Addressing Climate Change through the Arts
By Carol Dance
I am writing from Australia, a country that just elected a Prime Minister who brought a chunk of coal into the Parliament to praise the black blight on humanity. Australia exports more coal than any other country. The government last week approved a mine that could more than double Australia’s coal exports and would produce more emissions than half of Western Europe combined. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is damaged due to climate change.
Australia needs help from the world’s cultural organisations, artists and playwrights to help us convince our Australian decision makers that we must not open new coal mines, that we must transition our coal communities into other industries, and that we must stop exporting Green House Gases around the world.
The Australian arts community is trying to influence the decision makers to change their tune. Artist Louis Pratt’s “Regret” earned a place in the Ervin Gallery exhibition last month with his sculpture of a man in sad repose, made out of coal and resin. The sculpture is a reminder that Australia exports pollution around the world, and a reminder that there is still no transition plan to help our coal communities. Louis says “ ‘Regret’ is the embodiment of a near possible future where we did not de-carbonise our economies.”
Australian publishers have created a new literature genre: cli-fi. Climate change threats are now so prevalent that young authors are writing novels that predict what could happen in a few decades. Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia is an example. Mills is quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald (21.06.19): “I don’t feel very positive about the future. I feel quite angry and upset.” Sydney writer Mireille Juchau’s novel The World Without Us won the Victoria (an Australian state) Premier’s Literary Award.
Climate change novels are on the increase in Australia because our continent is particularly vulnerable to droughts, floods and cyclones. After much searching, I suspect there is no mainstream Australian play about climate change that your regular subscriber attends. Those few plays out there are in the youthful, experimental category.
The play Kill Climate Deniers was produced by Sydney’s Griffin Theatre in 2018. A militant cell of eco-activists takes the audience hostage during a concert at Parliament House. David Finnigan, the playwright says, I’ve spent the last ten years producing theatre in collaboration with climate and earth system scientists. We take concepts from climate science and turn them into performance pieces.
Unfortunately, but appropriately, the negative publicity about ‘killing’ deniers didn’t do much to help climate campaigners and the play didn’t receive many reviews. Kill Climate Deniers eventually moved on to London where The Guardian said David Finnigan’s bold play about protesters who take an environment minister hostage is stalled by metatheatrics.
Another Australian play about climate change is Whale, by Fleur Kilpatrick, produced last week in Melbourne. In this audience participation piece, the attendees are asked to save the world from climate change. Greeted at a registration desk and asked how urgent do they believe the need for action on the climate crisis is, the audience then enters the space and are given party hats. They are told a terrible climate crisis threatens us all and we are here to solve it by deciding which of us will be sacrificed to save the whole. A simulated stock ticker runs a message repeatedly across a screen at the back of the space, reassuring us that this isn’t really happening, this is just a play. But, of course, it is actually happening. Reviewers called the play confused, angry, sad.
Thankfully, photographers the world over are plugging away at the climate message presenting us with images of droughts, dead fish in our Murray River, bushfires (a wild fire or forest fire) and dry river beds. Photography is one of the best ways to show the effects of climate change, says Professor Glenn Albrecht, director of the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Australia’s Murdoch University.
The Great Barrier Reef’s decline due to Climate Change
The Australian Geographic has an extensive collection of photographs of the effects of climate change on the continent. National Geographic has a huge collection of world climate change photographs.
Canadian Chantal Bilodea is doing a marvellous job of networking with climate artists. In the blog there is a list of over a hundred plays about climate change. The Heretic is a British black comedy play by Richard Bean about climate change and its sceptics. In 2011 it premiered at the Royal Court Theatre receiving positive reviews. Others include This Clement World, The Contingency Plan, The Great Immensity, Greenland and Wastewater.
The Australian people understand we must get out of coal. A 2018 Lowy Institute Poll showed that while the Australian government doggedly pursues a “technology-neutral” energy policy, Australians don’t seem to be buying it. Public support for a large-scale energy transition in Australia is even more emphatic than support for climate action. 84% of Australians support the statement that “the government should focus on renewables”.
Photos: Prime Minister Scott Morrison paring coal in Parliament: ABC News, Louis Pratt’s sculpture ‘Regret’, photo by Louis Pratt, Dead coral on the Great Barrier Reef (photo by Carol Dance)