Why On Earth Make Art About Climate Change?

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of appearing with the composer and pianist Lola Perrin as guest speaker for her Significantus project in Leeds. Other speakers have included scientists, journalists, artists and environmental campaigners, so I joined an august list of contributors. I was planning to perform the ‘storm’ section of my narrative poem from our show breath[e]:LESS, and I was also going to talk about art, climate change and human response; but what was the angle, and what did I as a poet, theatre producer, director and performer have to say that a) people would want to listen to and b) which would sit on a level with the learned contributions which had been part of Significantus elsewhere on its UK tour?

Why make art about climate change? I mean, whats the point? What can it change?

Considering this rhetorical question, I hear in my head the words of my fellow poet and friend Tom Hunt, in his poem ‘Leo’ which he performs as part of breath[e]:LESS :

“… and yet here I am;

trying to save the world.

 With poetry.


on reflection

if anyone should ask me

on that final, cursed day

when the seas boil

and the skies rage,


and all the earth burns,

dry and black;

‘what did you do,

to turn back the tide

for all those species?

All those lives?

What do you have to show them?’

 I’ll say

 At least I wrote a fucking poem!”

 So that’s what I decided to talk about. Why make art about climate change?

Climate change is a clear and evident existential threat to our home, bringing uncertainty, danger and displacement, extreme weather events on our doorsteps, destruction to the hearts of our communities. So the question for me is : Why would artists NOT be making work about it? Why are some artists ignoring it as a subject, preferring instead to make work about, um… let’s see : ‘the nature of process and intention’ ‘theoretical limitations of altermodernism’ ‘the oblique inter-action of art objects’. About being an artist. How tough it is to be an artist. I wonder whether the not-new notion that Art will Eat Itself could be re-contextualised as a comment on how we are treating our own environment – consuming, literally, the elements and materials which sustain us.

But who am I to judge what other artists choose to make work about? The only angle on this question where I can claim any sense of authority is : why do I make art about climate change?

I don’t actually see my work as being about climate change, but about our response to it. As George Marshall observed in his book ‘Don’t Even Think About It’ – Why our Brains are Hardwired to ignore Climate Change’ it is :

“the ultimate challenge to our ability to make sense of the world around us. More than anything it exposes the deepest workings of our minds, and shows our extraordinary and innate talent for seeing only what we want to see and disregarding what we would prefer not to know”.

The recent death of John Berger reminded us that his groundbreaking series ‘Ways of Seeing’ surfaced into mainstream media what artists had been experimenting with for at least 50 years : that what is ‘real’ – what in earlier artistic movements was called ‘nature’ – and how we perceive or interpret that reality, is indeed a construct which sustains the illusion of humanity’s separation from, and control over, nature. The artifice is in the editorial choices : leaving out the the bits of reality we’d rather not have in the picture. Writing the story set in a world where it isn’t happening.

This subject started for me a few years back as a foray into Climate Psychology, whilst researching an earlier show The Second Breath. Climate Psychology? Is that even a Thing I hear you ask? Well, yes actually. The Royal College of Psychiatrists are talking about it quite a lot , and in 2014 had the first ever Sustainability Summit . And then there’s the expanding network of academics and practitioners which is The Climate Psychology Alliance. It’s a growing discipline bisecting the fields of psychology, psycho-social and climate studies looking at how climate change and the pressures we are putting on the planet which is our home, are affecting us emotionally and psychologically as individuals, as groups and as societies. Attending lectures about Climate Psychology, I zoned in on some of the concepts being described – ‘anticipatory mourning’ (Freud) – melancholy, loss and nostalgia, an aching despondency for things to be as they were . Does that ring any bells? “Make America Great Again”?We Want Our Country Back”? Fundamentalist religious groups trying to recapture ‘purity’ through ‘original’ interpretations of holy texts? ‘The revolt against mourning’ – anger, denial, a switching off of affect – or the Kleinian ‘depressive position’.

One of the answers to the question ‘why make art about climate change’ is Narrative. Narrative. And Narrative. All these ideas presented to me as stimulus for narratives. One of the characters in my poem, Sharry, a young woman, has conflated the death of her father in a fog-bound motorway pile-up with the impending death of the planet. Her grief for her father has translated into anticipatory mourning for earth, bound up in the lyrics of the David Bowie song ‘Five Years’.

