November 13, 2014

Royal Court Theatre – 2071. Letter to Chris Rapley, 12th November 2014

Dear Chris,

first may I say how much I enjoyed the performance of 2071 at the Royal Court last night (November 12th). As an admirer of Duncan MacMillan's climate change play Lungs I confess I was hoping for another play, rather than a scientific monologue. On the other hand, the theatricality of this production is not to be denied. The scenography is stunning, in the same way black and white films can be. My spectatorial brain initially objected to the reduction of a planetary spectacle to humdrum shades of black, white and grey, but then the subliminal pattern-loving subconscious kicked in and revelled in the earthly fusion of shapes, musical sounds, rhythms, maps and numbers shifting, turning, spiralling behind and in tune with you as you spoke.

For me, the latest IPCC Assessment Report (AR) had seemed to put more emphasis on adaptation than mitigation, for what really comes over in the fragments I have read during the year is our vulnerability in the face of the changes human beings are inflicting on the climate system. It was good to hear a more upbeat message, even if I slightly despaired internally at the idea that human beings will be able to do the equivalent of sticking to a strict diet through generations, for hundreds of years.

Thank you, also, for digesting (in the space of an intense 75 minutes) several times the four and a half kilos in physical weight describing just one section of the IPCC AR, and for your no-holds-barred delivery of science. I revelled in the repetition of beautiful words such as cryosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and the penny dropped on the question I wanted to ask at the start. Delivering a lecture, why did you need a playwright? By the end I had answered my own question. We non-scientists cannot hope to understand the millions of recondite corners in the truly monumental work of the IPCC, but can happily play with words and connect to the physicality behind the science, just as you did - land, water, air, sun, sea-level, Argo floats, ice-house, collapse, interglacial, swamp forests, ice sheets, equilibrium.

There is one issue I really want to challenge you on. You stated that the necessary shift away from fossil fuels will render coal and oil reserves economically worthless. This idea - economic worth - begs further exploration. How it is used here suggests an embeddedness in the very culture your message would have us escape from. Considering the reason for the title of your monologue, I cautiously mention the common perception that informal care (such as grand-parenting) is economically worthless. This cannot be true. The part it plays in the societal ecosystem is beyond price, therefore its economic value (alongside many other kinds of value, tangible and intangible) is, by implication, considerable. The economy is in the social system and the social system is in the economy. Returning to your fossil fuel point, in a zero carbon world fossil fuel reserves are economically worthless. Yes, but the part they play in the ecosystem when still under the ground is beyond price therefore their economic value left under the ground (alongside many other kinds of value) is potentially enormous. The economy is within and subsidiary to the ecosystem therefore the ecosystem is also woven through the fabric of the economy; the problem is the narrow definition of economic worth.

I could not agree more with your conclusion. Science enlightens. It cannot tell us how we want to think, or live. What we need is the Brechtian moment in which we wake up to the fact that we have choices. So, I return to Duncan MacMillan's play Lungs. What I would really love to see is the two together, the 2071 ecomonologue followed by the visceral ecotheatrical dialogue.

Creatives: Duncan MacMillan and Chris Rapley. Direction: Katie Mitchell.


F. Carmichael and M.G. Egolani (2013). 'Overlooked and undervalued: the caring contribution of older people', International Journal of Social Economics, 42 (5).

Duncan MacMillan (2011). Lungs (London: Oberon Books).

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