At the beginning of 2021, I chose a sequence of three books on the climate crisis. In a sense, I curated some reading to experiment on myself, because I wanted to find out how different kinds of books worked on me.
I’m a performance maker, and I had been working creatively around the ecological and climate crisis but had still been holding myself back from it. So my first experiment was a performance and the second was the books.
In general, I am fascinated by forms: artistic forms, psychotherapeutic forms, literary forms, institutional structures, scientific experiments, political systems, trials of new approaches to irrigation, forms of dialogue.
Most of these we don’t think about in terms of play because they are serious, they are real, grown-up forms. But one of my questions as an artist is what happens when we shift the boundaries – when a serious experiment spills into an artistic form and when play spills into our processes of creating or building ways of living – toy worlds that become real as we experiment with them.
We are in a moment in which we don’t really know where we’re heading and we can’t know what this crisis will ask of us. Where is the point of balance between creativity, risk and responsibility when we play with new forms? How can I work out my own forms for living? The two experiments I describe below were both a part of my process of seeking a deeper engagement with the climate crisis.
Experiment 1: speculative non-fiction
Prior to the book experiment, I had made a performance, Water is Attracted to Water. It mixed non-fiction (science, autobiography, history) with a speculative approach to imagining relationships between ourselves and with our environment and water. I call this form speculative non-fiction. We played with different dynamics and tasks – celebration and vulnerability, humour and grief - to explore how we can connect across our emotions, embodiment and imagination. We explored how speculative heightened versions of ourselves and our relationships allowed us to go into difficult emotional territory while containing it in an artistic frame - what it is to be both me and not me on stage.
There was an argument, for example, about flying on tour. This was a real argument we had one night in a bar. We shaped it and explored it, and played it out again and again until it became an example of what it means to argue. However, it still held the real argument inside it - both real and not real. This means our emotions are held in the work, but they are not raw; a kind of practiced vulnerability. The idea was to create a space that is hospitable to feelings that we and the audience might otherwise be scared of. At the same time, I embedded a ritual in the work, an experiment with the effects on me of repeating a form and in sharing that process with our audiences.
Image by Evgenia Bourzoukou
And I really did want to find out what would happen, playing out a process of celebrating, remembering, crying, dancing, arguing, wishing, because although we are performing and it isn’t real, at the same time, it is real, isn’t it.
Experiment 2: the books
Unfortunately, after one outing, Covid-19 cancelled our tour, so we never found out if repeating the argument and throwing a bit of water would really have stopped me being scared.
This is how I came to set myself the reading experiment though. I knew the science, I’d kept up to date. I was collaborating with a scientist and drawing on climate psychology in my work. And yet, there was still a big ‘no’. A refusal to accept the climate crisis in my body, my emotions, my decisions.
So what books did I read? And what did the books do? I decided to sequence them like this:
- The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis (2020) by Christina Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, for a practical and determined attempt to envision specific action and change. I thought that might call me into action somehow.
- The Uninhabitable Earth (2019) by David Wallace-Wells for an in-depth brutal reinforcement of my understanding of how bad things are.
- Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth (2020) by Margaret Klein Salamon. I can’t stand self-help books. But I thought I should probably try just for the experiment, to see what happened.
The rules were that I had to read in the order I’d set, with no overlap and no other books. I had to try to be open to what each book was attempting on its own terms – as far as possible not to defend myself against the books. And here are the results.
The Future We Choose
By evoking worst and best case scenarios (the world we’re creating and the world we need to create) and then laying out three mindsets and ten actions, the authors’ stubborn optimism is embedded in the form as well as content.
I found the best-case scenario more challenging than I expected though. It felt like a future I could only briefly conceive of before immediately feeling its loss. This made me realise that sometimes the fear of false hope or disappointment or failure, can also be a barrier to action.
What does this book do? It grounds me. By sharing their journey, their fears and struggle in the process of bringing about the Paris agreement, it also makes my own fear more manageable.
The Uninhabitable Earth
This was a tough read. Look at the contents page! I went from 10 positive actions in the previous book, straight into 12 elements of chaos. Also Wallace-Wells doesn’t number them. Numbering things is such a comfort.
The Uninhabitable Earth is very detailed, very well researched, but what does it do? I would say it fully informs the reader, and relentlessly strips away hope. My conception of hope is not even one based on an optimistic future. Hope is play. Interplay. It is simply a continuing process of living from where we are - moving or co-becoming in a direction that opens up potentialities rather stultifies them. I’m not asking for much.
This is an excellent book though, if you really want to know how bad the crisis is in a lot of detail. I read it and I survived. But I had to actively engage with my threat responses, where the threat was this book.
Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth
I didn’t want to read this book. The contents page is a series of steps, (numbered again) none of which I wished to take, leading to a conclusion I absolutely didn’t want.
Step 1: Face Climate Truth. Would rather not.
Step 2 Welcome fear, grief and other painful feelings. Useful, but again, not appealing.
Step 3, Reimagine your life story. Oh crikey!
Step 4, Understand and enter Emergency Mode. Don’t want to.
Step 5, Join the climate emergency movement. I don’t like protests. I’m sound-sensitive.
Conclusion: Live as a climate warrior. Please let me put this book down.
So I’m not including a picture of the book cover. My one act of resistance! But I did read it. I objected to the construction of the climate ‘hero’ or ‘warrior’. However, I appreciated that the author discussed working on her narcissistic thoughts in her own process. Very honest. However, she made me do little tasks at the end of each chapter. I hated this. But, I’d set the rule that I’d approach each book on its own terms, so no avoidance. One task was useful in the end: work out how many hours a week you can dedicate to the climate crisis. I did.
What does this book do? It irritates me.
The process of addressing ourselves to the climate crisis and being present with it is hard. This is not news. How do we face difficult truths? Slowly, painfully, playfully, purposefully perhaps. And I’m sure there are many people who got there quicker than me. I needed two years on a performance about grief and vulnerability, two years on the Water performance, then months in a pandemic and a weird book experiment before I could even get myself to a CPA event.
And now, I am thinking again about what this crisis asks of us, how it changes our capacity to be touched, moved and moving. What forms will we create?
When you read this, COP26 will have begun. Will we make new political forms? Structures? Playing with forms has consequences, risks of loss. But lightness and experimentation can also open spaces and possibilities. And that is perhaps where hope is, this continuing process of living from where we are.
Written by Kate Adams - an interdisciplinary performance maker, researcher, and a member of the board for Climate Psychology Alliance.
Figueres C., & Rivett-Carnac, T (2020) The Future we Choose: surviving the climate crisis. Manilla Press.
Salamon, M. K., with Gage, M. (2020 Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. New Society Publishers.
Wallace-Wells D. (2019) The Uninhabitable Earth: a story of the future. Penguin.