Artists and Climate Change

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Kyoto Forever? UN Climate Conferences as Political Theatre

By Thomas Peterson

Perhaps the most consequential theatrical forums of the moment are the UN climate conferences, or COP meetings, which occur every year in a different city and at which the governments of the world negotiate coordinated attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or at least they perform diplomatic negotiation and perform commitments to reduce emissions. Global emissions continue to rise as climate impacts worsen, heightening the fictive, performative impression given by these conferences. At times they appear to be nothing but deceitful political theatre.

On the other hand, these meetings have also created platforms for truthful and effective political theatre, such as Greta Thunberg’s speech at COP 24 in Katowice in 2018, or Papua New Guinea delegate Kevin Conrad’s criticism of American obstructionism at COP 13 in Bali in 2007. The conferences have also inspired creative theatrical work, particularly in conjunction with COP 21 in Paris in 2015, which was accompanied by ArtCOP21, a “global festival of cultural activity on climate change.”

In May of that year, 200 students from around the world met at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers outside Paris to simulate an idealized, biospherically-minded version of the COP to come. The project was at once a Model UN conference and a devised participatory theatre piece. It was guided by Laurence Tubiana, who led the French delegation at COP 21 and was a key architect of the Paris agreement, the philosopher Bruno Latour, and the scholar and theatre director Frédérique Aït-Touati, alongside Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers artistic director Philippe Quesne. 

The student participants performed not only the roles of government negotiators, but also those of diplomats acting on behalf of cities, oceans, soils, and other species. They were given three days and one night to reach an agreement, a fascinating experiment documented in the film CLIMAT: le théâtre des négociations (known in English as CLIMATE: Make it Work!), directed by David Bornstein. A fractious process, the conference was nevertheless a thrilling test-run for the progress that might be made that November when world leaders convened in Paris.

Though the progress made in Paris later that year inspired hope, little has changed since then. COP 25 in Madrid was a striking failure, even by the abysmal standards of international climate conferences. While we must do our utmost to inspire action at the all-important COP 26 this fall in Glasgow, the gap between deteriorating climatic conditions and intergovernmental inaction seems ever more absurd. 

The French writer-director-performer Frédéric Ferrer has explored this absurdity through a pair of plays, entitled Kyoto Forever and (with a wink) Kyoto Forever 2, which he created with his company, Vertical Détour, in 2008 and 2015. The plays are a theatrical hybrid existing somewhere between political documentary theatre and the more farcical edge of the Theatre of the AbsurdKyoto Forever fictionalizes a past UN meeting, COP 13 in Bali, while Kyoto Forever 2 imagines a 2022 preparatory meeting for a future COP, numbered 28, taking place on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.

The term “Kyoto Forever” entered the lexicon in 2005, when three European policy researchers published an article in which they suggested that international climate agreements might simply cease to make progress, freezing at the wildly insufficient and yet nevertheless largely unmet commitment levels agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It is a terrifying theory, but one that seems depressingly astute, given the general failure to comply with or build on the moderately improved (though non-binding) commitments made at COP 21.

I saw Kyoto Forever 2 in Paris roughly a year ago, going on four years after its creation for ArtCOP21, and its representation of the intractability of international climate politics has stayed with me. Actors from France, Sweden, China, Iran, Congo, Russia, and Brazil argued for two hours in ten different languages. They were playing representatives from (mostly) their countries of origin, attending an entirely fictional but nevertheless all-too-real preparatory meeting.

Reflecting on the performance a year on, what alarms me the most is that 2022 is a mere two years away. The picture offered by Kyoto Forever 2 of the state of these near-future UN climate negotiations was bleak: increasingly desperate and increasingly paralyzed. The production was advertised with an ironic tagline: “two hours to save the world.” The delegates were talking about 6 degrees Celsius of warming, an unquestionably catastrophic threshold, but a scenario well within the realm of possibility in the “business as usual” scenario envisioned by this play. 

