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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
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.
"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?
This Post is by Michelle Golder