A message from Steve Waters

Steve Waters joins Pivotal on the 8th December at Cambridge Junction with his monologue, In a Vulnerable Place, and in conversation with Dr David Sneath. Here Steve explains how that monologue came about and about the "wicked problem" of climate change -

Six years ago I wrote a duo of plays about climate change  called ‘The Contingency Plan’ which debuted in the year the world met in Copenhagen to – as it turned out – fail to reach substantial agreement on reining in global carbon dioxide emissions.  Now as COP 21 is convened in Paris to address that unfinished task, I’ve too returned to re-examine these questions in my show ‘In a vulnerable place’.

 In the intervening time there’s been a raft of plays ‘about climate change’.  I don’t especially like that phrase as it feels ludicrous, a bit like saying ‘this play is about capitalism’ or that play is ‘about life’. Climate change, however we talk about it, is far too complex and multifarious to be spoken about as if it were an issue.   Perhaps that’s why it interests me; it’s what the philosophers call a ‘wicked problem’, defying definition and simple solution.  It can’t be voted away or solved by decree.  It is happening whoever sits in Westminster.   It can be made a hell of a lot worse, of course – and George Osborne leads in that respect if in none other.

That’s one reason I’ve returned to it in this monologue.  I realised my capacity to think about this new reality was waning.  Playwrights are in some ways condemned to superficiality on the questions they engage with; nobody wants to be a one-trick pony banging on again and again about their pet concern.  And yet I started to wonder whether there could be a more precise way of thinking about it which might merge activism and writing; whether it was time to look again at where we can detect this elusive reality in the lives and landscapes around us.

The new urgency comes from my sense of the rapidly worsening state of the natural world, a feeling compounded by a joint report by all the major UK wildlife charities, ‘State of Nature’, two years ago, which suggested even these sceptred isles are losing species at a terrifying rate.  Then I met some anthropologists, such as David Sneath who were working on the experience of environmental change in this country and in madly exotic sounding locales: Alaska, Tibet, Mongolia.  And I got embroiled in a controversy in one of our less well known national parks, the Broads in Norfolk.    I found myself within a story, a story this time I didn’t feel required the veil of fiction – a story I wanted to talk to audiences about, in my own person. 

I’m well aware a one-man show in Cambridge or anywhere else is hardly likely to make a dent on what takes place in Paris.  Yet, as the Pivotal festival suggests, a network of artists and activists can create a kind of public space away from the heavily policed conference chambers where we can stare down this future that’s heading towards us and forge our own way forwards.  In 2009 this felt like a lonely task – now there’s many more of us and whatever the politicians achieve, for me that’s a result.

Steve Waters, 2015

Every Pivotal Event in 20 Minutes (or so)

Last night poet Fay Roberts and Pivotal director Michelle Golder joined Pete Monaghan of Rebel Arts Radio at Cambridge 105 to preview every Pivotal event, including our takeover of the Rebel Arts slot which Fay will be DJing on the 7th of December, 9-10 pm. Pete played some awesome tracks from artists including Massive Attack, The Destroyers, Woody Guthrie, Agitators, Grace Petrie and more.

Catch the whole show on demand by clicking this link: https://www.mixcloud.com/RebelArtsRadio/rebel-arts-radio-301115-cambridge-pivotal-festival/. We hope you'll enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed recording it!

An Inspiring Day of Climate Action

One of our primary goals in starting Pivotal was to support the work that other local organisations were doing, by helping to spread the word and cross-fertilising events to gain new audiences. With this in mind we organised meetings with every activist, environmental and academic organisation we could get in touch with.

A post on the discussion pages of the Cambridge 38 Degrees Hub got an immediate enthusiastic response from Dr Chris Forman, a dynamo in human form who, in addition to Post-doc research and teaching in the chemistry department of Cambridge University, organised the Cambridge Hub.

Chris is a passionate visionary who is pursuing ideas of sustainable production which could have profound effects on the way we organise our societies.  We soon had an event scheduled with Chris (Can ipods grow on trees?) and were concocting plans for many other activities.

A multi-topic public forum Chris organised at the Friends Meeting House proved pivotal (that word again) to the organisation of a weekend of climate action. In attendance were Mark Slade of the Green Party, Edward Gildea, a climate activist from Saffron Walden, and the equally passionate and wise Anna McIvor of Transition Cambridge, who then organised a larger planning meeting bringing together representatives of Cambridge Carbon Footprint, student activists, and members of Fossil Free Cambridgeshire, who were already developing an idea to create a Cambridge Climate Message.