The delegates deliver the arguments that play out every year at these meetings, but the climate devastation occurring in the background has worsened. Developing countries rightly argue that they should not be subject to the same emissions reduction requirements as the wealthy countries responsible for the crisis. OPEC member states unsurprisingly advocate for carbon capture, refusing to accept the liquidation of their sources of wealth. Russia and China are unwilling to accept restrictions on development. The US refuses to take a leadership role or to cede any ground that might endanger its status as hegemon. The EU scolds but cannot broker compromise. The delegates spend the entire week, played out over two hours on stage, haggling over commas in the introduction to the text of the accord. Meaningless metaphors float around. Absurd debates over a parenthesis here or a digit there strike a tragicomic tone. 

We eventually learn that this preparatory conference had been scheduled to occur on another island nation: Vanuatu. This plan is scuttled when horrible storms and flooding strike the island in the weeks leading up to the meeting. Vanuatu is drowning in the Pacific. Midway through the play, the delegate from Vanuatu calls in, water sloshing in the background. People are drowning. The world isn’t getting saved in two hours; it might already be lost.

Despite the dire circumstances, the play inspired more laughter than I am accustomed to hearing when watching artistic work that engages with the climate crisis. It felt like seeing a play by Ionesco or Beckett, like Waiting for Godot in a conference center: language seemed incapable of describing or resolving this hyperobject of a problem. Kyoto Forever 2 explores this failure of language, of communication, of conventional modes of international politics. At a certain point, it is tempting to throw up one’s hands and begin to laugh. That temptation must be resisted. We have two years to ensure that Ferrer’s projection of COP 28 hews closer to absurdist farce than to tragic documentary.

In the meantime, staging interrogations of these potentially world-altering yet terminally disappointing conferences might help us achieve better outcomes. In staging COP meetings, we can expose the flaws in the process, dramatize the stakes, give voice to the unrepresented, and imagine the possibilities for the world these conferences could create. Staging the COP meetings can create models for success for a process that has heretofore failed. Perhaps we need more theatrical rehearsals, like Kyoto Forever, Kyoto Forever 2, or the student conference at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, in order to ensure a successful performance in Glasgow this fall.

(Top image: From left, Karina Beuthe, Haini Wang, Charlotte Marquardt, Guarani Feitosa, Max Hayter, Behi Djanati Atai, Délia Roubtsova, and Chrysogone Diangouaya in Kyoto Forever 2 by Frédéric Ferrer. Photo by Samuel Sérandour.)

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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. 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.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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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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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.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Jennifer Dance

By Mary Woodbury

For this post,  I travel to North America to look at historical and modern Canada, and the environmental, social, and economic cruelty and injustice befallen to its people and land. I talk with Jennifer Dance, author of Red Wolf, Paint, Hawk, and the play Dandelions in the Wind. We’ll concentrate mostly on Hawk here, though the three novels have been bundled together in the White Feather Collection. I stumbled across Jennifer’s novel Hawkrecently on a trip up to 100-Mile, British Columbia, as my husband and I had some time to kill on a snowy afternoon and, as is usually the case, ended up in a bookstore.

I found the book immediately gripping, and the subject matter right up my alley. Hawk, a First Nations teen from northern Alberta, is a cross-country runner who aims to win gold in an upcoming competition between all the schools in Fort McMurray. But when Hawk discovers he has leukemia, his identity as a star athlete is stripped away, along with his muscles and energy. When he finds an osprey, “a fish hawk,” mired in a pond of toxic residue from the oil sands industry, he sees his life-or-death struggle echoed in the young bird.

Slipping in and out of consciousness, Hawk has visions of the osprey and other animals that shared his childhood home: woodland caribou, wolves, and wood buffalo. They are all helpless and vulnerable, their forest and muskeg habitat vanishing. Hawk sees in these tragedies parallels with his own fragile life, and wants to forge a new identity – one that involves standing up for the voiceless creatures that share his world. But he needs to survive long enough to do it.

Here is my conversation with Jennifer.

Can you briefly describe your thoughts on each novel (Red Wolf, Paint, and Hawk)?

