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Eco-responsibility: Towards realistically green performing arts

How can we reconcile touring with ecological consciousness? A current assessment and potential solutions.

« The advantageous energy is the energy we don't use.» Pierre Fitzgibbon, Minister of Economy, Innovation, and Energy Tout le monde en parle (October 1, 2023)

The adage holds that art is a universal language that transcends borders. By opening minds and touching emotional truths, it astonishes, brings people closer together, and even changes lives. This is especially true for performing arts, which—through bodies animated in front of a captivated audience—enable a real dialogue, where humans discover themselves to be even more human. As recurrent wildfires, sudden storms, and early heatwaves forcefully underline the urgency—or according to the UN, the collapse—of the climate situation, the arts community must rethink how it physically crosses borders that define its very essence. True to its sensitivity and avant-garde nature, the sector has been contemplating the ecological issue for decades and continuously innovates to create with an increasingly sharp conscience towards eco-responsibility and sustainability.

Status Quo: The contradictions of cultural outreach

But the ultimate frontier—as Kirk would say—remains space, movement, touring, braodcasting. Even if live art companies produce shows while minimizing their ecological footprint and venues host them in certified sustainable spaces, the bridge connecting these two collaborators remains fraught with obstacles despite all good intentions. At a time when funders emphasize the importance of creating and disseminating sustainably—going so far as to award additional points to applications proving they will make all possible efforts to be as eco-responsible as possible—outreach activities are pressed to change their strategies, even though the reality on the ground depends not only on the professionals' will. In this context, it is crucial to assess the situation to target the issues that need to be addressed for our shows to circulate greener, but more importantly, with an understanding of these realities.

Sector: A perception problem ?

To this need to use planes, trucks, dining, and lodging to fulfill its vital mission of circulation, the live arts community attaches a constant pressure to review its internal and external methods to make them more sustainable. Funders' incentives and public scrutiny guilt companies that sometimes struggle to find logistically or financially feasible alternatives to present their works sustainably (we will return to this). Conversely, the tourism industry—which indeed makes some efforts in terms of eco-responsibility—is not taxed with the same demands. Since the reopening of regions and borders, governments have been heavily promoting distant, long-duration, luxury tourist excursions. And the public—whose wanderlust was challenged during three years—has eagerly responded to the call by taking planes, trains, cars, hotels, and dining across Quebec and the world in what has been called "Revenge Tourism." Ecologist trends are indeed concerned about the multiplication of international transportation and excessive consumption, advocating for a more sustainable "Slow Tourism" that is gaining popularity. And governments do indeed impose sustainability policies on various involved entities in tourism. But these calls remain largely unheeded as the tourism industry rejoices in the unbridled enthusiasm of vacationers: airlines are significantly expanding their fleets, anticipating more revenue from international transport in the coming years.

While producing a Quebecois dance show in Paris allows a whole population to travel without the ecological burden of having all of France fly to Quebec, it may be interesting to change perspectives to notice that the cultural sector is already one of the industries with the smallest ecological footprint. Certainly, with the current climate crisis, leaders are pressing (rightly so) all industries to make more efforts to make their actions more sustainable. Culture is no exception, of course, but it is a leader: pioneering in eco-responsibility since the 60s, it is far more advanced in implementing sustainable measures. Knowing that art allows people to travel without the audience having to move, the displacement of a troupe can appear more sustainable by default.

Degrowth: How to reconcile Creation and Reduction?

Among the options that offer rapid and concrete returns on the ecological footprint, degrowth is increasingly discussed. As the term suggests, this concept aims for a slowdown of activities until a planned reduction is achieved. While the idea might seem mathematically appealing (less production, less pollution) for some industries wishing to cut back on capitalism and mercantilism, the concept runs counter to the essence of art, which aims to imagine the world and see this vision embodied in reality.

With the current deterioration of the environmental situation, considering degrowth at the cultural sector level appears more than likely. It remains to be seen whether artists—sensitive to the world in which they create—or governments—aspiring to deploy carbon neutrality in the medium to long term—will provide the impetus for such a reform in approaching art. No matter where the first shovel comes from, it will be crucial for all players to consult and act together to build sustainable structures conscious of the unique realities of creation. Where is the line between imposing production limits and infringing on freedom of expression? How much more can the live arts sector reinvent itself alone? Support for the sector will be essential to successfully carry out this endeavor, paradoxically as indispensable as it is currently unthinkable.

Future: Minimize vs Adapt

While everyone is currently called to minimize their ecological impact, the discourse on adapting to inevitable changes is still awaited. At a time when summer festivals must contend with unpredictable rains that force their daily closure, when tours must reshuffle their schedules to avoid suddenly flooded areas or near a wildfire, when overseas set delivery is delayed by a post-tropical storm, what measures will be taken to protect artists, their creations, and their profitability? Beyond ensuring that nature does not deteriorate further, how to deal with the risks and hazards of its fragility? Current structures have succeeded in their pivot towards prevention; measures to address emerging challenges need to be studied and implemented.

Transport: Limited alternatives

Pragmatically, several solutions that could reduce the ecological impact of a tour remain unfortunately inaccessible. Transport—the most energy-consuming expense in the sector—is the most flagrant demonstration of this. In Quebec, the desire to travel sustainably is hampered by a lack of viable options. Many cities are inaccessible by train or bus, or involve immense delays: it takes 23 hours to travel from Gaspé to Montmagny by bus, compared to six and a half hours by car. These delays can quickly accumulate over a multi-city tour, making lodging logistics complex, not to mention the fatigue of performers spending all their time on the road. And this is assuming that the necessary equipment for performances can be transported in the hold: despite efforts to create compact and recycled scenographies, several shows could not inspire audiences without significant sets and props. Turning to vehicle rental then becomes the only solution, but one runs into the absence of trucks or electric cars that allow emission-free movement. And air transport speaks for itself.

