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In the first of our series looking at activism in the arts, Bridget McKenzie reflects on the relationship between creative practice and environmental activism.

Woman in from of a board of Letters to the Earth
The latest assembly was ‘Together We Act’, held on 3 September at the Southbank Centre with Letters to the Earth

Bridget McKenzie

After decades of part-time activism, in 2018 - as climate protests grew - I decided to focus entirely on culture’s response to the earth crisis. I founded Climate Museum UK, a collective of creatives engaging audiences with these issues. 

In early 2019 I co-founded Culture Declares, a movement of individuals and organisations declaring a climate and ecological emergency. Declaration isn’t the end goal but the start of a collaborative journey of truth-telling, action-taking and justice-seeking. 

Then in autumn 2020, after a pandemic-enforced phase of online reflection, we issued a joint declaration on which our values are based: “We declare that the Earth’s life-supporting systems are in imminent jeopardy, threatening human civilisation and the biodiversity it depends upon.”

Three years later

Now, three years later, the UN has said the climate crisis is ‘out of control’ and the aim of limiting warming to 1.5C is now impossible due to baked-in emissions. Disastrous impacts are kicking in everywhere, sooner than projected. Looking more widely, the earth crisis incorporates biodiversity loss and pollution, related to deforestation, agriculture, mining and waste.

Yet governments and companies continue extracting fossil fuels and destroying or polluting ecosystems. In this intensification of the emergency, Culture Declares is holding a series of assemblies, acknowledging this is the last moment we can choose our future, reviewing our strategy and exploring culture’s role. 

I believe it has a major role in transformative adaptation, which means raising awareness of the risks of collapse, and pushing action plans beyond reducing carbon emissions towards building new ways of working both within our practices and through Culture for systemic change.

Organisations can support bioregional transitions of communities from a growth-based economy, can be part of regenerative recovery of ecosystems and support efforts to protect places from climate impacts. 


Our latest assembly series began last month with the Southbank Centre and Letters to the Earth. It was excellent to be part of a high-profile gathering in a national organisation whose Artistic Director, Mark Ball, recognised that declaration in 2023 has to be about equality and justice, not recycling and reputation. 

Nearly 200 participants shared many ideas and challenging questions. They asked, how does the cultural sector get support for radical practice, not compromised by capitalism, in a nation licensing new fossil fuel projects? Will the impacts of the emergency limit our potential to act with communities for their safety, or will it create opportunities by showing the necessity of action? 

Declarers gather at Southbank Centre in September to share ideas. Photo: Bridget McKenzie

On 13th September, Culture Declares held a movement-wide online assembly, Unlocking Our Agency. We asked what activist processes and creative practices can enable us to create justice, care and welfare in this emergency. 

This was a chance for declarers to share their struggles before forming an energised plan of response. Creativity offers fantastic coping strategies and arts-led participatory projects can give a sense of empowerment in the face of a frightening future. However, there are many struggles. 


Creative practitioners can struggle emotionally with facing the implications of the crisis. We often see its deeper causes yet feel unable to effect change alone. We feel pressured to abandon time in beneficial creative practices to get stuck into local organising or direct action. In this time of artist precarity and conservative politics, we struggle to get funding for work seen as disruptive. Practitioners with experience of racism can be marginalised for their uncomfortable reminders of privilege. 

Activists working within organisations can feel unable to express radical views and as living costs rise, many can ill afford to lose salaried roles. In turn, many cultural organisations avoid active statements due to fears of accusations of hypocrisy, or because the media paints climate activism as ‘beyond the pale’.

In our movement-wide assembly, we also explored solutions to systemic barriers, such as Universal Basic Income, and hearing insights from organisations like Fun Palaces and Culture Unstained. Participants contributed to a ‘burst of hope’, sharing ways to unlock our agency. 

Our local Culture Declares hubs and, in Climate Museum UK, our place-based clusters aim to enable mutual support through distributed and non-hierarchical structures. Both organisations, and others, are in pinch points where we need to grow capacities to support practitioners while evolving the role of culture in transformative adaptation. 

Three suggestions

●    Larger cultural organisations could reinvent themselves to model and promote the transformations needed, but they must distribute resources and recognition fairly to small organisations and individuals, particularly to those with acquired expertise in arts activism. 
●    As a movement, we can seek support from media, funders and environmental groups to help articulate and show the value of cultural activism for the environment - beyond reducing footprint and towards transformative adaptation. 
●    We should collaborate rather than compete over limited resources, applying for funds together, gifting practical support, and sharing ideas to accelerate our effectiveness. 

If you’d like to contribute to this movement and gain support too, register to declare with Culture Declares and join or form a local hub. If you’re not ready yet, you can simply sign up to receive news of events and calls to action. 

Bridget McKenzie is Founder of Climate Museum UK and Co-Founder of Culture Declares.
@ClimateMuseumUK | @bridgetmck

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Thank you for such thoughtful writing about such a key issue. Collaboration is a must.