A Climate of Collaboration: Environmental Scientists Urge Artists to Humanize the Stories Behind the Research

By Bilodeau, Chantal | American Theatre, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

A Climate of Collaboration: Environmental Scientists Urge Artists to Humanize the Stories Behind the Research


Bilodeau, Chantal, American Theatre


"WE NEED YOU." THE DATE WAS DECEMBER 2009, the place was the first TippingPoint USA Conference--a convening of artists and scientists focused on climate change, co-hosted in New York City by Columbia University's Earth Institute, the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities and the British Council USA. Describing climate change as "the most complicated human challenge we've ever deliberated on," sustainability economist and Earth Institute director Jeffrey D. Sachs delivered a plea urging artists of all disciplines to join scientists in their efforts to personalize climate science and disseminate it to a wider audience.

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There were fewer than 50 artists in the room that day, but it seems that the field at large heard the call. An increasing number of theatre projects over the past few years have not only addressed issues related to climate change but have involved scientists in the process. For the most part, artists are confident they can make an impact. But how do scientists view such efforts? Are artists rising to Sachs's challenge?

Elke Weber, professor of psychology at Columbia and co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), was interviewed by New York City--based ensemble the Civilians for its musical The Great Immensity, which premiered at Kansas City Repertory Theatre in February 2012. A cautionary tale about what drastic measures might be needed to make the world understand the severity of the climate crisis, The Great Immensity follows Phyllis as she tries to uncover an activist plot related to the next international climate summit. The play marks the start of the troupe's "Next Forever Initiative," an ongoing commitment to produce work with an environmental conscience. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the project has expanded to include a website, www.thegreatimmensity.org, featuring blog posts by the play's characters and videos about artists creating environmental work.

Weber's research 'concentrates on decision-making in situations of uncertainty and time delay. It shows that we focus first on the immediate consequences of our decisions and tend to ignore the costs and benefits of actions that are farther into the future. Applied to climate change, this means that because the consequences of current inactions won't be felt for generations, we are naturally hard-wired to ignore them and focus on more timely concerns--like the discomfort of reducing our energy consumption. As The Great Immensity's Phyllis puts it: "We're the generation who can actually do something. The problem is we don't, because we perceive it as a problem in the future."

However, the situation changes when people are prompted to act based on longer time horizons. So for Weber, one of the crucial ways that theatre can effectively battle climate change is to focus our hearts and minds on the future: "Engaging people through the arts--not necessarily in ways that are alarmist and fear-provoking, but in ways that are thought-provoking--can remind them of their long-term goals. The arts can comment on abstract things--like the sustainability of planet Earth--so much better than statistics can."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Robert Jaffe shares Weber's view: "Climate change has a different nature than a lot of scientific, medical or biological problems the world has faced in the past, because the timing is so unusual and so badly suited to human cadences. The carbon dioxide we're loading into the atmosphere now is going to affect the next thousand years but the effects won't be felt for a few generations. Human beings don't know how to process that."

As a member of the advisory board of Catalyst Collaborative@MIT--a collaboration between a group of MIT scientists and artists from Cambridge, Mass.'s Central Square Theater--Jaffe was instrumental in getting CST to look for a climate change play to include in its 2013-14 season. …

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