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I was thrilled to chat with Edan Lepucki about her work in the field of climate change and storytelling. She is the author of the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me and the novels California and Woman No. 17

California debuted at #3 on the New York Times Best Sellers list and was a #1 Best Seller on the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle Best Sellers lists. California was a Fall 2014 selection of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program. Edan and Stephen Colbert are now besties. Woman No. 17 received rave reviews from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications, and was #3 on Entertainment Weekly’s Must List. People Magazine’s books editor Kim Hubbard selected Woman No. 17 for the Book of the Month Club. It was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, PopSugar, and The Maine Edge. Edan created the popular Instagram Mothers Before, and she will edit a book inspired by the project, to be published by Abrams Press in 2020. She is the co-host, with fellow writer Amelia Morris, of the podcast Mom Rage.

Edan’s newest short story is “There’s No Place Like Home.” In a climate-ravaged future, it’s not easy to grow up. One girl is trying her best in a story about global catastrophe and personal chaos. Thirteen-year-old Vic is of the Youngest Generation, fixed in prepubescence after catastrophic environmental degradation. She’s also her father’s favorite student. But when he takes his own life, the perennially ingenuous Vic wants to understand why. As she sets out on her quest, Vic begins to learn that family isn’t something you’re born with – it’s something you build. Edan’s “There’s No Place Like Home” is part of Warmer, a collection of seven visions of a conceivable tomorrow by today’s most thought-provoking authors. Alarming, inventive, intimate, and frightening, each story can be read, or listened to, in a single breathtaking sitting. This short story, and perhaps even Edan’s novel California, appeal to audiences of all ages but might be particularly relevant to younger audiences worried about climate change.

Your novel California was recognized widely and was a best-selling, post-apocalyptic novel. I’m not sure if you consider it a young adult novel, but the main characters are in their early twenties and eking out a life and trying to get pregnant. Can you talk some about this novel? What impact did you imagine for the book?

I didn’t intend for California to be a young adult novel, though it certainly doesn’t bother me if young adults are drawn to it. I always get excited, and feel grateful, when I hear that the book is on a high school reading list, or that a college class is reading it. What an honor! I suppose it might appeal to younger readers because, yes, the married couple in the book, Frida and Cal, are in their early twenties. Also, due to the state of the world, they were never really given the opportunity to set down the roots of an “adult” life, so to speak. When they decided to leave LA and start a life with just the two of them, it was both out of desperation and hope: they were desperate to leave a ruined Los Angeles where there were zero opportunities; and they also were hopeful that they could forge a new life, remake the world as they wanted to, for themselves. That’s the folly and gift of youthfulness right there, I think.

In general, why do you think the world needs art and literature dealing with our environmental present, past, and future? And what are your thoughts about writing for or about younger audiences in this literature?

I believe it was Ursula Le Guin who said that speculative fiction writers aren’t writing about the future, but the present; that is, they’re holding a mirror up to the world and showing us how we see the world and ourselves in it. That is quite powerful, particularly in a time when we’re facing so many challenges, and we literally are creating the problem. Climate fiction can remind us of the consequences of our actions, and, at the same time, provide us a reason for fighting – moments of beauty in the natural world, for instance, or the resilience of human beings. Younger people will inherit this planet, which is why it makes sense to place them in these stories. I think, too, a young person is seen as having more potential, while also being more vulnerable, powerless – and that can be powerful, to experience as a reader.

I agree. Amazon has a short story collection titled Warmer, which is geared toward a younger audience and imagines a climate-changing world, and you are one of the authors. What sorts of things inspired your world-building and development of  the main character Victoria, who goes by “Vic”?

This story began with the sentence “Daddy died in the sauna” and went from there. Whose Daddy? Why call him that? How did he die?  I had no idea who Vic was until I started writing her, but I leaned into her bravery as well as her innocence, and I loved balancing the spark in her voice with a wariness. She’s tragic because she can’t truly understand her father, or her parents’ marriage, precisely because she is a child – and always will be, due to climate change. I didn’t figure that out until I was writing, though! Most of the time, I’m drawn into a character’s voice – the images they use, the sentence rhythm – and I realize who they are, through that.

In the short story, sentiment is artifact and death is not sacred. “To stop and mourn would have meant disaster.” This is revealed after Vic’s dad unexpectedly dies. We see the keeping of artifacts (from the old world to the new world) in this story and in California. Can you let the reader know what kinds of artifacts are in these stories, and why you chose them?

I didn’t mean to have this motif repeat in both California and “There’s No Place Like Home” – but I’d venture to say these sorts of powerful objects persist in all my work. In my second novel, Woman No. 17, for instance, a photograph becomes a kind of talisman, a signifier of identity. The artifacts in the other two works, though, definitely relate to a major loss, a sense that the world isn’t the same anymore. I love the idea of objects gaining or losing meaning as circumstances change. For Vic, an old sweater signifies a life she can never lead – for her, it’ll never ever be cold enough to wear a sweater. In California, Frida keeps an unused turkey baster; she will never lead a typical domestic life with big dinners. These characters are elegiac for opportunities and experiences they cannot have. I find it more poignant to express loss via the concrete, the literal.

 In the short story, one of Vic’s realization is that she and her friends would remain children until they die that they were in a stuck generation. This particular thought really haunted me. Can you tell us about this idea?

I didn’t realize this was the case until about halfway through the story, when she meets a boy about her age. Before then, I was struck by Vic’s childish use of “Daddy” and thought it might/should lead to something. When I began to write the boy, he too was young-seeming, and the reason dawned on me. This also haunted me!

Are you working on anything now, and will you continue to write fiction about climate change?

I’m currently editing a book based on my Instagram, Mothers Before, which showcases photos of women’s mothers before they became mothers; each photo is accompanied by the daughter’s prose about the photo, her mother, or both. That will be published in 2020 and I’m very excited! I’m also writing a new novel, that is a sort of family saga. It includes one teenager character (who grows into adulthood over the course of the book). For now, I am not writing about climate change, but I don’t think I’m done with the topic for good…

I just love Mothers Before, and I’m looking forward to your upcoming work! Thanks for joining us.

(Top image downloaded from Career Contessa.)

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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I talked with Marissa earlier this year after publishing her young adult novel Code Blue (Moon Willow Press, 2018) and thought this novel would be an excellent addition to our focus on spotlighting authors who write global warming fiction for teen and young adult fiction audiences.

We’ve entered an age where the world is exponentially changing – politics, environment, social, and economic issues – and have now recognized climate change, extinction, and the Anthropocene as our new reality. We’ve seen youth begin to take the reins to lead us through our problems, and it is inspiring. But we’ve also seen apathy and hopelessness. Fiction, like all art, can help us dream, imagine, hope, cope, and change. As Marissa said:

I believe that eco-fiction is a vitally important genre given the environmental challenges we are facing. We need all sorts of stories right now, stories of darkness and of light, stories that tell us what to be afraid of and stories that give us hope. I know that I still have so much room to grow as a writer, and so much to learn about the craft.

