This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? NYU professor Una Chaudhuri writes about a group of theatre makers and educators who have committed to looking at the world through a climate lens in the hope of acquiring new wisdom.—Chantal Bilodeau
Under ordinary circumstances, we’d probably have resisted the temptation to announce ourselves with such a grandiose sub-title—or at least followed it with a self-deprecating question mark. But these are hardly ordinary times, and we’re “going big”—and exclamatory!—to counter the odious enormity that’s suddenly at the nation’s helm.
Trump Nation, however, only intensifies our post-national impulse; its real source, dating from well before the last election, is the fact that the most pressing political issue of our times crosses all national boundaries. The accelerating symptoms of ecological devastation and climate chaos are global, planetary—post-national.
CLIMATE LENS sprouted on January 5, 2017, when a group of theatremakers and educators gathered in New York for a retreat on the topic “Theatre and Climate Change.” The seeds of CLIMATE LENS were the various projects these people had been involved in, over the past several years, that engaged with environmental issues in general and climate in particular. These included Chantal Bilodeau, Una Chaudhuri, Elizabeth Doud, Lanxing Fu, Derek Goldman, Julia Levine, Roberta Levitow, Jessica Litwak, Erwin Maas, Jame McCray, Erin B. Mee, Emily Mendelsohn, Katie Pearl, Jeremy Pickard, and August Schulenburg.
We began by acknowledging that our previous attempts to get the larger theatre community engaged in this topic had been difficult. People tended to “shut down” when they heard that a theatre piece dealt with climate change. They tended to assume they knew what that would entail, and that it would be depressing, even when it came in the form of a sugarcoated pill, or a deft and elegant presentation of scientific information, or a lyrical ode to the vanishing green world. Climate change, we feared, was turning into a dreary theatrical theme, prejudged and too easily “slotted.”
To loosen this sense of intellectual impaction, we’d framed the following questions to guide our discussion:
How can theatre truly register the most important thing about climate change: the fact that (as Naomi's Klein's book puts it) "this changes everything"? How can we evolve a "climate dramaturgy" which goes beyond addressing the symptoms of climate chaos and instead begins to forge the new imaginations we will need in order to confront the long-term, unpredictable effects of those symptoms on our lives?
The ubiquity and scale of the effects of climate change are shifting the terms and tone of the discussion around it. While once there was argument about its existence, followed by argument about its causes, followed by arguments about what might be done in response to it, the discussions now focus squarely on how to get people and governments world-wide to act in time to avert the very worst of the predicted effects. A recent instructive contribution came in the form of a New Republic article by Bill McKibben, a leading voice in the climate movement. McKibben characterized climate change as a series of hostile attacks, amounting to a “world war.” “Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory,” he wrote, “sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments.”
Balancing our respect for McKibben against our revulsion towards militaristic rhetoric, we explored this perspective, comparing it with alternative models, like peace-making, diplomacy, education, care-giving, etc. Underlying many of these metaphors we sensed an invitation to move beyond an exclusively defensive posture, to realize that while global climate change is indeed an unfolding catastrophe, climate itself is simply an abiding feature of planetary reality, one that our species has—in recent centuries—tended to ignore (at least in our political and ethical formulations).
What would it mean for art to get interested in the climate—both as it is in itself and as it shapes human lives and societies? What might be gained by the arts in thinking about human lives beyond the familiar analytical frames of biography, psychology, sociology, politics, history—to understand them also as shaped by biology, physics, geology? In other words, what would be the value of drawing into cultural and artistic production the frameworks that have long been sequestered as “science”? Many artists, including theatremakers in our group, have already been working closely with climate scientists, translating their information into expressive imagery and narrative. How might that practice grow more expansive and also more dialectical, moving beyond staging scientific facts to exploring how individual and social lives are related to the planetary forces that modernity has so systematically “backgrounded”?
The most energizing turn of this conversation came as we located our project in a lineage of progressive discourses that approached issues not only by focusing on their ill effects but by identifying key terms to use as new analytical frameworks. Just as feminism used gender as a lens not only to combat sexism but also to uncover its foundations in patriarchy, we propose to use climate as a lens not only to confront climate change but to uncover its foundations in anthropocentrism.
