Yearly Archives: 2020

Read a CCTA Play

Let’s come together to share and celebrate the amazing plays written by our Climate Change Theatre Action playwrights in 2019! We don’t need to let physical distance keep us apart when we can be virtually connected.

We invite any and all of you to record yourselves reading or performing a 5-minute play from our CCTA 2019 or CCTA 2017 collection. 

These can be solo performances or small group performances with the people you live with, recorded on your phone or computer, or group performances recorded over FaceTime or Zoom. They can be done by students as part of a class, or by anyone eager to invest 5 minutes in making art. We’ll then post these performances online and share them with our community.

Email us at ccta@thearcticcycle.org if you’re interested in participating and we’ll send you a selection of plays and all the info you need.

Tell Us Your Coronavirus Story

By Chantal Bilodeau

Tell us what you’re seeing, what you’re feeling – in no more than 100 words.

We’re only just beginning to understand how the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) might relate to the climate crisis (thanks to the incredible journalism of InsideClimate News) but it’s clear that our behavior during this outbreak is a rehearsal for more disruptions to come. Whether we heed the advice of scientists, take aggressive action to care for the most vulnerable among us, and put differences aside to collaborate across borders, sectors, and ideologies will determine the outcome of both this global health crisis and our climate crisis.

To capture this moment in time and the lessons we’re (hopefully) learning, and in the spirit of the New York Times Tiny Love Stories, we invite you to send us your true coronavirus story, of 100 words or less, in prose or dialogue form. 

We’ll publish the funny, sad, awe-inspiring, and thought-provoking stories we receive. These will become our collection of Tiny Coronavirus Stories – an ode to our capacity to be resilient in the face of major challenges.

We look forward to reading you.

Note: Stories may be edited for clarity and content. We’ll ask you for a picture taken by you to accompany your narrative.

Tell us your story here

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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A Voice for the Earth

By Anders Dunker

Many worlds come together in the Los Angeles-based singer Inanna’s brand new eco-music project, leading up to her album Acrotopia. Middle Eastern darbuka rhythms meet modern electronic soundscapes, dark visions and warnings alternate with dreams of green utopias. With a background in the alternative electronic rock scene of Europe, a career in belly-dancing, and experience working on a collaborative music project about extinct species, Inanna has crafted a fresh new style and mythical stage persona.

According to Inanna, environmental music is still being invented, just as we’re reinventing culture in order to care for Nature and limit our climate impact. Musically, as well as in her activism, she enters the darkness in order to find a way to the light. A sense of mystery and drama pervades her work and, rather than looking back, her music focuses on a greener future, and a sense of beauty and gratitude.

For Inanna, there is no difference between climate concerns, and environmental and animalist topics. Our bond with Nature is what needs to be mended as we move from seeing Nature and animals as our possessions to honoring them as fellow Earthlings.

Her latest song, On Fire – one of the singles of her upcoming album – is about rainforest destruction, seen from the point-of-view of animals. This powerful anthem-song was inspired by a viral video of an orangutan charging at a bulldozer tearing down its forest, its home. At the same time, the song is about global warming, referring to climate activist Greta Thunberg’s repeated phrase, “Our home is on fire.” The visual elements of the music video allow Inanna to further merge the different strands of her project, and deepen the message: Drone footage of factory farms and animal agriculture in the Amazon bring her belief in veganism together with the climate cause in a way that she perceives as increasingly urgent.

Collaborating with environmentalist groups and activist media is as important a part of her project as building her presence. For her videos, she has received documentary material through her cooperation with environmental organizations like Greenpeace. She has taken part in street demonstrations with Extinction Rebellion and in the climate marches of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future. On stage she is tapping into the more mysterious sides of Nature and womanhood. In her stage performance of Heal, dancers swing their long hair to the rhythms of the zaar dance, a legacy of Ancient Egypt, where healing is made into a collective ritual. Dancing and singing for the Earth, with the Earth and on it, invites a deeper connection with the place where we belong.  

