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The Complexity of Sustainability


by CEO Fiona Wotton


Sustainable September was Creative Kernow’s month-long exploration of sustainability in all its forms, and a chance to take stock on how we as an organization are progressing against our goals.  I’m really proud of the depth and breadth of activity our programmes embark upon in the name of sustainability as it demonstrates how we are using our position, at the intersection of so many creative networks, to influence debates, showcase best practice and change behaviour. For example, FEAST’s Shout LOUDER campaign is sending Cornwall’s creative response to the climate emergency all the way to the Glasgow COP26 this November. Screen Cornwall has committed to ensuring all screen productions they commission are equipped with a high Albert sustainability accreditation. Cultivator was a partner of GoodFest 2021 festival this month. And C Fylm’s The Big Green Week film festival allowed audiences throughout Cornwall to watch powerful and provocative documentaries about the climate crisis. Alongside this, our organisation is doing lots of internal work on our environmental footprint as we work towards our vision to be net carbon-zero by 2030.


Screening of Ian McCarthy’s Wild Cornwall – Out on the Edge at the Old Bakery Studios in Truro, along with Q&A with the director as part of C Fylm’s The Great Big Green Week film festival


For many years, my life choices have been dominated by one resounding question: “How sustainable is it?” It is a complex question because sustainability is anything but simple.  Is it better, for example, to support our local village shop because it sustains much-needed jobs for people in my remote community, or to travel further for products with better eco credentials?  More recently, sustainability has been closely aligned with survival as I contemplate the wellbeing of my family. In the context of a virulent virus, layers of plastic packaging provide protection but represent a massive step backwards in the battle against waste and pollution.  Professionally, I have tried to influence debates and strategy discussions about sustainable tourism in Cornwall and have felt both frustration and empathy that the economic impact of changing the system continually outplays the need for environmental action.

Even the very simplest models of sustainability reveal potential for conflict and competition.  The ‘three pillars model’ – environment, society and economy – assists in the conception of the whole problem but it can also magnetise groups towards one pillar at the expense of their understanding of the other two, as well as everything which might fall between the pillars.  It is the complexity of the problem that has often paralysed our collective actions and led us from a state of danger into one of emergency. And whilst the power of technology may well be the solution that leads us to safety, what we truly need is a powerful human response.

I believe that the often overlooked social aspect of sustainability holds the key to progress and is the area to which culture and creativity have much to contribute. Change will only come when we all engage in the process, and sustainable community actions are vital building blocks. Culture and creativity provide us with a reason to get together, different ways of looking at the problem, and powerful liminal moments that spur us towards understanding and action.  Our sector is also well placed – though still with much to do – to ensure that we remove barriers to enable everyone to take part.  We need to keep reflecting on who is at the table and who is missing in these conversations and use our armoury of tools, creative talent, technology, physical spaces, networks, music, language and colour, to draw everyone in.

As we look to our global leaders attending COP26 in Glasgow in November and urge them towards more stretching targets for reducing carbon emissions and global warming, it is natural to feel helpless and disempowered.  We know from our work in communities of place and practice across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly that small actions do make a difference.  As anthropologist Margaret Mead, someone who knew a lot about small group dynamics, advised, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”