8 November 2022

Every foundation should be a climate foundation

Why do you care about the climate crisis we are facing?

To be honest, climate was not really a major issue for me for most of my life. But that changed, especially in the last few years,. Things can change much faster than we thought. Until recently, I thought the Fall of the Berlin Wall was sort of the defining moment of my life. But as things become more and more dramatic, I’m not sure anymore.

The decisions we take today will define what the future brings and, to be honest, I think it will be  hard. And you can’t just deal with this climate issue with business as usual. We are in a state of emergency. There are certain things which can be done within the remits of our current capitalist society. The climate deal, the green deal, developing new technologies. But I’m not sure that will be enough.

I have children. They of course will say, “What did you do to us?” And you know, they are right. Why didn’t I do enough to convince my colleagues 15 years ago that this is an important thing? So, I feel responsible.

How can foundations tackle the climate crisis?

Our foundation hadn’t as such said “we are a climate foundation” until last year because we are the European Cultural Foundation, we work mostly on education and culture. We promote a European sense of belonging. That is our mission, although we touched on environment and climate , even energy, before.  But we didn’t openly say that.

Then we did a tour two years ago, called “What can Culture do?” We went through Europe, talking to people around the continent about what the challenges of Europe are. And the issues of climate and environment, of nature, were some of the main topics coming out of that. We had already built this in as an issue of importance, but in 2021, during the Covid pandemic, we realised responding to the climate crisis was a priority. Big floods in Europe and the Netherlands at the time, heatwaves, storms.

As the European Cultural foundation we have a legacy, and we know a number of things we are good at: the whole issue of people-to-people experiences, we are good at storytelling and imagining the future. We are also good at creating movements, for example in the European public space. That’s why we asked ourselves: How can we bring this to the table in addressing the climate crisis? What can culture do?

What can foundations do themselves? And that is the starting point for us. Every foundation should be a climate foundation. In a sense that we are not ditching what we’re doing and now all becoming climate foundations. I think we all have to realise that climate is the most important issue of our times. It’s a question of survival of humanity. So it is the number-one topic, and we all should address the climate issue in the way we can do it best. I would say: Look at the climate crisis and your statutes and don’t be too literal. If it says something about culture or healthcare, of course you can’t neglect the biggest challenge, which affects these fields anyway.

What is the European Cultural Foundation doing itself?

What does it actually mean to be climate neutral? We are a European foundation. That means that we don’t just sit in Amsterdam and read up about Europe, we have to be in Europe. That includes a fair amount of traveling. So, we’ve implemented a train-first policy. Another thing is our building, our infrastructure. I mean, it doesn’t have double glazing, the heating system is old, the roof probably needs to be redone. So, lots of very practical problems. We’re working internally on our own operations: mobility, staffing, human resources, all these things.

We’re also starting to work with other partners and on programmes related to culture for climate action, and European experience and climate. We are a partner in the New European Bauhaus movement , we are a partner in CrAFt to support a network of 100 cities in Europe to become climate neutral. Now, having spent the time to make the case, the scientific case, we now also have to make the emotional case, the case that this is a cultural shift, and arts and culture can give great hope and agency to others. Perhaps all climate foundations need be cultural foundations.

We try being both in one of our projects, which is called The Europe Challenge. Theidea of the Europe challenge is to ask citizens in libraries all across Europe to identify what they think are the biggest challenges in Europe and then develop solutions to these challenges. Sustainability is one of the main topics as you can imagine.

What gives you hope? What can arts and culture do?

When you read the news these days, you can be overwhelmed. It is not impossible that humankind disappears. But on the other hand, it is not impossible that we are saving our planet through intelligent, concentrated action when we take it seriously. And I think the foundation sector has a role to play, but also has the responsibility. Because you can’t, as a philanthropic sector, stand aside and say, let governments and businesses do it while we do something else. Everything is possible, even what would have seemed completely impossible yesterday. I’ve known that since the Fall of the Wall.

Arts and culture create hope and agency. Cultural workers have another perspective. They see there is hope, that we can do something. This is a perspective which is very much needed because facts can only get you so far and now you need a different level. I think we have a much, much better chance to weather the crisis in a good way if we stick together, if we create a sense of community, maybe also a movement, a real climate movement. It is a big challenge, but it’s also a big hope.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


André Wilkens
Director, European Cultural Foundation