The idea behind this environmental music project, as indicated on Inanna’s website, is to give a voice to Mother Nature. Inanna presents a new kind of feminine figure for the pop scene, playing with female archetypes such as the Goddess, the Prophetess and the Queen. Mythology exists to be extended and re-invented: her first music video, Nefertiti XXI, imagines the Egyptian ruler Nefertiti being resurrected as a female green leader for the 21st century. Is there a link between Nefertiti and Inanna, the Sumerian goddess? Certainly since she was a goddess of love and Nature, as well as war. The fight for the environment is truly a war, one in which the defenders are often ignored, even if the Earth they defend belongs to everyone. The love for Nature and our ancient bond with the Earth need to be rediscovered.

We are entering dark times – the Anthropocene – which are reflected in Inanna’s epic song Where We Belong but in her upcoming album Acrotopia, there are also bright and hopeful tracks, such as Twilight of the Dawn inspired by a famous lecture given by H.G. Wells in 1902, where he said: “It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening […]that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.”

Her album Acrotopia is fittingly scheduled to be released for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. Among the new songs, she has already premiered Invisible City, a ballad about green cities and a new Arcadia where Beauty rules the day, in concerts. The album title Acrotopia includes the component acro- from acrobatics, meaning “higher” or “above” The acro-topian topos, or “place,” is neither an unattainable utopia, nor is it its negative counterpart, the dystopia we all dread. Acrotopia is a higher place, the sum of all attainable improvements, all that we can do better.

Can music make a difference? I believe so. It can bring catharsis, help us work through emotions, and give us a sense of togetherness, not least with Nature – something we need more than ever. To deal with climate change, we need to change our cultural climate too, and Inanna is part of that change. Her ultimate vision is for environmental and animalist topics to be at the very center of culture – where they belong.

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Anders Dunker is a Norwegian environmentalist, journalist, painter, and philosophical writer who has covered future-related issues for a number of publications in his home country. He reviews documentary films and non-fiction books for Modern Times Review, and recently edited The Rediscovery of the Earth – 10 Conversations About the Future of Nature, published in Norwegian, forthcoming in English. As a landscape painter, he has painted in natural sanctuaries such as the Annapurna range in the Nepalese Himalayas and the Dolomites in Italy.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Welcome to the Anthropocene

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

In her 2002 book, On Writing, acclaimed American short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty noted the importance of establishing a strong sense of place in a story when she famously said, “One place can make us understand other places better.”

Most of the artists whom I’ve highlighted in this “Imagining Water” series over the past two-and-a-half years have created work on water issues attributed to the climate crisis that are affecting a particular place, while at the same time, illustrating a global trend. For example, while Xavier Cortada’s participatory community street-sign art project in Miami specifically indicated where sea waters would eventually rise in his hometown, it also called attention to a phenomenon that will certainly occur in other coastal cities around the world as climate disruption worsens. Similarly, when ten prominent musicians from Cape Town, South Africa created 2-minute shower songs to help limit water use during a severe local drought, they were also contributing to a global conversation on creative solutions for critical water shortages everywhere in the years ahead.

Canadian poet, writer and essayist Alice Major is a master at using references to the history, geography and geology of her place – Edmonton, Alberta in Canada – to evoke a sense of alarm about the future of our planet. When we spoke recently, Major called Alberta the “epicenter of climate controversy” in Canada. With both a heightened awareness of the changes occurring in their own environment and also a dependency on the economic rewards of the area’s oil and gas industries, Edmonton residents are conflicted, as are many communities around the globe, between environmental stewardship and economic prosperity. In her poem, Red sky at…, Major references the growing strangeness of winter in Edmonton, the ability they still have to put their concerns about climate disruption to the side and the ever-present need for fossil fuel to feed their furnaces.

January. Grey dawn sky.
The air is warm, unseasonable

softening the snow that seemed invincible
just yesterday. The ravens kronk

in mild surprise, as if to thank
the god of thaw. The furnace stops

and in its wake of silence, thoughts
sift and stir, like cat hair

shifting in the quieted air.
Thoughts, of course, of gratitude

for ice’s release and the beatitudes
fluted out by chickadees –

“Blessed are we
who have survived the minus-twenty

of the last harsh weeks.” But, gently,
the sky turns red – and that means ‘warning.’

