Ian Garrett is the director of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, an LA-based think tank on the intersection of Sustainable Development and the Arts. He’s also Associate Professor of Ecological Design for Performance at York University in Toronto where he teaches and researches sustainable approaches to performance and theatrical design. Beyond that, he creates and supports live performance as a producer, manager, designer. Phew! Ian took a breather from his very full schedule to talk about what sustainability means to him.What does sustainability mean to you? My “official” stance with the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts views sustainability as the intersection of environmental balance, social equity, economic stability and a strengthened cultural infrastructure. Seeing itself as evolved out of the principles of the 1987 Brundtland Report and 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the CSPA aligns itself with the policies of Agenda 21 for Culture as a resource for artists and art organizations. Personally, sustainability is about consciousness. It’s awareness of the systems I’m a part of socially, economically, and environmentally, and how what I do affects those system and other people (and non-human living things too). Can you give some examples of changes you’ve made to your personal, businesses or creative routines to move towards a more sustainable future? A lot of my work as an artist ties back to my sustainable priorities. In the last few years I’ve been researching and designing theatrical design projects which incorporate renewable energy solutions – both as a way to reflect that they’re adaptable, and as creative ways of introducing them to an audience. Outside of creative practice, I do a lot of research on how the arts can serve as a driver of sustainable societies based on the measurable and positive environmental, economic, and social impacts they create.
Throughout my professional and personal life, thinking about the systems in which we make choices and evaluating them for the sustainable choice doesn’t seem so much like a change anymore, but as my standard mode of operation.In terms of everyday personal changes, sustainability influences most of my decisions. I don’t know if it’s interesting to talk about personal waste stream strategies, or choosing renewable energy sources as part of your utilities, offsetting what you can’t mitigate, buying local… etc. Throughout my professional and personal life, thinking about the systems in which we make choices and evaluating them for the sustainable choice doesn’t seem so much like a change anymore, but as my standard mode of operation. What are some of the challenges you’ve come up against with sustainability? Are there any services you’d like to see which don’t exist? There will always be infrastructural and cultural challenges to any change when you’re dealing with pervasive systems. Our systems for energy use, transportation, waste, etc. are all based on a different understanding today. There are so many things we didn’t account for or didn’t think were important, and it’s very challenging to change things now. Our cultural inertia is hard to shift to make that change. It’s a constant process of evaluation, reconsideration, translation, contextualization, and communication. That can be asking a lot of people who just want to get through the day. I find that personal resistance is the biggest challenge. It boils down, especially in the arts, to two things: How does it change how I work and am I okay with that? How does it change what I’m making and am I okay with that? To some extent, the service I didn’t see was one which helped artists solve these questions… that’s why we started the CSPA. I’d love to see more of this help in evaluating how we can change what works into specific and individual action. Coaching for sustainable change – we’d do more of it, but it takes time and thoughtfulness. There are very few quick fixes when you accept the complexity of the world. What have been the benefits to doing things sustainably? The improved health of environmental, social, and economic systems. It’s a simple answer. But you can’t improve your own health with a single pill, or a week of diet and exercise. How have attitudes towards sustainability changed in your field? People are actually open to it, at least more and more. More people want to talk about strategies and solutions and how to think about sustainability in their contexts. When we started, there was a lot of concern that it was a trend, and that we were throwing wrenches in the works of established systems. It’s taken the last decade to really show that we’re in it for the long haul and that the actions we advocate and the thoughtfulness in planning we recommend, lead to greater “returns.” But, in working with arts and cultural institutions there are a lot of things standing in the way. There are not the resources to make quick shifts (sustainability or otherwise) in a lot of our arts orgs. And our corporate structures are not built for non-financial decision making a lot of time. The best metaphor I can offer is that we’re practicing social reforestation. Why is it important to choose sustainable options and solutions? Look, the planet is pretty uncaring as to if we’re here or not. We’re but another species that could be effectively wiped out and this rock would keep spinning and orbiting the sun. This is ultimately about our own long term survival: human sustainability. It’s a selfish pursuit. I think we’re worth it and we have the cleverness needed to preserve a livable place for future generations.