Yearly Archives: 2020

Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘Living somewhere in the machine’

By Bebejabets Sophie LapointeGlenn AltermanMolly McAndrewsTianhai (Tony) Zhou

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.


The woods have always been a sacred place in my mind. But when I traverse the muddy trail, the faint reek covers the surroundings with an ominous veil. Taking a more brisk pace, I hope that the muddy ground won’t suck me into the earth. Would I go through the center of the globe and appear at the other side of the world? Life is an endless loop, with ups and downs. Indifferent people catch up from behind and fade away. The verdant May leaves shed their colors like dried up paint.

— Tianhai (Tony) Zhou (Haining, Zhejiang, China)

This photo was taken in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, USA.

* * *


So many people reevaluating, revisiting old memories, better times. But why? And why now? So many stories in the news of life and death every day. Suddenly it seems like the line separating life from death is getting closer and closer. What’s going on? It’s a pandemic, they say, a virus. But no, that’s not all that’s going on, that’s just what’s happening. Open your eyes. Keep your distance so you can get closer. Cover up, cover up – so that you can go inside! There… yeah, that’s what’s happening… see? Now… learn.

— Glenn Alterman (New York, New York)

When the light finally shines.

* * *


In the past four months, global citizens have learned new habits: social distancing, washing hands, and wearing a mask. For me, this last protective habit turned out to be rewarding and exciting. During a pandemic, animals are sometimes abandoned or forgotten. Indeed, a local animal shelter needed money. Solution? The owner decided to make cute face masks for sale. So I bought one. By wearing this mask, a wounded deer is cared for and fed, making me proud to be part of something bigger. The mask was so successful, my whole family has one.

— Bebejabets Sophie Lapointe (Mascouche, Québec, Canada)

(Top photo: What pandemic? Acrylic paper, 10.5 cm x 13.5 cm. Bebejabets Sophie Lapointe, 2020.)

* * *


I’m depriving my skin of material correspondence and withdrawing the ability to contact other bodies. My skin feels the loss. I envy the machine who can survive without touch. I video-call constantly: uploading myself, my eyes present, moving mouth and megapixel skin. I see other bodies, but not like I know them. Flickering, stuttering, fading. I’m becoming gradually “other.” I’m getting to know my computational personality. I’m feeding my electronic body. It exists without feeling, without pain, grief, or humor. I’m living somewhere in the machine, both here and there, existing in between multiple borders, staring at the unknown.

— Molly McAndrews (Plymouth, Devon, UK)

Living somewhere in the machine.


This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.


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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Theatre for a Climate Crisis in a Globalized World

By Thomas Peterson


As of mid-April 2020 (when this piece was written), somewhere between two and three billion people will be staying in their homes for weeks to come. Non-essential travel has all but ceased as efforts are made to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, the communal sharing of stories in live local gatherings has been shut down around the world; theatre is temporarily impossible. At the same time, digitized narrative forms continue to circulate globally at an extraordinary rate. We are experiencing an unprecedented pause in the progress of economic globalization – the process is driven primarily by fossil fuel-intensive manufacturing and shipping, and carbon emissions in China temporarily dipped by 25 percent in the month of February. Nevertheless, the globalization of storytelling continues apace.

In the total absence of live theatre, the vitality of our remarkable form is evident, and much missed. Theatre can tell stories of and in a specific place at a certain time to the people who inhabit that place and that time. As we use increasingly globalized media tools to describe an increasingly globalized world, this distinctive quality becomes all the more important, especially because the impacts and stories of the climate crisis will dramatically diverge from place to place. 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?


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?


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.

Cahier des doléances from the island of Corsica, established by a general assembly on May 18, 1789. Archives Nationales de France via Wikimédia France.

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.


Over the past several centuries, colonial and imperial projects and technological developments have driven an unbelievable intensification of global homogeneity: places around the world are more similar than they have ever been. It is therefore unsurprising that in theatre we are continually called to tell stories with universal appeal – stories that bring us together or help us bridge our differences. Theatremakers are pressured to justify our sometimes culturally peripheral medium by insisting that the stories we tell speak to universal truths. The stories may have surfeits of specificity, but universal relatability is an all-too-common litmus test when an institution, be it a regional theatre or a multinational media company, is evaluating the quality of a narrative.

Leaving for another essay the unsettling question of what universality might mean, why should we restrict ourselves to stories that resonate with everyone when working in a medium that is strictly limited by time and space? Instead, we must create work for the people who share our local time and space, and who are therefore also sharing the same climate conditions.

