Monday 31 March 2008

just asking

Artists and activists came together in Poison + Antidote, an eight-hour session on Saturday at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, that ranged from the calculated politics of Westminster to the job opportunities that climate change presents.

The spur to this discussion had been Cornelia Parker's Chomskian Abstract, a 42-minute filmed conversation with Noam Chomsky (left). Friends of the Earth joined with Whitechapel for the exhibition to get visitors to leave their own questions on postcards. The logic seemed to go: artists ask questions, activists ask questions, let's do this together.

The FOE's parliamentary campaigner Martyn Williams said the Climate Bill has to set specific targets for each goverment within its own term of office to avoid NIMTO or Not In My Term of Office. The choreographer Siobhan Davies highlighted the importance of wit in art (using Alex Hartley as an example).1 The artist Heather Ackroyd introduced the idea of 'slow art' with a photo - one of a series - of the growth of two acorns.

Dilys Williams, director of sustainable fashion at the London College of Fashion and architect Sarah Wigglesworth both stressed the opportunities that are emerging for young artists, designers and architects who embrace sustainable issues.

In the final session, the marketeer Solitaire Townsend said 'the messenger was as important as the message'. The artist Bob and Roberta Smith argued cheerfully for the audience 'to embrace the world of compulsion', taking the smoking ban as a model.2

1Lisa Roberts quotes P+A talks by Siobhan Davies and Natural History Museum curator Bergit Arends here.
2The message also changes with the messenger. No libertarian is going to rally under a banner saying 'coerce now!' There are many millions of people in the world for whom 'liberty' is a more powerful idea than 'sustainability'. To be effective, the green movement has to win them over on their terms. As the wiki entry on green libertarianism puts it, pollution can be introduced into the classic libertarian argument: 'your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins'. Or as the philosopher John Locke said, 'Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.' more ...

Sunday 30 March 2008

new ballpark

The first green professional baseball stadium opens today. It has 'energy-saving light fixtures, water-conserving plumbing, drought-resistant plants, and a green roof over the concessions area.'

The first green theatres here. more ...

Saturday 29 March 2008

nature notes

Columnist John Derbyshire has reviewed American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau for the conservative journal New Criterion.

Derbyshire describes himself as an incorrigible townie, not unlike Dorothy Parker, who wrote: 'Every year, back spring comes, with the nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off ...'

A 'prickly libertarian', Derbyshire also feels that nature-writing has largely been taken over by 'leftist scolds', 'doomsters', 'anti-natalists' and 'noble-savagism'.

Then there's the prose itself. Too often, he finds it resembles William Boot's nature column in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop: 'Feather-footed through the splashy fen passes the questing vole ...'

What, then, he asks, is there to like in American Earth? The answer: 'Quite a lot, actually.'

Top marks go to Barry Lopez on the stranding of a pod of sperm whales, Annie Dillard on evolution and E.O. Wilson on the social insects of Surinam. There are special commendations for Edward Abbey on the Park Ranger's life, John Burroughs on seeing things, Caroline Henderson on the Oklahoma dustbowl and William Cronon on the New England ecosystem.

Bottom marks, however, go to some big names: Gary Snyder ('poseur') , Teddy Roosevelt ('bumptious') and Thoreau ('unreadable').

More here. more ...

Friday 28 March 2008

telephone meets tv

'For the last 50 years', writes Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, 'the two most important communications media in most people's lives were the telephone and the television: different media with different functions.'

The telephone was used for one-to-one communication. The TV used content generated by a small group and broadcast it to a very large group (sort of, one-to-many).

These two now overlap. The one-to-one content of the telephone can easily turn into the many-to-many content of emails, blogs, MySpace and Facebook.

'Community now shades into audience; it's as if your phone could turn into a radio station at the turn of a knob.'

The impact of this 'shading' has led to a collapse of confidence within newspapers (well-chronicled in this week's New Yorker). What exactly the impact of blogs, YouTube and what's termed 'former audiences' will have on the theatre has yet to be written up. more ...

Thursday 27 March 2008

climate-change characters

In the New York Times, liberal economist Paul Krugman complains that we live in an age of anti-Cassandras. Take the recent discussion about Iraq:

'just about every one of the panels convened to discuss the lessons of five disastrous years consisted solely of men and women who cheered the idiocy on.'

Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabbarok explains:

'The answer is media incentives. It wasn't just the experts who were wrong, the majority of the American people got Iraq ... wrong ... So what does the American public want to hear now? The public wants to hear why they weren't idiots.'

But Krugman overstates it: every age is anti-Cassandra. In Aeschylus's Oresteia, Cassandra says, 'You are lost to every word I've said.' She was never going to end up on a talkshow saying, ‘told you so’.1

Cassandra's gift for prophecy makes her one of a handful of 'climate-change characters' we listed here. Others include Marlowe's Faust living 'in all voluptuousness' and Sally Bowles in Cabaret, not having a clue what's going on.

See also Creon in Antigone here, King Lear here, Galileo here, Astrov in Uncle Vanya here and Dr Stockmann in Enemy of the People here.

1 In Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, the Cassandra character says: 'I see disaster. I see catastrophe. Worse, I see lawyers.'

pic: Lilo Baur as Cassandra (NT) more ...

Wednesday 26 March 2008

energy descent at ambridge

Pat Archer thinks that Ambridge should become a 'transition town'. In Monday's edition of The Archers, Pat explains it all to her friend Kathy:

PAT. The Transition Movement says we’ve got to do something about climate change, and we’ve got to reduce our dependence on oil.
KATHY. Everyone’s been saying that for ages.
PAT. Yes, but Transition communities are actually doing it.
PAT. Lots of ways. Food is just the start. Energy Descent Plans. Community orchards. Woodchip boilers. Economic localisation. The Totnes Pound

Listen to episode here. See also the transcript for last year's episode when Nigel got climate change. Hat tips: Transition Culture
more ...

Tuesday 25 March 2008

chico, herzen, david king and clownfish

1. Chico Mendes was murdered 20 years ago. Our online journal records the Young Vic's efforts to prepare an Amazonian show.

2. Tom Stoppard on 1968, Herzen and liberty, and what we squandered long before 9/11.

3. Professor David King calls for 'people of integrity' within government to give scientific advice regardless of political pressure.

4. Bambi, Baloo and the the clownfish in Finding Nemo (above) are unsung green heroes. more ...

Monday 24 March 2008

the planet talks

My piece A Climatologist Walks Into A Bar asks why there are so few jokes about climate change. The best parody I found was in The Onion, which treated autumn as television. The headline ran:

'Fall canceled after 3 billion seasons. A beloved classic comes to an end'.

The text said:

'In recent years the Fall has been reduced from three months to a meagre two-week stint, and its scheduled start time has been pushed back later and later each year.'

A new contender for best parody would be the Daily Mash interview with the planet.

'The planet Earth has dismissed claims it is in danger from global warming, stressing the worst that could happen is the extinction of the human race.'

It goes on:

'The planet said environmental campaigners should change their slogan from 'Save the Planet' to something more relevant such as 'Save Your Sorry Arse'. '

(Hat-tip: Paul Kingsnorth) more ...

Sunday 23 March 2008

one and only

Happy Easter.

This is the first Sunday after the full moon after the equinox. Well, that's the quick definition. Longer definition here.

No-one alive today will ever have Easter this early again. The next time it falls on 23rd March will be in 2160.

This year's vernal equinox, officially the first day of spring, made the front page of the Independent.

Mainly because it isn't what it was. more ...

Saturday 22 March 2008

once upon a time ...

Philip Pullman's new book, Once Upon A Time In The North, is about oil.

'It's about the way we thoughtlessly exploit the Earth's resources. Until 50 years ago it was possible to drag fossil fuels out of the ground and burn them up and think we could do it without consequences.'

Extract here. more ...

Friday 21 March 2008

thick and thin

In Break Through, their critique of environmentalism, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger remark that many people who say they are concerned about the environment give less than $100 a year to environmental groups; in contrast, many evangelicals give 10% of their income to their church.

One reason the authors give for this big difference is 'the experiences the two groups create for themselves'. The church offers community, participation and a strong sense of identity: 'the evangelical identity is thick, the environmentalist identity is thin.'

