PostNormal Times: The Llama on the Cow Farm
PostNormal Times is a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world—a world where the stakes are high and innovation is crucial. Andrew Vosko, PhD, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at CGU, and his guests explore ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. Get ready to challenge your assumptions.
In episode 4 of PostNormal Times, Andrew Vosko talks with David Maggs, Fellow on Arts and Society at the Metcalf Institute, a Toronto-based institution focused on the performing arts, climate, and poverty reduction. Maggs shares his journey from “llama on a cow farm” to international thought leader on the integration of the arts and sciences and the challenges of generating transformative change. Listen to the full episode below and subscribe via Spotify, iTunes, or RSS.
ANDREW VOSKO: Welcome to PostNormal Times, a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world, where stakes are high, and innovation is crucial. In this series, I get to sit down with some of my favorite minds to explore new ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. I’m Andrew Vosko, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at Claremont Graduate University. Welcome to the show.
Our conversation today is going to be with a good friend and colleague, Dr. David Maggs, who is a fellow at the Metcalf Foundation. That right, David?
DAVID MAGGS: That’s correct
ANDREW: He has been a fellow at the University of Toronto (he’s a good fellow!). He has been a scholar and researcher all over Canada, and a frequent guest of the United States. He’s been a fellow in Europe, in Germany. You’re pretty much a globetrotter around sustainability, sustainable change, and arts, is that correct?
DAVID: That’s a good description.
ANDREW: How about I let you introduce yourself because you’re probably going to give yourself more credit than being a ”good fellow?”
DAVID: No, I thought you did a great job, Andy. The current circumstances, yes, I’m working with the Metcalf Foundation, which is a foundation in Toronto focused on performing arts, climate, and poverty reduction. I was a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, looking at culture and climate change before that. And yes, there’s a sort of trail back there that includes the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, and some other places up north.
ANDREW: So, we’re interested in trails. That’s one of the things that this podcast is about: It’s about people who are making these big differences in our world, who’re trying to connect—yes, I’m telling you that you’re making a big difference in the world! I’m going to reassure you that you are as special as I think you are!—and who have bridged very, large distances, as you said, working in the cultural sectors and sustainability, climate change sectors, the arts world, people who are unafraid to build these bridges, and how they got there. Because I think that that the transformation that we so want to bring to the world, that is often rhetorically used everywhere, you know, “the change you’re going to bring about,” “make a difference,” you know, “be disruptive.” We hear all these terms and then we also hear the rhetoric of, “Well it begins with you.”
We don’t need to write a song about it, but I think everybody has this story of a “trail” where we can witness that transformative process, and how it translates into their formal education, their informal education, their choices, their careers, their projects, those moments that change them. And I’m curious to learn about some of them that you’ve experienced. What was little David doing that was leaving his footprint on this planet?
DAVID: I grew up in a place called Newfoundland, which is way on the east coast of Canada. It’s the easternmost point of North America. It was settled for one reason, which was codfish. It was settled, variously, by different European powers in the mid-16th century, basically just around this resource of codfish. That lasted for many centuries.
I was lucky enough to be a kid in Newfoundland when that resource came to an end. The whole reason that people were in Newfoundland for all those centuries finally dried up in the early-mid 1990s, in what’s known in Newfoundland’s history as the cod moratorium: the moment that they shut down that fishery.
My parents weren’t involved in the cod fishery, so they didn’t have a sort of immediate stake. My parents didn’t lose their jobs as so many people in Newfoundland did at that moment. And so, it wasn’t a kind of direct impact. But as I’ve tried to understand how I ended up thinking about the world the way that I do and trying to act in it in the way that I do, that moment, that historical moment of living through what was really the collapse of a culture, has informed me in a variety of different ways.
First of all, just with the insight that worlds can collapse, that worlds can come to an end. And we saw in that case, a very small world come to an end through an ecological crisis. And so, that sensibility, it’s like maybe witnessing death at a young age, and you go, “Oh, wow, mortality is a thing …” And so, I had that kind of, “Oh, wow, mortality’s a thing” insight at the level of a culture, at the level of the society.
I think that was really important and has had lots of reverberation through the kind of choices that I made in the way that I try and think about things, particularly over the past couple of decades.
ANDREW: Can I go into a concept that you introduced that I want to explore a little bit? I think there’s something there that illustrates a way that I know we converse, sometimes, but also … there’s an important mismatch that’s worth addressing.
