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The extreme whether continues: how to live and write in the Anthropocene?

Act I of Karen Malpede’s play Extreme Whether appears in the Fall 2016 issue of KROnline.

How to live in the Anthropocene? We are the first to cross this boundary from a natural world into a human-induced climate: an Earth so littered with nuclear waste, plastic particles, fertilizer and other chemical run-offs, with an atmosphere and oceans so choked by our rising CO2 and methane emissions that human beings are now not “in control,” not “willfully,” but mindlessly—we, the brainy species, impacting the world for all and for the rest of time.[1]

The extreme weather events of the summer of 2016 familiarize the reality. The climate that we knew is no longer—massive fires in the West, one-thousand-year floods in the South, prolonged heat waves in the Midwest and Northeast, earthquakes brought about by fracking, unusually fierce tornadoes, and hurricanes—more people are climate refugees even within our borders, not to mention those in the Middle East running from conflagrations set off by imperial wars for oil and in Syria by drought. These wars create ever-widening swaths of human and ecological disaster zones.

If we do nothing to combat rising temperatures, rising sea levels will wipe out our coastal cities.

How shall we live together in a heating world of increasing dangers? (One August afternoon, it was nearly too hot to walk my elder dogs, aware that their pads were stinging on the hot cement, yet, doggedly, we continued on.) What inner resources: intrepidness, bravery, generosity, courage, will we find and call upon? Patience, persistence. Fear. Selflessness?

We ought to have had an international day of mourning when we crossed the threshold to the Anthropocene. We ought to have bowed our heads.

There is still time, the scientists say, but there is not much time, they say. Time is running out. We are about to raise the planet’s heat over and above the 1.5-degree Celsius level agreed upon in Paris to be the uppermost temperature rise the planet can endure, without, that is, mayhem. Nevertheless, the U.S. cannot ratify a climate treaty to keep the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius; such a treaty would not pass the U.S. Congress. So the nations of the world in Paris signed an agreement that they “should” try to do this, not that they would.

Theater, poetry, speaks to the contemplative self. We are doing nothing but watching, listening. In such moments we are harmless. We might be gathering energy necessary for doing, but doing what? It matters suddenly, more than ever, what stories are told, and which are heard. And that we get them out.

The economic censorship of art is also real, and perhaps nowhere so real as when it comes to climate change art; boards of directors of theaters and foundations are often heavily invested in fossil fuels and quite simply do not want to fund work that might critique a major income source. Otherwise our stages would be filled with plays that asked us to know, experience, and discuss where we are now, where we are heading and, perhaps, with a culture that spoke to this moment we could mobilize to avert the very worst effects of what now is being brought on by our mindless addiction to fossil fuels.

I am struggling with all these questions, the what and the how, as I try to see my way forward. After writing and premiering, with a crowd-source funding campaign, Extreme Whether, I came to a crushing halt. I need time, I say. I need peace. I need to find a way to get out of New York, into the country for awhile. I should stop. What is it I must write?

Extreme Whether was written in 2013. That play is a warning, but as I write the next, it might really be too late. And then the question looms: how do we live on, love on, work on in the Anthropocene? What do we need to know, to think about, contemplate and do? How will we need to act? Theater is about action. What actions must we, or will we, take?

Grief, I know. I have known grief, like everyone else, but this is a more encompassing grief, not just the sorrow over the loss of a particular life. That I do know—my oldest friend, a great artist, and my mother have died within the past year. But this grief that I speak of is larger, again, as our loss is larger, than grieving for one or even two dear ones who lived long lives and died at the moment their physical bodies simply gave out. Nothing one can do about that. Except perhaps we have a metaphor here because life cannot continue just as a matter of will. Neither my friend nor my mother wanted to die. Their willpower, their interest in life, even as, in one case, hearing and sight went, and in the other dementia set in, urged them on. They wanted nothing more than to continue to live, and they fought, we would say, to the last minute. But their physical bodies gave out.

What if everyone alive today all over the planet could live forever? Only we would have to stop extracting fossil fuels: coal, oil, gas; give up plastic and end industrial agriculture—become vegetarian or vegan (all possible, in fact). We would have to stop our wasteful ways. We would do with less but live forever. Okay? Who would not agree?

Death is the problem. Not death per se, but our knowledge of our own demise. We might as well use up, eat up, leave nothing much behind. If we have to go why not?

Why won’t we see? The Earth is our physical body. Though we may want to live on, the Earth is giving out.

