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How can we tell stories about the climate crisis?

Conceptualising the climate crisis forces us to conceive of human-made harm that exists beyond a human scale, to understand scientific explanations far beyond the average person’s pay grade, and to wrestle with a level of existential uncertainty that in many ways evades comprehension.

“Before I read this play, I sort of assumed that the future existed as two possibilities — either we fix this climate crisis and things can go on pretty much as normal, or we’re screwed, and I’ll always be looking into the future and seeing fire and apocalypse. This play says it’s actually going to be neither of those things.”

Carissa Licciardello is a theatre director. She is currently working on David Finnigan’s Scenes from the Climate Era, which will debut at Belvoir St Theatre in May. Since working with Finnigan, the way that Licciardello conceptualises the climate crisis has completely changed,  and as I listen to her perspective, I realise that her initial assumptions are not dissimilar to my own. I’ve probably been thinking of it wrong.

We tend to forget just how difficult it is for us, as humans, to conceptualise the climate crisis. It forces us to conceive of human-made harm that exists beyond a human scale, to understand scientific explanations far beyond the average person’s pay grade, and to wrestle with a level of existential uncertainty that in many ways evades comprehension. Perhaps most challengingly, it forces us to understand the sheer scale of this crisis as a constant backdrop to our everyday experiences.

If the climate crisis is hard to think about, it is perhaps even harder to write about. Telling stories about the climate crisis not only requires artists to convey what is often inconceivable, but to do so using creative and literary frameworks which are  fundamentally ill-equipped to deal with it. Most of the stories we know draw their momentum from narrative or character arcs — as readers and audiences, we have learnt to instinctively seek them out. In the case of the climate crisis, however, those conventions don’t really fit.

The parts of the climate crisis that are most intuitive to us are those that happen on a human scale (and, indeed, a large proportion of climate fiction deals with individual human stories). However, to represent only individualised experiences of climate devastation is to neglect its actual scale. Character-driven stories necessarily exclude the moral implications of the climate crisis, an essential consideration of climate fiction.  

Even putting the question of characters aside, the climate crisis is also difficult to narrativise. There isn’t a simple beginning, middle, or end to the climate crisis. If there is, we don’t know what it is yet, or how we will be implicated. The uncertainty of our climate’s future means that any ending can feel disingenuous — to end too optimistically is to give in to false hope, to end too pessimistically is to give in to what Delia Falconer terms “the numbing fantasy of apocalypse.”

If narrative and character are no longer viable, storytelling about the climate crisis requires artists to direct their audiences towards another source of momentum. Finding what that is, however, is often difficult and, in many cases, requires artists to reinvent what can exist within different literary forms. As Licciardello explains, the theatre-makers endeavouring to tell authentic stories about the climate “are also trying to solve the form that this kind of theatre can take.” Is it possible, for example, to make theatre without humans on stage? Can animals or machines be characters? Is it possible to realise an unstable environment which actors can still exist in? Can theatre itself, which requires lighting and costumes and set design, be made environmentally sustainable?

Like many artists, Licciardello and Finnigan’s desire to tell a story about the climate crisis has required them to find a novel way to craft it.  Scenes from the Climate Era resists telling singular stories of the climate crisis: imagining it as an arc of history, where changes to the climate become the backdrop of every moment of our lives. Climate Era’s concern is not how the climate crisis will impact specific individuals, but rather, what it means to come to terms with a new phase of human life — one where some moments will be catastrophic while some will be the same as they’ve always been. As Licciardello puts it, “someone is going to have their house burned down by a fire, at the same time as someone else is getting married. It’s not all going to be [a] disaster or all going to be fine, it’s going to be a combination of both.”

By resisting the instinct to see the future in black and white, Licciardello and Finnigan’s work gives audiences some reason to be hopeful, even if that hope won’t always be easy. For all the ways that theatre is imperfect when it comes to capturing the climate crisis, it is perhaps the perfect way to deliver this muddled kind of hope.

“It is something that we will all experience as humans, and perhaps there is value in trying to grapple with that in a room full of other people,” Licciardello tells me. “There’s something about the ephemerality of theatre – the fact that it does begin, and end, and disappear – that could go right to the core of how the natural world is changing in a bigger way than we’re used to.”

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