Olafur Eliasson: ′The past won′t guide us into the future′ | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 04.10.2019
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Olafur Eliasson: 'The past won't guide us into the future'

Renowned Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has been appointed United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Goodwill Ambassador. DW spoke to him in New York about his new role.

Each year, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) chooses someone to serve as an advocate for urgent climate action and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As this year's representative Olafur Eliasson — whose three-decade career has focused on the fascinating qualities of light, water and air — takes the helm, he spoke to DW about what the world needs right now, and how he plans to make us understand.

DW: You have just been appointed UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, which includes a commitment to making the world a better place. How can you do this?

Olafur Eliasson: Well, I believe art is about reflecting on the world and essentially also bringing the world forward by creating a positive vision for the future, a tomorrow, which is better than yesterday. To be honest, I actually think that working as an artist itself is already making a contribution to the world. Obviously people might see that differently but essentially I don't think that my goodwill ambassadorship is going to deviate a lot from what I'm already working on.

Read more: What can music tell us about plastic pollution? 

In what respect does the current state of the world require us to take action?

Clearly the world is changing and there are huge issues that need to be solved. The climate, migration, a general polarization in society, for example. But I also think it's important not to lose sight of what is actually going quite well. There is reason for hope. I believe in hope as such and I'm generally a positive person. And when you think about it: it has never been better to be a young African girl, for instance.

Read more: The global injustice of the climate crisis

I mean we have improved a lot of things in the past 20, 30, 40, 50 years and in that sense I just think it's also important to acknowledge that if you look back, there has been progress on almost all issues. It's just that we now have a situation where the past alone won't guide us into the future anymore because some of the things that happened in the past, like the use of fossil fuels by the western world is not going to bring us into the future without ruining everything.

Melting block of ice on the streets of Paris

In 2015, Olafur Eliasson brought giant blocks of ice to the streets of Paris, where they slowly melted during the climate conference

So, what needs to be done?

I think you have an opportunity to respond to things like climate change but pursue the SDGs as well because it's about working within complex systems rather than just responding to one issue after another. Such a systemic approach is something that interests me right now.

For example: we have to understand that the forests in Brazil are burning down right now to make way for cornfields. The cornfields yield a corn powder, which is used to feed Danish pigs. That process is certified and completely legal. The Danish pigs are then shipped to Britain as Danish bacon. So there is a connection between the Danish bacon in Britain and the fact that the forest in Brazil is burning.

And if we now view the whole infrastructure of the world as such systems instead of only focusing on the forest or the pigs or the bacon or the transport, we can see the sort of intrinsic ways that everything is influencing everything and we can use that knowledge to respond.

Then I think these sustainable development goals could also become a very active language upon which we can react.

In 2012 you founded Little Sun, which distributes solar lamps, initially in Africa and now the whole world. It is a social business. Is this a model for the future, to have social businesses?

Well, of course social business covers a variety of different models. We are less of a business and more like a not-for-profit because the goal is a social good. Our non-profit arm does the impact programs on the ground. At the same time, it is a social business in the sense that we hope to drive profitability in the area where the end user is.

Solo-Ausstellung des isländischen Künstlers Olafur Eliasson In reals life - Olafur Eliasson (2017 Olafur Eliasson)

Olafur Eliasson

Read more: Green energy solutions you've (probably) never heard of

By this month we will have delivered one million lamps but that means there are still 319 million people without access to electricity in Africa. Also, working in the not-for-profit environment, finding scalable solutions is often a challenge. The truth is that other market players like Coca-Cola or cigarette companies are having a lot more market success than we are. Obviously it's a different type of product but still. We should be careful not to romanticize the not-for-profit, as scalability may be the key to profitability.

How important is the environmental impact of Little Sun?

I like this notion that Little Sun demonstrates that you can do something yourself on a very small scale, meaning if you have a Little Sun at night you're not buying kerosene or petroleum for your little lantern to do your homework with.

Now that is obviously very, very little. In a normal family it's maybe only 10 or 20 or 30 milliliters a week. But if you now have a million Little Suns out there and they are all being used, then that's a lot less kerosene. Little Sun is just one of three or four excellent solar products out there in the rural African areas but I think we can already see a drop in petroleum imports by a number of African countries as a result of solar products.

The interview was condensed for clarity.

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