Code Blue is a young adult speculative thriller mystery set in a not-so-distant future where rising temperatures and sea levels have dramatically reshaped the world in which we live. Young adults and teenagers who worry about our planet will get something from this novel and at the same time relate to it on a personal level as they worry about their immediate futures: can I get into the college I want, and their planet’s present and future: how will global warming change our home, our lives?

The novel opens with sixteen-year-old Atlantic “Tic” Brewer about to take the North Eastern Science Academy entrance exam, the gateway to attending the world-renown school known for fostering the leading scientists fighting climate change. It’s just Tic and her mom at home – before she was born, her dad was tragically killed in a boating accident while he was on a research trip in the North Atlantic. He was a hydrologist, and Tic wants nothing more than to continue her father’s research and help stave off the impending crisis of rising sea levels. That’s where the NESA comes in.

When Tic’s acceptance letter arrives, she’s thrilled and a little anxious. But before she can get settled at the prestigious boarding school, she finds a mysterious note that says “just in case” and a strange sequence of numbers on the back of a photograph her mom sent with her, the last snapshot taken of her dad and mom together before his trip. Did he know something was going to happen to him? Tic enlists the help of her new friends to track down any clues about her father’s research, and while working on her own hydrology project, Tic discovers some startling facts of her own. Life on Earth might be much more precarious than anyone has let on.

The novel combines mystery, romance, and climate change – all these things are what most teens and young adults have on their minds. Diane Donovan, senior reviewer at Midwest Book Review, said of the book:

Rising oceans, a vastly changed environment, and people who struggle to survive in this new world are not unusual; but what is notably different in Code Blue is a survival account of this changed world as seen through the eyes of a teen who lives behind a barbed-wire fence that stretches some 28,000 miles, designed to either protect or barricade those within (she’s not quite sure which applies)…Dystopian fiction comes and goes, and too many assume the trappings of formula productions; but the test of any superior story line lies in its ability to draw readers with powerful characterization and associations that lend to a reader’s emotional connections with events as they unfold. Code Blue holds a special ability to juxtapose both the bigger ecological picture with the microcosm of a young adult’s personal challenges as she moves through this world.

Having worked with Marissa for a couple years, I’ve seen her enthusiasm in action. Marissa is a mother, daughter, sister, palliative care doctor, blogger, podcaster, and author. She says that she has always loved reading and would devour any books she could get her hands on as a teenager. When it came to school though, she was a serious science nerd. As a grown-up, even when she had almost no money, she never denied herself books. She notes on her blog that she was lucky enough to go to Paris a few years ago, but had terrible jet lag and couldn’t sleep. Somehow a story came to her, and she started to write. Before she knew it, she had written a novella. So then she wrote some more, and her writing became her happy place – somewhere she could escape to after the kids were all in bed. Over the next few years she was lucky to have professional help from the wonderful people at Humber College and the undying support of her family, including her daughter Anna, who inspired her first novel Code Blue.

In my interview with Marissa, she said:

I was inspired to write Code Blue for my daughter Anna. She has always loved reading, and she and I were sharing dystopian books with strong female protagonists. I was happy that there were so many examples of girls saving the world. I kept looking for one in the mainstream market who saved the world not because she was brave, or could shoot arrows or jump off trains, but because she was smart. One day I decided that I would try to write one.

Together, Mom and daughter run the weekly Green Girl Talk podcast, which covers topics such as climate change and environmentalism to pop culture and everyday life.

I feel that this novel was refreshing and hopeful, because we have a likeable yet somewhat vulnerable young woman going through similar growing pains as modern day teens/young adults would – such as romantic uncertainty, concerns about family, and worries about the world. And, as in contemporary society, this young woman also faces big worries about global warming – only, in her time, it’s much worse than now. Despite this, she struggles to figure things out in an apocalyptic place surrounding her. The novel maneuvers our biggest environmental crisis into a palpable understanding of the human condition within planetary risk, and does well at that. I see Marissa on Twitter posting the hashtag #climatehope. When I asked Marissa: How important is it to tell these stories in fiction, and, talking more about hope, how do you think people can find hope in the constant despair around us? She said:

I believe Thomas King was right when he said “The truth about stories is, that’s all we are.” Whether the issue is climate change, as it is in Code Blue, or something else altogether, like socio-political issues (1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale), I think that stories connect us to our worries in a deep visceral way. Facts and statistics are important, but so much of what motivates people to action occurs at an emotional level, and I suppose it is this I am trying to connect with. Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, also talks about the importance of stories as they relate to climate change. She says that since the industrial revolution we have been telling a story of the planet as a machine that we can master and how this story has led to our current crisis. But she also says we are free to tell ourselves a new story about living in harmony with nature, a story where “no one and nothing gets thrown away” – a story of hope. I have so much hope. I know that terrible things will still happen as a result of climate change and that many people in positions of wealth and power are committed to making things worse. I also know that a lot is happening all over the world right now to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change. I know that science and technology, and social movements, are growing exponentially. I know we can’t fix everything, but we can fix some things, or at least I hope we can.

I was curious about how Code Blue appeals to all ages, including to adults like me. I found it to be refreshing and almost like a friend as I read through it. Maybe we all find parts of ourselves in Tic Brewer. I asked Marissa if there is a part of Tic in her and could she talk some about that. She said:

Right away I knew that I wanted Tic to be accessible. I wanted readers to think that the girl saving the world from climate change could be them. I didn’t want her to be a super-genius, and I couldn’t figure out how I could write a character who was smarter than I am. I definitely share some traits and experiences with Tic and am also very different from her in other ways. Tic has an automatic reflex to try to help others, and I think that stems from my own deeply held belief that helping others is what makes my life meaningful. I was able to draw on some of my memories of being a teenager. Like Tic I went to a small high school and often didn’t find myself challenged by the curriculum. I didn’t have lots of friends at school but wasn’t especially concerned with that. I also had three teens of my own while writing the book and found that helpful in terms of trying to keep things real. I think it wasn’t until after I finished writing Code Blue though that I realized that one of Tic’s defining issues is her absent father. My father, for whom I had great respect, was not physically absent as hers is. Nonetheless, I think there is a part of me that was always striving to find him emotionally and to impress him.

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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In honor of the UN’s World Population Day, I reflect on my relationship to the topic of global population.

My awareness of the concept of global population was sparked in my high school biology class, while covering carrying capacity in an ecological context. This was the same class that prompted my longstanding vegetarianism; the topics I studied in my early teen years really had an impact on me. Then in college, I read Stephen Emmott’s 10 Billion, a lecture-performance by the scientist-author himself, directed by Katie Mitchell in the UK. His strategy does not involve sugar-coating, as manifest even in the trailer:

Stephen Emmott Interview - Ten Billion - YouTube

There is substantive criticism of Emmott’s text and the research behind it, calling the piece “full of exaggeration and weak on basic science.” Emmott’s words are not easy nor fun to read/hear. However, now, media outlets are a-buzz about climate terminology, as prompted by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg:

Just as there are many ways to call our climatic situation, there are many approaches on what to do about it: for example, my beloved Project Drawdown seeks to connect us back with nature by using demilitarized language. Conversely, according to a CNBC article, Emmott uses “everyday facts to exemplify the energy use we take for granted every day…in order to communicate to non-scientific audiences the ‘inter-connected’ nature of ecosystems and our consumption.” From Emmott’s perspective, “we are screwed.” 10 Billion conjures up helpless feelings about the state of our world, and pushes me out of my comfort zone. When I feel the extent of my comfort zone, I consider what it is that strikes a mental-emotional nerve. In the case of population growth, I think about the populations closest to me, my family. I think about parenthood, particularly motherhood. I think about my ability to have kids, to potentially add to the population. I think about my parent’s own decision, their choice to have kids and reproduce, thus adding to the population.

