Monday 30 November 2009

make it intimate, and you've lost it

In this new video interview for The Nation, playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, discusses 'nuclear numbing', 'dissociative states', the 'greed' lying behind the anti-global warming lobby, and the particular challenge for an artist in writing about climate change:

It's difficult to approximate, the minute you've made it intimate, you've lost what it is. It's as hard to grasp it in a work of art as it is to let it settle into your consciousness and to keep it alive there and not throw yourself out the window. So I struggle with that a lot, because I feel that I've backed away from it as a thing that I write about, partly because I don't really know how to address it head on. more ...

not a smidgen of evidence

To be clear: many now are claiming, in effect, that the world's best scientists, thousands of them, who have contributed to framing the statements on global warming issued by our own and most other governments, the IPCC, National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society, American Physical Society, and on and on, have been engaged for many decades in a massive, secret conspiracy. I don't think the stolen emails and computer code provide a smidgen of evidence for that.

Spencer Weart, science historian
(Director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, 1971-2009) more ...

Sunday 29 November 2009

believe the buildings

Archive on 4 considered Lord Clark, who wrote and presented the landmark BBC series Civilisation.

Five minutes in, Clark stands in front of Notre Dame and asks, 'what is civilisation'? He says he can't define it in the abstract ('yet'), but knows it when he sees it, and he can see it in front of him.

If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a minister of housing, or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.
more ...

don't explain, don't exploit

You could argue that the environmental crisis is also an aesthetic one. In last night's BBC2 programme The Meaning of Beauty, philosopher Roger Scruton argues that things that are designed purely for their utility quickly end up as useless.

He quotes the early 18th-century philosopher Lord Shaftesbury in a Zen-like manner. Shaftesbury, he says,

is telling us to stop using things, stop explaining them and exploiting them, but to look at them instead. Then we will understand what they mean. The message of the flower is the flower. more ...

Saturday 28 November 2009

when the monkey walks

Only just come across this three-minute clip from Newsnight Review, where Trevor Nunn and Kevin Spacey discuss the Old Vic's production of Inherit The Wind and the unusual business of rehearsing with a monkey. Nunn says:

We do have a monkey in the play, as is required by the writing. When the monkey gets up on its hind legs and starts to walk ... I don't mean to say there's a friendly recognition, we're not all saying, 'Hi buddy', but you do understand something. more ...

Friday 27 November 2009

no-one laughs at the comic

The last 10 years have all been in the top 15 hottest years ever. You can catch the section from Question Time, where Melanie Philipps argues that climate change is a scam and temperatures are going down, here. Fortunately, Marcus Brigstocke is on hand to talk some sense.

An odd situation: the audience greets the comments of a supposedly serious columnist with laughter and listens to the words of a comedian with serious attention. more ...

Thursday 26 November 2009

same guy did both

We all know that some of the worst plays ever written were written by William Shakespeare. That doesn't affect the fact that he's the greatest writer who ever lived.

William Goldman, screenwriter more ...

Wednesday 25 November 2009

mugging up on cop15

With 12 days to go till 10,000 people - including this blogger - descend on Copenhagen (pic), there's a mass of background material appearing online.

The BBC has useful climate change pages with a dropdown glossary for anyone muddling 'CFC', 'CO2' and 'COP15'.

National Geographic has an excellent graphic that explains CO2 in terms of a carbon bathtub.

In its guide getting up to speed on the climate talks, Tcktcktck links to Grist's Copenhagen section and the Ecologist's Copenhagen in 60 seconds. more ...

Tuesday 24 November 2009

trust me

Here's one small clue as to why the story about the hacked CRU emails, and the idea that there's a worldwide conspiracy of scientists foisting global warming onto an unsuspecting public, has taken off.

The Times online features about 30 blogs and there's a page that lists all the blogs with a line that describes what each blog is about. These blogs range from Faith Central ('guide to religion and thought') to Tech Central ('Offbeat analysis of the world of high technology').

The eco blog, Green Central, has the tagline 'intelligent, informed insights you can trust'. This is the only blog on Times online that has to advertise it can be trusted. more ...


