Friday 29 February 2008

animals, plants, weather

In the final moments of this week's In Our Time, which was about King Lear, the Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones introduced what Melvyn Bragg later referred to as 'an entirely new and vast theme'. (It's a subject we have written about here)

Duncan-Jones said Lear should remain a very powerful and frequently-performed text in the 21st century because of one of its central themes:

'the place of the human race in the natural world, the human race in a world of animals and plants and weather, and the interaction of human beings in that world which is constantly referred to.

As well as 'nothing', the other thing that runs through the play is questions. Is there any cause in nature to make these hard hearts?1 Are human beings actually an aberration in nature? Are they more cruel than sharks, say, the sea-monster 2 that preys on itself. Are they actually the bottom of creation rather than the top?'

1 'Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?'

2 'Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,
More hideous, when thou show'st thee in a child,
Than the sea-monster.'

pic: Ian McKellen as Lear, William Gaunt as Gloucester more ...

Thursday 28 February 2008

second pitch

A friend emailed that she didn't understand yesterday's elliptical post about Mike Scott (left) and 'wedge narratives'. Neither did her husband. I emailed back:

'My point was this: when they came to campaigning against litter in Texas they broke the audience into sectors and targeted the specific sector that was most relevant.

Instead of looking for a single message for everyone, they sliced the pie up and went for a single message for a single slice of the pie. It was very effective.

I was linking that idea with one from another area entirely: in 2004 Pakala and Socolow came up with 15 wedges for mitigating climate change. These were 15 different technologies that addressed the issue from 15 different angles. Added together, they would make a very significant impact. The point was, one size doesn't fit all, there isn't a silver bullet, but lots of approaches might do the trick.

I was making a leap, then, and saying that when it comes to discussion about climate change, maybe young white Texan males represent a slice of the pie, and so do golfers, and frequent fliers, hedge fund managers, single mothers with no income, plumbers, interns, birdwatchers, estate agents, traffic wardens and theatre directors; each of these groups will respond to particular stories about climate change (ones that touch their values and sense of identity) and maybe those stories aren't being fully articulated.

So, not one narrative, but many narratives. Not one wedge, but 15 wedges.'

(Yes, the friend emailed back, that was clearer.) more ...

Wednesday 27 February 2008

wedge narratives

One of the best stories in Made To Stick is how Texans solved their litter problem. They discovered the biggest culprits were 18 to 35-year-old, pickup-driving males. Fines didn't have an impact, neither did appeals about the wildlife.

So an ad campaign recruited Texas's sporting and music heroes. One ad had Mike Scott, the Houston Astros pitcher, pick up some litter and hurl it at a roadside bin. Cue massive explosion, followed by the catchphrase, 'Don't mess with Texas'.

The ads weren't about guilt or shame. They touched a certain constituency's sense of its identity. Within five years, litter fell in the state by 72%.

There's a lot of scope here. In 2004, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow's introduced the wedge game: showing how climate change could be stabilised using 15 existing technologies or 'wedges'. There needs to be 15 types of narrative too. more ...

Tuesday 26 February 2008

strike the prop

Fifty years ago, a West End actor like Noel Coward (left) could light a cigarette and exhale an elegant plume of smoke, secure in the knowledge that the audience would think 'cool'. Today's audience is more likely to think 'hope that's herbal'.

The next actors' prop to go through a 'value reversal' will be bottled water. Pretty soon, when an actor enters - just back from the gym, say - flops on a sofa, and swigs at a bottle of gently-carbonated Alpine mineral water, half the audience will be thinking 'what's wrong with the tap?' more ...

Monday 25 February 2008

going the distance

Two years ago at the Royal Court, Caryl Churchill introduced two speakers, Professors Chris Rapley and John Schnellnhuber, by saying that climate change was tough to write about for a playwright because of 'the distances'.

Those distances are spatial and temporal: what A does in one country affects B in another; what C does in one century will affect D in another. These aren't easy issues to put on stage.

James Garvey, secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, has just written a very good, short and accessible guide to exactly these questions. In The Ethics of Climate Change he says that 'we are accustomed to thinking about individual, easily identified harms which are local, right in front of us in both space and time ... Now, cumulative and apparently innocent acts can have consequences undreamt of by our forebears.'

He describes the 'atmosphere' as a common resource, like a village well. It is also a finite one. Whoever pollutes it, harms others; and justice, of course, expects those who harm others to stop doing so, and (where possible) to make amends for the damage done.

The problem, as Voltaire wrote, is that 'no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible'. more ...

Sunday 24 February 2008

in the mood

Neither There Will Be Blood nor Michael Clayton, both nominees for best picture tonight, are green movies. But their themes - destructive greed and corporate corruption - catch the current mood of eco-anxiety.

