Art and Environmental Impact: The Challenge of Conscious Generations

Rabab Al-Qassab - Al-Ahsa Track
This article was written by a Youth Voice program participant. Youth Voice Program is an enriching dialogue program that aims to engage Saudi Youth from all around the Kingdom in several seminars, discussion meetings and training. It focuses mainly on critical thinking and persuasive communication skills.

Those who follow today’s artistic movement in the Kingdom cannot help but be amazed by the noticeable acceleration in artistic production since the Saudi Vision 2030. Still, they find themselves puzzled between supporting and opposing this acceleration once they take a moment to consider the environmental impact of this acceleration. It may seem at first glance that this momentum in artistic production and the Kingdom’s quest to reduce carbon emissions form a sort of paradox since production consumes many resources, materials, and energy, which contradicts the concept of sustainable development and the treatment of environmental phenomena resulting from human interaction with the environment such as climate change. Therefore, a group might oppose this progress in the artistic field because of its negative impact on the environment, but this paradox is not specific to the Kingdom, but rather related to artistic production in the entire world. Art has indeed a great environmental impact, but another group may view art as a gateway to making change and creating awareness of environmental affairs. This helps in creating a positive environmental impact through art by properly interacting with the environment and its raw materials, or at least trying to reduce the negative impact that man has left over the years on the environment.

In this case, the opposing team may wonder if art in the Kingdom can contribute to playing this important role and offer other benefits for taking this direction. Saudi youth aspire to leave their artistic mark and share their culture through their art. Can they achieve this and still preserve the environment?

The answer is in the sustainable art movement around the world and how it currently plays the roles of communicating the artist’s message - whatever it may be - and preserving the biological environment. It is worth noting that sustainable art has an impact on all environments, whether they are social, cultural, economic, or even vital, but we will focus on the effects on the biological environment.

Before addressing the ability of artists to change the environmental equation, we must consider whether the current situation of arts constitutes an environmental threat that must be confronted or if it can be disregarded. To understand the issue in all its aspects, we must define the concept of the environmental impact of the artistic process. Is it limited to artistic production without other preceding or subsequent processes or is it extended from the start of the supply chain to its end?

Many might consider that the issue is only related to artwork. So in the case of a painting, the impact would be limited to matters directly related to the painting itself, such as the type of painting and colors, and here lies the fallacy. Determining the environmental impact of all industries begins at the start of the supply chain, that is, with the delivery of raw materials by the product supplier and ends with the consumer. Therefore, we are discussing the environmental impact of the entire artistic production process, not just the product. Based on the above, reducing the negative impact lies in reducing the consumption of energy and resources at every stage of production, marketing, and sale of this art since the conception stage. Therefore, the environmental impact of each type of art will vary according to its type, presentation, and receipt. The drawback here is that we can't necessarily get to the real numbers that reflect the scale of the problem. This is where the artist, his fans, and sponsors come in to identify the factors that might help transform the process to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Instead of global statistics in this field, we present the figures of a study conducted in Britain in 2018/2019 as an example. This study has shed light on the consumption of energy, water, and other resources by the art sector in Britain, as well as business trips and art-related travels, and found that CO2 emissions amounted to 114,547 tons. It would take almost 115,000 trees 100 years to absorb this much CO2 emitted in one year! Surely, we cannot compare the two countries due to the difference in size and intensity of artistic production, but we point out the importance of awareness and taking measures to reduce these numbers.

Some people may think that digital transformation can reduce the environmental burden of art on nature. But it's more complicated than that, as all digital work consumes energy, and energy consumption results in carbon emissions that may increase or decrease depending on the type of energy source or digital process used to create and share this artwork. For example, many artists rely on encrypting their works to preserve their rights and prevent the illegal copying and circulation of their works using an encryption technology called NFT. This process is very complex as it requires network-managed operations in different parts of the world, which makes the amount of energy consumed and the carbon dioxide emissions involved in coding the artwork very large.

Sustainable art can be defined as every work that is produced taking into account its impact on the surrounding environment. Therefore, the concept of sustainable art is broader than one image or a specific art field. You may have come across an image of a sculpture made of recycled and assembled materials. Although this image is not necessarily wrong, it is a stereotypical image of the kind of artwork that can be done to achieve sustainability and environmental friendliness. Just as recycling is a type of sustainable art, circular fashion allows the design of fashion and accessories that can be returned to the biosphere after use without negative impact and is considered a type of sustainable art. Green buildings and renewable energy sculptures are also sustainable art.

Certain sustainable art forms not only aim to reduce human damage to the environment, but also make art a way to remove the damage caused by humans over the years. For example, ecological art attempts to restore ecosystems to their former state, and the number of marine creatures in the area has increased as a result of the conscious choice of material from which models and sculptures in some museums are made.

As we can see, all these forms are works of art attempting to reduce the negative impact on the environment around us. Based on all of the above, we can say that sustainable or environmentally-conscious art will generate new and unique opportunities, but it will require partnerships and initiatives from different disciplines to have the required strength and impact. Some people may object that this type of art would not be desirable by artists or investors, as it does not involve financial profit or personal return. But we see examples of contemporary artists and investors interested in this type of art. For example, a young artist assembled and reused bottle caps to form an image of the Mona Lisa. We also find Saudi architects on Twitter discussing green architecture materials and arts. Artists are interested but there is a need to promote the definition of this type of art to make artists and those interested in art aware of its environmental impact.

This subject can be highlighted through training sessions or courses organized by institutions and relevant study materials offered by universities. As for financial profit, this type of art has proven its ability to bring tourism to places that have lost their luster, even for their original inhabitants. Through land art, areas of trees or crops were exploited to perform distinctive works of art that attracted tourists to them. Partnerships between artists and workers in the renewable energy sector can also produce exciting and attractive renewable energy sculptures. For these opportunities, universities must first shed light on this art and the private or government sectors must create supportive opportunities for it and provide incentives and prizes or competitions that allow the artist to learn and practice this type of art. Promising opportunities may soon arise from new projects that focus on the environment, such as NEOM or the Red Sea Project. In conclusion, let us consider the Swiss composer Ernst Levy’s quote, “[Human beings] will begin to recover the moment we take art as seriously as physics, chemistry or money.”




  1. Sustaining great art and culture, Arts Council Environmental report 2018/19
  2. The carbon footprint of creating and selling an NFT artwork.
  3.   What does sustainability mean for the art world?              
  4. First underwater museum in Europe in Lanzarote, Belpresse.

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