The climate crisis is also an epistemological crisis.

The RSA blog links to RETHINKclimate. more ...

Monday 23 November 2009

knowing where you're coming from

What Mike Hulme does in his new book Why We Disagree About Climate Change is a little like what Elliot Kupferberg, the Peter Bogdanovich character (pic), does in The Sopranos.

Both pick away at the seeming neutrality of the authority figure and reveal a dynamic that's more complicated and human.

The central thread of The Sopranos is the relationship between the volatile Mafia boss, Tony Soprano, and his immaculately composed psychiatrist, Dr Jennifer Melfi. Tony Soprano leads a violent and emotional life and once a week he explains how he feels about things to the rational and detached Dr Melfi.

But psychiatrists themselves go to see psychiatrists, so it's a dramatic moment when the tables turn, and Dr Melfi discusses her own troubles with her psychiatrist (played by Bogdanovich).

In the same way, Hulme argues in Why We Disagree About Climate Change that the climate change debate isn't simply about rational people trying to get irrational people to see some sense. Everyone who joins the climate change debate is operating within sets of values that need to be examined and understood.

These values inform our attitudes, for instance, to risk, science, justice, nature and culture. How we think about these subjects will largely determine how we think about climate change. We also tend to interpret the world (however subconsciously) through the great literary or Biblical narratives. And these stories resonate in very different ways.

To be effective in this climate change discussion, perhaps like psychiatrists, we need to find out first where we're coming from.

(A discussion of Mike Hulme's Why We Disagree About Climate Change takes place in London this evening as part of the Mediating Change Project.) more ...

Friday 20 November 2009

change of use

On R4's Today, there was a five-minute discussion about Thierry Henry's handball. The Times sportswriter Simon Barnes said:

Sport has gone through an extraordinary change of use. It was supposed to build character. It was why, in the 19th century, sport was codified and made much of in English education. These days we like sport because it reveals character and it's revealed a certain chunk of Thierry Henry's character. Sport is a fascinating form of entertainment. Sport has changed function.

There was another aspect to the discussion that mirrored other discussions about the credit crunch and MPs expenses. Many footballers, like many bankers and MPs, think it is the job of the officials, regulators or referees to ensure that people stick to the rules.

(The implications of this attitude for the environment are not hard to work out.) more ...

Thursday 19 November 2009

still more climelit

As well as choosing ('of course') a book by their Policy Director, nef's twitterer (@theneweconomics) also picks Herman Daly (pic) and Joshua Farley 's Ecological Economics and Herman Daly and John Cobb's For the Common Good.

The L.A. artist Rebecca Potts picks Weather Report: Art and Climate Change, which she tweets 'is a great exhibition catalog with an intro by Lucy Lippard'.

Bridget McKenzie, director of Flow Associates, tweets (as @bridgetmck) 'What about stealth #climelit' and suggests Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, Jay Griffiths' Wild and Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault.

@RETHINKclimate points to articles by Emma Ridgway, Bruno Latour and Mike Hulme on Climate&ART.

For more updates, go to #ClimeLit. more ...

Wednesday 18 November 2009

more climelit

ClimateStories picks Andrew Simms' Ecological Debt, Cornelia Parker picks Jeremy Leggett's Carbon War and Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from A Catastrophe, and artsandecology picks Michael Braungart and William McDonough's Cradle to Cradle.

Joe Turner (@gentlemandad) picks David MacKay's Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air and goes on to answer why:

because we often talk ourselves out of any energy generating activity and it is salutary to remind ourselves of basic arithmetic more ...

Tuesday 17 November 2009

climelit, trueclime and climefiction

Over in the Twitterverse this afternoon, climateboom asked, 'what are you favourite books about climate change? and why?' He picked Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes From A Catastrophe.

This blog suggested a new genre #ClimeLit. climateboom replied

as opposed to #climefiction - which would be the oeuvre of Nigel Lawson, Christopher Booker et al?

