April 8, 2014

Fairly Traceable

The Civilians’ artistic team has started interviewing other artists that address climate change in their work as part of an ongoing series.

Our Literary Associate, Amina Henry, recently interviewed playwright and current R&D member Mary Kathryn Nagle about her new play Fairly Traceable, which draws on her experiences as a student at Tulane during Hurricane Katrina and her work in environmental law. Here is a snippet from their fascinating discussion!

Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle

AMINA: Does your show have a name yet?

MARY KATHRYN: Right now I’m calling it Fairly Traceable.

AMINA: Okay, Fairly Traceable. So, talk to me about how Fairly Traceable began, like, the seed of the idea?

MARY KATHRYN: I went to law school to study environmental law at Tulane and I happened to move there three weeks before Hurricane Katrina happened and so, as you can probably guess, Hurricane Katrina was a major life event.

And to see this community try to recover from such a major catastrophic event and being there to do environmental law, I got involved in a lot of cases that were targeted towards climate change.  And specifically there were a group of plaintiffs in Mississippi, some home owners, you know, close to the shore line, who had lost their homes and said, “Well, we know that the pollutants that cause climate change are greenhouse gases. We know the companies that make billions of dollars in profit off these pollutants, so they should compensate me for my home that I lost because they’re contributing to the problem that caused me to lose my home.”

So a lot of lawsuits started to be filed based off of that model and I was in law school when this was happening and I was very interested in how the legal system holds these polluters accountable. The court was saying, “We don’t even have jurisdiction to hear your claim, like, we’re not even gonna get to the motion, we’re not even gonna get to the merits of your case, we’re not even going to let you have discovery, you’re not gonna get to take depositions, you’re not gonna get to ask the defendants to produce documents, or the emails where they are showing what they’re doing to hide the true effects of their pollutants, because we don’t have jurisdiction to hear your claim.”

And the reason we don’t have jurisdiction to hear your claim is­–we go back to a 1992 decision called Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, it’s a Supreme Court decision that Scalia wrote where he sort of invented a new test. And  that for a federal court to have jurisdiction over a claim – because they can only hear cases where they have jurisdiction – the plaintiff’s injury has to be, quote unquote, ‘fairly traceable’ to the defendant’s conduct.

Now the words ‘fairly traceable’ are not in the Constitution. All that article 3 says is that the federal courts will have jurisdiction to hear cases or controversies, and that has been interpreted over the years by the Supreme Court to mean that you can’t come into the court and say, “Your Honor, you know, Amina might kill my child in ten years so you need to put her behind bars.” Or, “This company might steal this from me in twenty years so you need to do this now.” It has to be a case or controversy such that the court can adjudicate it.

What happened in the 70s was Congress passed seven or eight different environmental law statutes and all of a sudden environmental law was born. And there were several conservatives on the Supreme Court who freaked out and one of them was Justice Powell, and he authored opinions in ‘75 and ‘76 that basically said, whoa, whoa, whoa, we gotta do something with Article 3, Case or Controversy, to limit the number of people who can sue because they feel like the EPA isn’t regulating pollutants enough. Like we can’t just have any Joe Schmo off the street say, “Whoa, my community has been polluted too much,” because then everyone in the community is gonna get to sue.

So, ‘fairly traceable’ in the 1992 Lujan decision comes from language that Powell started to use in the 70s, and Scalia kind of sealed the deal in the early 90s and now that language is being used to prevent climate change plaintiffs from bringing law suits.

AMINA: What do you think theater can offer to environmental issues? Why not an essay? Why theater? Or performance?

MARY KATHRYN: I think theater is a very powerful tool in this instance. We’re losing in the courts. I think the only way to change – we need to win in the courts. I don’t think we’ll win in the courts until we change public sentiment. And the way to change public sentiment is the theater. And it doesn’t have to be exclusively the theater, it can be tv and film. It’s like, we’re all in this, but until we kind of come to that – right now it’s just something we don’t talk about. I mean, we don’t really talk about climate change, you know?

February 10, 2014

Welcome to The Great Immensity Blogosphere!

We are thrilled to relaunch The Great Immensity website in anticipation of the show’s upcoming production at The Public from April 11 to May 1.