Other than theatre, what means of sharing stories can exert a localizing influence in our increasingly globalized art and media landscape? Theatre could even be defined as the local reinterpretation of globally accessible texts. The form is perfectly suited to the telling of local stories: all of the participants in its creation and performance (save perhaps the playwright), along with its audience, must share a specific physical location. Theatres are the venues in which re-descriptions of the environment, local climate stories, cahiers de doléances of the climate crisis, might be assembled in communities all over.

Bringing Latour’s reasoning to the theatre, the climate crisis demands new, locally specific plays to respond to the unique challenges of the place in which they are created and performed. After all, climate change impacts different places in different ways and at different times, challenging the very possibility of universal climate stories.

Nevertheless, the American theatre ecosystem persistently devalues the local: regional theatres are judged successful when they transfer a production to New York, while commercially successful New York productions go on to tour the country. In theatre, we can afford to tell stories that are not “universal.” A Hollywood blockbuster may need to sell tickets in Beijing, New York, and Tulsa to make ends meet, but if you are making a play about the climate in a town of a thousand people, make the play for the residents of that climate, those who are reckoning with its impacts. Climatic forces do not reflect totalizing narratives, and acknowledging the agency and reactivity of non-human nature in many forms, from hurricanes to potent viruses, is of paramount importance in crafting the story of the Anthropocene. As COVID-19 has spread around the world, its impacts have wildly diverged in rich and poor communities, in suburban neighborhoods and refugee camps or prisons.

The climate crisis is no different; it is going to change everything, but it is also going to impact every place in unique and unpredictable ways. Disparate geographies will inevitably generate contrasting stories in the decades to come. Vladimir Putin has long championed the “positive” economic effects of the climate crisis, as Russia – or rather, some wealthy Russians – stands to benefit from increased arable land and newly accessible shipping lanes in the Arctic. From other parts of the globe, the view is very different: Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum famously described the avoidable inundation of island nations as “equivalent in our minds to genocide.” While these are extreme cases, the danger of universalist climate storytelling is clear.


So how shall we tell specific, local climate stories in cities and towns across the country and around the world when climate-focused theatrical work is nearly absent from the stage, even in cultural capitals and at major regional theatres? As Marshall Botvinick has written in the pages of HowlRound, the model for this kind of community-based theatremaking can be found in the Federal Theatre Project and the work of Hallie Flanagan. The project, funded by the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal in the 1930s, supported the creation of plays that specifically detailed the concerns of their communities, often with a focus on radical change, through current events-based forms like the Living Newspaper. Karen Malpede’s compelling call for a Green New Federal Theatre Project describes the integration of such an initiative into the Green New Deal, an ideal governmental structure for the support of local climate storytelling.

Photograph of the New York production of One-Third of a Nation, a Living Newspaper play about housing inequity by the Federal Theatre Project, created in ten different cities in response to local conditions. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

In the meantime, this form of locally adapted climate theatre is already emerging through initiatives like Climate Change Theatre Action, a project I help to organize, which was founded on the principle of local action paired with a coordinated global outlook. In 2019, a number of Climate Change Theatre Action events paired their performances with analyses or discussions of local environmental conditions: an event on a coastal bayou in southern Mississippi examined impacts on local marine-based communities and economies; another took place in kayaks on Miami, Florida’s rising Biscayne Bay; and an event in Calgary, Alberta offered an opportunity for locals, used to being shamed for expressing concern about climate, to support each other in taking action. Climate Change Theatre Action 2021 will aim to support locally focused climate storytelling in the communities that need it the most. Using the Yale Center for Climate Communications’ 2019 study of American attitudes on climate, which breaks down responses by county, efforts and resources will be focused on counties in which understanding of the climate crisis is low, and also on counties in which awareness and concern are high but where respondents indicate that they rarely talk about the issue, let alone act.

Knowledge of local climate impacts is limited in much of the country: the collapse of local news in the United States has eliminated most local environmental reporting. By putting local climate stories on stage in a community space, information about environmental conditions can be shared with those who might never seek out climate journalism. As Latour has argued, local climate storytelling is essential in explaining the import of environmental degradation to climate skeptics. Even then-Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson sued to prevent fracking near his property.

Right now, isolated in our homes, many of us are intensely missing the experience of congregating in a communal space with our neighbors, telling and watching local stories. We are missing the theatre. Once it is safe to do so, we must begin to gather in our communities and share our climate stories. In asking our neighbors to join us to stage our climate cahiers de doléances, we not only learn of local grievances and environmental impacts, but also begin an exercise in imagining: What are the challenges ahead? How will our communities combat solastalgia – the feeling of distress caused by environmental change in a place we love? What is the future we envision for our hometown or city? On stage, we can begin to bring those futures to life, in every community, no matter how small.

