focussing on the issues of Environmental Politics and Earth systems governance in the Anthropocene. Emanuele Coccia, Philosopher and Associate Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, presented his paper, entitled “new urban contract”. Coccia discussed our relationship with trees from a political point of view. The interview represented a follow-on from the project Cambio itself, for which Coccia wrote a monologue to give voice to the ADI animation that ends the exhibition, exhorting us to consider forests as something alive and worthy of respect.
The theme of environmental sustainability also has important connections with lifestyle choices. Stefano Boeri, the architect who gave birth to the well-known Bosco Verticale in Milan, has recently designed a new project to construct a Forest City in Liuzhou, Cina. In this pioneering project, all of the buildings will be covered with trees and plants. Thanks to this strategy, Lizhou will be able to absorb around 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of fine dust every year and produce around 900 tons of oxygen. Lizhou is thought to be a fully self-sufficient urban settlement from an energetic point of view.
Sustainable policies and the Manufacturing sector
On a wider scale, drastic changes undertaken due to the current environmental emergency, are forcing companies, distributors, and organisations to reflect on what new practices to adopt for the immediate future with a common goal — to make the whole system more sustainable and circular. Among these industries, the textile industry is in a crucial position, holding the negative record of the second most polluting sector in the world after the petrol sector, with over 25% of chemicals used in its production.
An emblematic example, in the Italian context, bears the name of Ermenegildo Zegna: the well-known textile company was pioneering in including environmental and infrastructural development and community welfare in their company missions. Zegna’s project included a number of innovative realities such as the creation of Oasi Zegna, a freely accessible nature park covering around 100 km2 between in the Biella Alps, in Piemonte. The Oasi, dates back to 1993, and represents a development of Zegna’s green thought. As the first Italian example of environmental heritage, the Oasi was created to be an outdoor laboratory, promoting environmental education and direct contact with nature, especially for young people.
Sustainable thinking, the exhibition by the designer Ferragamo, is an exhibition space created to address these central themes, which include the impact of the textile manufacturing sector in the environment and the importance of devising creative solutions, which can combine beauty and eco — compatible policies.
Examples such as those mentioned, drawn from the world of art and infrastructure, urbanization and the social question, on the one hand, highlight the multiplicity (potentially all-encompassing) of the perspective through which to consider the environmental issue; on the other, they demonstrate that several steps forward have been taken or are underway in order to tackle these environmental issues at such a critical time of planetary-scale human and ecological emergencies. If, as discussed at the beginning, the environmental impacts of the health emergency are questionable, the impact of these on the way of thinking about the environment in relation to social, political and cultural spheres has definitely changed. Today we celebrate World Environment Day with the awareness that a change is needed and that new adaptations yet to be devised must be aligned with impactful and sustainable development policies. Those same policies are outlined by the UN in its 2030 Agenda.