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Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

February 19, 2020

SIMS | Is ‘Artist’ a Green Job?

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Discussions about transitioning from a fossil fuel to renewable energy economy often spend time talking about “green jobs.” Options such as installing solar power arrays and maintaining wind turbines are often thrown around. But, presumably, a green economy would need more than just the energy sector to employ people in “green jobs.” Could the art industry also be considered “green”?

The authors of The Leap Manifesto, an online coalition of Canadian social movement leaders, think so. In 2015, they wrote: “Shifting to an economy in balance with the earth’s limits also means expanding the sectors of our economy that are already low carbon: caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts and public-interest media.”

The question of whether art is really a low-carbon sector is a slippery one. Last spring, an analysis of the carbon footprint of Spotify assessed that the streaming alone (not the electricity data centers use, and not the electricity required to charge your cell phone and laptop to play the music) resulted in the release of hundreds of millions of kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions.

What the article doesn’t mention is that the millions of kilograms are about 200,000 metric tons, and that the U.S. greenhouse gas footprint was 5.4 billion metric tons in 2018. “Devastating,” as the article puts it, is an overstatement, but if you include all of the YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, etc., videos streamed, as well as the electricity demand of the data centers and streaming devices, it’s definitely not negligible. Luckily, this energy demand is already electrified (unlike, say, natural gas heating) so it can be converted to renewable electricity easily.

If you’ve ever seen two 18-wheelers and a tour bus in front of the State Theater, you might have noticed that there’s a sizeable transportation cost which goes into touring. If you’re a Coldplay fan, you might resent that just a little bit, as they decided not to tour on their most recent album because they felt they couldn’t justify the environmental cost. There aren’t great numbers available on the total carbon footprint of touring musicians, but it’s unlikely that it is comparable in any way to the footprint of other types of trucking.

One of the weird things about art is that while much of it is material, it’s debatably not materialist. While the accumulation of stuff is typically considered anti-environmental — for example, big wardrobes of fast fashion, or a full 17-car garage — there’s something about the accumulation of art that tends to be considered differently. We have special words for it like collecting or curating, and it feels offensive to call it “stuff,” but isn’t it?

I don’t have a great answer to this, but one of the things that sticks out to me is that art can be about the process of creation. The skill, time and originality of a work is what makes it special. Does craftsmanship eliminate the commodification of art, or is a pair of shoes designed by a CFC student just as artful as your dad’s tennis shoes?

I think we might do better by imagining art as not so material. For example, instead of imagining the expansion of the arts as a way to get more paintings in the homes of elites, it could be focused on painting murals on every brick wall, with millimeters-thick layer of paint, not possessed or accumulated by any one person. Performing arts, also, defy ownership and accumulation. Art education programs — both for young people and adults — are another non-accumulative way to encourage artistic flourishing.

Non-material, communitarian ways of expanding art are a huge societal positive. Art, as anyone who likes it will tell you, is an enormous social good. It’s responsible for the development of people’s values about different subjects, and strengthens democracy by providing media for expressing and discussing opinions.

What about the actual creation of these “green jobs”? Art, other than the kind that’s a status symbol, has a hard time growing in an economy dedicated to profit as the primary mode of assessment. At a time of transition in the economy, as we re-work the way industry and energy address climate change, including environmentally and socially beneficial art as a priority of the economy should be a critical consideration.

 

Katie Sims is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ksims@cornellsun.com. Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.