All three books use an animal to help shed light on a sensitive human problem. Although each is an independent story, when taken as a whole, they join the dots between the colonial policies of the past and the situation that Canada finds herself in today, regarding both the environment and racism against indigenous people. They open the door to reconciliation as well as to activism, and as such, they have a place in classrooms across Canada, from middle grade up. Having said that, these books are not just for children. They are equally suitable for adult readers. Red Wolf for example is the adventure story of an orphaned timber wolf and the First Nations boy who raises him, but on a deeper level it’s about colonialism, the Indian Act of 1876, and the residential school system that grew out of that legislation.  Paint, set in that same era, is the story of a mustang on the prairies at a time when settlers are moving West. Through the life experiences of the horse, we see that greed and racism virtually eliminated both the buffalo and the Plains Indians, and made irreversible changes to the grassland itself, ultimately leading to the Dust Bowl.

Hawk, rooted in that same colonial pastfast forwards to today, to the Alberta oil sands. The story compares the struggle for survival of both fish hawks and humans who live downstream of the industry. Racism rears its ugly head again. Sure, the Canadian economy is benefitting immensely from the oil sands industry, but what if the Athabasca River ran the other way? What if instead of flowing north to a few First Nations and Metis communities, it flowed south to Edmonton and Calgary. What if people there were getting sick? And what if the last hundred years had taught you that the government would do nothing to help you? The honest answer to that question brings us back around to Canada’s endemic racism toward indigenous people, racism that was seeded by colonialism and fed by residential schools.

What inspired you to write these novels?

All three books were inspired by the subject matter. Writing is my form of activism. I write, to tell people about the shameful things, past and present, that I see happening in Canada, things that my peers don’t know or understand. I write to inspire today’s youth to take a stand for justice or equality or the environment, or any other cause that’s important to them. Our youth are the leaders of tomorrow, they are the ones who will win justice and equality for indigenous people in this country. They are the ones who will clean up the environmental mess that my generation has caused, but only if they know about it and only if their hearts have been touched. I try to educate young and old about the issues without leaving the after-taste of a history lesson. I try to pull at their heart-strings, in a story that keeps them turning the page, and helps equips them to make the world a better place.

My passion for justice and equality goes back to when I was 17, to that pivotal moment in 1966 when I met the boy who I would later marry. He was black and I was white. To put that in the context of the times, it was still two years before the assassination of Martin Luther King. I was naïve and I really thought that we could make a difference, and show those around us that skin color didn’t matter! The reality was harder than I imagined. The day-to-day racism that we experienced as a couple culminated in an unprovoked attack by Skinheads. Keith was left with a fractured skull and broken ribs. It took a while, but he recovered and we came to Canada looking for a safer place to raise our mixed-race children. Shortly after we got here, Keith died – unexpectedly – a complication from the earlier head injury. I was 30. Our daughter was 3, our son not yet two and I was 5 months pregnant. It was hard. But I came through it with an even greater passion for fighting racism. I know for a fact that without Keith’s influence on my life, these stories would never have been written. So, looking back, I guess Keith was my inspiration.

You also wrote the play Dandelions in the Wind. Can you talk some about that?

Dandelions in the Wind is a musical drama, and it’s my life’s work. It contains much of my own experience as a young white woman married to a young black man during the sixties and seventies. But I set my personal story into the backdrop of the United States to raise awareness about the Civil Rights struggle and the countless young people who bravely confronted hatred with love.  Fifty years later, that struggle is far from over, making Dandelions in the Wind really timely.

With this musical, as with my books, I try to make a difficult subject suitable for both youth and adults. Spoken Word acts like a pair of bookends, sandwiching more traditional genres of music, and asking where are we are now, as individuals and as a people? Are we still in chains, still bound by racism, or are we free?

The show has been performed in both Canada and England. I dream that it will become part of Black History month for school audiences throughout North America. The biggest problem however is money. It takes a fortune to stage a fully professional show of this calibre.

Can you explain the title Dandelions in the Wind?

Imagine dandelion parachutes blowing in the wind. That imagery represents the diaspora of the African people, blown all over the world by slavery and racism. But more importantly, it represents a powerful, personal memory. The day of Keith’s funeral, I took my children to the park. Our three-year-old daughter picked dandelions that had gone to seed, gathering them in a bunch to give to her daddy. The funeral had taught her that flowers mean “I love you,” but she was perplexed as to how to give them to her father. I blew some of the parachutes heavenwards. She watched them float back to earth, her bottom lip trembling. And then she said, “If I think really hard, can I think the flowers to daddy?”