Not right now, not on this soft morning.
Danger is not so imminent

as that. But there are incidents
and auguries that show how change

is in the forecast. The winter’s getting strange.
The future’s birth-cord is being twisted

into being and we are complicit
in the spiral, the furnace starting up again

and I.

river-1052x591.jpg
North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton

In many of her poems, Major refers to the North Saskatchewan River, which runs from the Canadian Rockies, through Edmonton and eventually spills into Lake Winnipeg. Although the city currently benefits from a sufficient supply of water from the river, which is fed by glacial ice melt that flows down from the Rockies, the land itself is dry. Fires in the vast Boreal Forest to the north are an ever-present threat. Home base to the tar sands industry, the forest is vulnerable to the tiniest spark, which can set thousands of acres ablaze. The following excerpt from Major’s poem, Mundus, addresses the city’s conflicted relationship with the oil and gas industries, located downstream of the city.

The city’s hearth burns red
as the blood of trapped animals.
Downstream, Refinery Row
creeps to the lip of the river. The countryside beyond 
dotted with gas wells flaring. We send back
tributes, commodities, we need
their open purses.

In addition to poetry, Major has had a life-long interest in science and math, especially cosmology and physics, which she says “have that poetic mystery,” as well as neuroscience and botany. Constantly exploring the meaning of humanity’s place in the universe, she has often applied her scientific knowledge to the work she has published, which includes eleven collections of poetry, two novels for young adults and a collection of essays about poetry and science.

In her latest book, Welcome to the Anthropocene (2018), Major moves from her own personal locality and world to an exploration of the Anthropocene itself, the era of human impact on the planet. The collection’s title poem/essay is written as a ten-part contemporary response to Alexander Pope’s 1731 “An Essay on Man.” In an excerpt from part three of the poem, Major challenges us to consider the possibility that the corvids (birds of the crow family) or invertebrates could have developed intelligence first and dominated the planet rather than primates. Would the world’s cities have been built at the bottom of the sea? Would the planet be in such a state as it is now if this had happened?

Perhaps it could have been the clever corvids
who got here first, heading up the scorecard
of cognition, using their nimble beaks
to master tools, learning new techniques
for modifying their environment,
working the muscle of intelligent
cooperation. The ravens, who already call
in croaking protolanguage, could evolve
the broader pattern of symbolic speech

Or perhaps our niche
might have been filled by the invertebrates
(who started long before us), and the gate
pushed open by a suckered tentacle,
a smarter cephalopod. Chemical
riffs and rattles, changes, might have loosed
cascading adaptation and put to other use
the scintillation of chromatophores.
Imagine colours used for something more
than flares of anger, urgent camouflage.
Imagine a vivid, silent language
sweeping over skin, instinct’s dictation
translated into willed communication.
And then an ocean floor built up with cities,
herded fish-flocks, the patternicity
of gardens, turrets, standing stones, machines – 
all jointly engineered. It might have been.

In part five of the “Welcome to the Anthropocene” poem, Major begins with a witty dismissal of the animal extinctions occurring at a rapid pace throughout the world, then moves to a serious acknowledgement that fear is “growing in us that we have passed some threshold,” beyond which the bubble sustaining the planet will burst. An excerpt from part five is below.

5.

Atoms or systems into ruins hurl’d,
 And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

To all you entries in the global data base
of life: welcome. Welcome to this hyper-space
during which humanity has hacked
into the planet’s history. In this tract
of ad-hoc coding, we’re running trials
like half-assed systems analysts whose files
have never been backed up, reckless geeks
who don’t know when we’ve pressed ‘delete’
once too often. 

Still, we might be content
on a planet with no great auks or elephants,
polar bears or pandas. How often do we meet
Sumatran tigers on our city streets
(or want to)? We could simply look
at legendary beasts in picture books
or videos. They’re nice-to-haves, not musts
for daily life. As for rhinoceros,
white shark or Orinoco crocodile,
who’d care for living with one, cheek by jowl?

