Wednesday, 30 April 2008

natural cycle

Daniel Mendelsohn's 5,500-word essay on Herodotus (in this week's New Yorker) identifies the Greek historian's overarching theme in The Histories as 'the seemingly inevitable movement from imperial hubris to catastrophic retribution'.

Herodotus is writing history as if it's Greek drama: there's a hero, Persia itself, that is 'as grandiose, as admirable yet doomed, as any character you get in Greek tragedy'. It was inevitable, given Persia's character, that it would destroy itself.

Environmentalists are often accused of following an apocalyptic narrative that's taken from the Bible. But equally pertinent, for environmentalists and playwrights, is the hubristic narrative that's taken from Greek tragedy.

There are moments in Mendelsohn's essay when Herodotus sounds positively Gaian. Actions lead to reactions. 'For Herodotus,' he writes, 'nearly everything can be assimilated into a kind of natural cycle of checks and balances.'

'Herodotus is trying to give you a picture of the world entire, of how everything in it is, essentially, linked.'

more ...

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

protagonism of communities

This doesn't happen often in theatres, but last night a politician was praised. In Paul Heritage's lecture at the Chelsea Theatre, he described the very different type of arts funding that exists in Brazil, thanks to its Culture Minister, the singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil (left).

His Culture Points programme tries to remove 'the arrogance of the state' and allows 'a high level of self-determination'. It supports 'forms of expression marginalised by the mass media'. It also encourages groups 'to deliver in terms of their own agendas'. Heritage described this as 'the protagonism of communities'.

Our online journal about Heritage's current Young Vic project, Amazonia, is here. more ...

Monday, 28 April 2008

passing it on

The philosopher Roger Scruton argues that environmentalism is a key conservative cause:

'spoliation occurs for one reason above all others, which is that human beings strive to externalize the cost of everything they do. If they cannot pass on the cost to their neighbors, they will pass it on to future generations. And the most effective instrument ever devised for externalizing the cost of individual actions is the state ...'

He argues that the state has caused huge environmental problems:

'the most effective way of ensuring that people internalize their costs is to ensure that they encounter, in fact or in feeling, those upon whom they would otherwise inflict them.'

Hat-tip: 2blowhards more ...

Sunday, 27 April 2008

butterfly flaps wings

The meteorologist Edward Lorenz (obit here) studied how small actions could have large impacts:

'The idea that a small event can produce large changes in the atmosphere dates back at least to Edgar Allan Poe, who discussed the growing impact a wave of the hand would have on the future. In the 1920s the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington focused on a match idly thrown from the window of a train, and in the early 1960s Lorenz considered the flap of a seagull's wings.'

It was a colleague of Lorenz's who shifted the image from the seagull to the butterfly:

'the move from seagull to butterfly came about when his friend Philip Meriless, unable to reach him as a meeting deadline passed, submitted the title "Predictability: does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" for a talk Lorenz was to give in 1972.' more ...

Saturday, 26 April 2008

the bet

Food writer Michael Pollan on social change that is viral:

'Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.'

'That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society'. more ...

Friday, 25 April 2008

waking up

Christopher Hitchens tells Prospect about his last year as a teenager:

'All through '68 you woke up every morning to something new. The Tet offensive. Martin Luther King is shot. Then de Gaulle is nearly overthrown, then Robert Kennedy is shot, the tanks roll into Prague. Then there's the Mexico Olympics—students shot down in the streets, Black Panthers on the podium—and Northern Ireland blows up.'

And then - the mag also points out - there's the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's role as official censor of plays, the first episode of Dad's Army, Hey Jude reaches Number One in the UK, and cast members of Hair strip off and face the audience. more ...

Thursday, 24 April 2008

it can't be both

One day this month the Daily Telegraph runs a highly-admiring interview with Lord Lawson about his new climate-sceptic book (dismissed by the Observer's science correspondent as 'piffle').

Another day this month the Daily Telegraph begins an article: 'Climate change could cause global conflicts as large as the two world wars but lasting for centuries ...' more ...

