Enjoyed two hours of talk on culture, politics and climate change in advance of a group outing to see Greenland at the National Theatre last Friday. Mix of academics, artists, critics and journalists met in the National Theatre Studio to follow up some of the loose strands trailing from the Mediating Change: Culture and Climate Change podcast series that we had put together. Even before most of us had seen the performance there was a sense that any cultural work that aims to be ‘about’ climate change is setting out on a very difficult and probably misconceived route.
One of the things the play showed was how incredibly difficult it is to capture all dimensions of the topic. It was somehow burdened by the scale of its evidently serious preparation. Research politics; old fashioned high politics; consumption politics; family and relationship politics. Plenty of messy politics but not much resolution.
Robert Butler has blogged on what it might mean that we’ve waited years at the bus stop for serious engagement by theatre in the topic and then three plays come along at once (also Heretic at Royal Court and Water at the Tricycle Theatre). But whatever the merits of these, I found myself much more provoked in the wake of a trip to the National’s new version of Frankenstein. There is Frankenstein’s Mont Blanc-scale hubris: ‘I can build this thing’. And then there follows the business of falling in love with his creation: ‘I can’t kill this thing – I made it – it is quite brilliant’.
Put another way, there is a Romantic anti-industrialisation/anti-urbanisation strand which runs through environmentalism from day 1. But there are also strands in recent discourses of climate change ‘solutions’ that are in thrall to science and technology’s apparent invincibility and adaptability. Hence the arch modernists who were formed in the whiteheatoftechnology environment of the 1950s and 1960s are happy to contemplate immense geo-engineering experiments and massive expansion of nuclear power – Science discovered this problem and Science will solve it. This confidence seems undented by some fairly substantial qualifying evidence from across the last century. But I can recognise in quite a lot of the science & technology debates around climate change a point made in Armand Marie Leroi’s programme notes about how science is ‘a perpetual race between power and desire’.
My neighbour on both theatre trips Renata Tyszczuk suggests that one of the themes Shelley wants us to think on is that we need to take responsibility for our creations – however monstrous they may be. Certainly Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth and the Creature’s blind tutor De Lacey think so: they insist that the creature / science can be civilised if loved and taught in the right way (it must be said that they both get torched or strangled).