The Future of Our Past: Why Heritage Matters

In the global conversation about the ongoing climate crisis, why focus on cultural heritage? Andrew Potts of ICOMOS explains.

By Google Arts & Culture

Space Science (2001-09-30)NASA

Our changing climate is the most pressing and universal concern we face. The effects of a warming planet are already being seen on an alarming scale, from bushfires in Australia to the thawing of polar landscapes. The resulting impacts are taking a toll  on the infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits and quality of life to communities.

This unfolding crisis requires urgent action. Families and indeed whole towns must be relocated from increasingly uninhabitable terrains. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest must be reversed. So what place does cultural heritage, history, and the arts have in conversations of such real-time responsibility?

A panoramic view of El Caracol by CyArkCyArk

“Heritage is really the cumulative memory of humankind and the memory of communities,” says Andrew Potts, coordinator of the ICOMOS Climate Change and Heritage Working Group. 

Bagan by Kieran Kesner for CyArkCyArk

“It anchors us to place. It is something from which we derive our identity. It gives us a grounding in the world.”

"Without heritage, people lack that anchoring, that identity, that sense of community. The glue that holds us all together. And so when climate change loosens those bonds, it loosens the community.”

Notre Dame (1970) by Bill RayLIFE Photo Collection

The loss of cultural sites is a particularly poignant event. 

As seen in the global mourning after the fire which ravaged Paris’ Notre Dame in 2019, or in the universal condemnation of targeting cultural sites in wartime, places of cultural significance can be unifying points of mass feeling. 

Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, Chimera gallery (1998) by Philippe BerthéCentre des monuments nationaux (CMN)

We feel an emotional attachment to our heritage, and grieve collectively when it is lost. 

Highlighting the effects of climate change on such sites can help more people to comprehend the tragedy of climate change and inspire empathy for those on its front lines.

Sitting with locals outside Gereza Fort in Kilwa Kisiwani (2018-12) by CyArkCyArk

As Potts puts it, “climate change can be overwhelming. You can very quickly get lost in a forest of scientific terms and doomsday predictions.”

"One of the most important functions that culture and heritage can play is to humanize the conversation and make it people-centered. Culture and heritage is about people, things that are important to people, and so when you make it a culture conversation you're making it a people conversation.”

A Moai Overlooking the Island of Rapa Nui (2019-01) by CyArCyArk

Further, the visible destruction of monuments is a physically observable effect of climate change.

Instead of abstract statistics or overwhelming news bulletins, some people may be brought to a greater understanding of climate change through the visibly retreating coastlines at Rapa Nui, threatening to send the famous Easter Island statues (known as moai) tumbling into the sea…

Churchill History (Castles In England And Scotland) (1955) by Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

...or the perceptible damage done to Edinburgh’s iconic castle.

Coal factory in Yulin, China by Nian Shan/GreenpeaceMuseu do Amanhã

There are further, more practical intersections between cultural preservation work and techniques of tackling climate change, as Potts points out. Talking of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, he says, “there are a variety of ways that heritage intersects with decarbonisation.”

“It actually turns out that one of the most effective ways you can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in a city is to reuse existing buildings and not build new buildings, even super green new buildings. The carbon it takes to build them is rarely offset by the operational efficiency. So maintaining and reusing an old building is one of the best climate strategies you can follow.”

Bagan by Kieran Kesner for CyArkCyArk

Potts also observes that focussing on local heritage sites around the world can help the international climate conversation find grounds for cooperation and mutual understanding on terms which are at once globally significant and locally specific.

Children in Bagerhat Learning How to Pilot a Drone (2019-05) by CyArkCyArk

“Climate action needs to make sense within the logic of any given culture. It needs to be culturally appropriate.”

"Starting with a community’s culture is a way to make sure that the climate action that's on the table is going to be sensitive to how certain cultures want to go about things, which makes it more likely to be successful.”

Space Radar Image of San Rafael Glacier, Chile (1999-04-15) by NASA/JPLNASA

Furthermore, in a very real way, the cultural heritage of our species intersects with the natural heritage of our planet. Sites such as the Iron Age field systems in England or the clay cities of Otrar, Kazakhstan, are examples where, from a preservation perspective, the natural world and the cultural world are one and the same. 

As Dr Meredith Wiggins of Historic England says elsewhere in this project, “these things are both natural and cultural. To think of them separately would be to miss the whole picture.” 

Moai in Rapa Nui Watching the Sunset (2019-01) by CyArkCyArk

We’re in a climate emergency. How humankind responds in these next few years will be crucial. 

Heritage has the power to stir people’s souls, guide human responses, and galvanize public opinion. Understanding and preserving our past has forever been integral to our future.

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