Culture, Restoration, and the Arts by Peter Wells

Preface: This is a guest post by Peter Wells, a permaculture designer who himself integrates arts and landscape regeneration (the subject of this post). It is the first in series of posts based on emails that spurred discussion among the SERT google group, and is part of a new effort to share some of the highlights of those materials publicly. While we do not replicate here all the subsequent exchange, we hope that the reader still finds the originary thread (re)generative. Peter first shared this piece with the group on February 11, 2022. New comments on this blog are welcome and encouraged!

This late hour of the climate & biodiversity crisis has catalysed a series of global targets for ecosystem restoration, including The Global Safety Net (for protecting half of terrestrial areas), the 30×30 target, 1000 Landscapes for 1 billion People, and the current UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. These strategies place top priority on safeguarding and strengthening biodiversity hotspots, Red-Listed ecosystems, transboundary partnerships, cultural heritage landscapes, and freshwater reserves. 

Rising to meet these targets is a global mosaic of landscape-scale regeneration projects, many between 100,000 – 1M hectares, that are applying integrated landscape management practices with local stakeholders, reintegrating primary production with ecologies, localizing supply chains, and bringing international finance to support transformations. But despite having a full array of technical and practical tools to restore these ecoregions, one of the greatest challenges to implementation remains culture. By no means a new challenge, there is now a widespread appreciation for the social and cultural dimensions of conservation and the need to navigate these complex spaces to ensure lasting solutions. As the Commonland Foundation has articulated in their own framework, inspiration is an essential quality of bringing communities on the journey to a more beautiful, resilient future and the arts are a perfectly positioned discipline to deliver this outcome. 

Art’s relationship to and impact on ecologies is as old as culture itself, however in the modern area it has historically been relegated to a descriptive purpose and trapped inside “the white box” of galleries & institutions. Since the mid-20th century, art has increasingly broken this mold and applied itself to the ecological crisis. Building on the Land Art movement in the 1960’s, in 1982 Joseph Beuys planted 7000 oak trees as an ecological protest around the city of Kassel. In 1989 Newton & Helen Mayer Harrison led an arts intervention in former Yugoslavia which resulted in the protection of a 700km stretch of the Sava River and ultimately a 930,000ha biosphere reserve between 5 countries, fully inscribed by UNESCO last September. In 2008 Frances Whitehead discovered phytoremediation abilities in 12 species of wildflowers while remediating 8 abandoned gas station sites in Chicago. In 2009, Jason deCaires Taylor created the M.U.S.A. underwater art museum in the CancĂșn Marine Park with 500 life-sized sculptures (90 of which are direct casts of local people), seeded with 2,000 juvenile corals. Pre-Covid, the site received 750,000 visitors a year, and has spawned sister projects worldwide. The list goes on. 

Today, there art are roughly 3 categories of art being employed for landscape regeneration: works that are actively participating in an ecology, generating soil, species habitat, topography; works that are translating an ecology, rendering scientific datasets into mapssoundscapes, or other media that enable people to engage with ecological complexities; and narrative works that are envisioning or forecasting a future for an ecosystem or a place, these can be an immensely powerful tool for collaborative planning and has been employed by the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes, as well as through speculative Solarpunk fictions, visualizing the Green New Deal,  and transdisciplinary labs such as ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. As to the practitioners themselves, Frances Whitehead frames the ability of artists to respond to complex problems by speaking many “languages” and frameworks, an immensely valuable skill for any team navigating a landscape-scale multi-stakeholder project. 

Looking into the near future, there are many conduits for arts to support ecosystem management and a broad diversity of practitioners exploring these fulcrums. Thanks to the efforts of sector leaders like Julie’s Bicycle & Creative Carbon Scotland, national arts & cultural actors are aligning their strategies for drawing down their 70MT CO2 footprint (18MT excluding visitor travel), more projects embracing a community or festival spirit like Ecosystem Regeneration Camps will propagate, and the Burning Man Foundation is will continue developing it’s a 1,500ha Fly Ranch property in the Black Rock Desert, an R&D site for more permanent artworks and ecologically generative infrastructures in dryland environments. UNESCO will be growing it’s Network of Environmental Experts to strengthen the 10 million km2 of reserves & heritage sites (equivalent to the size of China) and there will be some very interesting synergies between landscapes, heritage, and cultural sustainability. Alongside this, a handful of systems change organizations such as the Buckminster Fuller Institute and the Transformations Community will continue to forge collaborations between scientists and artists for ecological impact. 

As always, we close with a question that we invite you to consider and respond to. How have you integrated the arts as a conduit to cultural change in your resilient landscape?

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