These thoughts are, in part, why I asked an all-female panel of sustainability pioneers about motherhood. I discuss this panel, hosted by Women in Global Affairs, as part of my Climate Week 2018 article. After academic presentations by the panelists, the event transitioned to a Q&A with the audience (of predominantly women). Specific questions arose regarding the power of women in sustainability. This included a question about the fashion industry, and how to wield consumer power to push companies towards less extractive and exploitative practices.

During the Q&A, I asked the panel about their relationship to motherhood, especially in the context of our planet’s carrying capacity. The question of whether or not to have children is one that I have the privilege to ask myself, and I have the tools to make whichever choice I desire. I take this for granted, but I know that not every woman has this privilege. I was curious to hear from the panel of seven women about their perspectives on this personal and politicized topic. Coincidentally, one panelist had to leave at that moment to go home to her newborn baby. Another responded that motherhood was one of the best things she’s done, to bring two people into the world who care and can enact positive change. A third panelist was also proud to be a mother, and recognized the people in her life that support her decision, and help her in balancing family and work. She emphasized her choice to have only one child, in consideration of the number of people already on our planet.

Finally, the fourth panelist Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, who lives in Kenya with her husband and two children, echoed pride in motherhood, and also broke open the conversation. She pointed out that my interpretation of carrying capacity accounts for the planet’s population living at the rate that we do in the West – that the whole world does not live this way, and that it’s not about how many new people are being brought into the world, but about how they are brought up (in the U.S., how they perpetuate a capitalist lifestyle). Wanjiru also took issue with the American mindset in general, one that in some ways sees itself as the creator of sustainability – other cultures have been living sustainable lives for generations, and the reason we are needing to scale up sustainability efforts is a result of Western consumption! As Wanjiru summarized, the individualism that leads to exacerbated climate change is the same mindset that elected Trump, all informed by our country’s genocidal beginnings.

For me, the power of the Women in Sustainability event was in the sheer number of women in one room together. We don’t often discuss topics of population, let alone carrying capacity, at the intersection of arts and climate. But the arts are aptly poised to open up spaces for difficult discussions, whatever form the creative act may take.

The UN’s approach to tackling this topic is to create a day like World Population Day, “which seeks to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues.” This year’s theme “calls for global attention to the unfinished business of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development…where 179 governments recognized that reproductive health and gender equality are essential for achieving sustainable development.” Important reminders that the movement for a sustainable planet must come with justice and equity for all people, all over the globe.

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.

(Top Image: Photo by James Cridland.)

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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Octavia Butler, an African American science fiction writer, was born in 1947 and died in 2006. A Hugo and Nebula award winner, she wrote fairy tales as a young girl. By the time she was a pre-teen she got her first typewriter, ignoring her Aunt Hazel telling her, “Negroes can’t be writers.” (Source: Butler, Octavia Estelle. “Positive Obsession.” Bloodchild and Other Stories. New York, Seven Stories, 2005. 123-126.) Octavia’s series include the Patternist, Xenogenesis, and Parable (also called the Earthseed). In addition, she wrote two stand-alone novels, two short story collections, and several essays and speeches.

It is the Earthseed series on which this spotlight focuses, but her other works are relevant and recommended. Earthseed contains two novels: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. A third in the series, Parable of the Trickster, was not completed before her death. Sower opens in 2024, which once seemed so futuristic, even in the year 1993 when the book was published. But time marches impossibly on, and for those of us who clearly remember 1993, the vacuum that has sucked out space from then to now seems both eternal and too quick. If you look at a timeline of climate change, you’ll see that global warming had, by and large, become agreed upon by scientific opinion by 1977. And by the early 1990s the first IPCC report stated that warming was likely.

Talking about the Earthseed series as a very “real” tale should not drown out the story itself. Octavia helped usher in the genre of young adult dystopian fiction. She wrote powerfully, imaginatively, and creatively. The worlds she built were beautiful, harsh, and grim. Her protagonists were stoic and inspiring. Despite tackling multiple issues – politics, environment, segregation, religion, social injustice – her prose was concise. Her stories, powerful and believable.

The number of authors tackling the subject of climate change in fiction has risen in the past few years, but as stated earlier in this series, many authors were writing about it before it became more mainstream. The reasoning may be that today, climate change is more accepted and obvious around the world. And, of course, writers naturally take on what they see around them. But we should never forget adventurous authors like Octavia Butler who were innovative for their time. She went against the odds on many levels: gender, skin color, and story subjects. And she blew us all away.

Though a few terms have been introduced to describe the subject of climate change as a genre in fiction, one phrase that is often ignored is Afrofuturism, which, according to Inverse, is a type of cultural aesthetic that explores the intersection of African culture with technology and futurism. Inverse calls Octavia Butler the “Mother of Afrofuturism” and describes four themes used in her books: critique of modern-day hierarchies, violence, survival, and diversity. The Earthseed series seems to accurately envision the near-future world’s downfalls, brought on by climate change and economic disparity, which have resulted in growing populism and demagoguery around the world. In African Arguments, Bolanle Austen Peters states:

The term Afrofuturism, coined in 1993, seeks to reclaim black identity through art, culture, and political resistance. It is an intersectional lens through which to view possible futures or alternate realities, though it is rooted in chronological fluidity. That’s to say it is as much a reflection of the past as a projection of a brighter future in which black and African culture does not hide in the margins of the white mainstream.

Note that climate change is a historical, present, and future concern. Perhaps this future is something Octavia could envision as a child in a world where a critical dystopia didn’t seem that unimaginable, existed in some form already, and had signs of continuing, though it is reasonable to suggest that in her novels, Octavia created hopeful heroes. Perhaps she imagined herself as one such type of protagonist, and rightly so. Octavia spent her childhood in Pasadena. Her mother worked as a maid and her father a shoe-shiner. According to the New Yorker:

In one of Butler’s first stories, “Flash – Silver Star,” which she wrote at the age of eleven, a young girl is picked up by a U.F.O. from Mars and taken on a tour of the solar system. Butler ignored the received idea that black people belonged in science fiction only if their blackness was crucial to the plot…She later made a habit of explaining, as here to the Times, “I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing. I can write my own stories and I can write myself in.”