So, at first when you started, beginning with the young David story, the “dark and stormy night,” I was thinking, “OK, he’s giving us lived experience, and situated knowledge,” right? But then you mentioned a world collapse, and I thought, “Oh, this is a challenge to your metaphysics. This is a challenge to what a world is.”
If you have a difference between looking at someone as bringing into a space their situated knowledge, it’s almost like a commodity: “OK, he’s bringing in something that’s worth an exchange,” or “It has a value based on the problem that I’m telling you it is.” But, if you bring in somebody who understands that a world can be collapsed, reformed, reshaped, or transitioned, then you’re bringing in a very different player in a conversation.
Do you see it that way, because I just put a bunch of words in your mouth? But secondly, did you realize this at some point it wasn’t the same thing?
DAVID: I think it took me a while to realize that the instinct that had been left in me was that worlds come and go. You can imagine the goldfish realizing that there are other goldfish bowls around and that this one won’t last forever. So, it has an impact on what you think the world is, first of all.
Then, to your other point, that it then has a huge impact on what you think competence or knowledge—or any of those things that you were talking about—is, and that there’s a context in which they matter and are relevant and necessary and there’s a context in which they are unrecognizable.
And I think that was part of the crisis that a lot of people went through in Newfoundland: Once their world went, their whole sense of relevance and competence and how to live went with it as well. And so, watching a lot of people whose identity was not just in their own lived experience, but generational, suddenly evaporate and watch them pick up and redefine themselves in some pretty heroic ways was, I think, part of what I took from that.
ANDREW: So, did you witness or were you one of the people who successfully did this as well as the people who didn’t successfully do this? It reminds me of that Victor Frankel thing, where he’s watching people who survived (or didn’t) terrible conditions, and he boiled it down to a variable: They found meaning. Did you go through a similar exercise in your own mind?
DAVID: This didn’t become really biographical for me until I had my own more direct encounter with what I see as the same sort of the same experience, but on an individual level. So, I left Newfoundland and was a piano player. That’s what I did, classical piano. And that was the world that I lived in and developed a level of competence within, and spent a lot of time down here in the States, at places like Tanglewood and Kneisel Hall, and these wonderful American institutions that are dedicated to celebrating classical music here in the U.S.
And then in 2008, when I was in an early career moment, the CBC, which is the Canadian equivalent of the BBC, and our dominant public broadcaster, like PBS in the U.S., had a whole channel that was completely dedicated to classical music. And their need for content kept us all alive. And overnight, with a sudden change in policy, they canned that commitment to classical music. And so, the demand side of the classical music world evaporated overnight in Canada.
This was, from a personal level, my equivalent of that cod moratorium: the classical music moratorium. This was my own world collapse that happened. And what’s been interesting is to watch myself and my colleagues who were in that classical music world react really differently to that. Some people read it as a world collapse, like I did. Other people said, “OK, well, you know, the pie got smaller, but if we get really efficient and we really try to be really, really good at finding our niche, we don’t have to acknowledge that there’s been a collapse of a world, here.”
From watching the way in which those two different interpretations open very different ways of responding, what do you do now? Do you learn to figure out how to still be a classical music musician inside a classical music world that arguably got a little smaller and a little more awkward? Or do you turn and say, “OK, the world has just changed dramatically, now we need to figure out what to become next?”
ANDREW: So, there’s a gap, though. You introduce the cod moratorium, and then you introduce this classical music moratorium. I’m guessing you had developed some agency between these two things, or at least that you understood when there was a world shifting, or a world collapsing, for that matter, that you realized that you could make a choice to either join a new world, create a new world, or adapt yourself to fit into the changing world.
Was this something that was as simple as the narrative you pulled from the cod moratorium, like, “OK, there are three easy steps I need to take to make this happen” or was it you had just become, yourself, an adaptive individual? Had you gone through some form of transformation, already, by that point that allowed this to be an easy move for you?
DAVID: If anybody gave a really certain, autobiographical answer to a question like that, I would say we’d have to be a little bit suspicious, so I’m inviting anybody listening to be suspicious of my answer. I’m putting this together later, but the way that I would put it together, now, and how true this is, I don’t know.
I think that my instinct upon reading the writing on the wall when the whole classical music world collapsed (which was 15 years after that experience with the cod moratorium), was heavily conditioned by the fact that I had been introduced to the idea that worlds come and go. I think if I hadn’t been introduced to the idea that worlds are things that come and go, I think I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to go, “Oh, this is that moment where I become something else. The world has just changed, therefore, I need to as well.” I think I would have done what a lot of my colleagues did, which is to sort of say, “Now, we’ve got a scrap after a much smaller little piece of pie, but we can still believe that that world is still going on somewhere.”
What I do feel content with is that the option of moving into, accepting, or embracing the idea that this is about a world shift left me with a far more creative life than a lot of my colleagues who remained inside…
ANDREW: Do you think also, let’s say you became an accountant and there was a crisis in accounting that meant that you had to suddenly change your career path in the same way, do you think there was something about being in the arts that allowed you to … embrace that creativity, or enjoy that creative move so that it wasn’t just that, “I have to make this change,” but it was kind of creative, “I get a kick out of that, this is a part of who I am, anyway” kind of change?
DAVID: I don’t think that if we generated data on that question, the presence of the arts would show up terribly well in that instance, because all those other folks that stayed pat were all in the arts, too, and so I think I learned more from fish on this one than music in terms of how to respond.
ANDREW: It’s totally fascinating. It kind of speaks to a way of thinking about these complex situations that we find ourselves in. I know we’ve talked about this many times before, that as long as you add a certain factoid to it, or a new choice, or a toolkit for dealing with it, or a way around it, then, somehow, we will get through it, and, in fact, there are ways of being almost algorithmic for innovation.
What it sounds like from your story … was that it was a matter of opening up the degrees of freedom for possibility that was the main choice that mattered, and then after that, maybe these other things might have been helpful. Toolkits are great, and the additional information about other choices is great, but knowing the possibility that a world can collapse, and you can live through it, was a very agency-granting process.
DAVID. It would be fun to look at this and not get too self-congratulatory, or not get too admiring of the way in which that world did and did not collapse, versus … a context where refugees come to a country and their world has collapsed a hell of a lot more than Newfoundland through the cod moratorium, where it was largely kept afloat by its relationship with the federal body of Canada at the time. What then? What kind of existential possibilities does that typically open? Are we talking about a microcosm of the larger pattern that tends to happen, that that space of possibility is … legible to people who have gone through this at greater levels? Or is there something where there’s a really useful middle ground, where, yeah, you need that space of possibility, but you also need a tremendous amount of individual agency that comes with you being able to activate those choices?
ANDREW: I think that there’s—as we’ve talked about many times also—an emergent property here that might be expressed: Whereas we would love to believe that you have all of this innate ability to be adaptable and nimble and flexible, and all these things, and handle any kind of change and become future-proof, that you can be prepared for that, there’s actually kind of a convergence of contexts and experiences and tools that are all there at the same time that kind of create this situation…
Is there an idea where this kind of important choice-making, or path-switching, or transformative capacity has been looked across these kinds of paradigms where they’re really heavy—you mentioned Victor Frankel, before, you mentioned people who are refugees—and there are a lot of reasons why worlds collapse, and there is no shortage of examples of people who’ve lived through it in different ways. I love Victor Frankel’s definition, that “People who find meaning are the ones who do it,” but I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know if somebody whom I’m talking to about their world collapsing would also agree that’s true.
DAVID: I think what Frankel hit upon in his observations is one way of describing why I related to the end of classical music in the way that I did because I found a level of meaning in terms of what this is, is a trek out of this world into a different space. There’s a journey that we have to go on. I can easily see that as the thing that made me turn right instead of left in that context.
ANDREW: But where exactly you turn is quite interesting. You went into the sustainability world. I know a lot of people who would say, “I was a musician, now I’m a music producer.” That’s a very common kind of pathway; not every bridge is the same length, they’re all going to bring different things. How did you go from this very, very arts-based existence to—I’m not going to say sustainability isn’t an arts space, because you are evidence of that, but it’s in a different world, essentially.
DAVID: One of the reasons that speaks to the idea you presented a moment ago about what the world puts in front of us: There was an eight-part series called From Naked Ape To Superspecies that David Suzuki put on CBC Radio—you see how Canadians are so shaped by CBC radio, it keeps coming up!—and I listened to that every Sunday morning, for eight Sundays in a row.
ANDREW: He’s an environmentalist.
DAVID: He’s an environmental activist, very prominent in Canada, one of our real treasured individuals. He’s a broadcaster, who’s been a public voice in Canada since the 1960s. He put this together—this would have been the late 1990s—that started to shift my own values and say, “Oh, this is stuff we need to care about.”
So … I listened to that radio series and then it mattered to me. But I’m increasingly suspicious that that tells a very useful story if we’re trying to be comparative, because why did it matter to me and not to 15-20 other people? Why was I listening to CBC on Sunday mornings? So, there are all these sorts of things that remain mysterious to me about why you become the person that you become.
But that content certainly had a presence in that way.
I think part of the reason that I listened to it and why it mattered to me was to go back to the first story to say, well, I saw a pretty hefty ecological collapse. When you go to sustainability conferences around the world, the cod moratorium in Newfoundland is one of the textbook examples. So, having lived through that and watched the way in which that actually does happen, I think when David Suzuki was talking about the bad stuff that we will have to face if we don’t treat the planet better, he doesn’t have to convince me, because I’d seen that take place, I’d seen that occur.
ANDREW: Interesting. I grew up in Detroit, and I remember when the automakers were going through their near collapse, and in the healthcare industry, everybody lost their dental insurance, and I had a parent who was in the healthcare industry. I similarly would see things that should have been disparate that were far more connected than they would have been in that way.
I recognize some of the things you’re talking about. In me, it really elicited a system understanding of the world, because who would say, “OK, automakers, that shouldn’t affect your life itself.” And yet, I couldn’t get a job coming out of college because there wasn’t a single place hiring: Everything was tied to this automotive sector in Detroit. And so, in fact, it’s why I moved in the first place. It completely changed my life, and it created a brain drain in Michigan for a five-year period.
There are so many things that happen with these major events that just keep linking to one another, and that really changed my sense of what world was available to me in a similar way. I didn’t watch David Suzuki’s series. Was it just on the radio?
ANDREW: I didn’t listen to David Suzuki’s radio show, but I can totally respect how you got to that place in the first place, and then it being ready to prime you for a move in another direction.
So, you’re in an interesting space. To fast forward, you’ve studied sustainability, you got a PhD in sustainability studies. But you didn’t just do it in a way that was like turning a new leaf and redefining yourself completely or peeling away. There is an integration that you made of these different components of who you were in this space. What did that look like? How did you do that?
DAVID: Partly it was just a worry about being at all useful. I had this background, I knew about music, and I was putting up my hand in the sustainability room and saying, “Does anybody need a musician here?” and, you know, nobody said “Yes!” So, then I knew I had to figure out why a musician might be useful.
But you’re right. I can think of a lot of people who went into those programs by basically dropping what they’ve been doing, and I didn’t.
I think that I’m going to go with the more honest answer that I was scared not to. I didn’t want to drop it entirely, and a more courageous person would have just dropped it. Or, there’s some other reason that seems plausible only in hindsight, that I was anticipating that there was some relationship here.
ANDREW: I used to get defiant when people would ask me how I ended up in one field that was very different from a field that I had formally studied because then they would add to it, “That’s such a waste!” That’s where the defiance would come through, like, “Why would you assume that that’s a waste?”
You don’t just drop an identity. You don’t just drop skills. You don’t, unless you never really learned them in the first place, which is certainly possible. But then, my moral high ground would kick and I’m, like, “Well, I actually learned something, so I’m not going to act like it didn’t affect me!” And maybe that’s another possible explanation.
While you were a classical pianist—you’re a performance artist—it didn’t mean that you had to keep performing. You learned a ton of other things around music, and the culture of music, and the jargon of music, and the rituals of music, and the way of thinking in music, and creative spaces. You don’t just drop that. Those things are hard to drop.
DAVID: As you say that I’m thinking one of the things that’s so fascinating for me is to go back into that world and realize how foreign it feels now.
DAVID: And think, my, God I used to care so much about that. And to have stopped caring … That world got heavy to shoulder. It got harder and harder to pull that world through one’s day-to-day existence because it was so inarticulate to so many people. It was decreasingly relevant. It meant less in people’s lives. The only thing you could do with Vivaldi or Beethoven was sell a Lexus.
ANDREW: Very compelling ads, by the way!
DAVID: That was the gig, right? A Lexus, or certain kinds of mustard, those were the other things that you could use it for. That didn’t feel very meaningful. So, I think part of the question “Why climate change? Oh, I want to work on climate change!” Why did I come up with a stupid idea like that? Probably because partly, I wanted to feel important, and I’ve been part of a world that felt decreasingly important. And, suddenly, if you could start to work in a space like climate change, you felt like you mattered in some way.
That proved to be naive, and I regret feeling that way, but I bet that was part of it.
ANDREW: But there’s such an important and interesting point: So many of us are looking to formally study the thing that reflects our values. And I think that’s a great idea, personally: Your values should be reflected in your degree.
But there’s also this difficulty when you get so far into a system of a discipline that, while there might have been values in there, that discipline also has its own set of things that can shroud those values inadvertently. It’s also victim to the other immediate needs of an institution, a political movement, economic forces, or there’s a lot there that competes for those values. And so, to put that meaning in there, it’s kind of tough to balance.
DAVID: It also makes me think of what’s happening, now, in these highly polarized times, we’re increasingly asked to be explicit about our values.
Arts organizations are being asked to develop value charters. We’re being asked to develop value charters for ourselves, a kind of real statement of, “These are my values, and this is who I am.” I find this very concerning because I don’t know who I am, and I’m very interested in trying to understand who I am, and the only place I can go to understand who I am is in various forms of dialogue with other people—whether that’s through cultural institutions, or sports, or wherever I am. The idea that what I need to do is, “Before you go out into the world, make sure you put your values on” seems to be a precarious thing to do and one that’s ultimately not great at either an individual or collective level. I think we’re watching some of that play out now.
ANDREW: I think the intention isn’t bad, personally. I think the problem is just the accuracy of it.
Let’s say that you’re in a world where you believe that your entire existence is based on self-cultivation and evolution and change, but there’s a need for someone to relate to you in a very transparent way to understand a cross-section of where you are at a given moment. So, your answer might be existential: “Who am I?” or “Well, it’s going to change in three minutes, so I don’t know if that’s worth telling you,” versus, “Yeah, but I still need to know if you have any food allergies.” And that kind of thing still has some relevance …
But I’m also interested in, again, this art thing, your sustainability, and your art. You have done some integration there, which is an unusual thing for people to do. There is a shedding that happens. What did that integration look like? What is that integration, if you were to define it for people who don’t know you? And what was the process for that?
DAVID: What was necessary to do to make that integration, I think, finally happened and maybe we can talk at some point about shallow and deep levels of integration or things that are pairings versus integration. … There’s a lot of art and sustainability work that happens that ultimately is a version of a kind of knowledge communication, science communication, knowledge dissemination, getting the message out there.
But I wouldn’t call that integrative in the way that I was at least imagining the relationship would play out because I didn’t feel like the arts were … ever present in those processes.
How was I going to create an integration between something like climate change and art-making? Part of it came down to just suddenly asking a really simple question: “What is the art-shaped hole in the climate crisis? What is it about climate change, about a problem like climate, that is conducive to the things that art loves to do?” And then, suddenly, you go, “Oh, that’s a good way of asking that question.” And I go, “Well, what are the things that art loves to do?”
ANDREW: Wait a minute! You said it was a good way of asking that question. How did you even know to ask that question? That’s not a typical question to think of. It’s not a gap in the literature. That came from another place.
DAVID: It came from having a deep grounding in what art did so that I could look at example after example after example of that relationship failing to get there, and going, “Art has still not made it into this conversation.” So “It’s true you wrote a song about not overfishing” and “That’s a beautiful poster about carpooling” but what I’m not seeing is a way in which art, by which I mean trying to understand the world in terms of the aesthetic, and by which I mean … trying to understand life in terms of lines, and shapes, and patterns, and textures, and rhythms, and harmonies, and melodies. Those elements that artistic processes work with are a way of paying attention to the world.
Until that process has engaged with things like, “What the heck do we do about climate change,” I’m not seeing a level of integration there, and so it was waiting for that and constantly seeing what we were doing. We were essentially saying, “How do we get all this science about communication, about climate change to matter to people?” And then I said, “No, I don’t want to know that. I want to know what is it about climate change that is particularly conducive to thinking about it in terms of lines, and shapes, and patterns, and textures, and rhythms, et cetera.”
ANDREW: And do you find that it was welcomed with open arms, always, to go about asking a question that was really out of the canon?
Now it’s very important. You’ve been a fellow and a senior fellow (and a good fellow) all over the world, but that seems like one of these things when you talk about when you said you held onto this arts thing because maybe you had a certain amount of fear. That’s where I would have the fear of “What is everybody in this sustainability world going to think about me if I’m asking a question that nobody’s even thinking to ask?”
We’re kind of used to thinking that if we ask a question that nobody else in the class would ever ask, that means there’s something wrong with us. We’re used to thinking if someone said, “I had the exact same question,” that that’s very rewarding, as we realize we’re part of this collective consciousness of understanding in this model. But if you say, “I had a really out-of-the-box question” sometimes you get “That’s a good question,” but there’s a lot of emotional stuff that you have to overcome to do that.
DAVID: … I work in two worlds: I work in the world of the arts, and I work in the world of academia. And what I see is a declining appetite for disagreement in both of those contexts. I have always been, and in very invested in the importance of disagreement, so I never hesitated at all to ask a question that was very different than what I felt was being asked or talked about in in those worlds. It never occurred to me that that would be a problematic thing. But, boy, am I ever discovering it now.
If you had asked me that question ten years ago, I would have said, “Andy, what are you talking about?” But ask me that now, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
I feel like students now are under so much pressure around that kind of ideological and expressive conformity, that … I think if I were going through this experience now, I wouldn’t. I was in an environment where that was obvious to do that, and that environment has declined.
ANDREW: It’s interesting because many students do ask those questions that are out-of-the-box because there are also other movements going on at the same time that grant confidence and voice to places where people wouldn’t traditionally have been given that voice. So, the cod moratorium becomes an accepted form of knowledge or accepted form of inquiry that you bring with you.
I think I know some of the things to which you’re referring, and there are different social projects. We have things like social media that magnify everything and … make conversations so heavy. And that idea of the dialogic emergence—that you don’t know where you’re going with the debate, but you know that some better understanding will come out of it on both sides—I agree that there’s been an adjustment to that a bit and in some ways there’s dogmatism that’s going on that makes it really difficult to have those conversations and provide a space for emergence.
But I also find—just as a personal opinion—that sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it, and you can still ask a question and you can ask the same question, paying attention to all of the things that are going to make an environment less inviting or make it less inclusive for people that engage.
So, I’m a big believer that we still have the power to ask good questions. It’s just the way that we’re trained to ask them or the things we have to think about when we’re asking those questions that might have changed and we’re still learning how to do that in a welcoming way that everybody can feel comfortable with.
DAVID: I believe you because I’ve seen you do that in action, and you’re one of the really artful people at doing that. It’s a skill I hope you’re imparting far and wide, particularly here at Claremont, because it’s extremely necessary.
And I think you’re right. I think when you describe that dynamic, you’re describing the bad side of a good thing and the good side of the bad thing, and we’re trying to make sure that we get the good questions as much as we can.
If we can hang on to the kind of engaged levels of disagreement, levels of different perception while doing that, and hosting that conversation in a way that generates far more access than we used to, then we’re in a better place for sure.
ANDREW: And another thing we’ve talked about many, many, many, times is that the current space we’re in now is, in a lot of ways, the echoes of a major philosophy we’ve been dealing with for over half a century. We’re still kind of modernist about everything and so we believe that there is a right answer, there is a way to do something, up against this backdrop of a place where we’re trying to work with emergence, which is a dissonant thing—how can you have emergence if there’s a right answer, because you don’t know what’s going to come if you’re trying to put a bunch of variables together.
DAVID: Totally, and to your point about the importance of communication, it isn’t just the words that you wrap the ideas in. Those words are going to be constitutive of the kinds of conversations, ideas, and worlds that we can live with. I agree with that.
ANDREW: You asked this good question, “What is it that the arts do really well that sustainability or climate change is missing?” Was it received with a thumbs-up, a thumbs-down, or a thumbs-sideways?
DAVID: In the early years when I started doing this work, I described myself as the llama on the cow farm. You know how on the cow farm, they all have a llama, but nobody knows what it’s for?
ANDREW: Honestly, I used to work in a lab that was on a sheep farm and there was a llama there.
DAVID: There you go!
ANDREW: I used to ask the same question. His name was Webster. Why was Webster on this farm?
DAVID: Why do they have a llama? Nobody knows why, but a lot of them have one. I just think it’s sort of for amusement. So, I was the llama on the sheep farm. People didn’t mind that I was there, and it was kind of interesting, but nobody knew what I did or what it was for.
And what we’ve seen since that time is just an explosion of interest in the role of the arts in most complex problems, like you’re seeing this in health and health promotion all the time, but you’re also seeing it in the sustainability world in a big way.
I felt like I didn’t make sense for a while and then the context kind of changed around me to the point where everybody said, “Oh yeah, I know why you’re here.”
ANDREW: So, it got there.
DAVID: We got there.
ANDREW: OK and I mean you didn’t just kind of get there, you’re kind of a big deal! … You are somebody who’s in demand. People are looking for your expertise. And every time you contribute to a conversation where that voice has been left out of—that is, “What can the arts do for this?”—it turns into a career move for you. It turns into “We need more of this, we want more of this.”
DAVID: Right. I try and say that in restaurants, particularly, “You may know me from such academic papers as…” But it never improves the service.
ANDREW: Remind me not to go out to eat with you ever again!
DAVID: That is very flattering, Andy.
I think of myself as … at the bottom of the mountain on that, so it’s nice that it’s perceived as there’s something happening there.
There are two things that have really been helpful in this, one of which is that if we had solved the problem 10 years ago, nobody would care that there was an artist trying to work on sustainability. It wouldn’t matter, because it would have turned out that it was a techno-managerial problem in the end. It was just about changing our light bulbs … It’s done! We solved the problem! So, if climate change was the same problem as ozone depletion, there’d be no use for me inside this space.
Part of what’s happened is that we’ve seen several decades of a massive effort to move the needle on sustainability in terms of finance, law, business practices, governance, technology, and policy-making—all these things. There’s been a massive effort and zero progress. And so, you think, “How could that be? How could we be scaling up our efforts so much over the past 20 years, and every single indicator is getting worse? The problem is just getting worse and worse.”
I don’t think too many people hold this explicitly in their minds, I think it’s more of a kind of collective intuition thing, but it’s that sort of thing that something in this equation—in the effort equation, somewhere—there’s a zero. We’re multiplying everything that we’re trying to do by a zero and effectively neutralizing all of the good work that’s happening. It doesn’t mean that we’re trying a whole bunch of things that are useless. It just means that there’s some necessary integer in there that right now is represented by a zero, and it’s neutralizing everything else we’re doing. I think people know. But they don’t have the time to think about it. But I think that basic intuition is widely held: that something is fundamentally missing in this sense.
And this is the larger hunch, that if you look at the way that we’ve dealt with sustainability over the past 20 years, we’ve used two verbs to engage with sustainability: knowing and doing. Those have been the two verbs that we’ve had to approach sustainability. And that’s fine. There’s a lot of knowing that we need to do, and there’s a lot of doing that we need to do. But the idea that that’s a comprehensive picture of what’s going to make this ship start to move is dawning on people as “That was inadequate.” That was there was something critically absent from that. So, the way to try and poke people’s intuitions on this, to pull this into the light a little more, is to say, “Nobody disagrees that sustainability is a problem of transformative change.”
In the sustainability world, if you tell people that you think that sustainability is not about change, but about transformative change, they say, well, “Duh, everybody knows that. We’ve been saying that for decades.” That’s not even a contentious point. But then, if you ask them to unpack their intuitions about that a little bit, and you say, well, “What is transformative change? If something has transformed, what has happened to it? Has it done something different? Or has it learned something different? Or has it become something different?” And everybody’s intuitions immediately go, “Oh yeah, it’s the last one. It’s about that sense of… well, what is that?” And everybody suddenly realizes that transformative change happens at the level of being. And you have this other verb that you need to put on the table at that point.
Transformative change is not within reach of those other verbs, knowing and doing. There’s this other piece that’s been missing, which for lack of a better term—and if we had a better term I’d use it—but for now, I just call that being. That dimension of being is the piece that’s been missing. That’s the zero that’s been absent from our sustainability equation for all this time.
So, we needed to do all that work. But until we start to engage with this at a level of being, we’re not going to be able to realize all the benefits, all the fruits of all the labor that we’ve been making over the past few decades. And my hunch is that when we do then suddenly all that work is going to have this exponential effect of change.
ANDREW: OK, so my mind immediately went to the beginning of your story, where you were part of a world that collapsed. And you’re describing something now in terms of transformative change. And I can’t help but think that there’s something about experiencing a world collapse and understanding what transformative changes might be rooted in some kind of experience of having either witnessed or been a part of that oneself.
Do you think, A) that that kind of experience, where there was a world collapse, certainly facilitates … transformative change? And, B) if that idea of being is something that is very much audience-dependent, or recipient-dependent, just as much as it is actor-dependent—that we all have to be on the same page around the capacity for transformative change and have had some kind of knowledge, or experience, or comfort with transformative change, or being, or world-collapsing (if I may group all of those together) for that to even be possible?
DAVID: I’ve never told you this story, so I wanted you to chew on this one with me a little bit, here, because you’ve walked me into two different stories that I think relate to what we’re talking about.
The interesting thing about the cod moratorium in the 1990s is that we saw a total collapse of a socioeconomic system, the larger viability of that society, and the viability of that culture. It all imploded. There were hundreds of fishing communities that lined the coast of Newfoundland and they all lost so much of their viability. And in the wake of that moment, not a scrap of an environmental ethic emerged in that cultural context. There was no moment where, at a cultural level people, went, “Oh, maybe we need a different relationship with the planet.” That never happened at all.
And that’s always been really mystifying to me, because people often talk about the fact, you know, “We just need a disaster, we need to collapse, we need climate change to be happening for us to respond to it.” And I always put up my hand and say, “I’ve seen a disaster play out in a context and at the level of being—not a dent.”
Fast forward a decade and a half, two decades, and a very interesting thing is happening in Newfoundland. Because of a long and complicated process of colonial history … Newfoundland’s indigenous identity went underground in the first half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, there was a small number of activists who emerged in the 1960s that started to identify and promote indigenous identity in Newfoundland. This movement grew over 50 years until it became a political force.
And there was this sudden resurgence of indigenous identity, partly because there’s a larger strategy of decolonizing Canada more broadly. We’re really interested in repairing our relationship with our indigenous communities and we’re interested in trying to center indigenous identity, and indigenous values in a political context, and cultural context, in society more broadly. And this was happening in Newfoundland, when suddenly … 20% of the population self-identified as indigenous. This became the largest band in the country.
I was making a documentary film about this story. This is why I can still remember some things about this. And so, you had this sudden resurgence of indigenous identity. And while I was making this film, I was in many of the same communities that had collapsed from the cod moratorium 20 years earlier. I’m doing sweats in these communities as part of connecting with elders and building relationships with, in many cases, the emerging indigenous voices there.
And suddenly, in that context, I’m either in casual dialogue, or I’m in some kind of very formal ritual, and not only are these the same communities, but many, many of these people are the same people that went through that collapse. And now they’re sitting there talking about Mother Earth, and they’re sitting there talking about “seven generations,” and they’re sitting there talking about a relationship with the land that is completely different than anything they had the capacity to identify or speak about 20 years earlier when they were part of an industrial fishing process that managed to collapse an ecological species and it was dealt with by a federal department of fisheries that shut it down from Ottawa—that kind of larger systemic approach.
They’re just there, and they’re talking about their relationship with their land, and they’re talking about it in terms of identity.
That door had opened for people because what happened was that there was this collective movement that shifted those communities at the level of identity, and it brought in a new language, and it brought new values. I do feel fairly confident in saying it brought in new behaviors at the end of the day in that context.
And so, I always go back to that illustration of seeing the way in which, at a rational level you think there would be this obvious correction, based on consequences being so immediate and devastating—and there’s nothing, there’s no response. And then 20 years later, not connected to sustainability at all, there’s this emergence at the level of identity and meaning-making, and sense of purpose, and belonging, and place, and time, and it starts to do the work on what we might call ”environmental values” that no amount of rational argument could have accomplished, or did accomplish, or even no amount of devastating consequence could accomplish.
That story has stayed with me as really driving a lot of my effort to understand exactly what you talk about: Where does this transformation take place? And how do we find any kind of leverage? How can we be intentional about it at all? And those consequences, those two very different circumstances that played out in the same places and in many cases to the same people, I think, illustrate the riddle in a way that we need to pay attention to.
ANDREW: I think it’s fun that you’re leaving us with the riddle, David. I think that’s food for thought. I do want to tie in one of the things that a lot of the students here at Claremont Graduate University hear from Peter Drucker, who was the founder of the namesake business school. He used to say, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And that’s what your story reminded me of.
I wouldn’t have necessarily thought about it in the same way, but I certainly thought about it a lot of times … what we’ve often criticized is that the information deficit model of change needs an overhaul. This is one of the many directions we can take h that understanding of what are those tools of culture that need a strategy. What are those facets of culture that eat strategy for breakfast?
With that, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure to catch up with you, and for you to share your story with us. I think it was an excellent example of transformative change, and how you embrace the transdisciplinary world, and the choices you make to make your footprint in it—but not a carbon footprint.
DAVID: Thank you very much, Andy, it’s a total honor to be here and I’ve appreciated the chance to chat with you.
ANDREW: Thanks for listening to this episode of PostNormal Times. Thanks to our guests and thanks to our support from Claremont Graduate University. If you enjoyed boundary-crossing with us and want to hear more, make sure you follow us, spread the word, and tune In to our next episodes.
This podcast transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.