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.

(Top image: The Booth Theatre, closed for at least a month to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Gary Hershorn-Corbis via Getty Images.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on April 27, 2020.


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, set on a dying planetHis engagement in climate activism stretches back to high school, when he led a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign.


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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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘What is the rain to give me permission to forget?’

By Ahmed AliCeline PirardClaire YuanPhyliss Merion Shanken

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.


The pandemic has taught me that ugliness is the only definition of beauty. That beauty can be found in the most mundane places. That the mirror is beautiful. That life pivots on the balance that we ourselves define. That we can be as happy as we can be sad. That the half glass is only as empty as it is full. That God lives through nature and nature lives through us. That Little Earthy feels just as we do, and takes breaks just as we do. That love is essential. That love is essential. That love is essential.

— Ahmed Ali (Tubli, Bahrain)

Regression to nature.

* * *


My glasses fog; my mask sucks in as I breathe. My toddler grandson looks at me but can’t see my smile. He cries. “We’re safe. We’ll social distance. Spread antiseptic after each bathroom use.” The baby plays on the floor ten feet away. I wave. I readjust my seat cushion so I won’t be in pain like last night. They wipe down the dinner dishes, tiptoe to me; hand me my plate. I take the other end while they scurry back to the safe zone. After four days of “being with” my children, why am I so depressed?

 Phyliss Merion Shanken (Atlantic City, New Jersey)

Safe enough?

* * *


Ding! Phone notifications make my stomach drop. What’s wrong? My touch ID fails, my mind is flustered. Preseason cancelled? School cancelled? Where will I go? “It doesn’t matter,” I convince myself on those nights, overwhelmed with guilt. Hands chapped, touch ID fails again. Anxiety weighs heavy. Is my family safe? Is she home yet? Can mom wait without a doctor? Now an empty summer approaches. I helplessly want to help. Do I risk my safety for loved ones? I’d be okay… right? Still, there’s beauty in disarray. Coronavirus reminds me of what matters, what I have. I’m vulnerable, but grateful.

 Celine Pirard (Cologny, Geneva, Switzerland)

Views of time passing.

* * *


Yesterday, I saw the heavens open up. I stood in the grass, arms uplifted, and marveled at the gentle teardrops streaking through the air. For a moment, I forgot who I was. For a moment, it was like I didn’t exist.

That night, as I sat in my room accompanied by the groaning sky, I thought I had been deceived. Amidst our crumbling world, an unfeeling moment feels like a betrayal. Today, impulse leans us toward hyperawareness – not apathy.

What is the rain to give me permission to forget? What is the rain to patch that hole?

 Claire Yuan (Woodbridge, Connecticut)

(Top photo: A rainy day captured from a place I have missed this quarantine.)


This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.


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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Black Artists and Storytellers on the Climate Crisis: Introducing a New Series

By Thomas Peterson

The climate crisis is intrinsically linked to environmental racism – there can be no climate justice without racial justice.

Like most of this country’s major institutions, the mainstream American environmental movement is engaging in a much-needed and long-awaited reckoning with its history of racism and white supremacy, with what Van Jones called “the unbearable whiteness of green.”

While Black American leaders have been trailblazing innovators in climate science and activism for decades, they have often gone unrecognized by white media and institutions. Furthermore, despite the disproportionately white public face of the environmental movement, Black and Latinx Americans are far more concerned about the climate crisis than their white counterparts, and are much more likely to express willingness to take action on climate.

This imbalance in mainstream recognition for Black leaders in the climate movement also extends to Black American artists and storytellers engaging with the climate crisis. Across nearly every imaginable form and medium, Black artists are making remarkable work on climate, environmental destruction, and the sociopolitical consequences of global warming.

However, taking the many lists of American visual artists working on climate as a representative example, it is clear that Black artists are dramatically underrepresented in popular accountings of climate art (Artists & Climate Change is by no means exempt – the artists featured and profiled on this website have heretofore been predominantly white). On the four lists hyperlinked in the preceding sentence, each of which features between five and twelve artists, only one African American artist – the photographer, sculptor, and performance and installation artist Allison Janae Hamilton– is mentioned (though she appears on two of the lists). There is no mention of Torkwase Dyson or Tavares Strachan, to name just two prominent US-based Black visual artists who work on climate. The Wikipedia article on “climate change art” does not mention a single Black artist.