An hour later climateboom rounded up the suggestions from 'the distributed office':

David Holmgren's Future Scenarios, George Monbiot's Heat, Mark Lynas's Six Degrees, Clive Hamilton's Growth Fetish, George Marshall's Carbon Detox, David Archer's The Long Thaw (pic), anything by John Houghton, Mann and Kump's Dire Predictions, Mike Hulme's Why We Disagree About Climate Change and Debi Glior's The Trouble with Dragons.

No mention yet of Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson or Steve Waters. Or James Lovelock or Cormac McCarthy.

Update: Societas_ adds Alistair McIntosh's Hell and High Water, but says, 'Most fav books on climate change not yet in print!' Ian McEwan's new novel could be the one.

Maybe we need #climelit for Atwood, McEwan, #trueclime for Monbiot, Lynas, and #climefiction for Lawson, Booker. more ...

poetry and protest

When Daniel Defoe visited the Lake District, he thought it was hideous, even more hideous than Wales. By the time William Wordsworth (pic) had written about the Lake District, everything had changed - including the property prices.

On R4's Start the Week, the environmental historian Harriet Ritvo explained how the changing perception of the Lake District led to the first green coalition of interests to oppose a major new development.

Her new book The Dawn of Green - reviewed in the THES here and the Independent here - details how Wordsworth was responsible for a set of associations that turned the Lake District into 'a national sacred space'.

Start The Week's host Tom Sutcliffe remarked on how

an artist, as it were, composing poems, can set in motion a cultural change which has huge consequences
more ...

Monday 16 November 2009

the comfort of spiders

One of the obits on this week's Last Word was for the Chinese historian Nien Cheng, who was placed in solitary confinement for six years during the Cultural Revolution and who wrote the memoir Life and Death in Shanghai.

In a radio clip on Last Word, Cheng recalled that in six years of solitary confinement she never heard a friendly voice or saw a smiling face. But there was one thing that helped ease the psychological pressure:

I saw this spider. It was a living thing. And I watched it make a web. I became a friend of this tiny little spider, watching him was comforting to me. I watched him the first thing I got out of bed, and I watched him until I couldn't see it was so dark.
more ...

Friday 13 November 2009


Over at the RSA's Arts and Ecology blog, there's a write-up about Wednesday's interview in Cambridge with Steve Waters. more ...


all human thought, 'savage' or not, was built up from binary opposites such as hot and cold, night and day, raw and cooked, good and bad. Round these concepts whole societies, as well as stories, were organised.

Obit. Claude Lévi-Strauss more ...

Thursday 12 November 2009

on air

Steve Waters' climate-change plays The Contingency Plan will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 13th December. more ...

Wednesday 11 November 2009

strange religion

The Guardian has an interview with sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson about his new book Galileo's Dream.

In Galileo's time, science was clashing with religion; today, Robinson believes, we're living in a "Galilean moment" again, in which climate change means science has become politicised. This time, though, the clash is with capitalism.

"There are cultural forces in our society which say, you can save the world or else you can make a profit, and they'll say sorry, we have to make a profit. So we have a strange religion now."
more ...

Tuesday 10 November 2009

bail-outs and bonuses

A couple of years ago, Al Gore was addressing a group of bankers in London, telling them (in essence) that one of the main things that screwed up the environment was the City's unhealthy emphasis on driving up their quarterly figures. This hunger for short-term profits - which Adam Smith himself argued against - was deeply unsustainable. (In this respect, a play about modern corporations is also a play about climate change.) Maybe, even then, the banks weren't listening because they knew that whatever damage they caused, they couldn't fail.

In the current issue of the LRB John Lanchester gives a fairly precise example of the incredible deal that banks have negotiated:

Goldman Sachs, the biggest of the investment banks, was rescued from insolvency by a taxpayer injection of $10 billion last October; then it collected another $12.9 billion in credit default swap insurance, also provided by the taxpayer, thanks to the bail-out of AIG; then it announced that it was paying itself $16.7 billion in pay and bonuses for the first three quarters of this year

If you think this is wrong, well, they don't. Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, told the Sunday Times, he was doing 'God's work'.

pic: 'Enron' by Lucy Prebble (Royal Court) more ...

