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Theatre and the End of the World

Of the numerous contemporary crises that affect our world today, climate change is amongst the most pressing issues facing the global community. We’re looking at fish-less oceans as early as 2048, atmospheric levels or carbon dioxide are at an all time high, and there is scientific consensus that the spike in planetary temperature is due to human activity.

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Temperature data from four international science institutions. All show significant increase in temperature over the past few decades.

As environmental degradation continues at a rapid rate, how do theatre artists use their creativity to spark action to combat climate change. Over the past year, HowlRound has been publishing a series of articles under the heading Theatre in the Age of Climate Change. These essays, ranging from musings on sustainable scenic design to a call for a total overhaul of our conception of dramatic structure, are incredibly admirable, and demonstrate a high level of critical thinking on the issue of global warming. However, as Naomi Klein notes in her book This Changes Everything, climate change isn’t really about carbon emissions – it’s about capitalism. As it follows, reversing the effects of climate change isn’t about polluting less, it’s about overhauling a economic system based on resource exploitation and restructuring the way we consume (especially in an industrialized, Western country). All of the sudden, we’re talking about abolishing the economic structure on which this country was built, relinquishing the vast amount of power that comes with dominant global capitalism in the name of ecological sustainability.

And now you’re bored.

The problem with climate change is that it’s so easy to ignore. You could go to the theatre one night and be inspired by a play that illuminates the severity of environmental decay. You’ll take shorter showers for a week, maybe ride your bike or walk instead of taking a car when you go out to dinner, and then fall back into your previous routine. We all have other things going on in our lives.

Furthermore, there is no shortage of documentaries covering every aspect of global warming; from carbon emissions to resource depletion to food consumption and everything in between. There’s a wealth of information backed by a significant amount of data on climate change. To truly reduce their carbon footprint, an individual must commit to drastically altering the way they consume. But what’s the use of taking personal responsibility in a system that remains the same regardless of individual action? Is that nothing more than futile protest? I’ll let street artist Banksy answer that:

We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.

At this point, I’m left with only hypotheses: the HowlRound series is evocative, but what is the measurable effect of eco-theatre? Does it actually make a difference? Is it reasonable to expect the art form to spur change?

Only one article in the series fills me with hope: Theatre in the Age of Climate Change: an Educator’s View. Elspeth Tilley details the way she uses theatre to teach collaboration, equity, and environmental responsibility to young people. In the applied sense, theatre has immense power to shift collective thinking on the way humans run the planet. The future lies with the young; those willing and able to collaboratively dissociate from the notion that human importance trumps planetary concerns, stop dominating all other forms of life, and live in harmony with the Earth.

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