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

the new frontline

The front cover of the European edition of Time magazine has a picture of Gordon Brown ('Voyager to the West'). Shame.

The front cover for the U.S., Asia and South Pacific issues is much better (left). It's not just the headline: 'How To Win The War on Global Warming'.

Nor is it the twist of replacing the iconic image of raising the flag at Iwo Jima with that of raising a tree.

No, Time magazine is demonstrating its commitment to all-things-green by replacing - for this one issue - it's 'trademarked' red border for a green one. more ...

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

war on terra

Further to the job of artists post about the nine short climate-change plays that are performed this week in New York, here's a post about the plays by Don DeLillo and Tanya Saracho:

'Both playwrights, in their wildly different ways, have seized upon the fact that what we know (and what we "refuse to know") is deeply reflected in the language we produce (and avoid) to describe our experience. '

The organiser of this play festival, the non-fiction author Lawrence Weschler, wrote about the arts and environmental crises last year for The Nation:

'these crises made a specific call on the attentions not just of scientists and politicians but on those of writers and artists--people, that is, whose very vocation is vision.'

In this subscription-only piece, Weschler coins the phrase, 'the war on terra'. more ...

Monday, 21 April 2008

lights! action!

At the Theatre Materials conference on Friday, there was a discussion on 'What does greening theatre practice mean?' Those present included Bryan Raven from WhiteLight, Ben Todd from Arcola, Mhora Samuel from the Theatres Trust, Petrus Bertschinger, theatre consultant, and Ian Garrett from California. Some stand-out comments were:

'Theatre is in a unique position to get the message across about tackling climate change.'
'Anything we do is seen as iconic.'
'What does tungsten lighting say about us? It says we're wasteful.'
'We are using a lot more light than we used to. The audience is used to TV and thinks it needs to see everything in close-up.'
'Different solutions are needed for different-size productions. One action won't work across the board.'
'Arts organisations hate gradual steps. Link all the work you do to a production.'
'Use sustainability as a creative challenge rather than 'Thou Shalt Reduce'.
'Start now. One right thing done badly is better than one wrong thing done well.' more ...

Sunday, 20 April 2008


CalArts has a wiki on sustainable theatre. more ...

Saturday, 19 April 2008

job of artists

Climate of Concern is a festival of nine short plays on the theme of global warming. One play is by Don DeLillo.

Festival organiser Lawrence Weschler (acclaimed non-fiction author of Calamities of Exile and Vermeer in Bosnia) says: 'Scientists and policy wonks have had their chance and have not made this real for people. That is the job of artists.'

The plays take place on Mon, Tues and Weds at the Atlas Room, New York University, the Segal Center, City University of New York, and the Rosenthal Pavilion of the Kimmel Center. More info: New York Institute for the Humanities. more ...


The keynote lecture on the second day of the Theatre Materials conference was given by Professor Alan Read, author of Theatre and Everyday Life.

Read discussed an environmental theatre that 'placed things at the centre and us on the outside'. This would include 'things exiled to a safe haven commonly called "nature"'.

One of his slides showed Goya's picture of two men fighting with cudgels (above). Read pointed out that while the two men are engaged in fighting, they are also sinking into the swamp. He described this as 'objects objecting - simply getting their own back.' more ...

Friday, 18 April 2008

deciding to move

Julie's Bicycle launched its eco-audit on the music industry this afternoon. JB chairman Jazz Summers told the audience at the Royal Geographical Society, 'What we decided to do was find out what we had to do.'

The report says the music industry in the UK has an annual emissions level roughly equivalent to that of a town with 54,000 inhabitants. The target is to reduce that by 80%.

'If we leave it to governments, we haven't got a cat's chance,' said Geoff Lye from SustainAbility, introducing the report's findings, 'Business, when it decides to move, can move incredibly quickly.'

The report goes online Monday. more ...

Thursday, 17 April 2008

the law makers

Here's how the food-chain works on the blogosphere:

On 29th March, a New Zealand blogger, Terence, coined the term 'Gore's Law' on his blog Long Ago and Not True Anyway. The post begins by quoting 'Godwin's Law', coined by internet lawyer Mike Godwin: 'As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.' Terence adapted 'Godwin's Law' to give us 'Gore's Law'.