Greater representation of the many Black artists and storytellers who engage with these topics is not only an essential corrective to the white-washed public image of climate art, it is also necessary for the success of any movement for climate justice: if we are to act in time, we must center the voices of those who are already facing the worst impacts of the crisis. In the words of Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, “whether it’s Hurricane Katrina or air pollution, storms and exposure to toxins cause much greater harm to communities of color.” And if we are to act in a manner that protects the communities most vulnerable to global warming, we must prioritize the work of artists who come from those communities.

“We need more artists in climate, and I think it’s important for people who care about climate to be committed to telling intersectional stories. Unfortunately, we have too many white spokespeople – when people think about artists engaged in climate, they think of Leonardo DiCaprio. We need to move away from white men holding this narrative and instead help inspire communities of color. And that’s going to be through storytelling; through telling a different kind of story around climate that really speaks to a lived experience that is not just a white one.”

Favianna Rodriguez of the Center for Cultural Power
quoted in Grist

Centering the work of Black artists on climate will mean featuring artists who are well known for their engagement with these issues, as well as those who are too rarely recognized for their work on climate. It will also mean including both artists who engage with the climate crisis directly, and those who create work that speaks more obliquely to the crisis, perhaps focusing on environmental racism, Afrofuturism, or the relationship between the human and more-than-human.

Childish Gambino, “Feels Like Summer”

Prominent Black musicians have led the way in bringing the climate crisis into popular music: the multi-talented actor-director-musician Donald Glover, for example, released the best climate song since Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)”(way back in 1971) when he dropped “Feels Like Summer” in the summer of 2018 under his musical stage name Childish Gambino. With over 180 million views on YouTube and nearly 140 million streams on Spotify, it might be one of the farthest-reaching pieces of climate art ever. Other Black musicians have devoted their entire careers to environmental activism, such as the rapper DJ Cavem Moetavation, who coined the term “EcoHipHop” in 2007. DJ Cavem includes kale, arugula, and beet seed packs with each purchase of his album BIOMIMICZ to educate and inspire under-resourced BIPOC communities to grow their own organic, sustainable food.

Among the widely-acclaimed Black artists too-rarely mentioned in the climate space is the filmmaker and video artist Arthur Jafa. His 2016 video essay Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, described by the Smithsonian as a “contemporary Guernica,”appears in the collections of a who’s who of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Infrequently identified as a piece of climate art, the critic TJ Demos argues compellingly that Jafa’s video essay should be: “if we can describe Jafa’s video as expressing an environmentalism of sorts – which I argue we can, even though the video’s reception to date has largely evaded such an analysis – then it’s one attuned to what Christina Sharpe terms ‘antiblackness as total climate.’” Demos argues that “Love is the Message expresses potential solidarity with the oppressed and excluded, both human and non,” thus challenging what he terms the “neoliberal Anthropocene… the threat of white supremacist tendencies and colonial, extractive futurism,” a threat that, according to Demos, is represented by advocates of geoengineering as a solution to the climate crisis.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, “A Creative Solution for the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan”

LaToya Ruby Frazier is another immensely influential Black artist who, despite widespread recognition for her work on environmental racism, is rarely in the conversation around climate art. To be sure, Frazier’s most well-known work on environmental degradation is a photo essay called Flint is Family, on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. While the water crisis in Flint is not directly tied to climate change, it is a horrifying example of the consequences of “sacrifice zone” thinking – when corporate and government interests decide that some communities do not deserve safe and healthy environments, that their lives matter less than profits or budget savings. As Naomi Klein famously argued in her 2014 book This Changes Everything, this is precisely the kind of thinking that got us into the climate crisis: world leaders have decided that the lives of those whose homes have already been engulfed by rising seas do not matter, that the lives of those who have been forced to migrate by unbearable heat or water scarcity do not matter. The idea that some lives, some communities, some civilizations can be sacrificed before action is taken has brought us all to the climate precipice. Work like Frazier’s offers a compelling critique of this idea, among other systems that create and exacerbate the climate crisis.

There is also much to be gained from re-centering the definition of climate art around Black artists who are already part of the climate canon, such as the late, great writer Octavia Butler (pictured above). Though her disturbingly prescient 1993 science-fiction novel, Parable of the Sower, has long been recognized as a genre-defining work of climate fiction, her writing is increasingly seen as fundamental to the world of climate storytelling writ large. Somini Sengupta concluded her recent New York Times piece on the “Links Between Racism and the Environment” by describing Butler’s Earthseed series as “the one piece I go back to again and again.”