As the oil prospector Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis represents the oil industry at its most rapacious. (We know where that's got us.)

As Michael Clayton, George Clooney works for a law firm defending agribusiness U-North in a long-running class action law suit. U-North may run very slick green ads, but the chemicals they've been producing cause cancer.

The firm's boss, played by Sydney Pollack (with Clooney above), sums up the law firm's ethos: 'The case reeked from Day One. Fifteen years in, I've got to tell you how we pay the rent?'

The movie, it seems, is only slightly exaggerated. more ...

Saturday 23 February 2008

the word is out

The news that mercury has been found in dolphins and pilot whales in Taiji, has the makings of a Japanese Enemy of the People. There's the mayor pointing to a report that it's safe. There's a health professor - the Dr Stockmann figure - saying it's dangerous and 'word is not getting out'.

It also recalls the disaster at Minamata in the 1950s when mercury was dumped in the sea as industrial waste. In 1972 David Holman wrote Drink The Mercury about it. It was the height of TIE.

In her interview with us, arts director Sian Ede recalls that 70s era of classroom-based small-scale drama: stark, bold and expressionistic. 'It had a real agenda.' more ...

Friday 22 February 2008

the grappler

Nick Hytner lets the Toronto Star in on his artistic policy at the National:

'I just kept alive a tradition that started with Shaw. Using the theatre to grapple with the serious issues of the day.'

Like climate change, perhaps.

(Hat-tip: artsJournal) more ...

Thursday 21 February 2008

make it heat

The head of Harvard's center on science and technology policy, Dr John Holden, is fed up with 'global warming' as a phrase. He says, 'We’ve been almost anesthetized by this term.' He suggests 'global climate disruption'.

James Lovelock's preferred choice is 'global heating'. He told the New York Times:

'Warming is something that’s kind of cozy and comfortable. You think of a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day. Heating is something you want to get away from.' more ...

Wednesday 20 February 2008

new currency

A remarkable 8000-word piece by Michael Specter in this week’s New Yorker examines carbon footprints: how they can be measured; and how cost can be apportioned. Carbon dioxide, he writes, has become:

‘a strange but powerful new currency, difficult to evaluate yet impossible to ignore.’ more ...

more cows than grass

Garrett Hardin's famous environmental essay The Tragedy of the Commons also applies to theatre companies. Scott Walters at Theatre Ideas says you better have a good reason to start one:

'In many ways, the audience for theatre in any particular city is like Hardin's open pasture. Each new theatre draws on that audience. At first, there are few cows (theatres) and lots of pasture (spectators), so the addition of another cow or two is not a problem -- in fact, the grass grows more readily when it is eaten by cows (see The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan -- the fascinating section called "Pastoral: Grass") . But at a certain point, there are enough cows and things reach a tipping point (h/t Malcolm Gladwell). Suddenly there are more cows than grass, and you damned well better have a good reason to add to the herd. Like maybe your cow is purple instead of brown (h/t to Seth Godin).'
more ...

Tuesday 19 February 2008

war on watermelons

You can't watch Professor Naomi Oreskes’ feisty 58-min lecture on The American Denial of Global Warming and not think it would make a great play: a dark battle of ideas with savage personal disputes and good old-fashioned skullduggery.

As back story (7:00), there's the objective unfolding of the science on climate change, from John Tyndall’s work on greenhouse gases in the 1850s to Svante Arrhenius in the 1890s, Guy Callendar in the 1930s, Gilbert Plass, Hans Suess, Roger Revelle in the 1950s and Charles David Keeling in the 1960s. (All names, it must be said, that can only grow in renown.)

By 1965 Lyndon Johnson could tell Congress (16:16): ‘This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through … a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.’

40 years ago, the US President had got it: a consensus existed, and that only deepened (23.00). Then, and here the drama kicks in, four distinguished scientists went over to the dark side. Shaped by the Cold War, they were fiercely anti-communist and fiercely pro-market (54.00), and saw environmental regulations as communism by another name. Their enemies were 'the watermelons' (green on outside, red on inside).

Between them, these four scientists stirred up clouds of doubt within the media on the links between smoking and cancer, between CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer and between CO2 emissions and global warming. (There were threats to sue, on the basis of the ‘fairness doctrine’, if their views were excluded.)

Between a third and a half of the American public believes scientists are still arguing about climate change. We live with what those four scientists achieved.

Other posts this month about this YouTube lecture appear at Atmoz, Carbon-based, Deltoid (143 comments) Operation Noah and Perspicacity. more ...

Monday 18 February 2008

full tank

In Six Degrees*, Mark Lynas quotes Jeffrey Dukes' calculation that an average US gallon of gasoline requires:

'approximately 90 tonnes of precursor plant material in the process of its formation in ancient oceans (think of that every time you fill your tank).'

