Its ten years since my play ‘The Weather‘ was on. It was about a shopaholic, addict mother, an absent, fat-cat father and their teenage daughter. It was also, to me, a play clearly about climate change. It was called The Weather’ for a start, and began with the declaration: ‘It’s over. I mean, have you seen the weather out there? Have you seen the fucking weather?’ In each scene, although they were only days or even hours apart, the weather had changed dramatically – from snow to tropical temperatures. It depicted a world on the cusp of an ‘eremozoic age’ -the age of solitude – as butterflies and birds died out leaving nothing but ‘people and their things’, and there were long speeches about consumption and blame and the impossibility of imagining the end of the world. There was also a poltergeist in the house, flinging things around – the family’s consumer status symbols turning against them; an unleashed force spiralling out of control. The mother’s abusive relationship with her daughter symbolised -I thought – the way in which one generation had failed the next through their hedonism and neediness.
Interestingly, when it was performed at the Royal Court, hardly anyone seemed to notice it was about climate change. They thought it was about mothers and daughters and incest. And ghosts. ‘Where are the plays about climate change?’ the broadsheets were asking plaintively, years later. (According to this Guardian article no plays about climate change were staged by major companies until 2011!!)
I’ve since returned to the subject many times, but often with the same results. I thought my poem ‘October Roses‘ was about global warming, but people remember only the description of my niece Rose with her nails ‘as tiny as droplets of spittle’. I thought ‘Dinner for Two’, in which the speaker buys fruit from the Andes and Asian prawns for her lover because ‘in love one kiss and any trade seems fair’ was pretty obviously heavy-handedly about climate change, and the way in which our human investment in our loved ones and the moment can cause great harm. But readers have told me it’s romantic. I even wrote the Delilah Dark trilogy of Children’s books about a corporation trying to wipe out humanity, but reviews have tended to focus on the evil clown and the amusing dog. A lot of people don’t want to be made to think about climate change so, well. They don’t.
‘Ecopoetry,’ like ‘hipster,’ has become a term people snigger over.
It would be easy for writers to give up – dystopias have been done to death, and people find global warming too boring or too depressing. It’s out of fashion. we’re all f***ed anyway. Turn away. And yet.
I read Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything‘ this week. I love Naomi Klein. At every time in my life I’ve felt a sense of despair about contemporary society she’s published just the right book to reenergise me. And this is a huge, important, hopeful book. It says that although some global warming is going to happen, it doesn’t have to be apocalyptic. We still have perfectly feasible options for limiting the damage, and the green technology there to make them happen. But time is ticking – we have about a decade left to change course. And there’s no political will.
Because it has been humanity’s bad luck that neoliberalism and the doctrine of free trade has taken over the world just as our understanding of the climate change has been unfolding. And everything we need to do – buy locally, tax polluters, encourage reduced consumption, renationalise energy companies, place long term needs before short term profits – is not only the antithesis of neoliberalism, they’ve even made some of it illegal under international trade laws. The markets don’t want us to make-do-and-mend or switch to renewables. They’d rather keep fracking and flying until whole countries are under water. And so our media and our governments are bombarding us with misinformation; encouraging us to believe its either a) not happening, or not that bad (if it were, it would be headline news, right??) or b) so bad we might as well just give up and watch ‘The Great British Bake-Off.’ Cameron’s ‘Greenest government ever’ bullshit was not just something that got dropped when more ‘important’ concerns like austerity came along – it was always a pantomime. Everything he stands for is toxic to the earth itself.
I went on the Climate Change March at the weekend with Gruff and a gaggle of ‘Poets for the Planet’ (organised by Fiona Moore, whose great banner is in the picture) which was something, a start. But it didn’t feel enough. 40,000 people is okay, but it’s not a tipping point: as Rich pointed out, you can get 35,000 at a West Ham game. I’m not sure what to do next. I believe writing matters – that it can help change the language, the terms of the conversation – but maybe subtle subtext (or even a fairly explicit subtext) isn’t adequate right now. We don’t have another ten years for people to notice what we’re trying to say.