Monday 9 November 2009

in the viewfinder

As affecting visual narratives about climate change increase in number, it's timely to read Jonathan Raban's new essay on the interplay between pastoral and propaganda in the photos of Walker Evans, Marion Post and Dorothea Lange:

Like a Tudor court poet contemplating a shepherd, the owner of the camera was rich beyond the dreams of the people in the viewfinder

pic. Dorothea Lange: 'Migrant Mother' more ...

Friday 6 November 2009

the habituated imagination

Next week, I'm interviewing playwright Steve Waters, author of the terrific climate-change doublebill The Contingency Plan, in front of a live audience at Cambridge.

By way of homework, I've just read a paper, 'Heatmapping', which Waters delivered at a conference in Bath in 2007. The paper is about theatre and climate change and it links (in different ways) Aeschylus's The Persians, Sophocles's Antigone and Goethe's Faust with James Lovelock, Mike Davis, Jared Diamond and John Gray.

Anyone familiar with this blog will recognise the effort to make connections between those classic plays and these modern commentators. But for many, theatre and climate change isn't an obvious match, it's almost a ludicrous one. Waters rightly suggests in his paper that there's something in the way that theatre has reacted (or rather not reacted) to climate change which is indicative of something much deeper. He writes:

Climate Change seems to elude dramatisation, perhaps because it presents not only a challenge to the habits of everyday life, it challenges the habituated imagination itself, it challenges the very bases of story-telling. more ...

Thursday 5 November 2009

verb that works

Spring Coppice discusses why, when it comes to climate change, 'hope' works better than 'optimism'.

(It's a verb with its sleeves rolled up.) more ...

Wednesday 4 November 2009

playwright for today

Playwright Steve Waters wrote The Contingency Plan, the acclaimed double-bill about climate change, which premiered at the Bush Theatre in May.

(See this blog's posts on TCP: and here it is, where the ice goes, and googling waters. See also Finally, a good play about climate change).

I'll be interviewing Steve Waters in Cambridge next Wednesday as part of CRASSH's series 'Cultures of Climate Change' .

Venue: Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, Faculty of English, West Road, Cambridge. Time: 5.15pm. more ...

Tuesday 3 November 2009

the short answer

In his lecture tonight at Gresham College, Professor Kenneth Costa, chairman of Lazard International, argues that Adam Smith is much misunderstood.

In a short version of the lecture that appears in today's FT he writes that Adam Smith believed that:

the economy could not function properly without ethical foundations. He did not believe that people should act with complete disregard for each other.

The Professor asks:

Why do we seem to think otherwise? Why do we seem to have lost the grammar of ethical discourse, at least in business?

He answers his own question with a single phrase: 'short-term gains'. more ...

Monday 2 November 2009

alan bennett regrets passing of censorship

Stage censorship was abolished in 1968, the year of Alan Bennett's first play. So, he says, he was never been 'seriously incommoded' by it.

But for other reasons, the playwright regrets its abolition:

insofar as it seemed to me to deplete significantly the armoury of the dramatist. With censorship there was a line between what one could and couldn’t say and the nearer one got to this line the greater the tension: how candid did one dare to be? Would the men kiss or the women fondle? After censorship went, the dramatist had to manufacture tension of his/her own. more ...

harder we work, more we believe

One of this blog's favourite bloggers, Samantha Ellis, has just been to Fantastic Mr Fox and loved it.

Samantha wrote a journal for us about her time researching wolves and rewilding when writing her play The Last Wolf in Scotland.

Fantastic Mr Fox turns out to be a paean to the crunchy side of nature with Mr Fox giving an impassioned defence of wildness. But Samantha was also struck by the stop-motion filming, which made her realise how much she hated CGI:

The more you can see the joins, the more you're aware that these are handmade puppets being photographed, moved a tiny bit, then photographed again, the more real it seems. I think we believe more when we have to work a bit harder to suspend disbelief. more ...