So, if you drive from London to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and most British actors live in London (it's the voice-overs), you will get through about 1,350 tonnes of precursor plant material each way.

*p260 more ...

response time

'There's a huge disconnect,’ science historian Naomi Oreskes has said, 'between what professional scientists have studied and learned in the last 30 years, and what is out there in the popular culture.’

Here’s the latest example: four years ago, Sir David King, the UK’s chief scientific adviser said climate change was a greater threat to the world than international terrorism.

In this month’s Prospect, the lead book review begins:‘ Eight years into the 21st century, one issue has become a staple of writers' discussions’ as they ask themselves ‘what kind of literary response, if any, can be made’. And that one issue, the piece goes on, is 9/11. more ...

Sunday 17 February 2008

on the money

Fintan O'Toole says Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara is the best and funniest attack on our tendency to dream of a time when we had less money and more culture:

'Money, Shaw argues in Major Barbara, is civilisation. "It represents health, strength, honour, generosity and beauty as conspicuously and undeniably as the want of it represents illness, weakness, disgrace, meanness and ugliness." People who know this understand the world better than those who don't, even if they prefer bling and Big Brother to books and theatre.'

Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw (above) opens at the NT on Feb 26. more ...

Saturday 16 February 2008

them and us

In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood considers what gets lost in interactive theatre when the barrier between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is dissolved. The first casualty appears to be what-happens-next: ‘it is not easy to communicate complex narrative to a fragmented audience.’ The second is the audience thinks about itself rather than the performance.

The Artful Manager notes the issue goes wider than theatre: ‘all roads in the lively arts seem to be moving toward more visibly active audiences, less traditional audience chambers, and less sitting quiet in the dark.’

An ex-vaudevillian follows up AM’s post by recommending a first-rate piece by journalist Gene Weingarten, which follows the fortunes of a world-class violinist as he busks unrecognised and unloved to early-morning commuters in a Washington metro station. (Some people did flip him a quarter.)

In the performer/audience relationship, it seems (and here, Kant is cited as an authority), context is all. more ...

Friday 15 February 2008

if music be the love of food ...

The American blog The Daily Dish gets more than 250,000 page views a day. It mostly deals with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but there are occasional ‘mental health breaks’: one this week was a YouTube clip of the First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra.

This orchestra uses pumpkins, peppers, aubergines, cucumbers, carrots and onions. Our associate editor, Kellie Gutman, saw the group near Trento, Italy, two years ago. After the concert, they served up minestrone soup.

So FVVO isn’t the new new thing. The six-minute YouTube clip has had 1,200,000 views. The 11-strong group has also had write-ups in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph.

But this week, thanks to a single post on a prominent US blog, the group will have been introduced to a new audience of a couple of hundred thousand people. Imagine your average performing arts company getting this kind of exposure. more ...

brrring, brrring

The news that 40% of the world’s oceans have been heavily affected by pollution has been headlined (predictably enough) as a ‘wake-up call’.

This over-worked phrase has shifted slightly since it first surfaced in 1976 to describe placing a request with the hotel front desk to receive a call the next morning. In its original sense, a wake-up call wouldn’t be unexpected and wouldn’t be news.

'Wake-up call' joins 'saving the planet' as one to avoid. more ...

Thursday 14 February 2008

crunch time at the movies

The Seattle mother-of-two and low-impact advocate Crunchy Chicken runs two book clubs: one’s reading Affluenza; the other’s reading In Defense of Food. Now CC proposes an online movie club. Her first suggestion was to watch Frontier House (2002), a PBS reality series, where three modern American families live for six months like Montana farmers in the 1880s.

Crunchy readers wrote in saying Pioneer Quest (2000), about settlers in West Canada, was much better: more serious, and with less griping. The rule for Pioneer Quest contestants was tough: 'With only period appropriate resources, our settlers must break the soil, build a home, and live off the land for one year.' But Pioneer Quest isn’t available.

There’s a new wave of interest in the rigours of 19th century homesteading from post-peak-oilers, treadlightlys and low-impacters. (See my piece on blogging the good life.) The producers of Pioneer Quest should bring out the DVD quick. more ...

high-energy performances

BBC Radio 4's Front Row looks at how theatres are going green.

The presenter Mark Lawson talks to Ben Todd at Arcola, Nick Simmons, senior lighting technician at the National Theatre, and Justine Simons, the Mayor of London's head of cultural strategy.

Stand-out stat: about a million batteries (used for actors' microphones) are thrown away by West End theatres each year. more ...

urban green

Popular Science lists the top 50 green cities in the United States. The top three are: Portland (Oregon), San Francisco and Boston. more ...