We need narratives as imaginative journeys towards a better world – or to play out our worst fears. Hence the popularity of dystopian novels and films, imagining a world after the worst has happened. Narratives also allow us to explore our own responses, and the ways our minds manage realities outside us that are seemingly too great to cope with individually. In Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam trilogy, there is a genetically designed race, The Crakers, from whom aggression, imagination and cultural narrative has been neurologically removed. Yet that which is human within them surfaces, at the end of each novel there is a cultural manifestation breaking through – the making of marks and creating of symbols, storytelling, singing – essential to the Crakers making sense of the world around them, the past and the future. That is where the hope within Atwood’s vast narratives lie.

In my poem, The Divided, two baby boomers, Dermot and Victor, have an increasingly innebriated conversation in a comfortable apartment on top of a hill, about climate change. Victor, denier in chief, recruits the language of false victimhood, of the champions of those marginalised and excluded by the liberal elite to expound on his beliefs.

“They are accountable to no-one good

This eco elite

They govern us not understood

By the man in the street”

… and

“You’d be surprised how the ninety seven percent

Can silence the voice of dissent

They want us to see it their way

It’s a kind of dance

To the warming tune

These climate pipers play”


Dermot, his friend, is convinced. Because he wants to be.

‘In the Cruise ship houses on the hill

Dermot gives them all another refill.

He wants to believe

That his frined knows best

And everything will be fine

For his chil;dren,

And his grandchildren

And the rest”

Meanwhile a storm rages outside, worse than anything the landscape has seen before. After the storm, the valley lies flooded. In his apartment on the hill…

“Dermot has thoughts but they ache in his bones

And that’s too deep

So he stops them’

Imagination also allows us to get into the head of others who think differently. President Obama said the key to finding solutions was talk to people who don’t think like us. I spent a lot of time when I was writing this poem watching videos on YouTube by climate deniers. At first listening, these people sound convincing. They recruit academic and scientific research which tells a different story to anthropogenic climate change. – basically that it doesn’t exist. They speak against the background of grand think-tank titles – The Cato Institute, The Heartland Institute, The Heritage Foundation, The Institute for Energy Research. To those who’d rather believe it isn’t happening (and lets face it we’d all rather believe that) or if it is, it isn’t us doing it, there is great comfort in such titles, such apparent scientific grandees and such arguments. Until you do some research and find that a) pretty much none of these people are actually climate scientists first and foremost, they mostly operate in associated fields like geology and b) THESE INSTITUTES FROM WHICH THEY SPEAK, ARE FUNDED BY THE FOSSIL FUEL UNDUSTRIES. Exxon Mobil. Koch Brothers.

Those lines of Victors are all based on actual things in talks by climate change deniers. You can listen to them on Youtube. We need to understand these people and get into their heads. That’s where art comes in.

Finally, I make art about climate change because of my theory of artists as social dreamers. Social dreaming emerged in the UK in the 1980’s at the Tavistock Institute and was at the same time being developed experimentally in many countries across the world.  It is a process or technique which uses the sharing of dreams as a way to cast light on the common unconscious which flows under communities, institutions and groups, and in the words of its UK founder, Gordon Lawrence, ‘ makes manifest the infinite knowing that is present in these systems’.

I talked a bit about social dreaming in an earlier blog as a possible explanation for why common themes emerge in artistic movements. My theory is that artists are the channels through whom this shared, subliminal psyche surfaces. Composers, writers, theatre-makers, visual artists, film-makers. What if artists are actually tapping into that grief, anticipatory mourning and fear, making manifest what is present in the dreamtimes of western society, that which is driving us as a society, literally mad? Is that not a worthwhile thing to do? Is it not an essential thing?

So where is the optimism in this? What is our positive response to climate change? Well, making performance work is not only the only thing I can do (I have a 30 year career in the theatre) but it’s the only thing I can do in response to climate change. It’s the only thing that stops me despairing and denying, and which gives me the energy to believe that the world can change. I’m not going to change it alone… but maybe as a community of social dreamers, we can together help tap into something running under the surface, to engage more people in embracing their own response, and taking action.

‘Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than flee or shut down’

Dougald Hine – 2016:You want It Darker, The Dark Mountain Project

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