A very similar observation is made in a blog discussion going on about the value of theatre. One Chicago blogger visits her in-laws' church in Texas and wonders: 'Why can't we and other theatres inspire that type of devotion?'

A comment that follows (from Scott Walters again) points out that the church is 'more people-oriented than product-oriented ... the congregation is the focus of the institution.' Much more here. more ...

Thursday 20 March 2008

the hands-on approach

One of the ways Hillary Clinton attacks Barack Obama is by claiming, 'I'm a doer, not a talker.'

In his piece on Obama, the travel writer Jonathan Raban says this line has its provenance in a speech by the First Murderer in Richard 111.

Richard tells the First Murderer 'to be sudden in the execution' of his brother Clarence. He wants to ensure that no 'well-spoken' words from Clarence move the two murderers' hearts to pity.

The First Murderer replies:

'Tut, tut, my lord! We will not stand to prate;
Talkers are no good doers. Be assured:
We go to use our hands, and not our tongues.'

1.iii.349-51 more ...

Wednesday 19 March 2008

new dawn

Too many theatre companies behave like Blanche DuBois, says Scott Walters, and rely on the kindness of strangers.

He finds it 'undignified' and 'disempowering' that regional theatre companies in the States get nearly 50% of their funding from donations. It turns them into 'ungrateful beggars groveling and sneering at the kitchen door of society.' But, he argues, companies can free themselves from this: 'aesthetic choices are essentially economic and ecological.'

Walters is right: economy in art doesn't mean that it has to be done on the cheap. Stuff doesn't always have to be there. The greenest option may be the most stunning.

In Hamlet, when Shakespeare needed to convey the idea of dawn, he didn't ask for a cyclorama and a lighting designer. He got Horatio to do the job:

'But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill'

There's a moment with no carbon footprint.
pic: Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois
more ...

Tuesday 18 March 2008

more hubris

In an intro to Antigone, H.D.F. Kitto, author of The Greeks, said that the idea of the gods can be 'a stumbling block'. He thought the modern reader would come closer to Sophocles' own thought, and consequently to his drama:

'if he thinks of them [the gods] as representing the immanent laws or conditions of human existence, those which we must obey or perish ... Man must not arrogantly suppose that he is in control and need no longer respect the restraints of religion' 1

Change that last word from 'religion' to 'Gaia' and Sophocles sounds very up-to-the-minute.

1 Sophocles: Three Tragedies (0UP, 1962)

more ...

Monday 17 March 2008

adrenaline on the cornflakes

Some recent posts on this blog (here and here) have touched on what ancient Greek drama and the idea of hubris 1 might have to say about the Iraq war or Tony Blair or climate change. In yesterday's Sunday Times, Lord Owen, former neurologist at St Thomas's and former Foreign Secretary, hoovers up the first four of these subjects:

'In ancient Greek drama, a hubristic career proceeds something like this: the hero wins glory and acclamation by achieving unwonted success against the odds. The experience then goes to his head: he begins to think himself capable of anything. This leads him into misinterpreting the reality around him and into making mistakes. Eventually he gets his comeuppance and meets his nemesis, which destroys him.'

Lord Owen sees clear signs that Tony Blair had, in the words of one of Clinton's aides, 'sprinkled adrenaline on his cornflakes'. It started with the crisis in Kosovo, and went further in Sierra Leone. It culminated in Iraq. His hubris, says Lord Owen, had three characteristic signs: 'excessive self-confidence, restlessness and inattention to detail.'2

Blair also liked to put himself 'visibly' at the centre of events:

'his early passion was not politics but performing. Actor-politicians tend to be especially narcissistic – which makes the hero role almost irresistible.'

This is one reason why climate-change campaigners may not be overjoyed at the trumpeted arrival of Blair on the scene.

1 In 2005, hubris was voted 'word of the year' by SFGate readers, beating 'levee', 'mash-up', 'disaster' and 'jump the couch'.

2Lord Owen's article doesn't mention any specific plays, but here are two well-known examples of hubris - one about the folly of waging war, the other about not listening to advice:

- in the earliest surviving Greek tragedy, Aeschylus's The Persians, the ghost of Darius attacks his son Xerxes for his hubris in waging war against the Greeks. Or, as the New York Times puts it, 'The ruler of a rich and powerful empire leads his countrymen into a disastrous war on foreign soil ... It seems the guy was acting on advice from bad counselors. And trying to finish some business started by papa, who ruled before him. Ring any bells?'