This spotlight focuses on Hawk, as we travel to the Albertan oil sands in Canada and see the effects of Big Oil on Aboriginal residents. What’s going on up there?

It’s hard to even verbalize without using curse words! It’s appalling. It’s devastating. It’s heart-breaking. I still cannot fathom it, and I’ve been there! I’ve driven through it, at least the parts that I was given access to. And I’ve flown over it, all of it! Flying is the best way to grasp the extent of the devastation. The boreal forest has been stripped bare from horizon to horizon, and replaced with a heart-wrenching mess. Or it has been carved up by seismic lines which don’t look as bad from the air but which fracture the habitat for wildlife and are equally devastating as clearcutting and surface mining. Even talking about it now, makes me upset again!

The problems are immense and I have only just touched the tip if the iceberg with my story, but I hope it raises awareness at least. I was stunned that the processing plants are right on the edge of the Athabasca River. It makes sense of course, because the industry uses hot water to separate the bitumen from the sand. In fact, more water is taken from the river each day than is used by the entire city of Toronto. As if that’s not bad enough, they then pump the dirty water along with the carcinogenic waste (called tailings) into enormous open ponds to evaporate down. These tailings ponds are lined with packed clay. Some are literally right on the edge of the river, so if they leak or seep, the carcinogenic petrochemicals end up in the river. And the river goes north.

First the water floods into the Peace-Athabasca Delta – a precious wetland named by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The world recognizes this delta as an environmentally significant area, yet hardly anyone in Canada knows about it, or realizes that it’s right downstream of the oil sands industry! And people don’t know that it’s on the migration route of literally millions of birds.

From the delta, the water trickles into Lake Athabasca and to the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan where Adam in my story grows up.  The residents of Fort Chip have lived a traditional life style for eons, eating fish, duck, geese, moose etc., everything coming directly or indirectly from the river. And for twenty years or more, people there have been getting sick. These days most of the people have a family member working in the oil sands industry. It’s the only way they can afford to eat imported “safe” food and water. I try to show all these issues in my story.

Then there’s the land reclamation. The lease agreements between the oil companies and the government guarantee that the mined land will be reclaimed once all the bitumen has been removed.  The industry proudly advertises their reclamation successes, directing you to visit an area where tress have been planted and buffalo have been reintroduced. Only three species of tress had been planted and the buffalo were nowhere in sight – they are kept in paddocks most of the time, so they don’t over graze the land. 

The reality is that the land is never going to be like it was before. Wetlands called muskeg, will be gone. Thousands of species of flora and fauna will be lost for ever. Woodland caribou are already probably past the point of salvation. And even after all this time, the industry still doesn’t have a good long-term plan for what to do with the sludge from the tailings ponds. Right now, they are mixing it with gypsum to solidify it into “rocks” which they put onto the mined land as the first stage of the reclamation process. They then cover it with sand and topsoil, and plant trees. But gypsum is the same stuff they use in plaster casts, and I know that it crumbles when it gets wet. (One of my kids was in a body cast when he was still in diapers!) So, won’t these “rocks” crumble in the damp soil and release the toxins into the ground water? And won’t it all end up in the river?

Going up there – meeting the people of Fort Chipewyan, hearing their stories, seeing it all for myself – was a challenging experience, but one that impacted me greatly. As a scientist, I had hoped to find a balance between opposing views of the industry, but I discovered families, just like Hawk’s, trapped between earning a living and losing their health and traditional lifestyle. If you visit my website, you’ll find a photo journal of my trip.

I agree about this completely heart-breaking subject matter. I’m curious, what inspired your character Adam?

I wanted Adam to be a regular kid, one that non-Native readers could relate to, but I also wanted to show the generational effect of residential schools on Adam’s family, and the positive impact of a loving grandfather.