In Parable of the Sower, there are signs of climate change, such as drought and rising seas. The main character, who tells her story through journal entries, is a 15-year-old black girl named Lauren Oya Olamina, who, as the New Yorker points out, is wise enough to determine that people have changed the climate of the world. The title of the series, Earthseed, comes from a Darwinian religion that Lauren makes up. She also has hyperempathy, which makes her keenly attuned to the pain that her fellow residents in southern California experience in their impoverished life behind a wall of segregation made of brick and steel. Issues of skin color, violence against those perceived as different, political movements against science, and class divisions growing wide sound all too familiar.

In Parable of the Talents, which opens in 2032, further oppression of women, designer drugs that let people numb out, mutilation of body parts, and slavery are common. Cities are privatized, and literacy is decreasing. The Earthseed series tells of what we have, are, and will continue to experience. Electric Lit points out: “As Gloria Steinem wrote in 2016, in an essay celebrating The Parable of the Sower’s 25th anniversary, ‘If there is one thing scarier than a dystopian novel about the future, it’s one written in the past that has already begun to come true.'”

Indeed, the current political climate in the United States reflects some of what’s going on in this novel, including news briefs (think Twitter), where a bulleted note about war and a comment about Christmas lights might carry the same weight in 25 words or less, but most frightening is:

The Donner Administration has written off science, but a more immediate threat lurks: a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to “make American great again.” —The New Yorker, ibid

According to Wired Magazine, Gerry Canavan, who wrote the biography Octavia E. Butler: An Outsider’s Journey to Literary Acclaim, said that the presidential character was actually inspired by Ronald Reagan, but it reeks of the current president as well – two decades after Talents was published – who uses the exact phrasing of “make America great again.” Maybe what Octavia was concerned about was that we need to make it great someday, but we cannot make anything great by disregarding scientific facts, civil rights, ecological and economical sustainability, forethought, and equality.

Climate change doesn’t really fit in to either reality or fiction in a compartmental sense. It looms over society and is a result of many other root issues, such as greed and capitalism. Octavia Butler recognized this and world-built her stories by looking at what wasn’t, isn’t, or won’t be “great.” Her novels lie on the path of “If we continue this…then.” If society sees a natural resource it can make money off of, capitalism provides a path for that. Eventually, with too many resources taken, not only is the climate itself altered but the same kind of root greed doesn’t disappear, such as in Parable of the Sower, where water is scarce and thus is finally controlled by the government – and is not as available for those behind the wall.

Getting back to Afrofuturism, for a young, black female growing up in America in the 1950s, who had the kind of imagination and wisdom to write various award-winning speculative novels, it seems that the cultural diaspora in which she lived, along with the lack of civil rights and the extreme (then and even now) mistreatment of people, guided her writing to be visionary; she used creativity as a tool for expression and black liberation. The Earthseed series documented and unfolded the uncertainty of the future of the world. If the parables had been reality, we would now be living in “The Pox” (short for apocalyptic), a chaotic time period lasting from 2015-2030, but having roots before 2015. While the first two books in the series cover Lauren’s life, Talents jumps six decades ahead, in the end, where the Earthseeders are carried off planet Earth to escape the Pox. Jerry Caravan, in the LA Review of Books states:

The epilogue sees a very aged [Lauren] Olamina, now world-famous, witnessing the launch of the first Earthseed ship carrying interstellar colonists off the planet as she’d dreamed. Only the name of the spaceship gives us pause: against Olamina’s wishes the ship has been named the Christopher Columbus, suggesting that perhaps the Earthseeders aren’t escaping the nightmare of history at all, but bringing it with them instead.

I leave you with this quote, from Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

(Top image downloaded from LA Times.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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This month I have for you a great interview with Sabrina Diaz, a Miami-based artist who works only with found and donated materials to create her art. (She discusses why in our interview below.) She’s also a member of Fempower, an artist collective led by queer, black, and brown artists whose work focuses on systemic oppression – including the ways in which climate change makes life worse for the world’s most vulnerable. 

Your work incorporates all kinds of materials, both man-made and natural. Do you have a favorite material to work with? Do you have a favorite medium to work in?

I didn’t plan it, but textile and fabrics have revealed themselves as themes in my work. I’ve used clothing, bed sheets, and scrap fabric that were all donated to me to make rope, giant rag dolls, and macramé nets. It really has proven itself to be a mutable material. I always add an earthly element like sand, leaves, or dirt to my pieces as well. Earth acts as a multifaceted symbol, but one message that has remained consistent in every piece – and I hope resonates – is the feeling of shared healing and home.

You don’t purchase any of the materials you use in your work. Why is that?

Many reasons, but the main reason is that I’ve been a student my whole life, have had a minimum of two jobs since I started working and have been paying off debt, mostly medical, and credit cards, since I was 18. Purchasing supplies often means contributing to that debt. That being said, I have to acknowledge that I have one of the more privileged circumstances. As an able-bodied, white-Latina, I’ve always had a job, a place to sleep, and a support system. My position is often seen as a best-case scenario while living in the US, a world powerhouse, but such an equation just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m trying to imagine a world past capitalism, which specifically thrives on exploitation. Making art that I feel stands in opposition of our current system means challenging myself to work outside of its means of control. Most often that means reaching out to my community for resources and skills.

We live in a culture that glamorizes resource hoarding for the ego stroke that is “doing things on your own” but that’s the biggest illusion. I literally wouldn’t have been able to make anything without the support of those who contribute material, ideologies, or skill sets. Our interdependence becomes more apparent through this process. The purchasing of a product or service allows you to be disconnected from the labor that goes into it by real people whose livelihoods are reduced to the value of these items. Connecting with friends and strangers reminds me that our survival will depend on each other, and my art-making allows me to engage with that truth more directly by activating communal skill sharing.

“Tensión Palpable is a sculpture made of re-purposed fabric and tree trunk. This piece stands in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico post-hurricane Maria. More than a year later, the island continues to struggle and overcome. The piece re-imagines the tension between Mother Earth and the people of Puerto Rico, a US occupation. The colors of the fabric create a confusable interplay between the Puerto Rican and American flags. Its torn state reflects the strain of Puerto Rican identity in the midst of crisis. The interlaced fabric propping up the log imitates the people of PR tending to their land and healing communally.” —Sabrina Diaz

What first drew you to the subject of climate disaster, and why do you pursue it in your art?

I’ve lived in Miami my entire life, and we see better than anyone else anywhere in the US the effects of the climate crisis. I became unhealthily obsessed with the life changes I could make as an individual to contribute less to climate disaster and remember losing my mind on social media one day about the water crisis when Niki Franco, Fempower political educator and friend, recommended I read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. That’s when I started to understand that my efforts were futile if I didn’t begin to combat the wealthy people not only contributing to climate disaster on a massive scale but using it as a tool against marginalized communities.

As summers become unbearably hot and sea levels become noticeably higher, the poorest in Miami are affected first through climate gentrification, increased health problems due to longer heat waves, and more powerful hurricanes, which put those living on the street and in less stable houses at higher risks of injury or death. Maintaining a livable environment on Earth sounds like a cause we should all be able to get behind but we have to start speaking truth to the elite that are trying to get rich at our expense. My art ultimately points the finger of climate disaster at the powers that be, those who consistently put profit over people.