The global issue of climate change is a topic at the forefront of the scientific community. From top environmental scientists to organizations like the Nobel prize-winning IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), our greatest minds have collected and analyzed decades worth of research to better understand the situation and to affect important policy change. Now artists and activists from all mediums are recognizing the call to arms, and asking: what role can the arts play in responding to the crisis? 

Molly Carden in The Great Immensity at Kansas City Rep; Photo by: Don Ipock

The Play

In a thrilling and timely production, THE GREAT IMMENSITY is a continent-hopping thriller following a woman, Phyllis, as she pursues someone close to her who disappeared from a tropical island while on an assignment for a nature show. Through her search, Phyllis uncovers a mysterious plot surrounding the upcoming international climate summit in Auckland. As the days count down to the Auckland Summit, Phyllis must decipher the plan and possibly stop it in time. With arresting projected film and video and a wide-ranging score of songs, THE GREAT IMMENSITY is a highly theatrical look into one of the most vital questions of our time: how can we change ourselves and our society in time to solve the enormous environmental challenges that confront us?

Artistic Director Steve Cosson on a research trip in Barro Colorado Island

Artistic Director Steve Cosson on a research trip in Barro Colorado Island

The Website

From original haiku to underwater sculptures, every week characters from the play will blog about projects that focus on the intersection of arts + science + activism and our always-evolving relationship to the world around us.

Meghan McGeary in The Great Immensity at Kansas City Rep; Photo By: Don Ipock

A Quick 101

We hope that you’ll explore the site, watch our original videos, and participate in conversations by commenting.

You can search recent and pasts posts by:

1. TOPIC – click on any of the “tagsin the left-hand column to search by a specific topic, such as “sustainability,” “mountains,” or “temperature.”

2. BLOGGER – find all posts by a particular character by clicking on their picture in the left-hand column. For example: if you want to read all of Karl’s posts, click on his picture, and then in the box that appears click on “Karl’s posts.”

Also be sure to check out our awesome Environmental Lists in the right-hand column to learn about specific ways to take action now!

July 16, 2012

Rio+20 Breakdown

The Great Immensity is happy to welcome its first guest blogger, Marie-Marguerite Sabongui, who attended Rio+20, the United Nations’ recent Conference on Sustainable Development.

The mega-conference of the century just ended with an extraordinary fizzle. So why are some of the most vulnerable countries in the world cautiously optimistic about the outcome?

Rio+20, the follow-up event to the historical 1992 Rio Earth Summit, drew 50,000 people and intended to deliver the concrete, drastic shifts we need to avert catastrophic climate change while lifting 1.4 billion people out of poverty.

But after months of exhausting prep negotiations – I was there and can attest! – 188 countries agreed to a legally-non-binding document  (check it out here) that only “reaffirms” the importance of changing course, and launches processes…to consider further processes…to address our pressing global problems. It’s not quite the urgency that’s called for. While hopes were high – and the media came in droves to report – there was no big news.


I was in Rio as an advisor to a small island state. Low-lying countries like Nauru or the Maldives could disappear within the next fifty years because of sea level rise or a single devastating storm. They are already facing real food and water scarcity, less predictable rainfall, and more frequent drought.

For my small island colleagues, the conference delivered minor wins. The document officially acknowledged that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and that impacts of climate change “represent the gravest of threats to the survival” of some islands.  For the first time, the international community acknowledged that some states could cease to exist as countries through the small but relentless washing away of their territory.

The language may seem too dry for the stakes, but these political gains were hard fought and felt valuable. The logic is this: agreements like these can help set priorities domestically and internationally for the next twenty years and increase the chances, however little, that change will happen.

For a while, I was pleased with these minor successes too. For months I had been desperately lost in the woods of international legalese, and so celebrated when we got language we wanted in the text. I felt these outcomes were measured steps on which to build momentum.

But the re-acknowledgement of problems, no matter the wording, is simply not enough to help real people in real crises. There’s a wide chasm between these high-level agreements and what is happening on the ground.

Case in point: After the conference, I traveled to the Amazon’s Mamiraua Reserve, home of the seasonal flooded forests. There, communities are accustomed to living surrounded by water six months of the year. But this year, many have had to build second floors in their homes or have been forced to evacuate to regional towns because the flooding reached 50-year record highs. The federal government in Brazil hasn’t been able to mobilize enough emergency funding. Many of these families have found their crops drowned.