Re-defining “climate art” around such works as Jafa’s Love is the Message and Frazier’s Flint is Family, alongside Glover’s “Feels Like Summer,” Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me,” and Butler’s Parable of the Sower can re-center the climate narrative on climate justice and a focus on the historical, present, and imminent harm caused by rising global temperatures. A conception of climate art that includes and prioritizes the work of Black artists and storytellers is essential to a movement for climate justice.

We are therefore thrilled to introduce a series of interviews, features, and profiles showcasing the work of some of the myriad Black artists and storytellers engaging with the climate crisis through their creative work. The series, a collaboration with Imara-rose Glymph, an eco-artist and cultural organizer interning with Artists & Climate Change this summer, will feature artists and writers working in a wide range of disciplines and media. There are, of course, an incredible array of Black artists working on climate issues globally, from John Akomfrah to Abdoulaye Diallo and beyond, but as the content of this essay might suggest, this series will focus on Black artists based in the United States (at least initially). Look for Imara-rose’s wonderful interviews as we kick off the series in the coming days. 

In the meantime, explore the stunning Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy. In Imara-rose’s words, the collection “upends the traditional narrative of the Black lens on land in the Anthropocene or Plantationocene.”

(Top image: The writer Octavia Butler, in an undated photograph)

This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.


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, set on a dying planet. His engagement in climate activism stretches back to high school, when he led a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign.


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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It Starts with Us

By Beth Osnes


Part of developing an empowered public voice is being able to take time away to listen deeply to your own inner thoughts. A group of young women I work with did just that as they prepared for a public performance in support of climate change awareness and action.

Sitting on the rocky side of a hill outside our retreat cabin in the mountains, one of them – sixteen-year-old Leela Stoede – wrote a response to the climate change play she was rehearsing, It Starts with Me:

It starts with me because even though my life is utterly ordinary, it’s different from any other story told. It starts with me, a life that has not yet been lived. It starts with me because I’ve been surrounded by more love than ever believed possible and want to share it. It starts with me because I’ve been raised in a culture different from my own, a culture that became my own.


Leela is a member of Young Women’s Voices for Climate (YWVC), a group I co-facilitate with Chelsea Hackett that’s made up of nine middle and high school–aged women in Boulder, Colorado, along with several University of Colorado (CU) students. We are brought together by a partnership between SPEAK, an initiative for young women’s vocal empowerment for civic engagement, and CU’s Inside the Greenhouse, which focuses on creative climate communication (both of which I co-founded). Together we have collectively “art-ed” forwards toward our mission to advance climate awareness and action through performance.

I’ve been working with Chelsea – a recent PhD graduate and co-founder and director of SPEAK – for over ten years. In 2014, based on creative work and research we had done in Guatemala years previously using theatre for women’s participation in sustainable development, we began partnering with what is now the Maya-run Guatemalan girl’s school, MAIA Impact, to create a curriculum for vocal empowerment for their students. The resulting twelve-session curriculum combines vocal training and creative expression to support young women’s voices. It is being used by the MAIA Impact school but is also available for use by any organization working to support young women’s empowerment through SPEAK.

We first assembled and ran the curriculum in Boulder in the fall of 2017, with Leela and her cohort. We had such a wonderful time together that we’ve been meeting ever since, focusing on the intersection between feminism and climate change. In our weekly sessions, we do exercises and activities, talk about big ideas, take part in political actions (such as adding our voices to letter-writing campaigns for environmental preservation), and support each other – always working towards some climate-related public performance or showing. As an intergenerational group, we reflect deeply on what we create and how we express our creativity, but we also play hard and goof off. Each semester we gather for a weekend retreat in the mountains in a rented cabin, which are much-anticipated highlights of our time together and fulfill an essential role in reconnecting us to our ecological roots and the beauty that surrounds us in Colorado.

All of the energy from our time together is harnessed when we focus on the powerful connection between challenges faced by women and challenges associated with climate change, since they both stem from similar acts of patriarchal domination and exploitation that have presided over women and the natural environment. In many parts of the world, women experience climate change with disproportionate severity largely because of gender inequality and lack of voice.


I was educated in understanding the role performance could play in climate awareness and feminism by a group called Climate Wise Women (CWI), a global platform for the promotion of women’s leadership on climate change that ensures their voices as frontline climate change community leaders are heard at conferences and summits. I heard the women speak at the United Nations Conference for Sustainable Development Rio+20 in 2012 and hosted several of them at the University of Colorado for a public performance in 2014. I feel a solidarity with their performative methods that draw upon their personal experiences through the age-old art of storytelling.