Tell us about the art collective you’re a part of. What are their goals, and how does your art connect to the other work they’re creating?

Fempower is a queer, black and brown-led artist collective that fights against systematic oppression by centering the needs of the most vulnerable. Through community education, activism, art, music, healing and shared joy, we are changing Miami’s political landscape. We have free programming like the Femme Fairy garden, which brings people together to tend to the Earth and learn environmentalism, herbalism, and activism through self-sustaining farming practices. Liberation book club provides free education on topics like decolonization, abolition, eroticism, and environmental justice. The knowledge learned in Fempower spaces has strategically been inaccessible by other means because it gives power back to the people: Fempower’s ultimate goal. Much of the book club readings have sparked the concepts behind my work. I attempt to create a visual language that’s as critical as the theory we’re learning and can act as an alternative method of seed-spreading.

What do you hope viewers take away from your art?

I’ve been stunted recently, because I’ve been trying to find ways to send messages of hope. I think hope gets people closer to imagining something new. Until then, I want to leave people feeling uncomfortably burdened. My pieces are bigger in scale and normally heavy for that reason – I want people to feel crushed by the weight of knowing until that weight breaks their apathetic facade. We need people to start deeply caring for each other.

When it comes to climate change, are you hopeful for the future?

Being active in my community keeps me hopeful. I think being unconditionally supported eventually makes you a more supportive person. Over all, I stay grounded knowing that if we do die off, Earth lives on, flourishing – I’ll stay fighting until then.

(Top image: Photo by Joice Gonzalez. Instagram handle: @joicegonz.)

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Some people in the US believe there is a conflict between their faith and accepting the reality of climate change. They look to the Bible to give them guidance and inspiration. After chatting with Evangelical Christians about the question, What Does The Bible Say About Climate Change? I decided to revisit a popular Bible story and give it a climate twist.

Character Tony Buffusio from the Bronx, NY tells the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph lives in Egypt during a time of temporary regional shifts in the climate. Not only does he predict changes in weather patterns, he develops a plan for how to look after the people. As a Bible scholar, I have a passion for looking after the welfare of people who are affected by extreme weather events.

The Art House: Peterson Toscano Uses Comedy to Unpack Climate Justice - SoundCloud
(275 secs long, 4 plays)Play in SoundCloud

Coming up next month,  circus artist Eliana Dunlap grapples with how to do circus in a time of climate change. She sees circus with its high stakes and need for cooperation as the perfect metaphor for climate change and climate action.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, Podbean, Northern Spirit Radio, Google Play, PlayerFM, 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.

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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If theatre is going to fundamentally change the way we think about climate change – and the way we relate to our planet and other species on it – we must change the way we make theatre so that it embodies new ways of sustainable thinking. Aesthetic theories reflect and shape ways of thinking, being, and interacting. Aesthetic theories are not, then, politically neutral; they require particular dramaturgical structures that are in turn political. In order to make theatre that embodies a politics of sustainability, I suggest we replace the aesthetic theory of catharsis – and all it implies and entails – with the Sanskrit aesthetic theory of rasa.

The term “rasa” has been variously translated as juice, flavor, taste, extract, and essence. According to The Nātyashāstra (The Science of Drama), the Sanskrit aesthetic treatise attributed to Bharata, rasa is the “aesthetic flavor or sentiment” savored in and through performance. It’s the mixing of different emotions and feelings that arise from different situations, which, when expressed through the performer, lead to an experience, or “taste” – the rasa – that is relished, or “digested,” by the partaker.

The metaphor is important: this relishing is multisensory in that taste always involves touch and smell, and it is internal and embodied: to taste something you have to put it in your body-mouth – or at least on your tongue. Eventually, as you digest, what you put in your mouth becomes part of you. So the metaphor of “tasting” performance posits aesthetic experience as interactive, embodied, sensual, tactile, multisensory, internal, and experiential. It allows us to think about becoming one with what is around us, with our experiences, rather than remaining separate. If we want to save the planet, this cognitive shift is crucial, and rasa can help us make it.

Like rasa, Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, which takes place in the teatron, or place of seeing, is one of emotional response; productions evoke this reaction in spectators. Unlike rasa, though, which asks partakers to relish emotion, catharsis is designed to purge excess emotion (the ancient Greeks privileged moderation). As noted classicist Edith Hall points out in her book Aristotle’s Way:

Emotions pre-exist in people, but they can be stimulated by an external force in a way that makes them susceptible to katharsis. An externally applied ‘treatment’ (music [or theatre]) actually creates a homeopathic response within the listeners [spectators], in that the arousal of a strong emotion to which they are predisposed leads to a lessening of the grip which that emotion has on them.

The central idea of catharsis – and productions that have been influenced by catharsis and/or embrace catharsis as a central goal – is that it “cures” excess emotion. Catharsis devalues emotion by asking us to experience it only in moderation – and to purge, or remove, any excess. It also asks us to maintain a distance between ourselves and that which we encounter and experience. This is the mindset that theatre needs to address, but before it can address it through content, theatre needs to address the political implications of its aesthetics.

The central metaphor of catharsis (sight) distances us from the world around us; that of rasa (taste) connects us to it. Words and metaphors are powerful because they not only reflect the way we think, they shape it. As catharsis and rasa govern modes of thinking and interacting on stage and in the auditorium, they therefore have implications on the way we interact with each other, with other species, and with the planet itself.

Ammanur Madhava Chakyar in a kutiyattam performance of Bali Vadham. Photo by Erin B Mee.

Catharsis demands a linear dramaturgical structure that builds to an ultimate release of tension or excess emotion in the form of a climax: A leads to B, which builds to C, which builds to D, and so on until the climax is reached. A, B, and C are not valued in and of themselves, but for what they add to the build of the linear narrative. Linear narratives also teach us to believe in causality (A causes B, which causes C) and are closely associated with notions of progress. So catharsis asks us to see the timelines of history in terms of progress and causality. Catharsis is also closely associated with agon – conflict, contest, competition. The plot moves forward because two characters enter into conflict with one another; there are winners and losers. All of this to say: catharsis reflects and constitutes notions of progress, linear (rather than cyclical) time, conflict, and dominance. These modes of thinking are detrimental to solving current climate issues, but they are embedded in Aristotelian theatrical structures.

In contradistinction, rasa requires a nonlinear, flexible dramaturgical structure that allows the partaker to linger in and with particular moments and to “wander around,” exploring numerous sensorial stimuli that give rise to emotions that can be savored. Rasa asks the partaker to value tributary streams, stories, and feelings. Rasa depends not on conflict but on association and elaboration. To return to the metaphor of food: an amuse bouche is an experience to relish in and of itself; it is not a prerequisite for the appetizer. Nor is the appetizer a prerequisite for the main course. Although vegetables are often considered to be a prerequisite for dessert, dessert is not the “goal” of a meal. A meal has things that come before and things that come after, and certain tastes complement or interact with each other, but D does not depend on C or B or A. You can still understand and appreciate a main course if you have not had an appetizer; in a non-linear structure, A, B, and C are valued in and of themselves, as a means to an end.

