Productivity of Culture

Costa Carras

Costa Carras is the President of Hellenic Society for the Protection of Cultural Heritage and Environment


presentation: Cultural Heritage and Environment
category: The Role of Culture

Website: The Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and the Cultural Heritage


Culture and the Environment

Allow me to begin with a few words about the European heritage, an evidently important component of our world's culture. I arrived late this morning because I was returning from Cappadocia, which I visited as Vice President of Europa Nostra, the federation of European heritage organizations, in relation to the award of Europe's highest prize for conservation to a cave church restored by private initiative. What was all the more impressive was that the entrepreneur belonged to the travel field and who had initiated this project, Yusuf Ornek, is now engaged in an even more recommendable effort, namely to restore the Old Town of Urgup (in Greek, Prokopi) in Cappadocia. It is a wonderful example precisely of the kind of productivity of culture we are discussing here today.

The European Award Scheme for heritage is organized by Europa Nostra, which indeed initiated the system of annual awards in 1978. Over the last 30 years many wonderful conservation projects have been honored - last year the top European prize went to the restoration of the Ottoman baths in Nicosia, Cyprus, a project undertaken by the Greek Cypriot municipality - and these, taken as a whole, certainly bear out the observation made earlier by one participant, namely that most Europeans clearly feel that culture is, more than anything else, what brings us together. I strongly agree with this and indeed at Europa Nostra's 40th birthday celebrations, which took place at the Council of Europe building in Strasbourg, we were able to suggest there is greater substance for such a position than, understandably, most Europeans are able to offer. Yes, variety is one of the significant elements of the European cultural heritage, but it is neither unique - the same might be said of Indian culture, for instance - nor is it the sole characteristic. Fundamental to it have been the Judaic, Hellenic and Roman streams that flowed together into a broad river where elements of very different provenance have ever since combined and recombined, sometimes in a surprising, usually in an innovative and creative manner, through revivals, renaissances and revolutions.

It is true that culture was not one of the central concerns of the founders of the European Union and it is also true that there is not yet a broad popular base of appreciation for the centrality of culture, but let us not forget that this was also true of the environment until very recently. The situation has changed dramatically where the environment is concerned and I think it quite likely it will also change in respect of an increased sense of a common European cultural heritage, one that would acknowledge, amongst other things, that for instance the critical spirit so central to modern European culture is not a creation of the ancient world, revived by the Enlightenment, but that in one or another form it has reappeared regularly throughout the course of European cultural history. The same is of course true of most of the other fundamental elements of the European cultural heritage.

My subject today however is the relation between culture and the environment, a field where it might even be argued that the period of the Enlightenment and the associated technological revolutions created the presuppositions for some of the fundamental problems the world faces today, problems that are challenging us to another revival, renaissance or revolution in our cultural tradition, but now in a very different context, where the whole world is already involved in the challenge and must be involved in any successful response.

The relation between the environment and culture is close and complex. Most people who have not thought deeply about it suppose that natural forces initially shaped the landscape, that within particular landscapes thus formed by nature specific cultures emerged and that these cultures in turn moulded the land into the forms we know - and often admire and love - today. One might give as an example the Aegean where the interpenetration of land and sea, the openness of far horizons to the seafarer, the precious narrow terraces holding earth for cultivation, the villages or towns far more prosperous than their narrow agricultural hinterland would permit and finally the castles or churches on a hilltop illustrate a complex and longlasting interrelationship between human beings and nature.

The view I have just described has cogency but is certainly incomplete. Actually even in the fact past human culture probably played a far more fundamental role in shaping the environment than we normally suppose. Recent hypotheses suggest that our planet might not been chiefly for the development of agriculture in Mesopotamia and China some twelve thousand years ago, which led to a dramatic reduction of forest cover and to increased emissions of methane gas from the rapid development of cattle farming. If these hypotheses are ultimately verified we shall have to conclude that human culture has always shaped the environment in a far more fundamental way than we had until recently supposed.

The past relationship of culture and the environment is a matter of history. That mdoern culture, the culture first of a series of technological revolutions beginning in the eighteenth century and then of mass participation, based on rapid economic growth and new systems of communication, in the twentieth, has changed, is changing and will change the environment, is all too evident.

It is altering the nature of sacred sites as anyone can tell you who visited the Acropolis in the 1950s and visits it again today 50 years later. It is altering the seacoasts, as in the tragic example of Spain. It is applying pressure on natural reserves and the habitats of endangered species. It is melting glaciers and slowly raising the level of the oceans and seas. In many parts of the word, including the Mediterranean, it is beginning dangerously to reduce rainfall precipitation and of course to raise average temperatures. In Greece we have lived some dramatic consequences in the summer that has just passed.

This, you may respond, is not what we meant by culture. My answer is that it is unquestionably the result of fundamental and ongoing cultural changes. "Culture", after all, is not confined to the moments or the works of art that uplift or enlighten us but encompasses the whole of our way of living. What then in this long-term crisis that is already upon us can and should the environmental movement do? How should we respond?

