Through Persistent Acts, I look at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? My Persistent Acts series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre. The Persistent Acts series continues, juxtaposing questions from Naomi Klein’s recent book No Is Not Enough with Blake Sugarman’s solo performance, Prelude to the Apocalypse (For What It’s Worth).
Climate change. Refugee crisis. Gun control. Globalization. Reproductive rights. Hunger. Poverty. Obviously, this isn’t the first time in history that systems have gone awry. As I consider our current political climate and the facts of climate science, I wonder what the tipping point will be: when the higher education bubble will burst, when Social Security will run out, when racial and economic divides will become full-on civil wars, when the Earth will no longer sustain life as we know it. When will the systems that have gotten us to where we are collapse, or, ideally, when will power and resources become equitably and sustainably redistributed? I wonder when my society will utter a collective “enough” with the destructive status quo, and the work of activists and progressive organizers will become the norm.
I also think about “enough” in terms of what I do to thwart the daunting “when” questions. Am I doing enough? In the midst of the current political shitshow, I’ve turned to Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. In addition to outlining the atrocities of the current US administration, and therefore justifying my anger, Klein highlights successful resistances to oppressive and pollutive systems, including instances of unionizing laborers, countering exploitative globalization, and more. She combines her experiences in journalism and activism to unpack the power dynamics that led us to our current socio-political system. Klein especially criticizes neoliberalism, an ideological project which, as she describes, “holds that the market is always right, regulation is always wrong, private is good and public is bad, and taxes that support public services are the worst of all.” As a major influencer on global policy, neoliberalism has structured cultural and political values around capital, which is to say not ecosystems and especially not sustainable energy. The thesis of No Is Not Enough posits that in undoing the damage of hierarchical ideologies like neoliberalism, we must not only say “No,” we must forge realistic alternative value systems – a series of “Yeses” to rally behind.
Klein offers an option, composed by activists and union organizers, called The Leap Manifesto: A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another. A project spearheaded by sixty movement leaders in Canada, The Leap Manifesto is focused on “building a world based on caring for the earth and one another.” It looks to restructure cultural values, prioritizing Indigenous sovereignty, clean energy, and public infrastructure. Jobs that are already low-carbon, such as teachers, nurses, social workers are valuable in our culture and should be treated as such. This looks like, in one of my favorite examples, the expanding purpose and value of a postal worker, who is not only responsible for delivering mail in a green vehicle, but can also deliver fresh meals to the sick and elderly. Taking a step further, The Leap, an ongoing project that has grown out of The Leap Manifesto, seeks to build places like post offices as community hubs, “where residents can recharge electric vehicles; individuals and businesses can do an end run around the big banks and get a loan to start an energy co-op.” The Leap Manifesto, by placing value on jobs outside of the carbon economy, lays out realistic ways to leap Western culture into sustainable systems, because we don’t have the time for incremental change. This is where my theatre practice comes in, because I utilize and participate in theatre to instigate difficult conversations and practice alternative, sustainable realities, which The Leap exemplifies and offers. My introduction to The Leap is juxtaposed by my recent theatregoing experience at Prelude to the Apocalypse (For What It’s Worth) by Blake Sugarman.
I met Blake working on Theater In Asylum’s The Debates. Blake is an artist and activist who uses his solo performances to interrogate dominant ideologies, similar to the ones dissected in No Is Not Enough. I am continually motivated by the ways in which he brings his activism to his art, and vice versa. For Prelude to the Apocalypse, Blake’s activism is heavily featured, as his program note shouts out to Sunrise, a burgeoning movement of young people fighting for climate action. Knowing that Sunrise was in the context of the show, I was curious to see what stories, questions, and feelings would arise.
Part of the show dropped me into despair, as Blake juxtaposes stories of climate deniers with the hard facts of climate science. Tackling climate issues raises all kinds of questions, which Blake posits throughout the show – from how we relate to one another, to what effect time has on us, to whether we’re paying attention. By the end of the performance, Blake fully breaks the fourth wall, coming into the audience, offering a “penny for our thoughts” in response to the question “What is enough?” This was at once a vulnerable and powerful position to be in: the opportunity to voice my politicized view with a room of strangers.
I shared that my go-to thought of “enough” is life off the grid. That “doing enough” looks like “unplugging” myself from our current energy grid, living without a cell phone, or any other mode of digital communication. In other words, to do “enough” on climate change is to forgo my life as I know it. But would taking my own life off the grid have an impact on our national or global energy policy? To me, the disaster of capitalism is the underlying factor in human-caused climate change, and so my individual choices won’t undo such a deeply ingrained system that puts economic profits over people’s lives. So, is it enough to take an ideological stance against a capitalist structure? If such an ideology is backed up by realistic alternatives, then yes, in my mind that is enough to get us started on the work of publicizing and modeling a more equitable way of life.
Yes, it does feel like we’re presently in a prelude to the apocalypse. But as Blake illuminates, that’s only for what it’s worth, not an end-all-be-all outlook. Something is happening here, and it’s up to the people – not greedy governments – to build the world we need, one that is equitable for all beings, one that is sustainable for future generations. This work is happening, especially in grass-roots organizing, so that whether or not that tipping point or the apocalypse arrives, people are working to take the future into their own hands.
(Top image: Blake Sugarman.)
Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.