Terence's blog doesn't appear to have a Technorati ranking: the lower your number, the higher you rank in the 50 million blogs. But on 6 April 'Gore's Law' was picked up by Tim Lambert at Deltoid (Technorati ranking: 28,458). The Deltoid post was then picked up on 15 April by Gristmill (ranking: 1,255) and then picked up on 16 April by The Daily Dish (ranking: 45).

Gore's Law - if you still haven't stumbled across it - is this: 'As an online climate change debate grows longer, the probability that denier arguments will descend into attacks on Al Gore approaches one.'

pic. Food Chain: by Robert E. Kennedy
more ...

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

burning to talk

The screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, best-known for The Full Monty, has written a thriller about climate change. Burn Up is a two-part, three hour mini-series that features West Wing's Bradley Whitford as an oil lobbyist, Rupert Penry-Jones as the ruthless head of a billion dollar oil company and Neve Campbell (left) as an industry colleague who secretly collaborates with environmentalists.

Beaufoy told the Hollywood Reporter that he thought it would be tough getting people within the oil industry to talk to him.

'But I was amazed to find that when I telephoned very top people in the oil industry and asked if I could come and interview them -- not as a journalist, but as a writer of a drama -- I was shown an open door,' he says. 'I found that many truly powerful people in politics and in the oil business had so much they wanted to say, but only on a background basis and for a fictional drama. But many of these people are genuinely concerned about what they are seeing and hearing about the way the planet is headed and they wanted to talk off the record and not to mainstream press.'
more ...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

the rewild bunch

Extinct wildlife makes return. Moose return to the Highlands.

Today's headlines flag up the BBC2 Natural World programme A Moose in the Glen that will be shown tomorrow at 8pm. Video clip.

For the last two years, playwright Samantha Ellis has been keeping an exclusive journal for us about the business of reintroducing extinct species, or 'faunal rewilding', as she researched her new play The Last Wolf in Scotland. more ...

Monday, 14 April 2008

carbon critical

In his review of Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese's documentary on the Rolling Stones, the Observer's film critic Philip French referred to the 'tons of equipment with which touring rock performers leave their carbon footprints on the planet'.

Was this the first time that French, the Observer's film critic for 31 years, had mentioned carbon footprints? A quick google revealed that he had used the phrase twice before.

On 9 March 2008 French reviewed The Other Boleyn Girl ('A lot of carbon footprints could be saved ...'). On 24 February 2008 he reviewed U2 3D, a documentary about U2's Latin American tour ('when they put a massive carbon footprint on the globe') .

Three references, then, and all in the last two months: imagine if critics regularly included some perspective on the environmental impact of the works they reviewed. The mind boggles.

pic: Mick Jagger and Jack White (left) of the White Stripes in Shine A Light

more ...

Sunday, 13 April 2008

last night's curry

Theatre, as one playwright put it very simply to me, is about relationships. True. But these relationships are often now far more complex and varied than the ones traditionally represented on stage.

The Guardian review of Fred Pearce's Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes From shows there's a story of relationships, for instance, in last night's curry:

'[Fred] Pearce likes eating curry. "I have often wondered"' he says, "where the prawns in my Saturday night curry come from, but I have never got a straight answer." It turns out they come from a part of Bangladesh near the Bay of Bengal. So he goes there, and finds a whole area that has been devastated by prawns. Or rather, by our appetite for prawns. The old landscape of small farms and mangrove swamps has been replaced by a vast monoculture of prawn farms. As Pearce points out, this is bad for wildlife - tigers, he says, are being replaced by tiger prawns.'

more ...

Saturday, 12 April 2008


The explosion of logging in central Africa is threatening ... sea turtles. The logs are transported downriver to timber yards, but on the way 1000s of logs are lost. These logs float out to sea. Many of them get washed ashore, where they force turtles either to abandon their nesting attempts or to nest too close to the waterline.