Non-existent services

Once on the road, live art companies wishing for sustainable lodging and dining often find themselves without viable options. While it is essential for Quebecois art to illuminate the faces of audiences in Sept-Îles, Rouyn-Noranda, Braunschweig, or Taipei, these cities may not necessarily have facilities that meet the sustainability standards of funders. Hotels or motels may not practice eco-responsible actions, and accessible restaurants may not offer vegetarian or vegan menus. And the best alternatives are sometimes hundreds of kilometers away: how to make a timely entry into a venue in Gaspé when the team must sleep and eat in Quebec City, the closest city with certified establishments? In other cases, institutions that meet sustainability criteria are financially out of reach for touring companies, as these hotels and restaurants must themselves charge more to afford to apply these measures. Faced with this situation, organizations often have to choose the lesser evil, due to lack of means and time.

Solution paths: Gathering around a realistic picture

Faced with these findings, the cultural sector and its structures must continue their journey towards ever greener artistic manifestations, but especially conscious of the real parameters in which they evolve. Without claiming to hold a perfect solution, CAPAS shares its reflections based on its experience from its post-pandemic missions and tours, which allowed it to see the current situation and exchange with national and international actors.

An ecological measured snapshot

To adapt its actions, one must first have an overview of the current impact of the cultural sector on the environment. By asking organizations in the sector to calculate their ecological footprint on the Creative Green platform, the CALQ will be able to rely on concrete data to understand which actions have significant or negligible repercussions on the environment. Once the measure is imposed on all supported operating organizations in 2028, the cultural sector will have a powerful tool to guide its structural choices. Such a sector-wide snapshot will also allow understanding the cultural industry's position relative to other industries, giving it additional political weight. From an individual perspective, compiling statistics certainly takes time, but it can subsequently allow one to defend their decisions with proof in hand.

Smart tours

Organizing tours that minimize unnecessary or redundant travel is a simple way to reduce one's ecological impact. Instead of going to Quebec City, then Montreal, and then heading to Gaspé before doing Gatineau, it would be ideal to do Gatineau, Montreal, Quebec City, and finally Gaspé. Concertation of presenters and companies allows the creation of such schedules that chain nearby cities over a short duration. In addition to minimizing the ecological impact of tours, deploying this strategy allows focusing communication efforts around the same period and sometimes a smaller territory, reducing their costs and increasing their impact. Obviously, such optimized tours require open exchange channels not only between artists and presenters but also between the presenters themselves. Structuring organizations and dedicated cultural workers then allow this whole mechanism to run smoothly.

A sufficient budget

Eco-responsible innovations, both in the city and abroad, often require the use of new technologies that raise the costs of suppliers who distribute them. Thus, hotels certified as sustainable and the tools necessary for a tour with a small ecological footprint can sometimes cost several times the price of an equivalent alternative whose impact on the environment is more pronounced. Companies and presenters must therefore plan part of their budget accordingly to enable them to make sustainable choices in terms of travel, lodging, and dining. If funders pay particular attention to the sustainable measures of submitted projects, the increase in grants awarded accordingly will allow these cultural shows and activities to have the real means of their ambitions, thus putting government values into action.

A broad consultation

Eco-responsibility and sustainability evolve rapidly, as scientific knowledge is popularized, technologies become accessible, and practices are honed. Thus, the live arts sector is called to continuously review its actions, on all fronts: preproduction, production, dissemination, post-dissemination. However, the efforts put into one industry gear should not be made obsolete by the actions of another. In the same sense, while some challenges are easy to address (changing some materials, raising professional awareness), those that require more time or more effort should not be pressured, making their application synonymous with precarity for artists and organizations. By promoting multilateral exchanges that take into account the realities of each tier of a show, discussions will allow the implementation of organic, realistic, and affordable changes so that the live arts sector can remain at the forefront without weakening certain links.

A fairer perception

In the image-driven world we live in, it is a priority that the significant efforts of the arts sector in terms of eco-responsibility and sustainability be highlighted so that they are recognized and valued. This recognition would not only lead more professionals (cultural or otherwise) in its wake but also strengthen the public's positive bias towards the arts and the structures that support them. Since audiences maintain a double standard regarding certain sectors—exalting travel but shunning initiatives without measurable eco-responsible repercussions on their scale—a fair communication would allow to showcase that attending a touring show can represent an eco-responsible civic act. Studies show that presenting alarming facts and images about the climate emergency can have a discouraging effect, in addition to maintaining a certain cynicism about the situation. By highlighting the good moves, we directly support the efforts of cultural workers who are thinking about the eco-responsible future of our society, and indirectly the works we wish to promote.

Thus, the circulation of live arts can—if it has the means of its ambitions—play a decisive role in the pursuit of the cultural sector's efforts to do its part to counter the impact of climate changes. This outreach of the arts is indeed the cornerstone of this path towards a more sustainable planet: by expanding horizons, making audiences dream, and showcasing diverse realities, we foster a better awareness of the world in which we live. And by doing so, we come to want to protect it more.


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