Rasa allows for multiple experiences and interpretations, it eschews causality and linear notions of time and progress. I believe the ways of thinking embedded in the aesthetic theory of rasa can be helpful in rethinking our relationship to the planet and to climate. It can help us think about time as cyclical (like the seasons), relationships that are not based on conflict, and interactions that do not determine winners and losers. If rasa suffuses our theatre, rather than catharsis, it will teach us different modes of interacting with the planet and each other.

For the most part, performances that offer catharsis are viewed on the proscenium stage, where much of the theatre in the United States takes place. This setup invites “the male gaze,” which describes the (male) spectator’s act of looking, or gazing, in order to fulfill his fantasy of controlling the (female) other. Even when the spectator is a woman, performances are constructed, consciously or unconsciously, with the male gaze in mind. The classic statement of the gaze is explored in feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey draws on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of identity formation (the mirror phase, when an infant sees themselves in a mirror and is able to ask the question, “Is that image me?”). According to Lacan, the recognition of “myself” by the infant is overlaid with misrecognition and leaves the young person with a fundamental ontological-identity insecurity. It also initiates lifelong scopophilia, or love of looking, where the pleasure in looking “has been split between active/male and passive/female” such that the male look (or gaze) “projects its fantasy onto the female figure,” who becomes a bearer rather than a maker of meaning.

Ammanur Madhava Chakyar in a kutiyattam performance of Bali Vadham. Photo by Erin B Mee.

In Ways of Seeing, art critic and writer John Berger links the male gaze to landscape painting – which allowed land owners to display paintings of the land they owned on their walls to impress their guests – and to the rise of capitalism. He also links the male gaze to the invention of perspective, which puts the human viewer at the center of the world that is viewed, and implies that “man is the measure” and everything is laid out for his viewing pleasure. This creates a human-centric view of the world, and the notion that humans own what they see. Thus, ways of seeing are political. The male gaze, built into the structures of seeing set up by the proscenium, encourages us to see the world as though it is laid out from and for our own perspective, and to use each other for our own benefit. A viewing practice that encourages us to take what we need and discard the rest teaches us a mode of engagement that is not sustainable.

Ways of seeing rasic productions are built on darshan, which in Sanskrit means “seeing.” Darshan refers to the “visual perception of the sacred,” and, more specifically, to the contact between devotee and deity that takes place through the eye. In contradistinction to the male gaze, darshan is an exchange: the devotee goes to see the divine and to be seen by the deity in order to take in a superior perspective – maya, or illusion. In other words, sight becomes insight, a revelation occurs, and the spectator is transformed into a seer.

Most dance-drama in India is performed in the round, or in a three-quarters thrust. Many ritual performances are environmental and/or processional. In these circumstances, the spectators’ gaze cannot be possessive of its “desired object” because there is neither a central place of performance nor a central place from which to view and experience the event. The male gaze – the notion that everything is laid out for the viewing pleasure of the viewer as a commodity – is disabled. Darshan offers a way of seeing and a mode of engagement that is about partnership, about co-creation. No one dominates; it’s about growth. This way of seeing is more useful for theatre that seeks to address the causes of climate change and shift our ways of interacting with our planet.

Catharsis invites a distant, commodified, competitive approach to theatre that allows us to dominate, to take what we want, and to discard the rest. In contradistinction, rasa is a more sustainable approach to theatre, to ways of seeing, to modes of engagement, to each other, and to our planet. Most importantly, it is co-created: it teaches us to work together. If we want to make theatre that is itself sustainable, but that also embodies and teaches us sustainable ways of thinking and being, I urge us to create rasic rather than cathartic theatre.

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 26, 2019.

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Erin B. Mee has directed at the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, SoHo Rep, HERE, The Magic Theatre, and The Guthrie Theater in the United States; and with Sopanam in India. She is the founding artistic director of This Is Not A Theatre Company, for which she directed Pool Play (in a swimming pool), A Serious Banquet, Readymade Cabaret, and Ferry Play – a smartphone play for the Staten Island Ferry. She is the author of Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage, co-editor of Antigone on the Contemporary World Stage, co-editor of Modern Asian Theatre and Performance 1900-2000, and has written numerous articles for TDR, Theatre Journal, American Theatre Magazine, SDC, and other journals and books. She is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow of Dramatic Literature at NYU. 

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In late October 2018, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the National Gallery of Canada to tour Anthropocene, the international multimedia art exhibit by renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. After his visit and photo ops, the Prime Minister tweeted earnestly: “We have a responsibility to our kids and their kids to protect our environment. The #Anthropocene exhibit is a stark reminder that the time to act is now.” [Emphasis added.]

The three artists presented the Prime Minister with a special edition of their Anthropocene Project book. In addition to Burtynsky’s hauntingly beautiful photographs of ravaged industrial landscapes, this book contains 11 poems from The Plasticene Suite by the celebrated Canadian poet, novelist and activist Margaret Atwood. A segment from one of these poems should make us all squirm, collectively:

We are a dying symphony.
No bird knows this
But us – we know
What our night magic does.
Our dark night magic.

—Margaret Atwood, The Plasticene Suite

Eight months after Mr. Trudeau toured the Anthropocene exhibit, Canada became the third country (after the UK and Ireland) to declare a national #ClimateEmergency, on June 17, 2019. You’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe, just maybe, a major art exhibit about humanity’s devastating signature on our planet might have influenced government energy policy. Think again.

Less than 24 hours (18 hours and 17 minutes to be exact) after Canada declared a climate emergency, Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet re-approved the expansion of a $5.5 billion USD controversial pipeline that will carry nearly a million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta’s oil sands to the British Columbia coast for export to Asia. At the same time that Mr. Trudeau made this announcement, Alberta was fighting a 300,000 hectare climate-fueled wildfire, experiencing its driest conditions in 40 years. So it goes.

How did Mr. Trudeau justify expanding a pipeline in the middle of a climate emergency? “We need to create wealth today so we can invest in the future. […] Every dollar the federal government earns from this project will be invested in Canada’s clean energy transition.”

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg spotted the hypocrisy immediately, calling Canada’s decision “shameful” in a tweet the following morning:

One second they declare a #ClimateEmergency and the next second they say yes to expand a pipeline.

This is shameful.
But of course this is not only in Canada, we can unfortunately see the same pattern everywhere…https://t.co/zVbWXnLBSQ

— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) June 19, 2019

It’s not just Canada. The four countries that have, to date, formally declared a #ClimateEmergency – UK, Ireland, Canada and France – collectively provide $27.5 billion USD annually in fossil fuel subsidies for coal, oil and gas. These subsidies involve a variety of tax breaks, financial incentives and support for private – let me repeat that, private – companies exporting abroad.

