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The Carbon Footprint of Art

Off to the NEAI spent the last few days in Washington, DC, a guest of the National Endowment for the Arts. Not many people know this, but design -- particularly architectural and built-environment design -- falls within the purview of the NEA. This last week, the NEA design group held its selection panel for the "Access to Artistic Excellence - Innovation" funding, and I served as the official "layperson" on the panel.

(It turns out that NEA funding panels include one person from outside the discipline -- the "layperson" -- to ensure that the awards go to projects with appeal beyond the specialists.)

I can't say anything about what we selected, of course; the recipients won't even know for a few months. I can say this, though: I was amazed at how many of the proposals included requests for support for travel. In some cases, the travel would be undertaken by guest artists from elsewhere in the world, coming to participate in a function of some sort (yes, I'm being intentionally opaque). In other cases, the travel would be undertaken by the award recipients, jetting around checking out some building or project. Whatever the focus, a majority of proposals submitted to the NEA for this award included some level of request for travel support.

So when Maurice Cox, the newly-appointed head of this group at the NEA, asked if I had any suggestions about the ongoing evolution of this project, I had an immediate reply: "carbon footprint records." I suggested that the NEA, as part of the application process, ask applicants to make preliminary measurements of the carbon footprint of the travel they seek to have supported. There are dozens of websites out there that can do a quick & dirty calculation of the carbon impact of flying around (as I noted recently, the travel-plan-sharing site Dopplr just added carbon footprinting to its services, for example). All the applicants would need to do is enter the trips into one of these calculators and list the results.

The numbers wouldn't determine the selection (for now, but I'm patient), but would make explicit the impact of the travel portion of a proposal. Many of these projects had an explicit 'green' theme; I have to expect that at least some of these applicants would have reconsidered the travel requests once they saw the carbon impact.

Like the Cheeseburger Footprint concept, this is not meant as a stick with which to beat the impure, but simply as a lens with which to look at the unanticipated results of our actions. Art is important, and it was a massive honor to serve on this NEA panel; I would like to see more funding for the arts & design in the future*. But everything we do has consequences -- and the more we recognize those consequences beforehand, the better the choices we'll make.

(*...and a note to my readers in the world of design: a recurring theme in this panel was "why don't more designers take advantage of this program?" They're giving money away to interesting projects, folks, and I know that some of you out there could come up with even cooler stuff than I saw this last week...)


Are you often the token "layperson"?

Also, do you really think that global warming could kill billions in the next few decades? If not, why not focus on MNT policy?


>I was amazed at how many of the proposals included requests for support for travel.

I suspect that's due to the fact that many artists/designers can't afford to travel much on their own dime, and see this sort of grant as a way to go some place interesting.

Academics don't make that much money either, so the chance to come to the US for a week or so as part of their research/art/design project on someone else's dime is a sweet deal. When I worked for the gov't/university, I was guaranteed multiple conference trips per year to keep up with research. The number of trips per year was seen as a perq, similar to stock options at a private firm.

Michael -- this was the first time I've been asked to serve in this role.

As for global warming's potential death toll, I don't think that it will kill billions in the next few decades. However, our actions over the next couple of decades will determine whether millions or billions die towards the middle of the century, since thermal inertia and so-called "climate commitment" mean a long lag time between action and result. (20-30 years is the typical estimate.)

Moreover, delays in dealing with global warming now means a greater demand for resources and policy attention down the road, just when the need for resources and attention to deal with still-emerging problems (like MNT) begins to escalate.

Jet, excellent point. I didn't mean to imply that all of the requests for travel were illegitimate, or even unnecessary. Rather, it was another example of the need to make explicit the impact of our choices.

At first, I thought along the same lines as Jet, namely Gee Whiz, the artist wants to travel once, twice a year... have some pity! Of course, Jamais shouldn't need to fly around the world until he drops, but on the other hand artists usually want the experience but just can't.

And then I realized, nope, Jamais, you did a huge Good Thing. Artists are artists because artists express the truth in ways that don't rely on logic -- and usually feel compelled to do so.

So there they be, establishing the avant-garde by scanning for social truths. That's really WHY art is so important to society as a whole, and not just personally uplifting (which is a good thing, but the impact is more in the "mental health" category than establishing social momentum).

Consequently, by pointing out the travel footprint, you're enhancing the artistic integrity, and if there's one group that I anticipate will construct a novel way to minimize the travel footprint, it would be artists who want to travel. I have no idea how, but I also have no doubt that this is the right "force" to be with.


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