19 March 2012

Vivienne Westwood talks about global warming

Last Tuesday Dame Vivienne Westwood came to Cambridge University for a debate entitled 'The Role of the Art Lover in Addressing Current Issues,' an obtuse title for what was essentially a talk about global warming. I normally stay away from events that promise to beat me over the head with a giant eco-loving-come-apocalypse club, but because it was probably the only time that I will be able to sit within 100m of Vivienne Westwood, I swallowed my environmental guilt and went. There were two other speakers, one a sculptor and artist who had made a seriously whacky film about resonating ceramics, and also a curator from the V&A Museum who spoke about an interesting future exhibition about urban spaces and the environment. But I know what you really want to hear is about is Viv, so I won't say any further on those two.

First of all, I have massive respect for a 70 year old who can still stalk around in killer heels. And secondly, for the fact that my friends and I had trouble agreeing how old we thought she is. She dresses nothing like a 70 year old and proves that you are only as old as you feel and that clothes make a big difference to the one who wears them. I have trawled Google for you to find a picture of what she was wearing (no photos of the event were allowed)--

See what I mean about the shoes?! She was wearing the bandanna from her 2008 'Chaos Point' collection which set the tone for the rest of the evening...

Viv believes we are fast approaching ecological doom. By 2100, scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber has estimated that the global population will have shrunk to only 1 billion people (that means 6 billion will die over the next 100 years). If the temperature increases by 2°C from the base temperature in 1800, which it is predicted to do in the next 10 years, then this has a kind of multiplier effect which will lead to a 6°C rise in actuality. At this point, all the land below a latitudinal line drawn through Paris will become uninhabitable. Westwood does practice what she preaches: she helped set up the charity Cool Earth which aims to stop the bulldozing of the rainforest and has used her fashion label to raise money for the cause.

Vivienne Westwood has a certain unpolished charm. She spoke without notes, sometimes reproaching herself for forgetting her train of thought and putting her head in her hands. When it came to questions, she was dismissive of academic pretensions and people who were trying to show off (all too common in Cambridge). She is softly spoken with a gentle Northern accent and yet was imploring, emphatic and nigh on apocalyptic in tone. She is a striking mix of the homely and ordinary with the erudite and philosophical. Vivienne drew on Aristotle's axiom, "the acorn is happy to become an oak" as a way to explain that we must look to become who we are. She is obviously well read and her philosophy is a blend of some serious heavyweights such as Aristotle, Marx and Nietzsche. Westwood is an advocate of not following the crowd but thinking deeply about what we feel to be important and always trying to learn more about the world. She is, then, all about taking full responsibility for ourselves and not sitting passively in the background.

One person asked Westwood whether fashion and ecological activism were irreconcilable opposites. She was dismissive, although she claimed that fashion was something she got into by accident and that it has served her well as an international platform. Those seem like reasonable arguments, but she is so very famous now regardless of her clothing that I wonder why she cannot renounce fashion and become a fully fledged activist. It was also difficult for her to explain how learning about oneself and the world and the narrow window of 10 years before ecological catastrophe can sit together. Essentially, us young people have to act to save the world in a major way before we're 30 in order to make a difference. That sounds like a big ask to me. Most people in their mid-twenties are still trying to figure out what career they want and where the money is going to come from, let alone thinking about the future of the entire planet.

Vivienne Westwood is clearly passionate about preventing the devastation of global warming and educating young people about the imminent threat that industrialisation poses to the earth. At age 70, it is conceivable and maybe lucky that she will not live to see whether or not the world tips over into chaos in the next 10 years. I don't know about you, but I'm no eco-activist. However, I have thought of one easy place to start: buying organic cotton. The Organic Trade Association has some stats about the cotton industry that bring home just how aggressive the damage caused by cotton growing can be. What I'll add to Viv's advice is this: next time you make a quilt or a lovely summer dress, think twice about the cotton you buy. If enough people stop buying their fabric from retailers that are always trying to drive prices down over staying ethically sound, and seek out ethical cotton, organic cotton could become a mainstream product in our fabric shops.

Alix xxx

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