Memory is important. The elders who remember how things were and the elders who have struggled throughout their lives for environmental justice, racial justice, and for peace, they must have a place as characters. As, indeed, Uncle has a place of prominence in Extreme Whether. But I think more specifically, now, about a certain world-famous linguist whom I know (whose recent theories I am just now making my way through). He struggles with his perception that humans are unique as language producers, creators, that is, of thought, in a world he perceives as quite literally going to hell. I think of dramatizing someone inspired by him: the scholar, the eminent rationalist, not the wizened countryman-dreamer, Uncle, but a man who thinks nonstop even as thought leads him deeper into the quandary of all he does not know, and does not know how to stop. So, I begin to have the outline of a character. And this is a character my long-time collaborator, George Bartenieff, who played Uncle, and who also knows my friend, could beautifully play.

This is some of what my emerging character knows about language: Somewhere between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand years ago, modern humans began to speak. And here’s the thing, this one-time absolutely unique biological evolutionary lurch happened because of what was inside, not outside, ourselves. We did not speak to communicate about the outside world. We spoke in order to think. And what obsesses my character is this: why, given a capacity unique in all the world to speak abstractly of feelings and ideas, to think, have we become the most destructive species the world has ever known, on the brink, now, despite or because of thinking, of destroying life.

His daughter is a scientist grappling with whether or not to reproduce in a near-future world in which there are many new environmental threats to the fetus. How to cope? How to fix? Dare to risk? Is there any way to ensure the health of a baby? She and her lesbian partner, a public health official, are wondering even as they struggle with their irresistible biological urge to bring children to the world.

Because, no matter what, we must have the Youth with their energy and will, their sexual urges, their promise, their adventuring and daring. We must have youth especially in the dangerous world of the Anthropocene.

Therefore, the prospective parents, scientist, and public health official figure out how to produce a species with special adaptive powers. Who doesn’t want to give their children the best chance? Perhaps, a hybrid species would work. Perhaps a wolf-child—there is all that mythology about wolves, and even of human children being raised by wolves—an adaptive species with our language ability, our bipedal-ness, our opposable thumb, who could hit the ground running, sinuous, powerful, with superior sense of smell, quick response to danger, strength, the ability to leap and strike.

The Elder lives inside a bubble; quite literally, he is being preserved, kept alive, that is, in a reversal of Scheherazade, by the amazing stories that are told to him each night. Eve, his daughter, comes back from the outside world with the tales of the hybrid Young making their way. He is being kept alive by the intensity of his interest, by his need to think this all through, to find the meaning in action. And she is keeping him alive with her words, the fantastical tales she weaves of life in the Anthropocene. Language becomes the life-giving force.

The Elder will have both a human body and also the body of the wise owl (an easy costume transition I’ve already spoken with our costume designer about—from an overcoat flipped into a feather coat, it can be done in full view). So our Elder transitions from human life into bird form. It’s a thought. The spirit often seems to loft at the moment of death—out the window where birds fly. He moves from Man to Owl, back again, because he is driven, because his wolverine grandchildren are making their way in the endangered world and he must watch over and then think through the meanings of this.

The satyr play comes after the tragedy and I fear we are now living the post-tragic moment. The tragic choice has already been taken—fifteen years of endless war instead of attending to what asked our attention, protecting, conserving Earth and her creatures. But we have scant examples of what the ancient satyr play was and do not actually know what it was meant to do. Re-unite the human with the animal. Bring nurturing sexuality back, the wild urge to procreate, live, even in the aftermath of a stage littered with corpses, hearts filled with remorse. And perhaps there is something here that the wise Owl-Man oversees. Perhaps, somehow, his questions are not answered, but posed anew in a new generative form, once we are no longer only set apart as language-producers but have had to reclaim a wilder, more primitive self and to learn our place in the rewilding of the world. Insofar as animals can be said to “think” it is observable that they do so feelingly. Human creatures need to think with our hearts, no longer of profits and exploitation, but of communion and conservation. Art does this best for human creatures. Poetry wakes and feeds the thinking heart. Poetry allows us to contain the opposites that come with metaphor and character. Poetry opens us up.

Whatever the Anthropocene has in store, there is no question but that it will be demanding of all of our resources, both intellectual and physical. It will ask of us a new spiritual understanding, a stern, new morality, increased open-heartedness, and a new knowledge of why we are.

A drama that sits on the cusp of futurism yet is fully responsible to the now.

[1] “And there’s evidence in the geological record indeed, scientists say that nuclear bomb testing, industrial agriculture, human-caused global warming, and the proliferation of plastic across the globe have so profoundly altered the planet that it is time to declare the 11,700 year Holocene over.”  The Anthropocene Is Here: Humanity Has Pushed Earth into a New Epoch, Deirdre Fulton.