When Pivotal organiser Jill Eastland came on board with a performance from her group, Rebel Arts, along with some of the actors from the forthcoming Pivotal Street Theatre peformance at Mill Road Winter Fair, a little bit of magic happened.

You can share that magic in this beautiful film from JH Film, Jonnie Howard.

A good time to divest from fossil fuels?

An interesting discussion on the question of divestment has been going on on the Cambridge 38 Degrees site (you may need to join to read).

As I recently connected with the CapGlobalCarbon organisers, who advocate a system of capping fossil fuel production at the source, charging a fee for production, and distributing the profits globally, I received this comment from Dr David Knight, an organiser for CapGlobalCarbon, who agreed to my posting it as a guest blog here.

The implications of Brent Crude at $43.6 for the Climate Movement

The  price of Brent crude has fallen to its lowest level  in the recession that followed the Credit Crunch, while the FSTE 350 Oil and Gas producers share Index has dropped about 25% in a year. These trends are already having a serious impact on the fossil fuel (and other extractive)  industries, making investment in them increasingly risky.

The risk is compounded because:

shifts in market sentiment induced by awareness of …climate risks could lead to economic shocks and losses of up to 45% ...on equity investment portfolios… . [Much of these losses are unhedgeable]
— http://www.cisl.cam.ac.uk/publications/sustainable-finance-publications/unhedgeable-risk

The already shaky economic system may be close to collapse.

There are several important implications for the Climate Movement:

1.      Low oil and gas prices reduce the impact on consumers of measures such as Cap & Dividend and carbon price mechanisms that increase the cost of fossil fuels. This makes the present a good time to introduce these measures.

2.      The increasing riskiness of fossil fuel investments provides a strong financial argument for divesting and re-investing  in renewables,  energy conservation and energy storage.

3.      It’s a good time to divest as it’s hitting the producers when they are down.

4.    The interactive global eco- and financial  systems are unstable and threatened with collapse.  Schemes such as CapGlobalCarbon’s Cap & Dividend together with Divestment/Reinvestment might just help to bring about a transition to a stable, equitable, and less extractive future.

Naomi Klein is likely to agree with much of this.

Dr David Knight,  CapGlobalCarbon http://www.capglobalcarbon.org/



Understanding the consequences of living with climate change: A review of This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

In the aftermath of the British general election, where climate change and care of the environment more generally weren’t a priority for the major political parties, and certainly not for the new Conservative government, it feels crucial to keep awareness, debate and action high on the agenda.

Because these moments when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious. That means more must be made of them. The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world that will keep us all safe. The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less.
— Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (2014, Penguin, UK)

Indeed, Klein's groundbreaking book makes light of the previous Conservative-led coalition being close to the oil and gas industries, which wish to promote their energy and single-minded economic agenda against any other system that might place people, communities and our living planet higher than GDP (gross domestic product). The core of the issue, Klein argues, is that capitalism is the problem; power, money and the efforts to preserve the hegemony of that power are preventing the urgent, necessary, all-species action on climate change. Carbon causes the specific problem of temperature and weather change, but it is the psychology driving those behind the means of procuring and using the carbon that needs tackling. And quickly.

For five years, I read and reviewed most of the books that came out on environmental themes. Some, like Fred Pearce’s Confessions of an Eco Sinner (2009) and Dancing at the Dead Sea by Alanna Mitchell (2005) are excellent in their style, factual analysis and presentation. Others might cause a small ripple, or none at all. It’s a big field of literature in its own right now, rightly so. What I took from that drip-feed diet was an observation of growing problems, and some case studies, but not such a rigorous dissection and arguing of the scale of the disaster that befalls humanity, as that presented here.

Every so often a book comes along that has its own force and depth of integrity and This Changes Everything has that power. Indeed, the New York Times described it as “almost unreviewable… the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring.” Rachel Carson’s book is credited with providing and presenting the data that led to the phasing out of DDT being used in agriculture and household gardens; could Klein’s book have a similar impact upon the climate change deniers and the businesses that most affect our planet?

