Road Trip! Creativity & Sustainability Part 2

August 24, 2009

By the Dodge program staff

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(Part two of a three-part series)

Last Monday we started to bring you the voices of our grantees as we explore how the themes of creativity and sustainability relate to each other. We provided you with the following context: 1) We sent essay questions to a sampling of 40 arts, education, environmental and place-based nonprofit organizations, asking them to help us define creativity and sustainability and offer their thoughts about systems-thinking, connections, values, design and “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (BHAGs); 2) We identified several orientations that described the relationship between creativity and sustainability; and 3) We are considering these stimulating, seasoned and (at times) provocative answers as we frame a set of guidelines and philanthropic strategies that will have as powerful and positive an impact as possible.

Today we explore with you the following orientation:
Creativity = Sustainability

A key New Jersey education figure said, “Creativity is an essential ingredient in developing sustainable communities, in part because people will need new models to learn from and to inspire them…I would suggest that creativity and sustainability… are powerfully and inexorably connected in that each is the servant… and the master… of the other.”

In a more urgent voice, a key arts executive added the following:

I do truly believe that if we, as a species, do not begin to apply the concept that those two joined words imply to almost every human endeavor, we are in grave danger of losing the things that are the most important to the survival of not only of our physical beings, but of our spiritual beings. So, new creative thinking is urgent in everything: our environment, our economic structures, our communications, our educational systems, our energy sources, our social interactions and mores, our philosophies, our politics and our governments, and our personal and global ethics.

We MUST nurture, groom, grow, encourage, feed the creative spirit, the creative folds of our gray matter, the creative process, the art “of seeing things invisible” – and not just with the folks who happen to have a strong, born-with-it proclivity, but in all those who’ll be arriving in the future – or else face serious consequences, I should also say that I think that universal creativity does not mean that every single person has to be a creative genius, but it does mean that everyone has to accept and support new systems – the ability to do that requires opening our minds – and that is the creative act in its most basic form.

In looking at “creativity=sustainability” in practice we learned more about a student project wherein “communities of students create art in a natural setting using natural materials… photograph it… give their art, experience and landscape a “voice” with poetry… then design and publish a book of their work. The project is spreading beyond NJ schools, including three indigenous schools in Mexico, and it celebrates of the intersection of creativity, community, language and land. The educator went on to say that “to create sustainable communities we will need inspired teachers and inspiring models that help re-establish our forgotten relationship and kinship… between each other and with the natural world. The models we create must celebrate diversity and community. And as we enter the storm of climate change, these models must “strike like lightning.”

The “strike like lightning” phrase came from a John Gardener quote:

True art… clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets towards the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns. It does not rant. It does not sneer or giggle in the face of death, it invents prayers and weapons. It designs visions worthy of trying to make fact. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes… It strikes like lightning, or is lightning; whichever.”

Another example of “creativity = sustainability” came from the founder of an urban garden and farming initiative who said that in growing local food, “Creativity is essential in overcoming the obstacles one faces in working in inner cities with degraded, poisoned soil, small spaces, too much pavement, lack of infrastructure, lack of resources, lack of political will and let’s not forget the small things like no source of water nearby….It is creativity that allows one to be flexible, to deviate from the original plan to whatever works to get the job done. It is creativity that allows obstacles to be seen as opportunities. Creativity feeds sustainability – creating a sustainable society within the one we currently are living is entirely an exercise and a challenge in creativity.

We should note, however, that there was a counter voice to the notion that creativity = sustainability. A number of environmental leaders offered thoughts like the following:

It is important to note that many solutions may be creative, though not sustainable. In fact, many of the solutions which technology has provided for traditional problems are incredibly creative but hardly sustainable. Examples of this would include how American automakers have been very creative in designing larger and more luxurious cars over the last few decades. While these efforts may well have been creative, they were obviously not sustainable, as witnessed by the recent bankruptcy filings of major car companies. Similarly, technological solutions which allow drilling for oil and natural gas in deeper waters or in extremely inhospitable and fragile environments are clearly creative, but hardly sustainable. One could make a rather compelling argument that most of human history consists of a long series of creative and short-term successful attempts to utilize more and more resources less efficiently and with ever more impacts, so creativity alone is not necessarily a positive thing, and has actually lulled us into a false sense of security. This is because we tend to rely on the fact that we do not really need to change our lifestyles for more sustainable practices, because we are clever and creative enough to use technology to find creative solutions to pressing problems.

But there was almost a point, counter-point response in the following excerpt:

It is worth noting that creativity intersects with spirituality. “Dance is the hidden language of the soul,” said Martha Graham. “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” said Aldous Huxley.

If this orientation to creativity and sustainability (Creativity = Sustainability) resonates with you, please send us your thought and examples. Tune in next Monday as we bring you voices from the orientation “Creativity as the Means of Imagining a Sustainable Future.”

Related recommended reading included:

Closing the Food Gap, Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty by Mark Winne

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin, who said “To have a new vision of the future, it has always first been necessary to have a new vision of the past.”

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