As often happens, the mention of anthropocentrism quickly plunged us into a familiar and frustrating conversation about the impossibility—for us humans—of escaping a human outlook. One solution—and one we hope CLIMATE LENS will help bring forward—is to distinguish carefully between anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. Anthropomorphism—the projection of human ideas on non-human subjects—is indeed hard to avoid; nor is it always desirable to avoid it. A great deal of contemporary animal welfare and animal rights thinking, for example, relies on encouraging us to empathize with the suffering of non-human animals. The need to deploy a “strategic anthropomorphism”—that is to say, an anthropomorphism practiced mindfully, with awareness of the pitfalls and limits of cross-species identification—has long been sensed and practiced by eco-philosophers, as has its counterpart (not opposite): zoomorphism, the projection of animal characteristics on humans. These modes of imagination and figuration seem to exist at deep levels of human nature, and can be used in diametrically opposed ways: as ways of erasing or discounting nature, or ways of nurturing deep affiliation with nature. The guiding principle for those who want to avoid the former and achieve the latter is: make sure your practice of anthropomorphism is free from implications of anthropocentrism—the world view that puts humans and their interests at the center of all reality, and participates in the kind of hierarchical-binary thinking that also sustains sexism and racism. In short, practice anthropomorphism (and zoomorphism, and even biomorphism) in the service of an ecological, biocentric world view, one that includes human but vigorously opposes the fantasy of human exceptionalism.
CLIMATE LENS is committed to multiplying the playful, delightful, surprising ways that humans can “play the non-human,” and vice-versa. As an example of the latter: we’re planning a project inspired by that eco-classic “Thinking Like a Mountain,” by Aldo Leopold. In “Tweeting like a Mountain,” we hope to help some non-human partners (including a glacier, a species of mushroom, a speak back to Twitter-Tyrants) while also keep their many human friends informed of life around the planet.
Naming our project CLIMATE LENS, we initiate a conversation and collaboration to use the distinctive elements of the arts of theatre and performance—in particular, their use of actual spaces, times, and bodies as their primary medium—to put human stories in a more-than-human frame. By paying attention to the entanglements, contests, and partnerships that humans habitually (though often unwittingly) undertake with other species, and with natural forces, we want theatre to help counteract the prevailing human exceptionalism that has contributed so much to the current crisis.
A climate lens can work through something as simple as paying attention to the physical life of dramatic characters (in addition to their social and psychological lives), pushing against one of the origins of ecological alienation: rationalism, with its twin derogations of the human body and the non-human world. From this perspective, such recent plays as Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds and Adam Bock’s A Life, neither of which appear to be “climate change plays,” can be thought of as “climate lens” plays, helping to nudge us towards an awareness of those levels of life we share with other animals and even (in the latter case) with the earth itself. These plays contribute to an “affirmative biopolitics” that may prove vital and inspiring in the age of climate change, a way to resist the “biopower” that French philosopher Michel Foucault identified as a defining feature of the modern state.
A climate lens can also uncover ecological perspectives in classic plays, vastly expanding the repertory for climate-concerned performance. Imagine a Tempest that foregrounds the fact that Prospero is, like contemporary humanity, a weather-maker as much as he is (as previous lenses have proposed) a patriarchal and colonizing tyrant, or A Wild Duck anchored in Old Ekdal’s cry—“The woods take revenge!” These dots seem easy enough to connect. More challenging—and perhaps more interesting—would be productions that brought biocentric perspectives to bear on plays that seemed utterly disconnected from ecological matters, classic plays that seem to be exclusively about human institutions like justice (Merchant of Venice), sociological concepts like gender (Shrew), or political history.
CLIMATE LENS, then, is interested in developing a creative and expansive perspective on the unfolding environmental realities that go under the name of “climate change.” While not avoiding the more frightening aspects of these, we are committed to making theatre that asks broadly about the current state of the earth, and the human place in it, and frames that vast subject in ways that are politically empowering, socially regenerative, and artistically joyful.
If you would like to become part of the CLIMATE LENS conversation, please join our Facebook group. We are planning a series of public meetings in 2017 and 2018, in New York and other cities, which we’ll announce on the Facebook page.