Members of Climate Wise Women from around the world bear witness to the ravages on women due to climate change. For example, in Constance Okollet’s Ugandan community, floods have disrupted growing seasons, resulting in poverty and hunger that, in turn, led to increased crime such as sexual violence against women. Elsewhere, communities are vulnerable to rising sea levels, like Ulamila Kurai Wragg’s small island state Cook Islands. Wragg shares stories about how women always endure the most hardship during ecological crises due to their lack of voice and lesser status in society. The Climate Wise Women tell these truths about the hardships caused by a changing climate, but they wrap these harsh truths in personal stories. A key to their performance-based strategy is the rich details and strong emotions that increase receptivity towards these truths and lock them into their listeners’ memories.

Rehearsing It Starts With Me on our retreat. Photo by Beth Osnes.

We likewise want to ensure that young women’s voices are a part of international public platforms about climate change. In November 2019, YWVC hosted a Colorado event that was part of Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA), a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented biennially to coincide with the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP). One of YWVC’s CU students, Sarah Fahmy, chose two short plays that focused on women and climate change: The Butterfly That Persisted by Jordanian playwright Lana Nasser, a challenging piece due to both the subject matter and the poetic language that dramatizes an intense conversation between humanity and the Earth, and It Starts with Me by New York–based Canadian playwright Chantal Bilodeau, which not only further educated us on the interconnected realities of women in relation to climate change but also unleashed a powerful conviction through the students’ embodied voices.

A few weeks before the performance, we all went on a weekend retreat near Rocky Mountain National Park. We rehearsed for hours in a clearing outside our cabin on a rare warm fall day, a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains behind us. Being immersed in nature – the pine-scented air, a nice breeze that tossed our hair around, and the Earth beneath our feet – definitely helped the process and deepened our connection to the content of the plays. As part of the retreat, we invited the young women to find their own spot in the hilly woods behind our cabin and, using pen and paper, to free write on their feelings and thoughts about each of the plays they were rehearsing; Leela, writing from her perspective as a girl raised in India who had to move back to the United States as a young woman, penned what came above.

About the play It Starts with Me, Eliza Anderson, another of the young women, wrote, “In a world with seven billion people, it’s hard to feel as if you have the ability to make a difference; reading this play helps me feel as though I can.” Sofie Wendell wrote, for her part, about stopping the pillaging of our planet. “Yes, we have a right to be angry at all the past generations who have started and continue to destroy this Earth,” she articulated, “but we can’t be mad at the fact that old generations are not trying to preserve our future. … We need to embody this anger and make the changes ourselves because it is our future.” Another student, Lerato Osnes, wrote: “I am the one who can make change and help other people make change. It starts with me, a female in a male-dominant society and a minority in a white society.”

Olympia Kristl’s writing seamlessly intersected other life forms and ecosystems with her own embodied experience. “It starts with me… My feet stand on the ground, roots spreading down deep into the Earth,” she wrote. “I stand tall and strong like a tree, knowing that it starts with me. … I can see figures coming into view. They are my friends, the ones who are not afraid to think about the future. The ones that take a step with me. It starts with us.”

The young women performed these two brief plays as an ensemble at the Old Main theatre at CU for an audience of 150 people. Between the plays, they led attendees in a creative process of their own expression. We asked the audience to equally divide themselves into groups, and one of the young women guided each group in creating collective word clusters based on the phrases “Our vision of Boulder’s future includes…” and “Our vision of the World’s future includes….” The contributions were added to two posters. The first was presented to the City of Boulder Environmental Planning team heading up Boulder’s Climate Mobilization Action Plan. The second was taken to Madrid for the UNFCCC Parties Conference of the Parties (COP) just weeks after our event and displayed at a meeting on gender. We were told attending women were deeply touched by the messages expressed.

Young Women’s Voices for Climate members. Photo by Lianna Nixon.

At its heart, YWVC is about vocal empowerment for young women to creatively support their civic voices. A powerful way to do so is to share the collective wisdom of the women in their community who have effectively used their own voices to work towards positive social change. During the performance, eight female community leaders (including Boulder’s mayor), activists, and artists assembled on the stage with the young women and each shared advice for being empowered.

It’s important that the voices of young women are strengthened so they are able to advocate for a survivable future. Connecting to each other as young women, to the natural world, to their supporting community, and to their voices through performance has contributed towards their self-expressed empowerment and their ability to – as Eliza wrote – make a difference.

(Top image: Ting Lester writing in the Rocky Mountains. Photo by Lianna Nixon.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on April 30, 2020.