We don’t mourn the passing of the mammoth
every morning, nor the vanished giant sloth,
even if our weaponry inventions helped
to push them off extinction’s sharp-edged shelf.
In fact, we’ve benefitted from the cull
of evolution. We’d not be here at all
if dinosaurs had not turned up clawed toes
and left. Yes, it’s too bad about the dodos,
but there are many other lineages
of pigeon. The earth still manages
to maintain its total biomass. That bulk
may shift from balanced muscle to a pulp
of sagging flab around the waist; it matters
not the least. There are as many creatures
living on the planet as have ever been
– even if a lot them are hens.

But fear is growing in us (like a gas
after too rich a meal) that we have passed
some threshold – that we may be rendering
earth derelict, a disaster ending
not just giant pandas but ourselves.
A fear we’re blocking earth’s escape valves
and bio-sinks. Many will dismiss the question –
they say it’s just a touch of indigestion,
we’ll be fine. Besides, they say, it isn’t us –
one good fart of forest-fire exhaust
dwarfs all the output of our vehicles.
Still, doubt’s sour odour lingers in our nostrils
like effluvia wafting from our garbage dunes.
Our conurbations spread their plumes
of carbon far beyond the city limits,
and our roaring engineering mimics
volcanic-level belches every day.

Major is a keen observer of the river and natural environment around her hometown of Edmonton and the way it is changing as a result of climate disruption. She has the dual ability to engage us in this particular locale as well as transport us to a universal place where we can examine the bigger questions of our time: Will we give up some of our worldly comforts to preserve our planet? Will we come to value the other living beings in our world as much as we value ourselves? And how will the era of human dominance over the Earth, the Anthropocene, ultimately end?

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received numerous grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and drawings have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – dead trees that have been exposed to salt water as a result of rising tides.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Brave New Decade – Part 2

By Joan Sullivan

Following up on last month’s post about Rachel Armstrong, the polymath professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University and coordinator of the multi-country Living Architecture project, I want to take a closer look at the role of artists in this metabolic design project. By definition collaborative and trans-disciplinary, Living Architecture aims to cut our umbilical dependence on fossil fuels by re-introducing microbes back into our homes, our buildings and our cities.

Lamenting that “waste materials do not have a high cultural status” in our society, Armstrong explained in an email that “modern design in the Reign of Hygiene regards microbes as ‘dirt’ to be eliminated by wipe-clean ceramics and household cleaning products.” 

But according to Armstrong, “This attitude needs to be turned around if there is to be meaningful uptake and sustained adoption of systems like Living Architecture that deal with our wastes.” To change the public’s negative view of human and household waste, the Living Architecture project collaborates with artists and architectural designers to “imagine the choreography between humans and microbes.” 

“Waste materials do not have a high cultural status.”

Rachel Armstrong

For those who need a quick intro, here’s how Armstrong described living architecture in a recent interview :

Very simply, living architecture is about constructing spaces that possess some of the properties of living things. I see “living” as also inhabiting, so an environment that enriches the quality of living inside it. Not necessarily by being alive or living itself but by creating the possibility of flourishing and happiness – augmenting positive encounters. So “living” is really the modes of inhabitation within a space as much as it is a technology that connect the structures and choreography to the much broader environment and ecology in which the architecture is situated.

The video below illustrates one of the many possible applications of living architecture: replacing interior wall partitions in our bathrooms and kitchens with self-contained microbial “living walls” that could transform liquid human waste (urine and grey water) into usable products such as electricity, biomass, oxygen and polished water. The latter would be recycled back into our toilets, sinks and showers to reduce overall household water consumption.

To some, this may seem like science fiction. To me, living architecture is the kind of radical transformative thinking required to help us survive – and thrive – in the Anthropocene. Living architecture is part of a rapidly evolving global design renaissance that is demonstrating, in so many exciting ways, the critical importance of a healthy and diverse microbiome in all aspects of our lives: inside our bodies as well as within our clothinghomes and built environments

Living architecture can also be viewed as part of a much broader trend towards regenerative, cradle-to-cradle, circular design in which the concept of waste is eliminated across all industries. No more end-of-life planned obsolescence products to be disposed of in landfills. A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design; all waste products are viewed as valuable nutrients or assets to be re-used and upcycled to create or fertilize something else. According to architect William McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, “In nature, the ‘waste’ of one system becomes food for another. Everything can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil as biological nutrients, or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products, as technical nutrients without contamination.” 

