In the past month, it feels a bit like the world has turned upside down without anyone noticing.
Naturally, everyone is aware of the devastating war in Ukraine, a calamity that is heart wrenching on every level (also, I might add, as we watch the utter inequity of treatment experienced by refugees from different parts of the world). Likewise, it is impossible to be oblivious to the pandemic, which has impacted so many of our daily activities for the past two years.
But there was another ‘bomb’ dropped on February 28, 2022 – one that has gotten much less attention. This bomb took the form of the sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report is a litany of already occurring disasters (floods, droughts, forest fires, disease, extreme heat, etc.), as well as a dismal inventory of what is not being done in response to such disasters. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan responded to the report like this: “I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this. Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”
Reactions to such a ‘bomb’ have been varied. Some blatantly ignore these reports, sticking their fingers in their ears in a gesture of finality. Others, typically those deeply entrenched in the neoliberal capitalist system, downplay or obfuscate the findings. Most of us, however, grow both more concerned and more immobilized, feeling powerless in the face of the problem.
As an antidote to these feelings, organizations and researchers have tried to offer ways of empowering people to make changes at an individual level. The latest, for example, comes from the UK-based campaign JUMP, which, based on research conducted at Leeds University, attempts to specify a mere six behavioural changes that individuals need to make to avert the worst impacts of the crisis. These six actions (in simple, but also radical, terms for most in the Global North) include the following: eat a largely plant-based diet (without waste and in reasonable quantities), buy no more than three new clothing items per year, keep electrical products for at least seven years, fly only once every three years, get rid of your car, and offer one ‘systemic nudge’ (protest, switch to a green energy supplier, change your pension fund, etc.). Yet, in the end, we discover that if we all adopt such actions it would still only account for 25% of what is required to protect both the planet’s well-being and its offspring (evidence of a larger reality that demands government regulations to rein in the corporate and agribusiness sectors).
As artists, we are all now cognizant of the climate crisis – a fact more readily apparent from Canada Council for the Arts’ statement on the climate and from newly developing efforts like the Climate Art Web and SCALE. But it often feels more than daunting to consider where our role might be in addressing such a terrifyingly grand challenge. What can an artist possibly do as the world seems to crumble around us?
Many artists have been wrestling with what it might mean to face these realities head on. Choreographer Jérôme Bel, for instance, has cut off all touring by plane to minimize his impact. Others, based on the work of Julie’s Bicycle, are addressing what it might mean to ‘green’ theatrical production. And some, like Mile Zero Dance for the upcoming The Real Disaster Show, address the crisis both thematically and corporeally through dance performance.
The climate and ecological emergencies have been at the heart of my own work for a number of years. From works that address humans’ failed adaptation efforts (Room and Rooms) to works addressing species extinction (The Coming Silence), kloetzel&co. has been grappling with sounding the alarm bell on climate.
But, in the past few years, it has become clear that we must do more. Not only must we sound the alarm bell; not only must we commit to the six (or ten or twenty) behavioural changes that can help the situation (and, yes, that means truly adopting these changes for the whole creative sector). And, last but certainly not least, not only must we mount much greater pressure on policymakers to enact the necessary regulations to mitigate the climate crisis. But we must also take on the job of visioning a new future. We must imagine, develop, and establish new behaviours, pursuits and activities – ones that do not damage the planet, but rather support, sustain and honor it while simultaneously offering participants fulfillment and insight, connection and joy.
A recent project in this vein – that we’re currently calling Weeds – involves investigating what it might mean for the human body to corporeally adapt processes of biomimicry to urban spaces. This project, a collaboration between kloetzel&co. and Anandam Dancetheatre attempts to ‘try on’ ideas from the more-than-human world to impact a series of cityscapes, just as, perhaps, weeds do when reclaiming abandoned or disused areas. In our investigations, in which we attempt to translate more-than-human processes into human embodiment, we purposely set aside human norms around time, scale, and growth cycles in order to explore the actions of various plants and fungi. The process is challenging, informative, and, naturally, limited in scope. But it is also teaching us what it might be like to empathize with other species, to experiment with different mechanisms of connection, to physically inhabit the world without assumptions of human superiority, and to find corporeal enjoyment in our surrounding environments without detrimental impact. And, while we are interested in the activity as a performative gesture, we are, more importantly, diving into it as an activity that may alter our understanding of the ecological processes that take place on this planet.
In the end, will we change the climate breakdown narrative? Will we ‘solve’ the crisis in some substantive way? Certainly, that is a goal that is too lofty for any individual project. But if we each take on the job of investigating and modeling activities for an alternative and sustainable future, we may just find that we are pushing that needle inch by inch – not toward the tipping points that are so dangerous for all life – but rather in a different direction altogether, one that may portend a just, viable and hopeful future for all beings on this planet we call home.