Beth Osnes PhD, is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado and co-director of Inside the Greenhouse, an initiative for creative climate communication. She recently toured an original musical, Shine, to facilitate local youth voices on energy and climate in resilience planning, and her book on this, Performance for Resilience: Engaging Youth on Energy and Climate through Music, Movement, and Theatre was recently published. Her book Theatre for Women’s Participation in Sustainable Development includes her work on gender equity. She is featured in the award-winning documentary Mother: Caring for 7 Billion.


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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A Possible Path Toward an Infinite Eden

 Vegetal Ontology: Intro (

The Botanical Mind: Art Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree

Reviewed by Olivia Ann Carye Hallstein

There are many lessons to be learned from the transition to virtual art exhibitions online as well as from the exhibition The Botanical Mindpresented by the Camden Art Center in London. For one, there’s a foundational comparison between a plant’s ability to adapt and navigate changing circumstances from a “rooted” place, and the resilence of the human species quarantined inside during an ongoing pandemic. The in-person exhibition has been postponed (not cancelled), so if you happen to be in the UK, here’s my recommendation. As for the rest of us, cooped up inside all over the world, a thorough and ever-growing version of the The Botanical Mind is on view for free. 

Peu Yawanawá of the Yawanawá community, Nova Esperença Village, Rio Gregório, State of Acre, Brazil. Photo: Delfina Muňoz de Toro (

The selected works represent a constructive attempt to invite an international and integrative dialogue. Indigenous practices are presented alongside western intellectuals like Hildegarde von Bingen, Sigmund Freud and the scientific documentation of plant life. Though still holding certain Eurocentric biases in artist choice and a strong emphasis on the shamanistic stereotypes surrounding Amazonian and Pre-Columbian practices—which has been pointed out as less productive in “The Role of Shamanism in Mesoamerican Art: A Reassessment” by Cecelia Klein, Eulogio Guzman et al. in 2002—the good intentions are welcome. 

Screen shot of “The Cosmic Tree” viewer (

The exhibition is expansive in multiple ways: from its viewing possibilities to its range of topics. Adapting to the “new normal” the website provides text, digital images and video in combinations that are well organized and easy to navigate. One can experience the work from an overview page where several images are arranged similarly to the much beloved Instagram format. Or, if you want to dig deeper into each topic you can watch a 20-minute introductory video. Viewers can also look at individual pages for each of the six sections that comprise the exhibition. The video gives a catchy overview, which combines contemporary video, close-ups of plants and manuscripts and historical video to the sounds of enrapturing minimal techno beats. The digital experience attends to multiple senses by being visually and aurally sophisticated. Some pieces represented, such as the Adam Chodzko video of scanned undergrowth paired with Bingen’s choral compositions is meant to generate “a system of channeling… a possible path toward an infinite Eden.” 

Delfina Muñoz de Toro, Vimi Yuve (Fruit of the Serpent), 2019. Watercolour on paper, 61 x 45.5 cm. Credit: courtesy the artist (
Hildegarde von Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum (The book of divine works), 13th Century. Illuminated Manuscript. By concession of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities – Lucca State Library (

An infinite Eden could be exactly what many of us are daydreaming about in our endless hours sitting in front of digital screens, while occasionally peering at the bursting plant-life just outside our windows. The Botanical Mind certainly bridges that expanse between digital and natural while covering a wide range of peoples, philosophies, inquiries and time periods. The six topics covered are: Cosmic Tree, Sacred Geometry, Indigenous Cosmologies, Astrological Botany, As Within, So Without and Vegetal Ontology. Each contains high-resolution imagery of incredible paintings, manuscripts or photographs that are lush with vegetal and spiritual goodness, including Delfina Munoz de Toro’s depiction of the sacred plant with serpent that is represented in some form throughout the world and history from genesis to Amazonia. The bright and high contrast image is especially well suited to a computer screen whose RGB span broadcasts those pop neon greens expressively. For example, the historical manuscripts of Hildegarde von Bingen, the German healer and spiritualist whose mandala of the divine expresses seasons and elements as well as harbingers who send their visions from above. There’s a strong emphasis on German and Catholic expansions on the topic of the sacred, and the many variations of this vision seem to be mixed into an unclear theory surrounding the new age.

Giorgio Griffa, Undermilkwood (Dylan Thomas), 2019 – acrylic on 20 canvases, 200 x 650 cm (installation reference dimensions only) – work cycle: Trasparenze, Alter ego (

Though less spiritual, the contemporary artists presented reflect further on the vegetal cosmos and its complications, many of which leave the sacred or cosmological out of the equation. One example is the world of Giorgio Griffa where it is “rhythm” that is the determining force for his painted works. This “rhythm of Griffa’s extends to sowing, harvesting, the sun, the day and the night” is from an interview in Apollo Magazine by Thomas Marks (2018). His repetitive phrases express “irrationality, madness and elation” that expand past what the sciences can penetrate. These sections on contemporary art are also ever-expanded and are updated on a semi-weekly basis. 