In the first draft of Hawk, Adam was a girl. I figured that the protagonists in both Red Wolf and Paint were boys, so it was time for a change. But although I tried hard, I couldn’t create a believable girl! I don’t quite know why. Perhaps because I was never a girly girl myself. I was always out playing in the woods, riding ponies, and befriending hurt animals.  Back in my own parenting days, there was not much material for boys to read, and based on my own experience, boys don’t take to reading the way girls do, so, I worked hard at keeping boys engaged in the story.

In developing Adam’s character, I tried to verbalize his emotions as he faces leukemia. Keith was an inspiration here. He was in a coma for the last month of his life.  Sitting at his bedside, I often wondered if he had already left his body and was flying free… getting a glimpse of heaven. That’s why I was able to write Adam’s out-of-body experiences as well as find suitable reactions and emotions for Adam’s friends and family as they sat and watched, helplessly.

Thanks so much, Jennifer. I can’t even begin to express my sympathy for your losses. Your activism through art is an amazing accomplishment.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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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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Closing the Generational Gap Through Music

By Rena Marthaler

How could it be possible to sing without heart? Any musician I am amazed by is a musician who I know has poured their soul into a piece, maybe even when they didn’t feel an initial connection to it. A musician has to find a way for the music to mean something to them. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to sing about something that already had deep meaning for me, something I could pour myself into – our global climate crisis. I am 15 years-old, scared for my world and future, and now not only opening my eyes to this issue, but opening my ears. 

I am a member of the Shine Children’s Chorus organization, a nonprofit musical education and performance program for any youth in Portland, Oregon, directed by Lauren Fitzgerald. More specifically, I am in the organization’s oldest group, True North Acapella. In December 2019, we had the opportunity to join forces with the Portland Peace Choir for a “Beauty of the Earth” performance, performing pieces that engage with global climate issues with force and with grace. The Portland Peace Choir is a group comprised of singers of all ages who sing music for a cause – advocating for peace, equality, diversity, and unity. 

I was exhilarated at the thought of putting my passion for the climate into music, but I didn’t know going in that the very first rehearsal would bring tears to my eyes. I listened to the Peace Choir sing a gorgeous arrangement written by one of their own members, Janice Leber. As they sang Our House is on Fire, the youth in our choir spoke portions of Greta Thunberg’s speeches. I asked Janice after the event what led her to create something that had so much impact on me. She said, “I was already inspired by Greta Thunberg. The moment I heard that the choir wanted to sing about climate change, I started googling Greta Thunberg. The tune for Our House is On Fire was in my head by the time we got home.” The passion flowed from Janice and into the hearts of the singers as we performed her arrangement. 

Our other collaboration that night was I am the Earth, a piece that featured the Peace Choir as the Earth singing to the children, who responded in lines of song. This powerful conversation between generations felt alive, and resonated emotionally as we realized that this was a metaphorical conversation between the Earth and the next generation. The melody was dramatic, then becoming hopeful as the youth sang, “It is our time, we’re in your hands, together we stand, this moment in time we share.” 

This idea of coming together is vital to the climate change movement because while youth have the passion and desire to have their voices heard, older generations have the power to enact change. It is important for multiple generations to work together. The women in the Women’s Suffrage Movement had a generational gap between them that caused frictions in how to approach the issue. This led to conflicts within the movement, conflicts that I believe can be prevented with intergenerational partnerships such as ours. Barbara, a member of the Peace Choir, expressed, “It’s so incredibly beautiful to see all you young people here, knowing that you are going to step up and take stewardship of the planet, something we’re trying to do in our generation, which is such a struggle with the people that are such climate deniers. It gives me so much hope knowing that there won’t be so much of that by the time it’s your turn to take over the planet.”

One of the ways to close the generational gap is to find a common interest, such as the arts. The arts, in this case music, offer a way for people of all ages to protest and express care for the cause together. That is the mission of the Peace Choir, which is open to all ages. Jesse Cromer, director of the Peace Choir, explains it this way: “The goal is to come together – all ages, whether you read music or don’t read music – and sing for peace. We’re always looking to push the envelope for social change. If we’re going to come together intergenerationally, we have to come together musically. Children have a certain kind of wisdom, and people who have lived on the earth for longer – whether they’re middle-aged or older – have a different kind of wisdom. When you get all these different kinds of wisdom together, not only do the ideas flow like water, so does the spirit and the joy. We can see things and be open to things that we wouldn’t normally see and be open to.” 

