How do we increase access and inclusion while powering down civilization?

A digital and ethical strategy for transitioning out of ecocide.

Vijay Mathew

Climate science demands that we turn off all carbon emissions today, especially for us in historically high-emitting nations like those in Europe, or risk catastrophic consequences for all. We in the performing arts could decide to collectively pledge to reduce our carbon emissions to nearly zero by 2025 or even sooner, which would be aligned with what the science says is necessary.

Air travel is by far the most carbon-emitting practice that our field engages in and that we have immediate control over in terms of abandoning it as a tool for how we design and operate our programming. (For organizations that have buildings, the next highest carbon-emitting activities are electricity usage for heating, cooling, and lighting.) Unlike land-based travel like trains, buses, and cars, there will not be low-carbon emission alternatives for air travel.

As organizations and artists turned to video conferencing and live video streaming in a resilient adaptation of programming during the COVID-19 lockdown, many positive equity-based outcomes emerged that we need to recognize and prioritize as we reopen in-person in the months to come. A number of people who did not have access to performance and conversations for a variety of economic and social reasons suddenly had increased opportunity. Many of the oppressive power dynamics of elite, exclusive in-person gatherings took on more democratic characteristics. Many more exchanges and conversations between artists in the Global North and the Global South were able to occur as the immediacy of the medium collapsed geographic borders.

However, there is also a deceptively significant environmental cost to production and consumption of internet media. The energy and physical materials usage of the information technology industry belongs to the extractive and ecocidal economic paradigm that we need to transition out of very quickly too. Just like the airline industry, the internet as we currently know it—always on and always growing—has an unrealistic future.

As an international performing arts community we are in great need to continue to learn and think about our next steps for an equity-informed low-energy future. As a temporary strategy, using digital tools in a frugal manner and in a way that embodies and prioritizes inclusion, accessibility and independence from consumerism may help to give ourselves this much needed space to re-envision our purpose and meaning to society.

I recently developed a free and open-source carbon emissions calculator for streaming media at in collaboration with Axess Lab in Sweden for two purposes: to provide a simple tool for cultural managers to budget their program’s internet carbon emissions, and to provide a proof-of-concept design strategy that embodies justice-based values while simultaneously being highly performant.

This proof-of-concept demonstrates that we, together as an arts field, can succeed at choosing to create online media that is: 1) low-energy, lightweight, low-carbon emitting, 2) accessible for people with disabilities, 3) inclusive and inexpensive for people with limited bandwidth or with expensive access to the internet relative to income, especially in the Global South, 4) open source and contributes to commons-based software and technology platforms instead of defaulting to problematic multinational products and services, 5) efficient and provides a highly performant user experience as measured by page speed.

All decisions about the website were filtered through the priority of web accessibility, keeping the website as small as possible in terms of data (measured in kilobytes), and using open source technology when available. This simple approach resulted in a website that costs very little to access and maintain, emits very little carbon, and is available to many more people with various abilities and disabilities. We can take this design strategy and apply it to anything we choose to create.

In terms of using the calculator for budgeting and tapering your organization’s streaming emissions, adding a column or row in your existing budget spreadsheets for CO2 estimates can be quite simple to do. However, answering the question “What is an acceptable carbon budget” puts us in a predicament, as the answer we all need this to be is zero.

Some organizations may find they want to establish their pre-pandemic baseline carbon emissions and then phase out more carbon-intensive activities such as air travel by a certain deadline, such as 2025, and progressively budget a tapering of their CO2 emissions for each subsequent fiscal year.

Given these creative constraints and goals to taper emissions, some important questions for arts programmers and artists will be: who can be included in the limited choice of air travel, video conferencing, and live video stream? Video, though carbon-intensive, is an essential tool for centering and making space for Deaf artists and Deaf cultures. Who has historically not had the mobility (economic, social, physical) to engage with your art experiences that a video livestream could help to mitigate? 

Acting from a more holistic awareness about what the hidden costs of our artistic activity are and choosing to include rather than exclude is going to be the essential ethical skill as we re-emerge.