Former plant beds and greenhouses from the herb gardens and plantation at the Dachau Concentration Camp, 2019–2020, series of photographs, dimensions variable. Photography: Marion Schönenberger. Courtesy Hollybush Gardens, London, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, and Galerie Tschudi, Zuoz. © Andrea Büttner / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020. (

From patterns of thought to patterns on the page, this broad ranging exhibition leads us into new frontiers where wide-lens perspectives can grow uninhibited by the walls of a gallery. Perhaps this “infinite Eden” of research, communion and perpetual growth, like the cycles of plant life, exists now more than ever before, through the expansion onto the digital internet plane. Though, like looking at a tree outside your window rather than smelling its luscious flowers, it cannot be the same visceral experience as sitting in front of the smell, feel, textures and imprints that exist in real-life, personally viewing of an exhibition. And just as Buettner’s work of the Dachau Greenhouse reminds us of the chilling reality of time passing and the resurgence of the natural world when humanity makes way, there is much that we can learn from what we do not control. 

(Top photo: F. Percy Smith, Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F Percy Smith, 2016, directed by Stuart Staples. Film Still. Copyright unknown)


ecoartapace ecoartspace is a nonprofit platform providing opportunities for artists who address the human/nature relationship in the visual arts. Since 1999 they have collaborated with over 150 organizations to produce more than 40 exhibitions, 100 programs, working with 400 + artists in 15 states nationally and 8 countries internationally. Currently they are developing a media archive of video interviews with artists and collection of exhibitions ephemera for research purposes. Patricia Watts is founder and west coast curator. Amy Lipton is east coast curator and director of the ecoartspace NYC project room.

A project of the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs since 1999

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Tiny Coronavirus Stories: ‘The unrelenting stillness of this time’

By Anatalia VallezLolis VasquezSarah PaselaStephanie Nicolard

Reader-submitted stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, in no more than 100 words. Read past stories hereSubmit your own here.


I count the velitas in rows of five
I’m always adding another year
28 and a ha – 29
last year we went out to a local market
ate individual slices of vegan cake that stuck to the roof of my mouth
I miss celebrating others’ birthdays
I miss seeing all my cousins and their babies grow up
how we huddle around when we hear CAKE
serenading, queremos pastel, pastel, pastel
I miss getting my face smashed into a cake
that’s how you know you’re loved
because while people laugh
there’s always someone there to tenderly clean you up

 Anatalia Vallez (Santa Ana, California)

Baby girl posing after getting her face smashed into a tres leches cake.

* * *


I work at an assisted living facility in the small town in which I attend college. I have had to move back home, which is approximately two hours away, meaning that I won’t get to see any of my residents for the next six months due to the virus. They are the most vulnerable to this virus. I hope every day that they will all be there when this is over and that I will see them all again. I miss you.

— Lolis Vasquez (Worthington, Minnesota)

(Top photo: It was a bittersweet drive home.)

* * *


Waves of feelings, up and down. Breathe, think about breath, then think about how COVID attacks the lungs. Go outside and enjoy nature, could the virus be on the bottom of my shoes? Enjoy my family, what would I do if they became ill? Up, down, all day long on a roller coaster of emotion. I am forced to relinquish the illusion of a stable ride. I have always been traveling on this wild one. With COVID, though, I can’t lie to myself and pretend that I am the one running the ride.

— Sarah Pasela (Big Lake, Minnesota)

Living in the moment through a daffodil in my garden.

* * *


It’s summertime and the cat’s pink paws are turning black. Lentigo, says Google. The spots will spread over time. I wonder if the cat notices. These spots are as unsightly and asymmetrical as our most tender bruises: that thing I wish I’d never said, your secret I couldn’t keep. It is the unrelenting stillness of this time that is most unsettling – there is, at last, nowhere to hide from the self. The comforts of modern life (yoga studios, trinket shops) dutifully obscured the truest things we will ever know: who we are, alone at night, our paw spots spreading insidiously, imperceptibly.

— Stephanie Nicolard (Los Angeles, California)

Paw spots, called lentigo, are benign marks that can develop on a cat’s paws, nose, or gums.


This series is edited by Thomas Peterson. One of the editors of Artists & Climate Change, he is also a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis.


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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