According to an article in this week’s The Guardian, G20 nations have almost tripled the subsidies they give to coal-fired power plants in recent years, despite having pledged 10 years ago to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Citing a new study by the Overseas Development Institute, The Guardian’s Damien Carrington quotes Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying in September 2018 that “Climate change can be life-threatening to all generations … We must take more robust actions and reduce the use of fossil fuels.” [Emphasis added.] Sound promising? Think again: Japan ranks third among G20 nations with the largest coal subsidies.

No wonder people are losing confidence in elected “leaders.”

I am reminded of Isaac Cordal‘s subversive 2011 installation “Follow the Leaders” in a Berlin puddle which, after going viral on social media, has forever since been referred to as “Politicians Discussing Climate Change.”

As I wrote back in 2014:

I’m willing to bet that Cordal’s photo of a group of his clay businessmen submerged in a Berlin puddle will re-appear and re-appear on Twitter for years if not decades to come. It is a perfect example of the subversive nature of art: how artists must first create friction in order to generate new ways of seeing, understanding. To me, this is climate change art at its finest.

And yet, for all the brilliance and urgency of a Cordal or a Burtynsky, what is the point of “climate change art” if our so-called elected “leaders” effectively ignore it by speaking to us in platitudes?

I realize that not all climate change art is purposeful and/or prescriptive. But I think it is safe to say that the majority of artists grappling with climate change today do hope that their art will effect positive change – whether that means raising awareness, changing attitudes, motivating behavior, inciting action or influencing policy.

But is it possible that climate change art has reached a crossroads? Is it possible that by focusing primarily on dystopic visions of an unlivable planet, climate change art has inadvertently numbed audiences? Is it possible that our images / poetry / music / dance / theatre / films about melting glaciers, rising seas, biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, coastal erosion and extreme weather events are only preaching to the converted, and no longer resonate with the general public and politicians?

I am beginning to think so. You may not agree; I welcome your comments below.

But if there is one thing we can agree on, please, let it be this: No more images of polar bears stranded on ice floes. We can do better.

“Climate change isn’t about polar bears or the future; it’s about you and me, right here, right now,” explains climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe:

It's not polar bears, it's people! - YouTube

A powerful new book about individuals struggling against overwhelming odds is Richard Powers‘ brilliant The Overstory – winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Structured like a tree – roots, trunk, canopy, seeds – this epic 500-page story is, at first glance, a passionate paean to trees, described as “the most wondrous products of four billion years of creation.”

This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived. [. . .] Trees know when we’re close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near.

—Richard Powers, The Overstory

But beyond the science and wonder of trees, Powers’ The Overstory is also a hymm to collective action. In this fictional tale set in the 1980s, nine disparate characters (each of whom has his/her own “tree story”) are drawn together through collective action at an anti-logging protest camp in the last old-growth forest of the northwestern United States. Not all ends well. Nevertheless, Powers’ hopeful message is that nothing will change until citizens band together for political and systemic change – à la #climatestrike, #FridaysForFuture, or Extinction Rebellion. Waiting passively for politicians to “fix it” for us is futile, as Cordal so cleverly reminds us.

This banding together for collective action is, in my opinion, the best way that artists can “change the narrative” about climate change. As eco-anxiety increases, artists can shift our focus away from dystopic discourse to climate narratives that reduce feelings of isolation and hopelessness, while simultaneously helping audiences visualize a role for themselves through collective action. Amy Brady has written two excellent articles here and here on how a new generation of climate fiction (cli-fi) authors are leading the way “to envision new, more sustainable and compassionate social structures” in which collective action plays a leading role.

The drama, then, lies in the emotional arcs of the characters as they face their lives with alternating hope and despair, knowing that while the future looks bleak, it has yet to be written.

—Amy Brady, Guernica Magazine

In a similar vein, Project Drawdown‘s Paul Hawken said on a recent podcast that “the mindset that will solve the [global warming] problem is collaborative.” [Emphasis added.] In reference to his organization’s best-selling book that ranks the top 100 most substantive solutions to global warming according to their financial, social and environmental benefits, Hawken explained: “[It] is all about narrative, really. It’s not a fear-based book… fear isn’t a good place to start communication. Fear doesn’t work.”

By focusing on solutions that already exist – three of the top 10 solutions involve renewable electricity generation – Project Drawdown is simply “reflecting back to the world what it is already doing.” For those feeling overwhelmed by the negative discourse that dominates our social and mainstream media, focusing on tangible solutions gives agency. The new documentary film 2040, by the Australian filmmaker Damon Garneau, presents a hopeful vision of what the world might look like if we adopted many of Drawdown’s top solutions:

2040 - Official Trailer - YouTube

I’ll end here with another plea for collective action from the prodigious Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson: “The tools for dealing with our changing climate will have to come from all fields; we all need to work together – scientists, artists, architects, businesses, governments – if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

P.S. A nod to John Lennon for the title of this post.

(Top image: cellphone image by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian renewable energy photographer. Since 2009, Joan has found her artistic voice on the construction sites of utility-scale wind and solar projects. Her goal is to keep our eyes on the prize – a 100% clean energy economy in our lifetimes. Joan is currently working on a documentary film and book project about Canada’s energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. You can find Joan on ElloTwitter and Visura.

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Danielle Eubank is an expedition artist and, as such, has dedicated the last 20 years to traveling and painting the world’s five oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Southern and Indian). Eubank calls her inspiring and ambitious project, One Artist Five Oceans. She models herself on the expedition artists of the past, such as William Hodges, who accompanied Captain Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Just as these earliest artists were the “eyes of the expedition,” the ones who brought back the first images of a new world before photography became the medium of choice, Eubank too has created her own singular portraits of the oceans’ “moods and emotions” for us all to see. Her goal is to encourage people to feel, think about and act on what is happening to the oceans and environment.

William Hodges, HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, 1776

Origins of the Project

In our recent conversation, Eubank related to me that she started painting water reluctantly. Having grown up near Bodega Bay, California, she had seen her share of seascapes and had turned to painting portraits, landscapes and animals instead. “Besides,” she said,” I felt that water was really hard to depict – it’s constantly moving and how do you draw that in an original way?” In 2001, during a visit to the Doñana National Park in Huelva, Spain, where Eubank had been sketching the dunes for days with her back to the sea, she turned around. Forcing herself to draw the water, Eubank began what became a decades-long passion. As she worked over a number of subsequent days, observing the water more and more closely, she began to develop a visual language for water that became increasingly abstract and emotive.

The Expeditions

In 2013, on the strength of her growing body of water paintings, Eubank was invited to serve as the expedition artist aboard the Borobudur Ship, a wooden replica of an 8th century Indonesian trading vessel. From 2013 – 2014, the expedition sailed from Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and up the Atlantic Ocean to Ghana. Aboard the Borobudur, as with all of her voyages, Eubank would draw and photograph what she saw, and later, in her studio, develop a series of large-scale paintings based on these observations.