- in Sophocles' Antigone, the king, Creon, refuses to allow Antigone to bury the body of her brother Polyneices because he was a traitor. Antigone tells Creon that this would be going against the will of the gods. Creon refuses to listen. Creon's son, Haemon, who is engaged to Antigone, tells his father that the whole city believes Antigone is right, but still, Antigone is banished to a cave. Then the blind prophet Tiresias tells Creon that his actions will cause miasma (pollution) and more deaths. Eventually Creon sees the truth, but it's too late. Antigone has killed herself, Haemon discovers her body and kills himself, and Haemon's mother (Creon's wife) kills herself.

pic: Tony Blair with halo more ...

Sunday 16 March 2008

west coast to the east

Mike Lawler at ecoTheater has news of plans from Ian Garrett in Los Angeles for a 'Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts', or CSPA. It'll be committed to:

'creating a theatrical LEED standard, developing an educational curriculum for sustainable methods in the arts, maintaining an online resource guide, and holding an annual CSPA conference.'

This will compete (in the best sense) with Gideon Banner's Green Theater Initiative in New York. The GTI's website has a useful first-steps guide to greening your theatre. more ...

Saturday 15 March 2008

royal prerogative

Monday: Queen calls for the world to save the environment.
Friday: Queen opens Heathrow's Terminal 5.1

1 It's okay: aviation minister Jim Fitzpatrick says T5 is 'consistent with our sustainable development objectives'. It isn't okay: T5 dubbed the first great monument to unsustainability of the 21st century. more ...

Friday 14 March 2008

dissolving distinctions

An interview with Tom Stoppard in today's Independent claims he rarely gives interviews. Hard to think of a playwright who's given more.

(A quick google offers examples here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

In this latest one, 'the reluctant interviewee' makes a grand and useful generalisation:

'The whole philosophy of modern times is to dissolve distinctions between individuals and deal with them as large collections of people. It's essentially self-interested on the part of authority.'

The idea that it's in a politician's own self-interest to deal with larger and larger collections of people received another boost today.

Five years into the disastrous Iraq war, and Tony Blair sets himself a new world challenge.

Oh, no: it's climate change.1

1 Update: Andrew Rawnsley: 'How many jobs does an ex-PM need?' more ...

Thursday 13 March 2008

the switch

Playwright David Mamet has announced his switch from the 'brain-dead' left to the right. He says:

'a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.'

Mamet describes his latest play November as 'a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view.'

He draws on his own experience in the rehearsal room to argue against government intervention:

'take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.'

The problem with Mamet's point-of-view is that he appears to write as an inhabitant of Planet America1:

'we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances'.

He seems incurious to discover (unlike New York playwright Wallace Shawn2) if anyone elsewhere might be picking up the tab for these rather wonderful privileged circumstances.

1American satirist and talk-show host, Stephen Colbert, interviewed the presenter of a CNN programme called “Planet in Peril”. Colbert asks, “Are you talking about Planet Earth?” (“Yes.”) “Could that eventually affect Planet America?” (A Climatologist Walks Into The Bar)
2 His play The Fever reviewed here. more ...

Wednesday 12 March 2008

modern daze

A new study on engadget shows that 68% of Americans worry when they are not connected to their laptops, BlackBerrys, etc. They feel 'dazed', 'disorientated', 'tense' and 'inadequate'.

We ought to worry about what we're worrying about. In today's Guardian, the biologist David Suzuki says that 'foresight' once enabled us to survive and flourish. That skill has gone. more ...

Tuesday 11 March 2008

where are the green jokes?

Climate change hasn't produced a single lightbulb joke, blonde joke or knock-knock-who's-there? Till now. more ...

Monday 10 March 2008


This weekend's Observer lists the world's 50 most powerful blogs. Only two of them - Treehugger and Bean sprouts - are green.

The Times has a fairly trad list of the top 50 eco-blogs, which leaves out - for instance - No Impact Man and Casaubon's Book. more ...

