From 24 to 28 February 2020, experts from all over the world gathered at the UN cultural organisation UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris to highlight the critical role that culture can play in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Culture determines how people behave. As culture seeps into everything we do in our lives and surrounds us, it easily becomes the glue that binds everything together determining structures, relationships and how we cooperate together.
Climate change also needs a comprehensive approach that affects everything we do, just like culture. In this article, I will argue that understanding, measuring, shaping, and promoting an effective culture can influence the way we deal with climate change and become an added and revolutionary value in this effort.
Human beings are characterised by their ability to produce and consume culture, and this is the most important characteristic that distinguishes them from other creatures. Each society has its own knowledge and culture, and each has its own characteristics and physical elements that consist of the way of life, the way in which the members of the society concerned use it and the methods they develop to do so.
Culture can fall under two orientations, a realistic trend that sees it as an acquisition of a particular society or group of human beings, and an abstract trend that sees it as a set of ideas not linked to a particular reality.
The social systems in which culture acts have nine origins: family, education, religion, morality, aesthetics, linguistics, economics, law and politics, all of which are acquired through socialisation. Human beings are unique in their ability to create culture and knowledge, which are social and human products and cannot exist without them. Because societies are constantly changing, change is a law to which all phenomena are bound.
Since human culture is heavily influenced by ecosystems, climate change is one of the greatest threats facing culture today. Increasing fires, floods, droughts, desertification and ocean acidification threaten the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Changes in ecosystems can have a significant impact on cultural identity and social stability, and human cultures, systems of knowledge, religions, heritage values, social interactions and associated forms of relaxation such as aesthetic enjoyment, recreation, artistic and spiritual well-being and intellectual development have long been affected by the nature of the ecosystems and environments in which they exist.
The rapid loss of culturally valuable ecosystems and landscapes inevitably leads to social unrest and social marginalisation, and this is now happening in many parts of the world. The importance of currently unrecognised cultural services and values in the planning and management of ordinary life can serve to better understand how societies manipulate ecosystems and thus link them to systems of cultural, spiritual and religious beliefs.
This recognition is reflected in the focus of many international organisations, among them the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UNESCO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), on identifying “cultural landscapes,” “agro-cultural ecosystems” and “World Heritage” and “Man and the Biosphere Sites” and “Reserves.” This so-called ecosystem approach implicitly recognises the importance of a social ecosystems approach, and policy formulations must enable local people to participate in the management of natural resources as part of their cultural landscapes.
People modify the ecosystems around them through cultural practices, values and visions of the world. Human activities depend on “natural” spaces and biological resources, which are partly cultural in nature as a reminder of history, practical knowledge and identity and as contributions to aesthetic values, such as urban or rural life, and resilience.
The traditional knowledge that people possess about their surrounding ecosystems is of immense value. It is their practices that must be recognised and used to better understand how cultures and ecosystems interact and engage in a dialogue with academic knowledge, particularly in the context of regional development projects that may affect, develop and share the ecosystem in question in order to promote environmental thinking and develop the values of sustainability.
Nature and culture have evolved together and form a constantly evolving balance, meaning that cultural and social values are closely linked to natural values.
UNESCO’s efforts over the past decade to defend the role of culture in sustainable development have had many results. The UN General Assembly adopted three landmark resolutions in 2010, 2011 and 2013 recognising the role of culture as an enabling element and an engine for sustainable development.
This process culminated in the integration of culture into the UN Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015, with a reference to culture being clearly made in one of the targets of Goal XI, “strengthening efforts to protect and preserve the global cultural and natural heritage.” Culture was also integrated into the New Urban Plan adopted at the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development held in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016.
These initiatives reflect innovative efforts to develop a methodology that demonstrates and highlights the impact of culture on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and that is adopted by countries on a voluntary basis. It also emphasises the major role that culture plays in the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development.
Culture can be an added value in addressing the challenge of climate change, and it is important to include it in the relevant decision-making processes.
* The writer is a professor of chemistry at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.