April 16, 2014

Balancing Agenda & Art

The Civilians’ artistic team has started interviewing other artists that address climate change in their work as part of an ongoing series. We are excited to feature a brief portion of the next interview in the series, a chat between the founder and “Captain” of Superhero Clubhouse, Jeremy Pickard, and The Civilians’ Literary Associate, Amina Henry. 

Superhero Clubhouse is a collective of artists and environmental advocates working at the intersection of science and theater. They make original performances via a collaborative, green and rigorous process. 

Jeremy Pickard in DON'T BE SAD, FLYING ACE! at the 14th St Y, photo by Marina McClure

I’m curious as to when you started – so you had the first seed of an idea for “Don’t Be Sad, Flying Ace!” and when did you start writing it?

So I had the seed of an idea a couple years ago but I just didn’t know much more than it had to do with a dog inspired by Snoopy, stuck on his rooftop floating in the middle of the ocean, and it was called “Don’t Be Sad, Flying Ace!” I didn’t know much more than that. But I figured it had something to do with rising oceans and maybe storms. 

I wonder if you could talk a little about the trick of talking about issues via performance but avoiding it becoming an ‘issue piece’ that is alienating or isolating.

This is the crux, like, this is it, that’s what eco-theater is striving towards, is finding the balance. And I keep trying to figure out ways to define what I’m doing and my most recent definition is that eco-theater is the craft of balancing agenda and art. And that’s really tricky. Because if I want to just write a play with no agenda then I might start writing a character and the character wants to go in this direction and we take that character in this direction. But I’ve encountered this time and time again with so many of the plays where we’ll be creating it, and we will get excited because we’ll start figuring things out about what happens with the character. And we’ll get lost in the typical way that’s really helpful for a play. But then you have to step back and go, is this actually telling the story that is rooted in this question? Is it doing that justice? Is it reflecting this question? And so, I find that actually, rather than being inhibiting, it’s really freeing, because it forces you to make a choice. It’s what Anne Bogart calls ‘the violence of decision-making in art,’ the violence of making a choice.

I was just at this conference in Toronto called “Staging Sustainability” and the speaker began the conference by saying one of her main themes was ‘living in the questions.’ And that’s my thing,  living in the questions because not even the scientists have the answers, nobody has the full-on solutions…because the real solutions are not going to happen. A real solution would be everyone in the world stops flying, stops driving cars, stops eating meat. Or the other solution is that scientists get tons of funding to start sequestering carbon, which may happen, but like none of these are easy. Building walls around Manhattan is not an easy solution, and that may not be the solution, right? I don’t know, I mean there are so many big problems that are fast approaching and so many problems that we’re already in the thick of that nobody knows the answer to. So why in the world would I make a play and tell people the answer to anything? Because to me the point of eco-theater is to engage the audience in questions so that they leave and think about it.


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?

March 31, 2014

Climate Change “Stories”

To better educate and engage the public, environmental organizations like Climate Wisconsin, Facing Climate Change, and Aspect have begun recording digital climate change “stories” as told by local residents. The goal for filmmakers is to create a relatable, contextualized narrative around climate change that will encourage dialogue and inspire action.

Though WI is know for its brutal winters, extreme heat is responsible for more deaths in the state than all other weather disasters combined.

In Wisconsin, higher than average temperatures year-round are curtailing ice fishing in Madison, and fly fishing in Viroqua. Across the Atlantic in Cornwall, England, surfing enthusiasts complain that they are now more prone to ear and other infections as heavy rainfall regularly overwhelms waste drainage systems causing toxins and sewage to spill into the sea.

Local industry is also feeling the sting of climate change. In Idaho, declining mountain top snow pack is resulting in a reduced stream of fresh water feeding the Columbia River Basin, which has caused the closure of several potato farms that rely on the river to irrigate their crop.  In Washington State, oyster and clam farming is quickly becoming unviable due to the rising acidity of the ocean off the Pacific Northwest coast.

From the inability to take part in recreational activities to threatening local economies, it is clear that the effects of climate change are becoming palpable. What’s your climate story?

Check out these awesome projects:

Climate Wisconsin: Stories From a State of Change

Facing Climate Change: Stories from the Pacific Northwest

Aspect (UK)



March 24, 2014

Extreme Ice Survey

Whether we consciously engage them or not, we all, to a degree, possess certain notions about “normalcy.” For example, 98.6 F is generally considered to be “normal” human body temperature. Sleeping in on Saturday mornings is considered “normal.”  And these beliefs about what constitutes “normal” extend to things like weather, and tend to be informed by experiences from previous years. With the onset of climate change, however, these notions of “normal” weather are now regularly challenged, as temperatures lunge from one extreme to the other  and “epic” winter storms work their way towards us weekly.

Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska - James Balog

In monitoring the toll that climate change is exacting globally, there are also certain established notions of normalcy, otherwise known as “baselines,” people turn to when assessing damage or the extent of change.

One project aims to establish such a baseline through the constant photographing of glaciers around the world, while serving the dual purpose of creating a memory of a rapidly and permanently changing landscape. The Extreme Ice Survey, founded in 2007 by nature photojournalist and extreme adventurer James Balog, has scaled harsh terrain in order to mount 28 cameras far above 13 glaciers around the world in places of high scientific value, such as Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalaya, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains (U.S.), South America and Antarctica.

Ilulissat Isfjord, Greenland - James Balog

The Extreme Ice Survey was the subject of the Academy Award nominated documentary feature film “Chasing Ice” (2012), which chronicled the EIS team’s expedition to document rapid glacial melt in the Arctic Circle, and, in fact, captured the largest glacial ice break-up (calving) ever recorded on film; roughly 7.4 cubic km of ice breaking away and tumbling off of the Ilulissat glacier in Greenland. The highly anticipated sequel “Chasing Ice II,” which follows Mr. Balog’s journey to Antarctica is expected in the next few years.

So, what is the take-away message of such an extreme project? In a recent interview with ABC News, Mr. Balog likens glacial melt and calving to “seeing, touching, hearing, and feeling climate change in action. It’s happening right now, all around us,” he declares. 

March 18, 2014

Visualizing Climate Change: The HighWaterLine

Climate change is a downright abstract concept to get your head around. The science is complicated, the effects are broad yet nuanced, and not everyone will be impacted in the same way. So, what is an impactful way to represent the dangers posed by climate change that everyone can understand?

One project is raising eyebrows by literally drawing a line through the community. The HighWaterLine is a visual representation of projected, future sea-level rise as a result of global warming and more frequent and stronger storms and storm surges. Using various media, such as a blue chalk outline, or even a human chain, a revised flood zone based on current climate data is delineated within an urban/suburban area, bringing the reality of a warming planet home to local residents.

HighWaterLine | NYC, Brooklyn, 2007 Attribute: Hose Cedeno

The HighWaterLine is the brainchild of NYC-based artist, Eve Mosher, who initially based the project on climate change data contained within a NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies report issued in 2001. Having read the report and witnessing a watered-down response from public officials, Ms. Mosher was determined to take matters into her own hands.

After nearly eight months of research and planning, Ms. Mosher installed the first iteration of The HighWaterLine in August 2007 along 70 miles of coastline in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, demarcating the 10 foot about sea level rise with a 4-inch wide blue chalk line.

To encourage others to replicate the project in their own communities, Ms. Mosher devised a HighWaterLine “Action Guide,” in essence a simplified toolkit of knowledge bites and best practices, to ensure easy replication of the project elsewhere. 

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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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