Looking at climate change through culture and art | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 16, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 16, 2018

Looking at climate change through culture and art

If you go to Cape Farewell's website, you will see written in large letters, against what seems to be a giant glacial art installation, the question: “What does Culture have to do with Climate Change?”

And just below it, the answer, written plainly: “Everything.”

Cape Farewell was started by UK artist David Buckland back in 2001 to inspire a cultural response to climate change. Bringing together artists working in a wide variety of mediums together with climate scientists, the project attempts to push society to imagine a more sustainable and vibrant future.

They believe—just as I do—that climate change is not just a scientific problem, but a cultural issue as well. As we continue to burn fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, societies around the planet will have to learn what it means to live in a warmer world.

This is why we are hosting the “Climate, Culture, and Art Symposium 2018” for the youth at the end of the week. (Registration for the event itself is closed; but read till the end if you want to attend the final programme.)

As part of the Climate Youth Initiative Project funded by USAID, the symposium will bring together youth from across the country—from both private and public universities—to engage with climate change from a cultural and arts perspective.


Loss of traditional culture and folklore

For instance, as our country's seasonal patterns change, we have to ask difficult questions about what will happen to festivals such as Poush Mela and Chaitra Shangkranti (celebrated respectively by Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus) at the start of the winter if winter no longer comes?

And what about the words of Khona, the famous astrologer who lived between the 9th and 12th century CE in Bengal? Her proverbs about agriculture, will they still be relevant under these new climate conditions, when rains no longer come at the time of year they used to? 

Then there are the Bauls, who would wander around preaching their wisdom through songs, drawing their inspiration from nature. As the country has quickly urbanised and our natural ecosystems transformed, what will happen to their way of life? How will this be reflected in their songs?

Now, of course, we have to recognise this loss is not all due to climate change but also rapid industrialisation and modernisation. There is a whole generation of urban youth who know more about Westeros, the fictional land of the hit TV show Game of Thrones, than they do about the weaving rivers of Bangladesh.

As this new generation loses touch with traditional practices that would have otherwise tied them to the rhythms of the landscape, will they even notice the Earth's atmosphere changing around them?


The poster child for climate change?

Dr Kasia Paprocki, an assistant professor at the Department of Geography and Environment at LSE, wrote an important opinion piece recently in Al Jazeera titled “We need to change the way we talk about climate change.”

In it, she argues that the story of Bangladesh as the poster child of the biggest victim of climate change is not only worn out and untrue, but a liability for the country to successfully adapt. This is because this narrative defines the country by “powerlessness, inferiority, dependency, and failure.”

Part of the symposium will challenge participants to think about where this outdated understanding of Bangladesh comes from, and how we can tell our own stories of a people who have survived the most volatile natural hazards. As climate expert Dr Saleemul Huq always says, “We are not the victims of climate change, but the champions of adaptation.”


Engaging the public through art and culture

Now my history of 1950s Dhaka is not great. But with what little I know, I am fascinated by the role artists played in bringing society together and helping create a distinct Bengali identity.

And I believe young artists can do the same thing again, this time to help the public confront climate change. Because as the famous climate change slogan goes: “To change everything, we need everyone!”

Plus by art, I don't just mean paintings, but also theatre, poetry, film, photographs, and emerging forms of multimedia.

This is why the “Climate, Culture, and Art Symposium 2018” will end with closing performances with help from Open Space Theatre; sound designers who worked on the Dhaka Noise project; poets whose words I'm sure have inspired you; rickshaw artists from Old Dhaka; and many more.

Whether you are a concerned citizen, a researcher, a practitioner, an artist yourself or even a student who dreams of one day changing the world, we would love to have you at the final day session of our symposium.


The closing programme of the “Climate, Culture, and Art Symposium 2018” will be held at the auditorium of the Independent University, Bangladesh in Bashundhara on Saturday, March 17. Doors open at 4pm.


Meraz Mostafa is a research officer at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh.

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