The youth in the performance that night were able to see that there are adults who care enough to stand up for the next generation. We were able to get involved in the movement in ways that are familiar to us and that we feel passionate about. In many ways, the performance felt like activism – for one of the songs, we participated from seats in the audience, raising signs that you would normally find at a rally, during the chorus. 

Janice told us, “I have a poster up in one of my rooms that says, ‘Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, it’s a hammer with which to shape it.’” This just reflects and amplifies how each piece of art, every person, and every performance, shapes our future. 

(All photos by Sadie McRae.)

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Rena Marthaler is a sophomore in high school. She has been singing and playing instruments her entire life. She is the student director for True North Acapella, as well as belonging to another choir and to the two top school ensembles for band. She spends her time getting involved in her community, by volunteering at the Q Center every Saturday, facilitating a queer youth support group with her friend, and picking up any other volunteer opportunities that come her way.

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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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Wild Authors: Ilija Trojanow

By Mary Woodbury

For this post, I explore the Antarctic via the novel The Lamentations of Zeno (Verso Books, 2016) by Ilija Trojanow. I had not reached out to Ilija before, though I read his book a couple of years ago and featured it at the Free Word Centre as one of my favorite novels that include the topic of climate change. For this series, we began a conversation through email. He sent me a photo from his current location – Samarkand, Uzbekistan – of a beautiful courtyard, with sunlight and shadow at sharply contrasted angles. In turn, I sent him a photo of a cedar in the rain covered in moss and lichen, indicative of the temperate rainforest where I live. With these introductions, we began discussing The Lamentations.

In the novel, Zeno Hintermeier, the main character, works on an Antarctic cruise ship as a tour guide to rather well-off people whose lifestyles of high consumption exemplify how we came about the consequence of climate change. This is in juxtaposition to Zeno’s sadness at the death of glaciers he has studied his whole life and at his marriage falling apart.

As the polar ice-caps melt, one man’s existential lamentations mirror our own personal and global crises. Zeno is not even a character we might like very well, but in a way, his collapse is like our planet’s, which reminds us that these dirges are natural. And the style of the novel is brilliant, seeping into us like cold meltwater. We are living in desperate times, and to gloss over the reality of it hints at a different sort of denial. Ilija faces it head on. What’s that old saying: when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Verso Books describes the novel in this way:

The Lamentations of Zeno is an extraordinary evocation of the fragile and majestic wonders to be found at a far corner of the globe, written by a novelist who is a renowned travel writer. Poignant and playful, the novel recalls the experimentation of high-modernist fiction without compromising a limpid sense of place or the pace of its narrative. It is a portrait of a man in extremis, a haunting and at times irreverent tale that approaches the greatest challenge of our age – perhaps of our entire history as a species – from an impassioned human angle.

My conversation with Ilija follows.

Have you been to the area of Antarctica where your story takes place, and what is it like now?

Yes, twice: once before I started the novel and once after I had finished my first draft, both times on a cruise ship similar to the one in the novel. The Antarctic peninsula is melting faster than previously expected, but otherwise it is a humbling experience of facing nature in its pristine form, a very extreme and heart-wrenchingly beautiful landscape that appears untouched by human intervention, so it was a fitting location for the inner turmoil of Zeno, my hero.

The word “lamentations” reminded me that while we have to learn to adapt to climate change, we also have a lot of regrets due to diminishing landscapes, species, and biodiversity. What are Zeno’s lamentations?

He is a scientist, who used to believe that his work on glaciers and climate change would supply society and policy makers with a rational basis for their decisions. This, however, is not the case, so he starts questioning our system of decision-making, our priorities as a civilization (by the way, many of the leading climate scientists are becoming more radical and challenging capitalism itself because it seems incapable of rationality). As someone who has dedicated his life to glaciers, he is also a wounded lover, someone who cannot bear the destruction of these beautiful entities, each one of them unique with a soundscape of their own, constantly moving and changing, a symbol of life. Thirdly, he laments the fact that we destroy nature, the mother of all existence, in order to produce things that are often superfluous, to satisfy greed and stupidity, so he becomes increasingly misanthropic (recently an anthology of misanthropical writing came out in Spanish and Zeno was the last excerpt, the last nail in the coffin).