One thing the environmental movement is already doing is to frontally challenge some of the assumptions lying behind the rapid development of mass culture in the last two to three generations. Thus we already spend much of our time defending the archaeological and architectural heritage, NATURA 2000 sites or areas of natural beauty, from development. Increasingly some environmental organizations, very much including that which I chair here in Greece, Elliniki Etairia (The Hellenic Society for the Environment and Heritage), are quering and resisting the massive development of second homes.

Another important consequence is to reemphasize the urgent need to identify hidden environmental costs - so called externalities - in the interests of society as a whole. This is bound gradullay to make transport and hence mass tourism, more expensive. The need to reduce emissions in order to combat global warming is also bound ultimately to increase the cost of travel by car as well as by plane, to force the reduction of energy consumption in buildings and to increase the share of renewables in the production of energy. Thus the negative and unproductive elements of culture will come increasingly under pressure, so - by contradistinction - emphasizing the significance of culture in a more traditional and, as it so happens, also more productive sense. A third important change is of course to make a reality out of the idea of sustainable development. Glasgow is an example of change in economic base towards culture. When I first visited the city it was a declining shipbuilding town: today it is a rising cultural centre.

The impact of all these changes will not of course be to abolish mass culture but to gradually reimpress on the minds of citizens both in the developed and in the now rapidly expanding developed world, something almost forgotten in the last two generations, namely that there are after all limits, limits which are in part fiscal, in part regulatory but more fundamentally limits which are existential, limits which need to be respected if our world is to survive in a form similar to that in which we have known it and second, that even within those limits, culture in the sense of creativity in the search of quality of life, is crucial to sustainable development.

The renewed sense of limits is in turn likely to have two seemingly antithetical consequences. The first is that culture will become increasingly conscious of the environment and hence of the interaction of human beings everywhere on the planet, something already evident in some of the children's paintings outside the Zappeion today. The second will be to gie culture a renewed importance as a local manifestation of each particular society in response to the universal environmental challenge. For it is a major question whether and how each human society will prove capable of responding to the challenge. And as travel becomes relatively more expensive compared with other forms of communication at least certain elements of mass culture connected with tourism will gradually weaken in relative terms compared with other cultural forms; whereas cultural forms connected with sustainable forms of development will greatly strengthen.

Of course we do not know how abrupt will prove the changes the environmental crisis is bringing and hence how great the challenge laid down to each human society. In general the later the process begins, the more abrupt it is likely to be. What we can know is that there will be a challenge of some sort to all human societies, sooner rather than later.

These thoughts are not as optimistic as I would wish. I do not disagree with the Stern Report that overall the cost of meeting the challenge of climate change will probably prove tolerable, if we begin the process at once. Even if we do begin at once however, something which is by no means certain, the cost of any change is never spread equally across the board. I believe that the cost will fall to a disproportionate degree on frequent travel and its consequences on mass destinations. I am not predicting the end of tourism, still less of travel. Far from it. I am predicting that certain types of mass development which were considered economically profitable and environmentally permissible will increasingly seem to reflect the profligacy and irresponsibility of a particular mass culture of the particularly profligate second half of the twentieth century. On the contary culture in a more traditional sense, but no longer confined as in past centuries to an elite, will in my view prove increasingly crucial to sustainable development in every country.

Culture is the centre of this symposium, and rightly so for culture already, and all the more in the future, will be the area of exploration of what human beings already share, will be prepared to share and refuse to share in common, and not just as an abstract issue but in relation to a particular but universal crisis.

For if environment and culture were ever separate concepts, if ever discussion of culture could forget the environmental context, those days are now past. The culture of the future, both international and local, will be concerned with the environment and with sustainable development at its very core.



Costas Carras has long experience in a wide range of issues, involving conservation and ecology, religion, culture and politics.
His involvement in conservation and the ecological movement began in 1972 when with his wife Lydia he founded Greece’s leading environmental organization, Elliniki Etairia yia tin Prostasia tou Perivallontos kai tis Politistikis Klironomias (Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and the Cultural Heritage). He served as its first Chairman and was again elected Chairman in April 2001. He has represented Elliniki Etairia in Europa Nostra, the Federation of European Conservation Organizations, since 1973 and has been Vice-President since 1976. He also founded and remains Vice-Chairman of the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage, USA.
He was the organizer of the ground-breaking 1998 meeting on Religion and the Environment in Patmos and took part in subsequent meetings in Ormylia, Halkidiki and Kolymbari in Crete. He served as the Co-Chairman of the British Council of Churches’ Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine. His paper on “The Doctrine of the Trinity in Relation to Political Action and Thought” is published in the volume of papers presented to the Commission. He co-edited “Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World” (SPGU, 1996), which includes the article “The Holy Trinity, the Church and Politics in a Secular World” and which was recently translated and published in Greek. He is an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He also served, since its inception in 1978, on the Assembly of the Diocese of Sourozh, Britain, whose Chairmanship he left in 1999.
His published works include “3,000 Years of Greek Identity – Myth or Reality” (1984) and contributions to “Democracy and Civil Society in the Balkans” (1996). He obtained a Double First in Ancient Greek and Latin Literature, and in Philosophy and Ancient History from Trinity College, Oxford.

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