Klein has been on a roller coaster of a journey with this book and acknowledges help from full-time assistants and researchers, as well as funding in order to travel, employ others and write. She was also trying to get pregnant during the research period and this personal narrative of hope, disappointment and then ultimately happiness weaves through it, grounding much of the ecological devastation and impact upon communities in some hope. However, it is tinged with some shocking statistics:

They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6% to more than 9%” and the town of Mossville, in Louisiana, where industrial plants convert oil and gas into petrochemical products, is described by a resident as “a woman’s womb of chemicals. And we’re dying in that womb.
— Princeton/MIT study

The introduction and first part of the book, Bad Timing, is a tough read. She visits conferences dedicated to climate change denial and unpicks the money trail given to the propaganda. Klein devotes a lot of space to Richard Branson and Bill Gates, exploring their Damascene conversion to finding a “solution” to climate change, and how this hasn’t halted or altered their business practices and expansions.

But I think it’s crucial to focus on the positive and highlight the optimism that Klein does weave through the latter part of the book, where she talks of some of the communities she has visited who are able to “build fleeting pockets of liberated space”, in terms of their “resistance to the economic system [that] creates the necessary friction to slow and brake.”

I met with a group of people who had come together through the Transition Cambridge Group to discuss This Changes Everything and asked them for their responses, how the discussions around the issues had gone, had anyone’s attitudes changed and how they were responding as a group and as individuals and members of other families, communities and networks, to the strong message for change and action.

“As a direct result of coming together to read and respond to the book, we’ve formed a group called ’Fossil-Free Cambridgeshire’, one member, a doctor, said: “We concluded the book before the winter holidays, then we reconvened and discussed where to go. We talked about doing an action and then thought about starting a group like this. The university has one, Positive Divestment Cambridge, but that’s specifically for the university. It isn’t about divestment, but about positive investment instead."

“We also decided to create another group, a support group or a leaders meeting, to discuss what was coming out of this and support each other. We formed around International global Divestment Day, made a banner and met and joined a demonstration."

We met on election night, 7 May, and the talk turned to arranging meetings with local ward councillors post-election, irrespective of their parties and any national political agendas, but to work on a local level with debate and discussion.

“I’m enthusiastic to do more, and reading the book and meeting within this group has reawakened the activist within me,” another member said. “From the outset, Klein spoke of the fears and struggles that confronted her, and that when she faced them, it showed her the reality [of the climate situation and the impact of business as usual]. We can have much better lives, and better communities, if we face some of these challenges and fears.”

This was a clear example of one of the “circular and reciprocal systems” Klein writes about, using resilience in a regenerative way to respond. Klein highlights many examples around the world where communities have come together, often from a very weak initially demoralised and socially awkward start, to create resistance and communality. Although politics belittles the people; as I write in late May the US Senate has voted 50-49 against the motion that humans are responsible for climate change, despite scientific evidence presented by NASA and other respected bodies to support the motion.

To conclude I’ll point the reader to both the book, and to the accompanying online materials and campaign, particularly the Beautiful Solutions part of the website, which highlights some opportunities “to chart a different course”.

The book needs to be read, and to be responded to, although I recommend seeking out, if not already being involved with, a community of those willing to engage with the issue, as the facts and figures Klein lays bare are a tough read, hard to digest and respond to alone.

May this book truly help to change everything, for the best we humans can achieve.

This review is by James Murray-White, Pivotal Organiser, writer and filmmaker, specialising in visual anthropology: exploring the world and what makes us tick. He has a background in theatre (as playwright and director, with a smidge of theatre in education), and also 5 years as an environmental journalist in the Middle East, where he wrote for www.greenprophet.com amongst others. Currently a content producer for Cambridge TV.

A version of this review was first published June 2015 in Contributoria - http://contributoria.com/

The die appears to be cast

One thing that deciding to "turn and face" the issue of climate change has done for me is reveal the sheer number of groups, organisations and individuals involved in what has become a climate change industry of itself - websites, activist organisations, books, sustainable products, government departments, academic degrees, journals, arts organisations, food suppliers,  caterers (even festivals!) - you name it, there's a body out there engaging with the issue.

And there's a lot of good news to be had. Jeremy Leggett's The Winning of the Carbon War is a particularly useful source to follow, as its feed captures news - good and bad, but of late much to be positive about - as it happens.

To take just one example, this is the headline for the post of 18 October, 2015: US government blocks Arctic exploration, Congressmen call for federal enquiry on Exxon’s climate change denial, 10 oil companies pledge to support Paris – not Exxon: Week 41, 2015.

