One of the unexpected paradoxes of being a big-brained species is that we seem to have to imagine reality before we know how to live with it. I could find myself in Tjoritja (the West MacDonnell ranges) in Arrernte country and I’d see a desert landscape that would kill me in a day if I ran out of food and water. Arrente people on the other hand see a place of sustenance and extensive life. The Arrernte reality is thoroughly imagined, but it isn’t imaginary. It lives in complex webs of story and knowledge that describe not just sources of food and water but a meaningful way of life. It’s very real. Just not to me.
We face a similar situation with climate change. It’s all around us, it’s very real, but we struggle to imagine its realities. And without some vision of its realities then our ability to live — both in the sense of sheer survival and the sense of meaningful existence — is in serious doubt.
We don’t just have a science and tech problem with climate change, we have a dramaturgical problem.
If you don’t know what dramaturgy is, that’s ok. Ask ten dramaturgs and you’ll get ten different answers. Dictionaries say it’s “the art and technique of dramatic construction”. It’s basically what we do in theatre to answer the question, What’s the story here and how do we tell it?
So, what’s the story with climate change and how do we tell it? How do we imagine the reality of climate change?
Here’s the tricky part. We don’t know yet. Different kinds of stories come to life in, and for, different realities. The stories of the Arrernte people have complex multi-part forms that mimic the realities of life in the desert. Streaming television was great for a pandemic, giving us glimpses of other times and places from the unmoving nightly hell of our lockdown couches. The Mass served the Catholic Church pretty well for about a thousand years, with its cunning form of revolving stories told within the body of a single repeated, and repeatedly enforced, story.
Our stories have evolved specifically in and for the realities of liberal carbon-burning capitalism. Ours is a storyworld that is entirely normalised to us, like water is to fish. And it’s almost entirely blind to climate change. Why and how?
Let’s gets dramaturgical for a moment and note something about the storyworld we, fishlike, swim about in.
Between Shakespeare and Ibsen most of our stories moved from being set in big halls or outdoors into small rooms. Most of our stories today are about people in rooms. That makes sense: ever since industrial capitalism our centres of power have moved from royal courts to backrooms, from battlefields to boardrooms; our working lives have moved from fields and communal spaces to private rooms. Most of modern life is characterised by people in rooms.
But here’s the thing: climate change doesn’t give a shit about people in rooms.
Here’s another example: most of our stories today are underpinned by some ideas first formulated two and a half thousand years ago by Aristotle: that good plots are focused on the actions and fate of an individual — the “protagonist” — in a unified time and place.
Climate change doesn’t give a shit about individual actions, and it obliterates the human-scale Aristotelian “unities” of time and place.
If we’re going to begin to imagine the reality we are living in, we need to start thinking about new kinds of stories. We need to get used to different scales of time and place. We need stories that are bigger than people in rooms.
Fortunately there is nothing inevitable or innate about our storyworld. Times and places outside our own offer other possibilities. Arrernte stories use very different ideas of time and place, and they cross easily into the non-human world of animals, plants and weather. Epic forms like The Mahabharata extend beyond individual story outcomes and span large arcs of time and place.
And there are already stories around that are showing the way when it comes to climate change. I know of two that have left me unable to see the world the way I used to. Richard Powers’s novel The Overstory is one. The other is David Finnigan’s new play Scenes from the Climate Era, which opens next week at Belvoir St Theatre.
There is of course another reason we aren’t really absorbing the realities of climate change into our stories: it’s full on. It’s big and it’s overwhelming. We’ve just been through a pandemic and we don’t want more reality, we want less.
But here’s a thing I learned from an ancient playwright, Sophocles: truth coming to light is a thrilling thing. The moment of understanding is exhilarating, dangerous and astonishing. Coming to terms with reality is what we live for.
It’s time to dramaturg the fuck out of the climate era.
[Eamon Flack is the Artistic Director of Belvoir St Theatre. He is an award-winning writer, director and dramaturg. Scenes from the Climate Era plays at Belvoir from May 27 to June 25.]
SPECIAL OFFER: Green Left readers can access 2 for 1 preview tickets for performances on Sat May 27, Sun May 28 and Tues May 30. Use the promo code CLIMATES. Book tickets at: https://my.belvoir.com.au/overview/12218?premove=Y&promo=