Of all of the oceans she has sailed, Eubank credits the Indian Ocean as her probable favorite. With its proximity to the Equator and the high level of pollution in the air, the Indian Ocean reflects a wide variety of colors, including the intense orange of the sunrises and sunsets, pale turquoise, ultramarine blue and purple. In Mozambique, Eubank visited fabric stores, which displayed the bright colors of the country’s traditional printed cloth. Her paintings from this time period were highly influenced by both the varied color palette of the water and the local dress. Eubank considered the experience “transformative” and began thinking about traveling and painting all of the world’s oceans.

Danielle Eubank, Ancol XIII, oil on linen, 44” x 28,” 2008.  The Borobudur Ship Expedition

From 2008 – 2010, Eubank served as the expedition artist for The Phoenician Ship Expedition, a recreation of a 6th-century BCE voyage, which sailed from Syria, through the Suez Canal, around the Horn of Africa and up the west coast of Africa, through the Straits of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean to return to Syria. The vessel was a replica of a 2,500-year-old Phoenician ship that circumnavigated Africa six centuries before the birth of Christ. Eubank’s paintings from the voyage reflect the hot colors of Western Africa.

Danielle Eubank, Mozambique IX, oil on linen, 60” x 72,” 2011. The Phoenician Ship Expedition

In 2014, Eubank traveled to the High Arctic aboard the Antigua, a barquentine tall ship. She was one of 27 artists, scientists and educators who made the voyage around the international territory of Svalbard, an Arctic Archipelago. The Antigua passed through a world of pale blue icebergs and “turquoise-cerulean ice calving from glaciers.” To Eubank, the already abstract nature of the landscape was vastly different from the water and sky of her previous expeditions. Her challenge, as she described it, was to find a new way to translate that environment:

Normally, I deconstruct the physical forms found in water to create stacks of abstracted rhythms. In this case, the Arctic Ocean already looks abstract before I’ve had a chance to deconstruct it.

Danielle Eubank, Arctic XI, oil on linen, 60” x 72,” 2018

Eubank achieved her 20-year goal of visiting and painting the world’s five oceans in February of this year when she sailed through the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. Although she has filled sketchbooks with drawings and taken numerous photographs, she has not yet completed the full body of paintings that will derive from this expedition. She is, however, currently exhibiting work from all five expeditions for the first time at the Kwan Fong Gallery, California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California through August 1, 2019.

When I asked Eubank what she had learned from her journeys, she admitted that she had seen firsthand how

messed up the waters around the world are, how much less marine life there is now than even in the 20th Century; how it’s really important that people have a way of protecting and feeding their families – without that, they can’t possibly think about fixing the environment.

In answer to my question “what’s next?” Eubank responded that she will probably always be working with the topic of water and that she will continue to spread the message about the importance of reducing the use of plastic and fossil fuels that have had a devasting effect on our climate and our precious oceans.

(Top image: Danielle Eubank, Arctic XII,oil on linen, 72” x 116,” 2019.  The Arctic Expedition)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water 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, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides, our new plastic seas and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

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Since 2000, the UN has observed World Refugee Day on June 20 to raise awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. As part of my own World Refugee Day observance, I’m reflecting on Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda’s recent production Refuge.

I had the opportunity to dramaturgically support Blessed Unrest in their latest production, and even more, am eager to write about their piece in the context of the climate crisis. Refuge is described via Blessed Unrest’s website:

Blessed Unrest teams up with Teatri Oda from Kosovo and musicians from Metropolitan Klezmer for this world-premiere play based on real events in which thousands of Jewish World War II refugees were harbored by families in Albania, most of them practicing Muslims. Despite Nazi occupation, no Jews were taken to concentration camps from Albania, and it was the only country in Europe with more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning.

Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, Nancy McArthur, and Eshref Durmishi in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Presented at Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City, Refuge starts with two women running toward each other and embracing centerstage. These women, one Albanian and one American, tie us to modern day as the actors who play these contemporary characters transform back in time to two distinct moments in history: 1940s Poland and 1990s Kosova.

In 1940s Poland, a Jewish family leaves their home to escape the Holocaust. In 1990s Kosova, an Albanian family flees persecution from the former Yugoslavia. Refuge sets up these two narratives, and we see how the stories intertwine. The Jewish family journeys through Europe, intending to catch a ship to the United States before the Nazis spread further. This family meets a Muslim-Catholic family in Albania who takes them in for as long as necessary. Based on actual events, the Albanian family treats the Jewish family as their own, helping them fit into Albanian culture to protect from any Nazi suspicions.

Albanians practice Besa, an ethical code of honor meaning “to keep the promise.” In this way – according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – “the Albanians went out of their way to provide assistance…These acts originated from compassion, loving-kindness and a desire to help those in need, even those of another faith or origin.” Later in the play, we realize that the daughter of the Albanian family in the 1940s is the grandmother of the 1990s family, and she is still trying to reconnect with the Jewish daughter, through written-yet-unreturned letters.

Refuge illustrates Besa through these fictional families, telling a story not often heard. Through invigorating music, rigorous movement, humorous and heartfelt text, Refuge brings Besa to life for a new audience. The play lays out the problems, especially what it means to be displaced and to relocate home, but it does not dwell on the hardships. Instead, Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda use true stories from the past to demonstrate how the world could be: namely, more loving. The Albanian family, like many real Albanians during World War II, set aside religious and cultural differences, and not only welcomed strangers into their homes, but treated them as family.

Ilire Vinca, Eshref Durmishi, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Nancy McArthur in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

We need more plays like Refuge, especially in the context of climate chaos. People, populations of entire countries, have had to move from one place to another due to environmental hardship, and such migrations will only increase. Examples include Houston, Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea. While Refuge is clearly talking about refugees – people fleeing their home because of persecution – there are questions around the term “refugee” as related to climate change. The UN is careful to distinguish climate migrants from refugees, enumerating aspects that “define human mobility in the context of climate change and environmental degradation” including the aspect that creating a “refugee status for climate change related reasons…can lead to the exclusion of categories of people who are in need of protection.” Nonetheless, we’re talking about people on the move, some needing to completely reframe what and where home is. Refuge reminds me that “home” isn’t always a physical place; home is where my family is.

At the end of the play, we’re back in modern times and the Jewish daughter recounts one of her letters to the Albanian daughter: “I have children now, Tana. I have a granddaughter. She exists because of you and your family.” The Jewish daughter recognizes her survival as a direct result of Tana’s family, the Albanian’s choice to open their home to strangers for the duration of a world war. Tana responds: “I am just a person.” This line, a simple reminder, strikes me every time. How will each of us as individuals move through the world? How will we work together to build a better world? In whatever ways we yield our collective power, we must hold space for those already seeking, and who will seek, refuge. We are each just people, but together we can change the course of history, to a more equitable and just world for us all.

Eshref Durmishi, Ilire Vinca, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Daniela Markaj in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

There’s More
Follow Blessed Unrest & Teatri Oda as they bring Refuge to Europe in the coming year.
Engage with advocacy organizations like The Accompany Project and Refugees Welcome to Dinner.

(Top Image: Ilire Vinca, Eshref Durmishi, Nancy McArthur, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Daniela Markaj in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.)

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, Superhero Clubhouse, and Blessed Unrest. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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