It's one of half-a-dozen examples rainforest biologist William Laurance gives in his New Scientist article (subscription only) of 'the perils of trying to make linear decisions in a non-linear world' or the law of unintended consequences. 'In a complex, interconnected world, yanking on a string in one location can cause painful jolts in far-flung and unpredictable places.' more ...

Friday, 11 April 2008

fresh mint

ecologize (verb): to act in such a way as to help the ecology of the planet.

For example: I'm ecologizing today by walking to work.

Hat-tip: Britannica more ...

Thursday, 10 April 2008

more gore

Al Gore has given the slide show which became An Inconvenient Truth about 2000 times. Now he's got a new, shorter slide-show (28 mins) that he tries out for the first time here. Hat-tip: Huffington Post. more ...

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

light work

For Arcola's new production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, the challenge was to light a naturalistic piece of theatre 'using just five kilowatts of energy.'

The Arcola Energy Blog takes you step by step through the measures they took.

As pioneers in the field of low-impact theatre, the team at Arcola - four long miles from the heart of London's West End (above) - must feel a little like Dr Stockmann in the play: 'The ones who are right are a few isolated individuals like me.'

Other 'isolated individuals' have had to take heart from one of Dr Stockmann's other lines: 'The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.' But things are changing.

Hat-tip: ecoTheater more ...

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

question answered

This month Orion magazine gave its 2008 book award to The Zookeeper's Wife: A War History by Diane Ackerman (left). The chairman of the judges said:

'A few years ago, ‘nature’ writers were asking themselves, How can a book be at the same time a work of art, an act of conscientious objection to the destruction of the world, and an affirmation of hope and human decency? The Zookeeper’s Wife answers this question.'

Antonina and Jan Zabinski were the directors of the Warsaw Zoo. During WW2 they took in partisans and Jews. This book, says the Washington Post, reminds us 'what we mean by the word "humane".' Two quotes from the book:

'Antonina and Jan had learned to live on seasonal time, not mere chronicity'

'Their routine was never quite routine, made up as it was of compatible realities, one attuned to animals, the other to humans.'

Also reviewed here. Blogged here. Hat-tip here. more ...

Monday, 7 April 2008

hold the main stage

When David Hare said theatre could prepare us for things we'd like to avoid but cannot (see futures) he was referring to bereavement and grief. But he might just as well have been talking about climate change.

Except, that is, that hardly any major playwright has even mentioned climate change. The only two (as far as I know) that have made any significant contributions to the debate are Caryl Churchill and Vaclav Havel. (The next two would be Christopher Hampton, who wrote an unproduced screenplay about a hurricane hitting New York, and Tony Kushner in Angels in America, who had an angel descend to earth through a hole in the ozone layer.) Most playwrights feel more at home discussing moral and political climates.

In his recent and wide-ranging Front Row interview (editor's pick), David Hare stressed what an extraordinarily rich time this has been for political dramatists. He spoke of 9/11, the Iraq War, Bush, Blair and so on. But the sequence of reports that have emerged from the IPCC (1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007), reports that have fundamentally changed the way many people view the world's future, didn't get a mention.

Climate change is the front page story (today is no exception) that never makes it onto the main stage. more ...

Sunday, 6 April 2008


'By coming to the theatre, we could all begin to prepare ourselves for events that we hope to avoid but cannot.' - David Hare on The Year of Magical Thinking
more ...

Saturday, 5 April 2008

interactive audiences pre-date internet

New books about the web - Here Comes Everybody, We-think - rightly stress how interactivity has changed the nature of communication. (Dan Gillmor invented the phrase 'the people formally known as the audience').

Theatre is usually seen as an example of old style, one-way, top-down media consumption. Only thing is, theatre was interactive long before the internet was invented.

The Brazilian theorist and theatre director Augusto Boal (above) defined oppression as the voice of one person dominating that of another person, who never gets to reply. In the 1970s Boal moved away from the 'monologue' approach in theatre to a 'dialogue' one.

One technique for doing this - forum theatre - presents a short play on a theme or dilemma that is common to an audience's experience. A discussion follows, mediated by the 'Joker' (belongs to no suit).
The play is then re-run and at any moment an audience member, here called a 'spect-actor' can stop the action, take over the role of the protagonist, and do his or her best to move the story in another direction.
more ...