This has prompted a thought - that whether you "believe" in climate change or not, whether you are willing to buy in to any of the proposed solutions, even whether the scientists' models turn out to be "true" - in one sense these no longer matter. One way or another, we all WILL be profoundly affected by climate change in our lifetimes. It might be through local, national or international legislation, or through economic impacts of actions taken by agencies who are convinced, or it might be (I think will be) through the actual impacts of climate change over the next century and beyond. And it might be all of the above.

For those in the most vulnerable areas of the earth, it almost certainly will be.

Whether we like it or not, our generation - that is, those of us alive now - are responsible for making the decisions that will impact on the planet for generations to come.

But how can we make those decisions? The problem is too gigantic, the solutions too diverse, unconnected, and untested.

I'd like to propose a first step. As individuals, and as a society, and ultimately, as a species, we have to rethink our values. We need to develop a set of principals - a kind of new ten commandments - by which we will manage our resources and live our lives. And at the top of that list, we need to put stewardship of the planet and all its diversity.

Every time a new decision is called for, whether on local transport, government contracts, or holiday plans, we need to think, how will this impact on our planet? How can we protect, nurture and restore its natural balance?

Some people will think this is arrogant. Who are we, puny humans, to put ourselves in the position of protectors of the entire globe? I'm reminded of my days as a young mum, looking after my son at the co-operatively run Playcentre in Wellington, NZ. I noticed that some mums didn't take action when kids not their own did something unsafe or uncivilised. I mentioned it at a meeting.

"I wasn't comfortable taking the responsiblity for telling off another person's child," another mum said.

"Well,  you're the one that's here," I replied. "For now, it's your job."

This post by Michelle Golder



Pivotal - the first turn of the wheel

Pivotal began when environmental scientist Peter Daldorph loaned me his copy of Gwynne Dyer's 2008 book, Climate Wars. I think he felt bad about it afterward. The book had upset him, and it upset me too. It's a work of speculation, by a well-respected military historian and journalist, based on both the science, and interviews with world military and political leaders.

In a style as gripping as any spy novel, Dyer presents a number of possible future scenarios - and all but one are ghastly to contemplate. Unfortunately, the one that isn't - the one where the world's leaders, right now, agree that the threat is imminent and we must take immediate action to drastically reduce carbon emissions - is the one he also thinks is the least likely. There just isn't the will, the economic implications are too dire, we all have to agree, and so on, and so forth, to the end of the world, amen.

To a person like me, who lives almost entirely in a world of imagination, the book created a very vivid and unforgettable picture. But it didn't, for me, lead to further action - it just made me depressed. I'm a nature lover, and a humanist, I recycle, buy organic, and take the bus if possible, but what more substantive action could I take? The book's focus was very much on world leadership as the solution to the problem. And this was before the sweeping Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership victory here in the UK (at this writing it is one day post that victory). Democracy really wasn't seeming up to the task.

Gwynne Dyer is one of the few who are both courageous enough to tell the unvarnished truth, and have the background to understand, not misrepresent the inputs. This book does a superb job of detailing the emerging realities of Climate/Energy. These realities are not pretty.
— --Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA

"If you think Dyer's bad," Peter said, "you should read Naomi Klein." But it turned out that Naomi Klein was "bad" in an entirely different way. Klein too starts from the position that climate change is happening and must be stopped or slowed or we face dire consequences for the planet and for humanity. But she makes a compelling argument as to why the world's worst offenders have failed to act, linking it to the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation, globalisation and free trade, and pointing out that it is those same policies which have led to increased global and internal inequality.

For me, this put the whole question in a new light. Now, I saw,"winning" the battle against carbon was not necessarily going to result in a depressed and depressing world in which the middle and working classes would suffer the most and the growing economies of the developing world would be stopped in their tracks. Winning this battle could also mean winning a battle against inequality. It could, eventually, mean a better life and a better world for nearly everyone (at least those for whom it's not already too late. I'm thinking of the polar bears now). And this was a world I could imagine without pain. Indeed, it was - potentially - beautiful.

But not everyone is going to want to read a radical book by Naomi Klein.

So what could I, a sometime scriptwriter and filmmaker, without any following or funding, without any skills in permaculture, or organic farming, or politics, or anything much except in creating events,  and those mostly for the sake of pure entertainment, what could I, and my friend Peter, do to get that positive vision across and make it real? To help ourselves and others turn and face the changes that are coming, one way or another, in a positive way?

And that's when I discovered Cape Farewell, and ArtCOP21, and their call for satellite events. And Pivotal was conceived.

This Post is by Michelle Golder