Sunday 9 March 2008

wilde times

The Democrat primaries are becoming as mannered as a Victorian comedy. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama maintain an atmosphere of studied politeness. But beneath the surface, hostilities rage between the two sides (glimpsed in Samantha Power's unguarded 'monster' remark).

It's a little like Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, when Gwendolen and Cecily decorously put the knife into each other over the cucumber sandwiches.

The more self-regarding sections of the press sound like the play's manservant, Lane. In the first exchange of the play, Algernon asks if Lane had heard him practising the piano. Lane replies: 'I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.' more ...

Saturday 8 March 2008

politics of the apolitical

Playwright Christopher Shinn gets asked why so many young playwrights write plays that are apolitical. His answer begins: 'Nonprofit theaters rely on funding from corporations and wealthy individuals.' More.
more ...

Friday 7 March 2008

free time

Billy Bragg has a new song about cities teeming with people, highways jammed with cars, and the nightmare of airports. The place to go, the song says, is the local beach:

'Just turn around
And come on down
The beach is free.' more ...

Thursday 6 March 2008

opinions and polls

Last December the New Statesman carried an article asking: 'Has Global Warming Stopped?' So far 1214 people have posted contributions to the online discussion that's followed. That compares with 25 posts on Blair's deceptions over Iraq and 11 posts on animal rights.

If that suggests a very high level of interest in the subject, the most recent post today (its 1214th) sombrely says the whole discussion is futile. The reason given was an opinion poll (published today) that asked people what was 'the most important issue facing Britain today':

'only 3% identified “the environment” (no mention it seems of “climate change” or “global warming”) and, when asked for “other important issues”, only another 4% mentioned the environment.' more ...

Wednesday 5 March 2008

how cynical can you get?

In the current issue of Philosophy Now, Tim Madigan argues that the Cynics were the precursors of modern-day environmentalism:

'The basic message of the Cynics was that one should live according to nature ...'

'The early school of Cynicism ... advocated a simple lifestyle, an enjoyment of worldly pleasures (including sexual activities of all sorts) and a disdain for political power.'

This 'puckish' spirit influenced the Epicureans, Romantics, Beat Generation and Hippies.

The most famous Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope (above), took low-impact living as far as it could go, priding himself on only having one possession - a drinking cup. When he saw a child using his hands to drink water, he got rid of the cup too. more ...

Tuesday 4 March 2008

changing colour

Little by little. And quite often in London.

Theatres are going green. more ...

Monday 3 March 2008

the greeks had a word for it

Last year, when I interviewed Philip Pullman about The Golden Compass and Chris Rapley about the Science Museum, they both had copies of the same book on their desks: James Martin's The Meaning of The 21st Century.

Martin subtitles his book 'a vital blueprint for ensuring our future', but 35 pages in, he goes back 2,500 years, and to theatre, to make his point:

'In tragedies of classical Greek theatre, the hero does not know that his actions will lead to disastrous consequences. It is man's miscalculation of reality that brings about his tragedy.'

'The purpose of Greek theatre was to ask questions about the nature of man, his position in the scheme of things and his relation to the powers that govern his life. The audience is aware of forces in the world powerful enough to topple even the most admirable of men ... The sin of the Greek hero is hubris - excessive pride and self-confidence that lead him to ignore warnings from the gods and, thus, invite catastrophe. The 21st century presents such themes on the grandest scale.' more ...

Sunday 2 March 2008

new social minefield

Nancy Mitford gets an update:

'The modern equivalent of saying 'toilet', 'serviette' or 'pardon' is leaving your television on stand-by, driving a Chelsea tractor, arriving' at Waitrose without your own heavy-duty carrier bags, popping into Starbucks without your own reusable mug, walking past the shelves selling organic, Fairtrade and free-range, or flying long-haul when you don't really need to (and without offsetting your carbon footprint). I tell you, it's a social minefield out there.' more ...

Saturday 1 March 2008

the sharing industry

Charles Leadbeater says the web is changing basic attitudes:

‘In the 20th century we were identified by what we owned. In the 21st century we will also be defined by how we share and what we give away.’

Chris Anderson agrees:

'Altruism has always existed, but the Web gives it a platform where the actions of individuals can have global impact. In a sense, zero-cost distribution has turned sharing into an industry.'

more ...