I was wrong about the fires

Disasters don't change minds

Watching bushfires rage across the west coast of the USA recently has felt like a horrible deja vu, taking me back to the Australian bushfires nine months ago. It feels like the whole nightmare is repeating: the shocking pictures, the harrowing survival stories, the grim ecological impact - all the way down to the imaginary 'Antifa arsonists' invented by right-wing pundits.

And just like in Australia, the political impact of the worst fires in the country's recorded history has been... negligible.

One thing I was always sure of was, when people were faced catastrophic climate shocks, they'd accept the truth of what scientists have been talking about. It might come too late to avoid the worst of the impacts, but at least we could start being honest as a society about what it is we're facing.

In January this year I finally realised that I was wrong. And it genuinely shook me.

---------

When I began making theatre with scientists, I believed that art could help change people's minds.

I formed science-theatre collective Boho along with a group of friends in the mid-2000s. At the time, we thought that the inaction on climate issues was due to a lack of public understanding. We believed art could bridge the gap between researchers and the general public by making the science clear and relevant. In shows like Hungers and True Logic, we saw our role as science communicators, albeit unorthodox ones.

By the end of the 2000s, our understanding shifted. It was clear by now that the climate deadlock wasn't due to a lack of clear information. We were learning about confirmation bias - how people form beliefs and then seek evidence to confirm those beliefs, rather than the other way around. We realised we wouldn't change anyone's mind with facts, no matter how clearly we communicated them.

In 2010, I met a mining company executive at a workshop organised by scientists. I was struck by the way he spoke about land management. It dawned on me that these executives wield huge power over the land they operate on, and unlike politicians, they're free to make longterm decisions without referring to opinion polls or election cycles. He was intelligent and compassionate, and yet completely unwilling to accept the facts of climate science.

I thought, perhaps art could help change this person's mind.

We started thinking about using theatre and storytelling to engage with people outside our bubble. We started using phrases like 'get out of the echo chamber' and 'don't preach to the converted'. Rather than just presenting the facts to audiences who agreed with us, we started exploring how we could use storytelling to engage audiences who would never come to see a theatre show about climate change.

Boho began working with government policy-makers and businesses, including fossil fuel and mining companies. Our interactive show Best Festival Ever was both a primer to sustainability science concepts (feedback loops, tipping points, resilience) and a management training / team-building workshop.

We carefully curated the language of the show to avoid using phrases that would disengage climate skeptics. 'Sustainability' was okay, 'greenhouse gases' was not. Over the 2010s, we toured the work to boardrooms around the world; from Shanghai to Sydney, Singapore to Stockholm, sharing it with over a thousand people and engaging them in post-show discussions about climate and sustainability.

But did we change anyone's mind? We had a lot of great chats with fascinating people, but I don't think we made anyone rethink their position on climate. We were often unsure whether we were infiltrating these organisations to open them up to a climate conversation, or if they were co-opting us in order to appear open-minded.

I started to feel that art can't change people's minds. Art doesn't have some unique ability to 'reach across the aisle' politically. Most attempts to 'get out of the echo chamber' result in nothing more than some pretty bland art.

Scientific evidence wasn't enough to prompt people to act. Climate art wasn't enough to nudge people past doubt and hesitation. But I still had faith that the climate impacts themselves, when they arrived, would wake us up.

---------

I spent new years eve in the UK, watching 156 out-of-control bushfires tear through New South Wales via text messages, news articles and social media.

For several brief days, as the full extent of the tragedy unfolded, there was a powerful sense of collective purpose and joint rage. Australians across the political spectrum came together to demand that the government acknowledge the crisis we were facing.

The government made it clear, even in the worst of the impacts, that they wouldn't entertain any adjustment to their pro-fossil fuel agenda. The Murdoch press, apart from one of its periodic insistences that 'We've always believed in climate science' continued to pump out misinformation and denial.

But, I thought, that didn't matter. An event as seismic as these fires would drive a public demand for a climate reckoning. The government and the press would be dragged along by it despite themselves.

I was wrong. There was a public outcry, but it didn't spread beyond the usual quarters - the scientists, students, and progressives. Nine months later, Australia is on track for a 'gas-fired recovery' that involves propping up the fossil fuel sector with millions of taxpayer dollars.

The US federal government's response to the fires has mirrored Australia's, right down to the complaints about imagined 'green tape' getting in the way of proper fire management. It seems the banal, unending culture wars can metabolise even the most horrifying natural disaster.

I genuinely believed that once enough people had been directly impacted by climate shocks, the problem would become self-evident and the conversation would shift to action. I didn't hope for disasters, but I hoped that when the disasters did come, they'd shake us out of our complacency.

This year taught me that it's possible that even the most brutal impacts might not be enough to make our governments acknowledge the problem. I genuinely grieved the loss of that hope.

-----------

So if art can't change people's minds or persuade people with different political beliefs, what use is it?

Last year, playwright Chris Thorpe said to me, 'We still think we're making art to save the world. We've never been making art to save the world. We've always been making art to slow down and fragment and isolate the thinking we use to understand the world.'

Something about that remark really resonated. It's a very different view of the function of art to the one I started with, but it feels right. The most powerful art I've experienced personally didn't change my mind, but it absolutely slowed my thinking down. It allowed me to see myself in a different light.

So following Chris' comment, here's three suggestions for what role art can play in the early years of the climate era:

  • Art can put our situation in a historical context and gives us a longer, richer perspective on our actions, rather than feeling trapped in an eternal present.

  • Art can train our empathy, help us see the world through other people's eyes, and illustrate the ways that this crisis exacerbates existing inequalities rather than impacting us all equally.  

  • And for me, most important of all: art can gather us together and let us know that we're not alone in feeling overwhelmed and inadequate to deal with the crisis.

Honestly, that's the kind of art I need right now.

-----------------------------------------------------------

NEWS AND PROJECTS

So I was stoked that 44 Sex Acts In One Week was longlisted for the Soho Theatre's Verity Bargate Award. Nice to be in the top 20 out of 1,500 entries.

1,500! I can't imagine reading that many scripts in a lifetime, let alone for a single prize round. Good work to the Soho Theatre and congrats to the other nominees.

This is the third award nod for 44 Sex Acts, following shortlistings for the Patrick White Award and the Griffin Award. I'm feeling positive that this piece is on the right track, and looking forward to getting it onstage somehow in the future.

--------

This week I presented a digital performance of You're Safe Til 2024: Deep History for ArtScience Lates at Home. I've wanted to perform at the ArtScience Museum for years, since my first visit to Singapore in 2013, so it was an honour to get to do the show, even if digitally.

I did a shortened version of Deep History, the second episode in the You're Safe Til 2024 series, which looks at key moments in the last 75,000 years of human history and the Australian bushfires. And following the show, I had a lovely conversation with ArtScience director and brilliant curator/thinker Honor Harger.

The show is available on Youtube for a few more days, so check it out if you're curious.

---------

The Švandovo divadlo theatre in Prague have sent me some rehearsal pictures from their upcoming production of Kill Climate Deniers, which is very exciting. The show is due to open in November, though of course everything more than a month away comes with a 'covid willing' caveat. But for now, these pics have been giving me a real buzz. Cannot. Wait.

---------

As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have anything that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.

Peace!