The world’s most hypocritical polluters?

Whilst climate change, ecological issues and unethical consumption are widely addressed within the creative world, the carbon footprint of art production itself is widely overlooked.

A stimulating and progressive aspect of our culture, art is placed on a pedestal; its environmental impact often being left unquestioned. But from transporting exhibitions across the globe, to the ecologically destructive toxins used in art supplies, to the energy-guzzling space heaters utilised for climate control in museums and galleries, the arts sector and creative industries are far from immune to environmental depredation. Commonly seen as the torchbearer for environmental awareness, should we think more carefully about the creative industry’s own consumption and carbon footprint?

The turn of the century brought with it an increasing sense of fear and cynicism regarding the future of our planet. One way this manifested itself was through a surge in the production of climate change documentaries addressing scientists’ concerns. Six Degrees Could Change the World, 2007, Conspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, 2014 and Before the Flood, 2016 were just a few. But a two-year study published by UCLA in 2006 indicated that the film and television industry was responsible for an estimated 140,000 tons of emissions a year, in Los Angeles alone. Creative endeavours such as these accrue air miles and resources just like anything else.

Museums and art galleries, too, are far from exempt from accumulating a substantial carbon footprint. Last year, British artist Damien Hirst participated in a total of eight exhibitions across the globe. Artworks were flown all over the world: from Hong Kong, Visual Candy and Natural History; to Ukraine, Fragile State; to Washington D.C., What Absence is Made Of. While Hirst has never claimed to be an avid climate change activist, the environmental impact of producing these worldwide exhibitions must have been colossal. Artists exhibiting their work more locally might not advance their international acclaim, but it would undoubtedly reduce their carbon footprint.

Many museums and art galleries, including the British Museum and V&A, use HVAC climate control systems to maintain an optimum temperature and humidity for the conservation of precious art and antiquities. Hugely environmentally damaging, these systems guzzle phenomenal amounts of electricity. While looking after and conserving artworks is extremely important, surely it’s time to explore greener, low-energy ways to protect collections?

Working with oils, acrylics, resins, and other art-related chemicals can also often do serious damage to the environment. Toxic pigments, solvents, petrochemicals and formaldehyde present in paint and art supplies can be harmful not only to the individual using them, but ecologically destructive too. If inhaled, ingested or put in contact with skin, many of these chemicals can be extremely hazardous to humans – and they are dangerous to plants and animals for the same reasons.

Things have improved. Certain cadmiums, cobalts and lead-based paints have now been banned through EU legislation. But there’s more that can be done.

Undeniably, environmental sustainability is heavily dependent on money; underfunding in the Arts means it is not always easy to invest in greener alternatives. But, although the carbon footprint of the arts and creative sector is admittedly minuscule in comparison to the footprint of the travel, farming and retail industries, that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from the responsibility to consider and improve its environmental impact. Environmental concerns and climate change are increasingly pressing issues. The creative industries have an obligation to set a precedent. The impact of artmaking and creative projects can hardly be compared to coal-burning power stations, but this doesn’t mean it can’t lead the way into a greener future.


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January 2022
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