From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011
Halfway through Brecht’s “Life of Galileo”, there’s a moment when a character called Little Monk tells the world’s most bullish scientist why he should shut up about his latest discovery. The Little Priest tells Galileo about his parents, peasants in Campagna, who know a great deal about olive trees, and not much else. Life is harsh; his father’s back is bent, his mother is exhausted from rearing children, but each day of their lives they have been heartened by the knowledge that God watches over them.
The Little Priest asks Galileo to think about how his parents would feel if he were to say that they lived on a lump of stone and that this stone twists through the universe around a star, and that this star is itself just one among countless other stars. All this may be true, the Little Priest says, but for his mum and dad, the discovery—to paraphrase—would be a real downer.
When “Life of Galileo” opened in Beverley Hills in 1947 with Charles Laughton in the lead, part of its power came from the knowledge that the scientific discovery at the forefront of the audience’s mind was not the four moons of Jupiter, but the atomic bombs that had exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki two years before. This was as daunting a new fact as anything that the Campagnan peasants might have faced three centuries earlier.
Every big scientific moment is also a cultural one. The Lisbon earthquake that killed an estimated 30,000 people in 1755 gave birth to the science of seismology. It also inspired writings by Kant, Rousseau and, most famously, Voltaire, who describes the earthquake in “Candide”, and the impact it had on the notion that there was a benevolent God watching over “the best of all possible worlds”. A century later, the ideas in Darwin’s “Origin of Species” would be played out, absorbed and contested in the novels of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Fifty years after that, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity paved the way for modernism in all the arts.
This process continues today. From the latest novel by Ian McEwan to a sculpture by Antony Gormley to a dance piece by Siobhan Davies, more and more artists are drawn to the issues that arise from the findings of climate scientists. Some of these artistic efforts, such as recent plays at the National Theatre and the Royal Court in London, have been merely topical, addressing the theme as if it is a subject that could be researched and digested in six months and then presented either as an earnest documentary drama (at the National) or the pretext for some very funny, if inaccurate, jokes (at the Royal Court). There has only been one playwright who has tackled the subject with wit and authority—Steve Waters, with his play “The Contingency Plan”. He gave a sense that he had lived with these issues for years. But the best example so far of a work of art that has been inspired by climate science is Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road”. McCarthy listened hard to what climate scientists were telling him and then wrote a masterpiece that makes no direct mention of the subject. He didn’t have to. As Seamus Heaney has remarked in another context, “environmental issues have to a large extent changed the mind of poetry”.
This may be the moment, in my last Going Green column, to spell out this column’s idea of going green. It is not first and foremost about changing to low-energy lightbulbs, driving a Prius, cutting back on flights, insulating your loft or growing vegetables on your roof. All these are worth doing, so long as you remember the words of the British government’s chief scientific adviser, David Mackay—“If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.” Going green is more about absorbing the scientific consensus that has emerged over the last 50 years: resources are finite, the planet is fragile, our activities are having a dangerous impact on the atmosphere. To take this on board is to change the way you see the world. Even people who resent the sanctimonious tendencies of the greens can see that a great cultural shift has taken place; one that, in the opinion of Tim Smit, who founded the Eden Project in Cornwall, may turn out to be as far-reaching as the Renaissance or the Reformation.
Does that mean that art-lovers and theatre-goers are in for many more gloomy, doom-laden paintings and plays? Perhaps not. The response from artists is moving rapidly away from the clichés of collapsing icesheets and polar bears perched on lonely icebergs. More and more, playwrights, directors and artists talk about approaching this subject through ideas of resilience, survival, adaptation and improvisation. They want to move audiences through stories of hope, endurance and resourcefulness. And that takes us back to the beginnings of narrative art, to Homer and his hero, Odysseus the Cunning.
If sustainability is about one thing, it’s survival. Probably the most famous story of all about survival appears in “One Thousand and One Nights”. Scheherazade volunteers to marry King Shahryar knowing it is his custom to take a virgin in marriage each night and kill her the next morning. She survives from one night to the next by telling stories that never quite finish. It’s her art that keeps her alive. But it does so in two ways. Night by night, story by story, she effects a change in the king’s cruel heart, awakening his imagination and sympathy. After a thousand and one nights, the king reveals his love for her. By surviving, Scheherazade shows that art not only reflects the world, it changes it too.
Robert Butler blogs on culture and the environment at the Ashden Directory. He is one of the editors of “Culture and Climate Change: Recordings”.
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