Friday, 4 April 2008

china syndrome

For a story to run and run, it needs a human face. The Independent says the environmentalist and human rights activist Hu Jia is likely to become the poster boy for critics of the Olympics.

Hu Jia began as an environmentalist, joining the Friends of Nature and going to the desert to plant trees. He moved on to Qinghai to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope. But he has become best known as an Aids activist. Yesterday Hu Jia was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for 'inciting subversion of state power and the socialist system': giving interviews and writing articles online. See Reporters Without Borders' map of press freedom rankings around the world. BBC news video here. The Olympics start 8 August.
more ...

Thursday, 3 April 2008

wishful thinking

If trains had always been as high speed as David Leavitt makes them in his latest novel, the number of cars in the world would never have reached 600 million.

Leavitt's novel The Indian Clerk centres around the life of the Cambridge mathematician G.H.Hardy during the First World War.
There's a moment (according to this week's TLS) when one of the characters goes to spend the weekend with his mistress. He catches a late Friday afternoon train in Cambridge and arrives on the Cornish coast in time for supper at 8pm.

National Rail Enquiries says that anyone leaving Cambridge late afternoon on Friday (5.15pm) will only get to Truro (not even on the coast) by 11.44pm. Let's hope the mistress wasn't (40 miles further on) in Land's End.

pic: Land's End more ...

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

the message is not to have one

There was a slight sense at the Poison + Antidote conference (see asking around and artists and activists) that here we all were, an enlightened group, who knew something important that we had to get across to a wider public. One way to do this - hence the venue - was through 'art'.

Some of that day's discussion seemed to blur the line between artists and advertisers. If the objective is a straightforward one ('cut carbon now'), then yes, bring on the ads.

That's what the We Can Solve It ad is doing. It flatters its audience by saying: look what we Americans have done before - the D-Day landings, a man on the moon, the civil rights movement. Then it challenges its audience by saying: look what we have to deal with today - the climate crisis. Now please go visit our website.

But talking this way isn't a job for artists (except voice-over artists). Advertising tries to move the conversation along to get a result. Art tries to slow the conversation down and open it out. For artists, the message is not to have one.

That might sound, as one activist put it (with a roll of her eyes) as 'fiddling while Rome burns'. But the deeper people reflect on issues, the greater their actions may be. more ...

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

artists and activists

There's a good argument for suggesting that activists and artists shouldn't spend their weekends hanging out together at the Whitechapel Gallery. (See yesterday's asking around.)

This argument might take the James Joyce approach1: art stops time ('aesthetic arrest'). It has no purpose other than itself. Art that tries to titillate turns into pornography; art that tries to motivate turns into propaganda. To give art some ulterior purpose is to distort it.

Or the argument might take the Chekhov approach: it isn't the artist's job to solve the problems of society. It is the artist's job to state the problems correctly.

(Chekhov was a proto-environmentalist not because he was an activist, but because he was highly alert to 'the collisions in our lives between nature and culture'.)

Two immediate problems face the artist-as-activist. The first was raised by Philip Pullman at last year's Tipping Point in Oxford when he said an artist is simply not in control of how his or her work is received. People make of it what they will.

The second problem for the artist-as-activist is highlighted in Anthony Lane's New Yorker piece about David Lean. If the artist is any good, the work has its own imperatives2. The piece quotes Celia Johnson in 1943, writing from the set of the wartime propaganda movie This Happy Breed and noting, 'No one appears to take the faintest interest in the war.' Lane writes the director was 'content to make films with propaganda value, but the shape of the film at hand was what absorbed him.'

1 In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the high-minded Stephen Dedalus distinguishes between 'stasis' and 'kinesis': 'Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts.' (p222, Penguin Classic)
2 Or, as Brecht wrote to Walter Benjamin, 'I think too much of artistic matters, of what might be good for the theatre, ever to be completely serious.' (quoted in Double Act by Ira Nadel, p132) more ...