We are experiencing a horrifying tragedy—the consequence of too little care for the most vulnerable, too little attention paid to science, too little action too late. These last few weeks have prompted an alarming outpouring of quasi-ecofascist rhetoric, which tends to repeat the toxic idea that “humans are the virus,” a phrase often meme-ified alongside images of empty highways, clear canals in Venice, or smog-free skies above Los Angeles. This rhetoric of blame implies that destruction is an inherent quality of the human species; that we collectively share responsibility for environmental degradation and the climate crisis. Worse, these accusations are sometimes paired with undercurrents of xenophobia and racism, suggesting that China is to blame for the climate crisis and the pandemic.
Humans are not the virus. Systems of extraction and exploitation are the source of the climate crisis, and while some of these have slowed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic has also made tangible some of the differential harm caused by environmental degradation. Carbon emissions may have temporarily fallen, but cumulative air pollution has already weakened the lungs of millions of people around the world, primarily poor people and people of color, increasing their vulnerability to COVID-19. Environmental racism and fossil-fuel capitalism are a deadly combination.
But while the pandemic itself is an unmitigated tragedy, there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from our collective response. It is heartening to know that we can extend empathy around the world, retaining a compassionate global outlook while caring for those in physical proximity to us. We can avoid carbon-intensive long distance transportation and limit the globalized exchange of commodities while reinvesting in our physical communities. In this time of crisis, Mutual Aid Groups have sprung up all over, a local model in which people care for those who are near them. But when this period of isolation ends, where are we to funnel this empathy? How will we maintain these local networks?
What lessons can the theatre draw from the isolation spurred by this pandemic, and how might we emerge prepared to tell the stories of the climate crisis on a local and global scale?
In an essay entitled Où atterir? (literally “Where to land?” though translated into English as Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime), the philosopher Bruno Latour argues that, to be effective, any political response to the linked crises of climate and economic inequality requires reinvesting in local environmental stewardship and addressing local grievances, all while retaining open and globally minded ways of thinking and being.
As Naomi Klein has argued, the disastrous failure to respond to the climate crisis in the thirty years since it became widely understood is due in no small part to economic globalization. Trade agreements have consistently been prioritized over climate treaties, and though emissions growth slowed over the second half of the twentieth century, it intensified again after the creation of the World Trade Organization. While the globalized sharing of information, services, and stories should and will continue to expand, the production of commodities must localize in order to combat the climate crisis. These economic changes will necessitate political transformations that redistribute power to communities.
To achieve this redistribution, Latour calls for a re-description of the specific landscapes in which we live in the manner of the cahiers de doléances, the lists of grievances contributed by every community in France in 1789, which constituted a full accounting of the political and environmental conditions of the country. The cahiers offered communities an opportunity for critical evaluation of conditions of life under the government of Louis XVI. This opportunity for widespread, relatively democratic reflection catalyzed the revolution, which eventually led to many of the reforms called for in the cahiers.
When people were given the opportunity to consider the particular political and environmental grievances of the places they called home, they realized that changes could be made that would dramatically improve their lives. Latour argues that a similar political accounting by communities around the world would create the kind of local investment and stewardship that might render climate change a “backyard” issue for everyone, not just the frontline communities that are already fighting extraction operations, rising seas, deforestation, and other threats to their survival. The communal nature of theatre makes it the ideal form for telling the stories of these local accountings.