In 2019, Rachel Armstrong and her Living Architecture colleagues received an EU Innovation Fund grant to develop a biodigital prototype to change cultural responses to human waste and the presence of microbes in our homes. The Active Living Infrastructure: Controlled Environment (ALICE) project is a collaboration between Newcastle University, the University of West of England and Translating Nature. ALICE will design interactive digital interface cubicles for exhibition at biennials and arts festivals where audiences can see their own waste (urine) transformed by microbial fuel cells into off-grid carbon-free electricity to charge mobile devices or light LEDs.

“ALICE is a first-generation biodigital hardware and user experience that translates the activity of microbes into meaningful encounters with human audiences, establishing a trans-species communication platform,” Armstrong explained in an email exchange. “ALICE is a significant step towards engaging with a microbial era. Using low-power electronics and artificial intelligence, ALICE will generate meaningful outputs that can be translated by data artists into a high-quality user experience.”

Dr. Julie Freeman is ALICE’s lead data artist. Co-founder of Translating Nature, Freeman is a prolific digital artist, curator and TED Senior Fellow, with a PhD in computer science. (“Defining Data as an Art Material” is the title of her PhD thesis at Queen Mary University of London.) Freeman will help design ALICE’s digital interface to generate real-time data-driven graphical animations that will allow audiences to interact and “converse” with microbes. Ultimately, these animations will catalyze constructive conversations about the future of sustainability in homes and public buildings, as well as the lifestyle changes implicit in adopting this brave new generation of utilities.

A graphical visual display of the bacterial “inner life” of ALICE, downloaded from Newcastle University

One of the main challenges for Living Architecture (and other forms of metabolic design) is the perceived “unpalatability” of microbes as a design substrate, for designers as well as the general public. According to Armstrong, “Involving artists and architectural designers creates novel, high quality socio-spatial experiences that drive the appropriation of new technologies by end-users and are catalytic in cultural adoption.” 

To increase the visibility and social acceptance of “living technology”, Armstrong and her Living Architecture colleagues share the results of their work widely in both scientific and artistic venues. The latter include major installations at the Venice Art and Architecture Biennales, the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, the Trondheim Art Biennale, and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, among others.

In 2019, London’s Whitechapel Gallery paired Rachel Armstrong with the artist Cécile B. Evans for the experiential Is This Tomorrow? exhibit. Their collaboration, a first, resulted in the enigmatic installation “999 years 13sqm (the future belongs to ghosts)” which was powered by microbial fuel cells developed by the Living Architecture project (see video below).

According to a review in the Evening Standard, Armstrong and Evans’ installation challenged audiences to consider “a third way between utopia and dystopia – the energy of living microbes rather than the dead, which make up fossil fuels.” 

Throughout this and my previous post, you will have noticed that the key word associated with living architecture is “collaboration.” Armstrong clearly shines when she is working across multiple disciplines simultaneously with her diverse network of colleagues. I found this brilliant quote from It’s Nice That which illustrates just how radical and transformative collaboration can be when used to solve third millennium challenges. When asked about the role of architects in the 21st century, Armstrong explained, humbly:

The 21st-century architect is not going to be the kind of iconic genius designer who makes the perfect form. It’s not going to be all about an individual ego. We’re seeing that also with things like the Nobel Prizes. These are not one-person, egotistic enterprises. These are communities of creatives. The role of the designer is not at the peak of the hierarchy. It’s further down on the infrastructure, it’s actually creating the conditions for events, forms of livability, and experiences of spaces. So, in fact, we are taking ourselves out of the role of God and actually becoming part of the soil of the city.

Amen.

