Do you listen when we perform our Eco-Anxiety?

Contributor: Soji Cole, Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD program at Brock University, Ontario Canada.

The title of this reflection appears as a question because the issues around anthropogenic activities call for constant questioning. There have been multifarious and complex interventions from climatologists, and there is a broad spectrum of ongoing campaigns from scientists, artists, humanists, spiritualists and even religionists; all in the bid to trigger changes in human activities to minimize the effect of the climate crisis. The results have not been very impressive, and so, questioning the conditions and activities around the issue of sustaining the global ecosystem and preventing it from further destruction must be an ongoing debate. In the introduction to the book, Eco-Anxiety and Pandemic Distress: Psychological Perspectives on Resilience and Interconnectedness (2023), Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey argue that; “Past researchers have proposed varied definitions for eco-anxiety— for example, “a chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017, p. 68) and “the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse” (Albrecht, 2012, p. 250)” (p. 2). Taking cues from these definitions, eco-anxiety is the consequence of a general fear, arising from an imagined human future without the support of non-human natural eco-system that could sustain that future. This premonition is sustained by the overwhelming negative impacts of humans on the non-human natural ecosystem.

Over the last couple of years, I have made contributions to the subject of sustainability and the global ecosystem. My special focus has been to explore how drama and theatre performance can generate impactful meaning in the global understanding of the human ecosystem as well as how to mitigate further climate disasters. This is important as it is increasingly apparent that the arts and the humanities can fill some gaps left by science and technology in enhancing actions toward a sustainable earth.

I contributed as a co-author to a climate change essay which appeared in a published book of essays entitled Theatre Pedagogy in the Era of Climate Crisis, edited by Conrad Alexandrowicz and David Fancy, in 2021. The book was published in the Routledge Educational Series. My intention (with the co-author) in the essay was to bring to global awareness how Nigerians and Africans are using drama to respond to the climate crisis. In the last days of October, and the first few days of November in 2022, I was part of a collective (a theatre ensemble) production, initiated and led by David Fancy (drama professor at Brock University), and hosted by the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University. The stage production, titled AnthropoScene, was supported by the “Beyond Sustainability—Radical Transformation Through Systems Thinking” project. My position combined as an actor, a learner, as well as an advocate of sustainability on the platform of the Young Professional (in research) Exploration Group (YPEG), an offshoot of the “Beyond Sustainability Project”. Over several weeks of rehearsals and drawing multiple perspectives (most of which focused on the issues of climate crisis and sustainability), the stage performance eventually ran for four days in a theatre packed full of curious audience. A round-table discussion program was organized on an alternate day, by the “Beyond Sustainability—Radical Transformation Through Systems Thinking” project to discuss the stage performance and the connection to issues on sustainability and climate crisis. In May 2023, I was one of the YPEG artists/scholars that made artistic presentations in the “Transforming environment awareness with Artistic Interventions” event.  The artistic presentation was hosted and funded by the “Beyond Sustainability Project”, and it was presented to the public at the Niagara Artists Center, in the city of St. Catharines. The intervention followed series of brainstorming between three artists—who are PhD students in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program of Brock University, and who are also members of the YPEG. Over several months, we planned, researched, and eventually concluded that we might be able to generate a multifaceted form of spectacle if we focused on each participant’s specific area of artistic strength. Naturally, I stuck to drama. I drafted a script and titled it: “Are we really aware?” In the public presentation, I played a solo character who was listening to the voice of a more powerful and invisible character. The subject of the conversation was simply how the climate crisis could be curtailed by the intervention of the most important persons—you and me!

Against the backdrops of all these interventions, the problematics of three constant questions are prevalent: 1) whether through science or arts, what kind of audience do we have when we discuss issues of climate crisis? For this question, an argument could be raised that the medium or strategy ought to be more important first of all than the audience to whom the message is targeted. This argument leads to a more generative conversation, but my concern has always been that, in the age of technological multi-tasking, knowing the kind of audience you intend to appeal to is the first most important thing than the strategy or medium of such appeal. 2) Can arts offer a serious intervention in a subject such as the climate crisis, which is predominantly science encumbered? This is not a new question. This question has spanned several decades of critical assessments of human knowledge, with constant claims of epistemic segregation of other knowledge routes by the discipline of science. 3) Do you listen when we perform our Eco-Anxiety? This question is the most important one to me. Apart from being an artist who utilizes drama as a tool, I keep a mental refrain that the crux of drama is entertainment, and as such, it provides one of the most liberal means of education and discerning of information. So, if drama can provide veritable sources of education for climate crisis intervention, why are we not listening? Why are there still dangerous trends of anthropogenic activities around us? Why are there still conscious wastages of natural resources? Why is there prevalence of conspicuous consumption around us? Why?

Let me quickly negotiate the three main questions posted above.

