How not giving a shit will kill you
Adam Foley, Silent Uproar's Head of Production
Way back when theatre was a thing we were allowed to do, I was (as part of Silent Uproar) making a show about climate change- particularly about climate apathy and the consequences of it. Now however us theatre-making types are all sat at home, noses against the glass, watching the world of COVID and wondering when we can get back to our real lives. The more I watch the more I notice the worrying parallel forming between some parts of the population’s attitude towards COVID and the attitudes of climate apathy.
But what the hell is climate apathy? Well, it’s worryingly common for a start. However it is not denying the climate emergency is happening and it’s certainly not being out on the street chanting “fuck the polar bears”. It’s the acceptance that we are just experiencing that global warming thing we’ve been told about since we started school, that there isn’t much point doing anything. No guilt needed as you see your plastic cutlery go in the bin on your flight to Prague for the weekend: climate apathy is a slow slide into ‘meh’, a tepid lack of concern over climate change.
What’s that got to do with right now?
Watching the world of COVID it feels like we are seeing a fast-forward version of the kinds of problems we are facing with climate apathy. Powerful people denying the work of scientists, putting the fate of their financial economy in front of the health of their people, some American states deciding it’s easier to pretend the problem isn’t there or will just go away. We also have a public growing weary of this threat they can’t directly see despite the figures on the news. All of which feels worryingly familiar when you look at the fight against the Climate Emergency.
We can personally do to help the fight against the Climate Emergency in the same way we can personally do things to help the fight against COVID. In both cases en masse public action, changing our personal behaviour, buys time for government and industry to tackle the root of the problem. Flattening the curve so we can find a vaccine before the virus kills swathes of us or reducing our footprint so they can find alternatives to fossil fuels before we boil away life as we know it. However in both cases when we don’t see the fruits of our labour, when we don’t see vaccines or nuclear fusion, we start to become apathetic to a widely acknowledged danger and take it less seriously, prioritising it less. Especially when it doesn’t seem like government or industry are fighting the same fight- we find it hard to stay alert on our social distancing whilst also being told that we can nip out for a pint if we want to. Likewise we find it hard to stay motivated to use our cars less when they are building new fracking sites in the UK- this breeds apathy because it makes our actions feel futile.
Why it is the way it is
The sad part is that there is a concrete reason for this futility: our health and future are not profitable enough right now to be a market concern. Keeping workers safely at home is expensive, switching away from fossil fuels is expensive and the motivation of a capitalist society is money not morality. We want change but nothing in a capitalist society will change unless it offers to make the powerful rich.
Change can happen by threatening the wealth of the powerful, however apathy can then be used as a defence against expensive change. Masses of people calling on fast food to be more responsible (nearly half a million through one Sum of Us campaign to MacDonald’s alone) threatened income so we were given paper straws to put through the plastic lids of the plastic lined single use cups and were told that we had been listened to. After all of the campaigning effort this was the resulting change, exhausting those who participated and showing that further change would be even harder, it didn’t feel like big business taking action on the climate emergency so much as big business taking action to defend its income. Compounding apathy by making change feel like a monumental effort can be a means to defend income for the future, it’s not the only defence however: you’ll often see arguments designed to challenge whether your campaign is doing the moral thing. After all it is somebody’s job to make those single use cups and aren’t you a monster to want to take that away from them? This is tough because in a way they are right. Except that you will still need to make the re-useable cups and they will now need to be collected and washed in the restaurant so numbers of jobs might not actually change much… but the locations will change… from places where the minimum wage is quite low to places where it is relatively high. The cynical amongst you might consider that the motivation for this kind of argument isn’t always the retention of jobs but often the retention of corporate wealth.
Sadly neither COVID nor the climate emergency are great levellers of the class system, you can’t appeal to of those behind big business in terms of empathy because in the same way that it is not the rich who are being put in harm’s way during the pandemic they are shielded from the pointy end of climate emergency. It won’t be the rich who are trapped in housing on expanding flood plains, unable to afford air purifiers as the climate disaster unfolds- it will be the shop workers and delivery drivers who are on the front line right now. (‘Special Rapporteur’ on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston wrote a report warning of an impending ‘climate apartheid’ along economic lines that makes for some frightening reading.) Economic status insulates those at the top of the pyramid from global issues like COVID and the climate emergency and creates an empathy gap that is very difficult to get across. We have seen it in recent months as the incredibly well off rent second homes in the country to hide from the pandemic, tweeting distain from large gardens at people living in blocks of flats trying to share some park land. Meaningful change in the fight against the climate emergency can be brought to a standstill by apathy from the unaffected at the top of the financial pyramid meeting apathy from those feeling powerless at the bottom. This stalemate could persist despite most of us knowing that if we leave things as they are most of us will die along with the other ecosystems on this planet in a few generations time, and that life is going to get pretty frightening in the lead up to this.
But why is Silent Uproar talking to you about this? I am a lighting designer and a production manager! I can’t give you a vaccine or a hydrogen fuel cell! I am not in the business of science and patents- but I am in the business of ideas… which is why the apathy problem is something I think all of us as theatre makers can do something with.
Silent Uproar’s Approach
The ideas around climate apathy and how we can dismantle it have been central in the making of our (subtly titled) new show- Thank You for Doing Nothing, where shareholders from the future come back in time to thank us all for helping them become mega-rich by doing sweet FA right now. It isn’t subtle, it isn’t even trying to be- it aims to create a fun night out that tackles climate apathy head on and turn its audience into activists. The ethos carries on into the way we were making the show and our aim of creating a carbon neutral tour, which is bloody ambitious but worth trying. We are taking these steps in part so that we can help and advice others to do the same, find out what transfers to a smaller scale and shout about it.
We were in rehearsals and ready to smash it when COVID hit and put the kibosh on everything. Now that it is looking like things might be able to get things off the ground again (the tour is mostly rebooked for next year) we can start sharing what the team are doing to reduce the ecological impact of a show that hopes to have a big social impact on the prevalence of climate apathy.
So yeah, expect a bit more from me over the next few months: practical thoughts on carbon offsetting, a deep dive on biodiesel and a climate science glossary to bust that confusing jargon. Also look out for some videos when we eventually get out on tour next year, it will all be on our website and all over socials etc. ‘till then: ta-ra.