(Top image: Rachel Armstrong and Cécile B. Evan’s installation “999 years 13sqm (the future belongs to ghosts)” at Whitechapel Gallery’s Is This Tomorrow 2019 exhibit. All images from the Living Architecture project reprinted with permission by Rachel Armstrong.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a documentary film and photo book about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan shines a light on global artists, designers and architects experimenting with renewable energy as an emerging art form. You can find Joan on TwitterVisura and Ello.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Using Glasgow’s e-bikes to help the city achieve net zero

Glasgow has set the ambitious target to become the UK’s first Net Zero city, but how it gets there will be significantly different from other big cities across the country.

One way ScottishPower is helping local residents play their part in the fight against climate change is through a new partnership with nextbike to sponsor Glasgow’s first fleet of e-bikes, which will allow Glasgow residents to travel in a quicker and greener way. ScottishPower has sponsored a fleet of 63 e-bikes and 21 charging points across the city.

An increase in the use of electric vehicles will significantly help Glasgow reach its Net Zero goal by 2030. As one of the few cities in the UK with a large proportion of their residents living in flats without access to off-street parking, the challenge of transitioning to electric transport and electric heating creates its own unique requirements.

ScottishPower’s recent Zero Carbon Communities report forecast that the city will need to install more than 175,000 charging points between now and 2030 to reach their target – nearly 17,000 in non-resident areas.

These new e-bikes are a great example of how you can reduce your carbon footprint.

Find out more about Glasgow’s e-bikes.

The post Using Glasgow’s e-bikes to help the city achieve net zero appeared first on Creative Carbon Scotland.

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Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

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Climate Change Theatre Action 2019: This Is How We Respond to the Burning World

By Thomas Peterson

Since mid-September I’ve been greeted daily by emails, zooming in from all over the world, describing performances of short plays about the climate crisis. Somewhere between one and 700 people attended each of these performances, which occurred not just at theaters but also at universities, in elementary schools, parks, community centers, churches, and public squares, and even on kayaks. The plays were performed in cities, from Manila to Nairobi to New York; in towns like Lamoni, Iowa, and Duino, Italy; and outdoors in places like Lair o’ the Bear Park in Colorado and on Biscayne Bay in Florida.

The emails sometimes tell of disappointments – a smaller audience than expected, a last-minute venue change, park rangers interrupting at inopportune moments – but they also celebrate successes – a sold-out run, demand for a reprise in the spring, requests from local government to bring the plays to schools throughout the city, an invitation to perform at the European Parliament. I’ve learned that audiences often laughed together, shared fears and anxieties about the climate emergency at hand, and then left the performance feeling hopeful, joyful, even motivated. That’s no small feat. It is difficult – difficult, but vitally important – to spend sustained time thinking about global heating without despairing. I’ve been trying to hold on to that hope and that motivation. 

As 2019 began, I was less than a year out of college, studying theatre on a post-graduate fellowship at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Everything was burning. Massive wildfires incinerated vast swaths of land on nearly every continent as 2018 flickered out. Flares and tear gas erupted in the streets of Paris every Saturday as the gilets jaunes protested the Macron government’s economically regressive attempts to limit carbon emissions with a fuel tax. In a matter of months I would join Parisians in the streets on Fridays, alongside tens of thousands of other students inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” movement. The necessity of rapid, just, equitable climate action had never been more clear to me. 

I started thinking about staging the climate crisis because of a play I had seen at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers near Paris in December 2018. A mostly wordless piece exploring the aftermath of a plane crash near a desert island, Philippe Quesne’s Crash park: la vie d’une île inspired me to read French philosopher Bruno Latour’s latest essay, cited by one of the characters in the play. In the essay, titled Où atterir? (literally “where to land?,” though it has been translated into English as Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime), 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. 

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, and this opportunity for widespread, relatively democratic reflection catalyzed the revolution, which eventually brought 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, contemporary political accounting by communities around the world would create the kind of local investment and stewardship that would 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. 

Caiti Lattimer, Brandon Curtis Smith, and Adam Basco-Mahieddine in “Setting the Stage for a Better Planet,” the global launch event for Climate Change Theatre Action 2019 presented in New York. Photo by Yadin Goldman. 