Question 1: Whether as scientists, humanists, or artists, it may be important to ask what kind of audience we deal with when we discuss climate crisis and sustainability. Working through drama reflection in an earlier paper, I (as a co-author) suggest that there are usually three categories of audiences in the framework of climate change awareness; (1) “The informed and the concerned” (“Anthropogenic Anxiety…” p. 108). This set of audience considers appraisal of gaps in climate knowledge and anthropogenic activities and are inspired to further think and take necessary actions for change. Progress towards mitigating climate crisis is slow because this kind of audience is scanty. (2) “The informed and unconcerned” (p. 108). This category of audience has awareness of the inimical consequences of anthropogenic activities, yet they do not show concern or efforts to join the crusade against the impending disaster. Their belief is that; “…such occurrences are bound to happen anyway and there is nothing that can be done about it” (p. 109). (3)  “The absolute ignorants” (p. 109). This set of audience do not even believe that human actions could cause a tip in the natural order of the environment. Ignorance is sometimes placed on the pedestal of spirituality. “For this category of people, any such disaster only happens if a certain divine force is angry with the desires of humans” (p. 109). In my participation in the drama projects of “AnthropoScene” and “Are we really aware”, I have had to constantly think of how devised dramatic strategies can connect with each strand of audience among the three different types listed above.

Question 2: Can arts (drama) offer serious intervention in such subject as the climate crisis, which is predominantly science encumbered? It is important to start out a response to this question by asserting that conflicting modes of knowledge production should not constitute a disregard for strategies and methods with which different disciplines generate knowledge. Arts (drama) have methodological strategies and insights that have potential to fill the gaps left by science. For example, the power of narrative can only be fully extracted through methodologies inherent in the humanities and arts. Narrative is important in the consciousness of the public in times of global stress (as we witnessed during covid), and during our eco-anxious times. Artistic intervention such as drama, in the subject of climate crisis, will serve to complement and contribute to efforts in the campaign towards eco-justice and sustainability. It produces audio-visual perspectives that enhance the scientific narrative of human crises. In reference to pandemics, Priscilla Wald (2008) takes account of the importance of the intervention of arts in producing fictional narratives to promote public understanding. She reflects that, “[f]ictional accounts of outbreaks did more than reflect and convey the lessons of science; they also supplied some of the most common points of reference, which influence social transformation and diseases emergence in their own right” (p. 31). In essence, the beauty of arts (drama) is that it plays both synergistic and complementary roles with other disciplines—including science. Such intervention promotes interdisciplinarity, and the advantage is such that approaches and knowledge from different disciplines might not only shed new light on a problem, but it will also give allowances for a more comprehensive understanding of the problem.

Question 3: Do you listen when we perform our Eco-Anxiety? For me, this question continues to be generative on the issue of climate crisis. It subsumes so many other questions: Why is the world recording slow progress in the battle against climate crisis? What is happening with all the information on the climate crisis that we have access to? What are the limitations between this information and the taking of meaningful actions that are suggested and often requested, in the information? Despite evidence that there is progress in controlling emissions, why does global warming still exceed the expected range? Why are concrete actions taken so far on the climate crisis not making as much of a substantive impact as hoped? Even when scientific findings on the subject of climate crisis are transformed into arts (film, drama, literature etc.), to enhance a more liberal means of information perception, why is the world still witnessing snail-paced progress? There is no one way to respond to all these questions. Maybe we need to slow down the fear of urgency that we associate with the climate crisis so that people can “listen” better. Perhaps we need to deploy more strategies instead of calling for more urgency in the politics of transformation towards sustainability. Maybe it’s okay to consider the argument of Håvard Haarstad, Jakob Grandin, Kristin Kjærås and Eleanor Johnson? They suggest that;

Perhaps haste is precisely what we do not need. When in haste, we make more mistakes, we overlook things, we get tunnel vision. Instead, is there a case for what we call a ‘slow politics of urgency’? Rather than rushing and speeding up, maybe the sustainable future is better served by us challenging the dominant framings through which we understand time and change in society. Transformation to meet the climate challenge requires multiple temporalities of change, speeding up certain types of change processes but also slowing things down (pp. 1-2).

Maybe it is time to understand that resolutions to the climate crisis will not be characterized only by scientific mixtures, data, and epidemiological models, but also by processing the economical, communicative, cultural, and cognitive conditions around which the problems manifest. Perhaps it is time to truly consider the meaningful impacts that disciplines in the arts and humanities can have in the climate crisis resolution. I have been part of this journey, and I call myself a witness, to boldly assert that, it is time to pay good attention to drama and theatre in this journey of sustainability and restoration of our world. “It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and to feel that climate change is too big to solve. But we already have the answers, now it’s a question of making them happen” (Green Peace-

Works cited

Cole, S. and G. Asoloko. “Anthropogenic anxiety and the pedagogy of climate crisis in Wake Up Everyone”. Theatre Pedagogy in the Era of Climate Crisis. (Conrad Alexandrowicz and David Fancy (Eds.) Routledge, 2021. pp. 102-114, ISBN:  978-0-367-54154-4

Haarstad, H., J. Grandin, K. Kjærås and E. Johnson. “Why the haste? Introduction to the slow politics of climate urgency”. Haste: The slow politics of climate urgency, (Håvard Haarstad, et al. eds.). UCL Press, 2023.

Green Peace-

Vakoch, D. and S. Mickey. Eco-Anxiety and Pandemic Distress: Psychological Perspectives on Resilience and Interconnectedness. Oxford University Press, 2023.

Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke University Press, 2008.

Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog