What drives our activism to combat disease, overturn hardship, ensure equality and to engage diversity? Passion, fear, anger and frustration must headline in the fight for ideology or the art of an ‘-ism’. For centuries these fights have been woven together by the power of campaigning and, as we see our earth burning, our homes flooding, our biodiversity dying, more and more people, from children to the retired are campaigning for environmentalism. But as we enter this new decade the ‘-ism’ that looks to protect our planet has an added incentive – the fight for our ultimate survival. Yet with such a definitive and momentous outcome there is still divided opinion, alienated views and disconnected methods. Surely the fight for our lives needs campaigning to build an empathy where consensus has a greater purpose. Our histories and our cultures have shown this can be achieved through a powerful and creative medium, the arts. Let’s now ensure this rich history and our vibrant cultures drive the future of environmentalism through the arts and ‘creative campaigning’.
It seems quite ironic, environmentally speaking, that the word campaign originates from the Latin, campania “level country” and later the Italian word campagna, “countryside”. Campaign was adopted and used by armies to name their battles on such aspects of land; it became a word connected to the organised actions to fight battles and ultimately an aggressive purpose to fight for specific goals. Outside of wars, the use of campaign was employed by political parties to campaign in elections and, by the nineteenth century poets and writers, acknowledging the need to protect nature’s beauty, used their words to campaign for the environment and advance an empathy for nature. Such use of creative campaigning ensured the words of wildness empathised a feeling for the place of wilderness.
Creative campaigning in the battle for nature was at the heart of environmentalism. In Britain lonely clouds were wandering with the majestic writing of Wordsworth (incidentally, this year marks 250 years since his birth). Jeff Cowton, Curator of The Wordsworth Trust states, ‘Wordsworth couldn’t have known that his writing was at the start of the Anthropocene – he can’t have imagined a world where we could kill species of insects or plants on a huge scale to suit ourselves. We often quote his poem ‘The Tables Turned’, but the sense that we have meddled to our cost rings true:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
We have meddled – the economy of nature that has served us well is being murdered. We need admiration and love to restore our values and to place us within the world and not superior to it.’
Such love and admiration were at the heart of creative campaigning. From the 1860’s to the start of the twentieth century the ‘father of US National Parks’, John Muir, who incidentally was Scottish, wrote so beautifully about protecting nature in the US. In Our National Parks, he lamented, ‘None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.’ Muir was a strong advocate of connecting creativity to campaigning and his writing ensured greater protection of nature through the concept of National Parks. He was instrumental in ensuring California’s State Park, Yosemite, would become one of the first ever National Parks. And, by 1890 his passion, helped ensure such protection. His actions, along with others led the way for the designation of all the National Parks we enjoy around the globe today. Creative campaigning had spawned a special breed of campaigner, one that the environment deserved and one that so represented the calmness and serenity of nature.
But creative campaigning wasn’t always individual, calm and serene. The sweet lore and the freshness of blowing winds (see John Muir), would by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, be supported with strong organisational activism, including Muir’s own Sierra Club, (Muir’s books available to read on their website). Campaigners were becoming more and more frustrated with the impacts on nature and on humans – separated here, but we so often forget we are a part of nature. Dreadful working conditions were harming lives and landscapes and species were threatened by inconsiderate development and activity. From the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s designating protected landscapes was the environmental argument of the day, equivalent to today’s campaigns about climate change. Organisations were established to fight to protect landscapes and rural life and in 1926, in the UK, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) was established. The University of Reading, Museum of English Rural Life state, ‘The Council saw itself as the guardian of the countryside, campaigning against threats to it.’ Around a decade later, the fight to legislate for national park protection in England and Wales gained momentum and to help in this landscape battle, the Standing Committee on National Parks (SCNP) was established. Along with three other organisations, the YHA – Youth Hostel Association, Ramblers and CPRW – the Welsh equivalent to CPRE, they were instrumental in people setting foot in our first national parks by 1951.
So why mention CPRE and SCNP? Not only would they lead the way with creative campaigning and be led by inspirational and innovative campaigners (innovation being at the heart of creativity and the arts), they both actually changed their names over the years, to employ the word campaign. In the late sixties CPRE changed its name to the Council for the Protection of Rural England and ultimately to, The Campaign to Protect Rural England, retaining CPRE as its acronym. In 1977 the Standing Committee on National Parks changed its name to the Council for National Parks, then in 2008 Council was dropped in favour of Campaign for National Parks (CNP).
Did the word campaign signify a greater strength, raising the stakes higher, to take the battle into the fields of environmental action? There seemed a ‘creative’ strength in this great battle cry. But could the campaign to protect nature ever remain a civil, war? Could creativity and the arts truly impact positively on governments policies? Could creativity change boardroom agendas? Many questions with many different answers, but fundamentally, yes, the battles of creative campaigning, by both organisations and individuals, were and are won to this day.
The cessation of the use of certain pesticides in the US in the 1960’s was secured through the words of Rachel Carson, highlighted in her alarming and persuasive writing in, Silent Spring. Through such creative activism she not only ended the use of DDT but also advanced environmentalism around the globe. Governments took notice, corporations had to act, and campaigners won victories. If many corporate actions lurked in the shadows of responsible strategies one thing was clear, the arts in campaigning engaged the most powerful tool to influence government and change corporate policy: it ensured the following and empathy of people.
The problem is, and this happened many times in history as well as today, alongside the passion and creativity, fear, anger and frustration can lead to more confrontational and militant styles of campaigning. Fear is a normal human reaction when the entire being of life is so negatively impacted and threatened, but this style of campaigning often loses the empathy of people, governments and corporations. Nevertheless, history shows that parallel to many ‘successful’ militant or confrontational campaigns, creative campaigns also thrived and helped make significant, positive change.
This was demonstrated most notably, outside of environmentalism, with the campaigns for suffrage in the UK, and the civil rights movement in the US. In the early 1900’s Emmeline Pankhurst and her sister, led the ‘suffragettes’, through the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). They often used obstructive policies, heckling MP’s, chaining themselves to railings and hunger strikes, which eventually led to more violent and militant confrontations by the time of the First World War. Whereas the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), representing ‘suffragists’, were led by more peaceful campaigns, which ultimately, and successfully, negotiated with politicians. Many would argue that the NUWSS were the instrumental force in the battle for suffrage. I also have to say, many would not!
Across the water, and a few decades later, the civil rights protest was gaining momentum. Again, the mainly peaceful, creative campaigning of Martin Luther King was juxtaposed by the more confrontational style of campaigns led by Malcolm X. King was undoubtedly the catalyst for change and his campaigns radiated from his amazing abilities with the spoken word; using creativity to ensure the following and empathy of people. Famously, he stated, ‘… I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity.’
As we progress through the battles for environmental justice and enter the 2020’s there seems to be a continuation of the mix of styles, actions and reactions in the struggle to save our planet. Recently, when I was in London, Extinction Rebellion with many decent retired folk and younger people were lying down on the streets of the City, using non-violent means to campaign. But arguably using obstructive means to campaign. At the same time children were striking from school, using peaceful methods but again, arguably using disruptive methods. Many will say, they have every right to do this, we are frightened. Our lives and our nature are threatened by greed and just one of the sustainable pillars, profit. What about the other two pillars, planet and people?
Yet, confrontational campaigning does get the column inches, it does get the TV coverage, so in many ways there is a strong argument to say it engages the creative industries, albeit indirectly! The problem with this type of campaigning though, is it does build an empathy from some quarters, but it also disengages others particularly when it negatively impacts many people looking to go about their everyday lives. If change is going to happen it needs far greater consensus; the arts can help achieve this. Whether creative campaigning needs to run parallel to confrontational campaigning is a question open for much debate and concern, but simply there is no question and no concern that the arts in campaigning can, and I would argue must, act as the catalyst for change.
Such creative campaigning is still gaining impetus; it is still happening. Recently walking through a train station in the UK, I noticed an advert for Octopus Energy, ‘Inspiring Climate Action Through Art’. Also, just last week, I was at a network event that spoke about Exeter, in the South West of England being awarded UNESCO City of Literature; a fantastic accolade for the city. Perhaps a fantastic opportunity to endorse sustainable cities and a fantastic opportunity to use the arts and creativity to campaign for change. Not only this but young people are engaged outside of strikes. I have worked with students at Universities to use the arts and creativity to embrace sustainable strategies; they have so much passion for this. There is excitement, there is empathy and creative campaigning offers resilience to ensure environmental protection.
Campaigning, the arts and creativity seem very good bedfellows, they feed off each other and whether poets, writers, activists or just plain old us, we have to shift the battles from the fields of ‘war’ to the art of creative persuasion; we have to climb the mountain of change and ensure the many, not the few, follow. To leave the final words to John Muir, let’s,
‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.’