As a theatre-maker and director, I wondered if the ephemerality and live-ness of theatre might serve as useful tools to stimulate climate action and environmental stewardship at the community level. What other form could exert a localizing influence in our increasingly globalized art and media landscape? After all, theatre is a medium that must necessarily be local, in some sense of the word, but which persistently examines global perspectives. Theatre could even be defined as “the local reinterpretation of globally accessible texts.” I wondered how to make theatre out of Latour’s ideas about climate and politics. Latour seems to be wondering the same thing.

I set about googling “theatre” and “climate change” and very quickly came upon Climate Change Theatre Action. I learned that this work was already occurring on a global scale: every two years, a New York-based organization called The Arctic Cycle, founded by playwright Chantal Bilodeau, commissions fifty playwrights from around the world to write short plays about the climate crisis. These plays are made freely available so that communities around the world can create place-specific events. Global texts, community-based local events.

The fifty short works are written in a range of forms and on a range of issues: global and local, massive and minute, practical and existential. They include folktales retold for an age of mass extinction, absurd farces on climate denialism and political ineptitude, tragicomedies navigating anxieties about individual and societal environmental impacts. Reading and analyzing the plays was an education in the diversity of aesthetic and representational approaches to the climate crisis. 

I joined the Climate Change Theatre Action team after moving to New York this past summer, stage-managing our launch event in the city before leaping into the herculean organizational task of recording and cataloguing the performances around the world that would follow in the coming months. This is when I started to get the emails, the ones telling of laugher and hope and joy in spite of the challenges at hand. 

Map of Climate Change Theatre Action events occurring globally December 12-21, 2019.

It has been thrilling to see the impact of this Dropbox folder of fifty short plays as feedback has rolled into my inbox. At latest count, between September 15 and December 21, 2019, community-oriented theatre actions took place in 225 locations around the world (a 60% increase from the 2015 edition of the initiative), including all fifty US states and every inhabited continent. These performances engaged 2,892 artists, organizers, and activists, reaching 11,988 live audience members and another 10,415 and counting via radio, podcast, and livestream. The initiative engaged more than 25,000 people, more than double the number impacted by Climate Change Theatre Action 2017. 

But the numbers don’t tell the story of the performance in Lebanon postponed due to ongoing protests against political corruption and economic inequality, nevertheless rescheduled for a few weeks later; or about finding solace in the plays during a horrific wildfire season in Australia; or about a performance in a town in West Virginia with high rates of climate denial receiving coverage from a local TV station (yes, the headline does say that the event aimed to “encourage climate change” – we’ll chalk it up to an editing error!). They don’t tell you about “engrossed” audiences at an event in Mumbai produced by the National Center for the Performing Arts, or about a “galvanizing evening for Calgarian citizens used to being shamed for expressing concern or taking action on climate change,” curated by Ashley Bodiguel and Vicki Stroich in Calgary, Alberta. Nor do the statistics tell you about Professor Alyssa Schmidt’s students at the Boston Conservatory, who “proved to themselves that theatre can be a change agent in sustainable practice and living, as well as a home for those extreme feelings such as deep grief or abiding joy.”

These emails may not answer Latour’s call for contemporary cahiers de doléances, but they do offer evidence of communal perseverance and hope, incontrovertible proof that small groups of people around the world are meeting and listening and planning for a future together on this rapidly changing planet. This is how we respond to the burning world. We unite, gathering for a few hours in our beloved localities to share joy and inspire action. With each Climate Change Theatre Action feedback email, this message becomes a little clearer.

(Top Image: Afua Busia and Marsha Cann in “Climate Change Theatre Action Uptown,” at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) in New York. Photo by Yadin Goldman.) 

Thomas Peterson is a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, co-organizing Climate Change Theatre Action. He recently returned from a Harvard Williams-Lodge Scholarship in Paris, where he wrote a thesis on the aesthetic of the sublime in the theatrical representation of the Anthropocene. He created Roy Loves America, a multi-form performance piece about Roy Cohn, and is developing an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. This spring he will direct Kat Zhou’s adaptation of Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders at the Booth Theatre at Boston University. His engagement in climate activism stretches back to high school, when he led a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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