How important do you feel it is for authors to tackle climate change in fiction?

Good literature has always tackled the major issues of its time, be it war and peace or crime and punishment or pride and prejudice. So how could we not deal with the major issue of our epoch, the ongoing exploitation and destruction of our habitats. I am amazed how many journalists in Germany, a country that is supposedly on the forefront of ecological awareness, asked me why I had to write a novel about this subject, as if it were a weird choice. Not to write about it would be weird, would mean succumbing to the blindness of an age that is pillaging the present and burdening the future.

I agree wholeheartedly. Are you working on anything else right now?

Always, can’t stop. I am working on a utopian novel. We have had an enormous amount of dystopian narratives in recent years, not only in literature but also in the movies, on the TV screen. We lean back, munch popcorn and delight in the apocalypse. That’s pathological. To form a vibrant and dignified and truly humane future we need to imagine it first, we need utopian (or eutopian) ideas, concepts, narratives. We could do so much better, why not imagine it within a novel?

Thanks, Ilija. I am looking forward to the next novel!

Later Ilija sent me a link to a Guardian article titled “We’ve never seen this: massive Canadian glaciers shrinking rapidly.”

The article states:

Scientists in Canada have warned that massive glaciers in the Yukon territory are shrinking even faster than would be expected from a warming climate – and bringing dramatic changes to the region. After a string of recent reports chronicling the demise of the ice fields, researchers hope that greater awareness will help the public better understand the rapid pace of climate change.

These massive forever structures are shrinking away before our eyes and ears. Maybe we cannot see or hear them every day, but they are there. And it is a life that should be respected and a vanishment that should be grieved. It is true in both poles. Going back to the Antarctic, according to NASA, there is a ramp-up in ice loss and sea level rise:

Ice losses from Antarctica have tripled since 2012, increasing global sea levels by 0.12 inch (3 millimeters) in that timeframe alone, according to a major new international climate assessment funded by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency).

According to the study, ice losses from Antarctica are causing sea levels to rise faster today than at any time in the past 25 years. Results of the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

It is here that I will quote M. Jackson, whose book While Glaciers Slept moved me incredibly:

It is in these quiet moments that the glacier reveals herself in entirely novel and original ways. There is so much in life that can be missed if we don’t settle down for a bit. My life is full of distractions – deadlines, flights to catch, a smartphone that beeps away, life life life. Listening brings things to focus, and often times it is quite surprising what draws the attention of that quiet ear.

(Top image by Jože Suhadolnik / Delo. Downloaded from Vaaju.com.)

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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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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Playwright Chantal Bilodeau and Climate Change Theatre Action Radio Plays

By Peterson Toscano

Playwright Chantal Bilodeau returns to the Art House. Every two years to coincide with the UN COP meetings, Chantal and her team organizes an international event, Climate Change Theatre Action. They commission 50 short climate change-themed plays from 50 playwrights around the world. This past fall, over 200 communities organized events in 30 countries where they read some of these plays.

Chantal shares highlights along with good news about how the movement is growing both in and outside of the theatre community. A book with all 50 of the 2019 plays will be published in 2020. The collection of 50 plays from 2017 is available now.

The Art House is proud to present two of these Climate Change Theatre Action plays adapted for the radio. First, you will hear Dust written by Marcus Youssef and read by me.

It is followed by my play Bigger Love read by Jordan Sanderson and Israel Collazo, students at Susquehanna University. They play the parts of Kyle and Joey in their NYC apartment in the year 2028.

Photo: The cast of Climate Change Theatre Action 2019. Iowa State Daily—Britney Walters

Coming up next month, Rooted & Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, a new book that fuses faith and personal narrative with climate action.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

(Top image: Performers Brandon C. Smith and Caiti Lattimer during “Climate Change Theatre Action: Setting the Stage for a Better Planet,” the official kick-off event of Climate Change Theatre Action 2019 in New York City. )

This article is part of The Art House series.

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As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @ citizensclimatelobby.org

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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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