The Great Silence - How The Arts Are Ignoring Climate And Environmental Isues
Last year, plays representing both sides of the climate debate ran simultaneously in London’s West End. The Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management – the members of which look after sewage works, among other things – is about to launch a manifesto on the arts. And researching the life of the murdered rainforest campaigner Chico Mendes for an opera set an award-winning composer, Aubrey Meyer, off on a road that led to his devising a widely acclaimed method of sharing out carbon emissions.
But there is remarkably little ferment going on. And much of what is produced is poor. Greenland, the National Theatre’s attempt last summer to explore “the big questions around climate change”, was widely derided as dire, especially compared to the Royal Court’s more sceptical The Heretic. Roland Emmerich’s equally awful The Day After Tomorrow grossly exaggerated the scientific evidence. And even McEwan’s book is regarded as falling short of his best.
Moreover – despite making his climate scientist thoroughly repellent – the celebrated author was attacked for allowing ideology to contaminate his art. It is a common enough accusation, and one that serves as a considerable deterrent to engagement. As sculptor Heather Ackroyd said at Hay: “Artists are free-ranging, free-thinking and, at times, free radicals. Many are reluctant to be drawn into some kind of movement.”
And yet great artists have effectively embraced causes in the past. Picasso’s Guernica helped bring the Spanish Civil War to world attention. Dickens’s and Gaskell’s portrayal of the social inequities of 19th century Britain proved catalytic, as did Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More recently, theatre has spearheaded the fight for freedom in Belarus, artists such as Barbara Kruger and Banksy impart a strong social message – and Earthrise, the classic photograph of the Earth from space, helped give rise to the modern environmental movement.