The high-water mark is visible on this stilt-house, where the family has had to build a second floor to stay above the flood in Mamiraua. Photo credit: Benedict Moran

While the situation in Mamiraua can’t fully be chocked up to climate change (it is a La Nina year, during which more rains can be expected), crises like these can be amplified by climate change and may be on the rise due to increased rainfall and increased snow melt in the Andes Mountains, a significant source of the Amazon River’s flow. That the government is unprepared with disaster relief funding is concerning. But even more concerning is the fact that families around the world living near water are unprepared to adapt to rising levels.

For me, Mamiraua was a stark reminder that political action at the highest levels is not meeting the world’s most urgent needs and is out of step with the calls of the scientific community. Sure, the scope of the Rio+20 agreement is broad and has potential to eventually lead to change. But if these changes come – the track record for actually following through with these UN agreements is already less than stellar – delivery will be slow and will fall short. While governments plug away at negotiations and squabble over who will foot the bill, shores will disappear, wildfires will spread, droughts will scorch fields, and families will be devastated.

The low-ambition of “The Future We Want” – as the document is un-ironically officially called – is the lowest-common-denominator compromise between countries that continue to prioritize narrow, old-school economic self-interests instead of engaging in the spirit of sustainable development that they have theoretically endorsed. What we need is action at every level, from international and national priority setting, to community organizing.

Here are just a few ways we can close the chasm between “The Future We Want” and the future we actually want.

  • On the sidelines of Rio+20, where advocacy organizations like 350.org held focus groups and demonstrations, ending harmful fossil-fuel subsidies was the number one recommendation to governments. The oil industry has claimed record profits in 2011. While the Big Five companies collectively raked in $140 billion in profits, governments continued to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, in large part for expanding oil exploration. Many civil society organizations argue this sends the wrong signal about our energy future.
  • At Rio+20, Hillary Clinton announced a $20 million commitment to the United Nations “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative to encourage private sector investment in renewable energy in Africa. Those old fossil fuel subsidies could mean changes for research, development, and deployment of renewable technologies. The shift to investing in renewables has the potential to generate jobs in many fields including the energy, vehicle, and building industries while reducing carbon emissions. The good news: solar and wind industries are developing faster than expected. Over the last five years, solar capacity has been growing by over 50 percent a year, while wind capacity has been growing by 25 percent.
  • Sustainable transport and sustainable cities were hot topics at Rio+20 and at the parallel C40 Cities conference, which drew mayors from major cities around the world. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, currently chaired by NYC Mayor Bloomberg, is a network of large cities proactively advancing programs and partnerships to increase energy efficiency and address climate risks and impacts. This type of development would not only mean lower emissions and better air quality, but more resilient, long-term, and livable homes. With potentially more frequent disasters and the world’s population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, we’ve got to create safe spaces for future generations and learn to live together more efficiently.

Mamiraua Sunset

Post by Marie-Marguerite Sabongui. Thanks, Marie-Marguerite!

March 27, 2012

The Next Forever

This is an original music video from the song “The Next Forever” in The Great Immensity. The footage was taken on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal by videographer David Ford. He was there with Steve Cosson (the play’s playwright and director) and Michael Friedman (the composer and lyricist) while they were conducting research and interviews for the play. This footage provides an incredible look both at the experiences that shaped the play and at the gorgeous tropical environment and wildlife of Barro Colorado Island.


Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman
Performed by Trey Lyford
Directed & Produced by Alix Lambert
Film Footage by David A. Ford
Edited by Brian Young

To view other music videos for songs from The Great Immensity visit our Video Gallery HERE!

March 2, 2012

Skype Interview with Dan Domingues, Actor in The Great Immensity

The next interviewee in our Skype Interview Series is Dan Domingues, a Civilians Associate Artist and an actor in The Great Immensity at Kansas City Repertory Theatre! He’s been with the project since its first reading at Princeton (that The Civilians did through a cross-disciplinary residency in the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Atelier). Hear his insights into the development of the show, and how working with this material has affected his commitment to the environment!


Interview conducted by Alix Lambert. Alix Lambert is an artist, author and filmmaker. She is an Associate Artist of The Civilians and is conducting this ongoing series of interviews for The Great Immensity. Please click HERE for more of her interviews in this series!

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    "The Next Forever" is a song from The Great Immensity. The footage was taken on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal by videographer David Ford. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
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