Performing the Anthropocene: Everybody Loses – A Review

A triangle of light, a single stool, and a vintage microphone lie in the centre of the room. Then you notice him. Dr. Karl Patterson Schmidt, staring intensely at the audience in silence. Clad in a snakeskin jacket, his silence begets the silence of the audience. And then we begin an exploration (or perhaps it is an exhortation) of the Death Diary of Dr Karl Patterson Schmidt.

Doppelgangster_km039_

Photograph by Keith Morris

The eponymous Dr. Schmidt was an eminent American Herpetologist who is portrayed in this performance by Dr. Tom Payne. Schmidt is now possibly most well-known for self-documenting his death after being bitten by a young boomslang snake in 1957. There are two particularly tragic, yet salutary, aspects to his diary of death. The first was that, despite his scientific expertise, Schmidt did not believe that the juvenile snake could produce a deadly dose of venom. The second was, because of his scientific training, he was keen to meticulously document his symptoms, even to the point of refusing medical assistance lest he should interfere with the results of his embodied experiment. Everybody Loses utilises the deeply ironic and disturbing case of Dr. Schmidt, and his embodiment of irrationality within the rational, as a form of morality (perhaps immorality) tale that speaks directly to contemporary human relations with our planetary home. Yet speaking directly is by no means the intent of this performance piece. This performance of a death bite weaves together science, comedy, song, drama, and prose that is at one and the same time intimate and yet sweeping, highly personal and yet geopolitical, embodied and yet planetary. Its effects on me were both profound and discombobulating.

Our first ventures into Schmidt’s diary sets the tone:

“4:30-5:30pm Strong nausea, but without vomiting, during trip to Homewood on suburban train. A first-hand report of an untreated bite has special value. Very special value-I think. I am feeling a little like I’m losing my mind.  Worse for wear. Perhaps it’s the snakeskin suit”

Here, at least for me, Schmidt’s diary echoes the work of Charles David Keeling who began the assiduous monitoring of global average carbon dioxide from the lonely Mauna Loa volcano in the Pacific Ocean. His data, and the Keeling Curve it produced, are now our clearest signal of the declining climatic stability of our planet. Is this our first hand scientific account of an untreated environmental intervention at a planetary scale? Schmidt’s body here becomes planetary in it symbolism. But Schmidt’s tale also invokes the NASA scientist James Lovelock whose Gaia hypothesis led to the first scientific accounts of the Earth as a living body. What ultimately unites Schmidt, the Keeling Curve, and the Gaia hypothesis is not the scientific method, but how the scientific discoveries they embody (quite literally in Schmidt’s case) have been paralleled by a declining ability to act upon them. Schmidt’s stubborn refusal of medical help reflects humanity’s refusal to act decisively on climate change. Schmidt’s inaction is born of either a commitment to the scientific method, or an inability to think straight (or perhaps a mixture of the two). Our inaction is the complex product of certain psychological flaws and political economic norms, but is ultimately in spite of science not because of it.

Beyond the diary there are other themes that creatively weave their way through Everybody Loses, connecting together the particularities of Schmidt’s death diary and the signs of our dying planet. First there is the snake, “A boomslang with undivided rear plate. – a thirty-inch snake brought for identification to Chicago Natural History Museum by Mr. Truett of the Lincoln Park Zoo.” The biblical implications of the snake are, of course, evident it evokes Genesis, it evokes The Fall. But, in this performance the snake becomes so much more. In its naming, and “taming” under the herpetologist’s gaze it comes to stand for a nature transformed by human categorization and exploitation. At one and the same time, the snake represents nature “biting back” through climate instability, pollution vectors, and resource depletion: we hear of the ancient myths of a giant snake who once disturbed will “rise from the ground, wrap itself around the earth, and crush it. And that’ll be the end of this”. But the snake in the hands of Schmidt also invokes the ecological irresponsibility of mankind: why did he hold the snake so carelessly, so unthinkingly?

In scene 4 our focus becomes death and taxes. Death here operates on at least two levels. While we are engaged in a visceral and, at times, surreal account of Dr. Schmidt’s demise—“9:00pm – 12:20am slept well. No blood in urine before going to sleep, but very small amount of urine. Urination at 12:20am mostly blood, but small in amount. Mouth had bled steadily as shown by dried blood at both angles of mouth”— ecological death is never far away. What this performance is incredibly effective at conveying are the potential banalities of catastrophic ecological degradation. As with the gradual worsening of Schmidt’s condition we are left to ponder the ultimate consequences of the slow death of the planet. Many writing about sustainability today have described the emergence of environmental management systems which are predicated on sustaining gradually degrading ecological systems. In Everybody Loses we begin to discern the ludicrousness of thinking that gradual degradation will not ultimately be calamitous. Schmidt’s death is a slow and gradual one, but even though its steady nature allows him to document its course, it does not change the nature of his ultimate death.

Beyond death the only other certain thing is taxes. With an impromptu tax audit, we are reminded,“All of us. Every person. Every last one of us. Owing all that. That massive cosmic debt to the reaper and the HMRC/ATO/IRS. Owe all that, killing us all, and the weather”. While Dr. Schmidt owes a personal debt of death to the venom, our cosmic duty is increasingly understood in the terms of an ecological debt. Popularised in the 1990s, the notion of ecological debt has become a common way of conceptualising our collective relationships to the ecological systems on which we depend: ecological debt is the product of the resources we take out, and the pollution we put in to ecological systems, that outstrip those system’s ability to replenish and absorb. Everybody Loses interprets ecological debt as the product of the freedoms we enjoy, “the ability and access to global, local – hell even elevators or new sneakers – travel, and the billions of hours of self-produced, mass-produced, and all-the time on demand entertainment.”

Running through each of these deeper themes, Everybody Loses if characterised primarily by its embrace of the absurd. The absurd takes various forms from the constant contradictory qualifications that stream from the consciousness of the dying Dr. Schmidt, to the random banalities that enliven his monologue: “The road to hell… Is paved […] So, um, any shoes will do really. Loafers will do fine.” In its embrace of the absurd, Everybody Loses embodies all that is best about the Dadaist tradition. It embraces the irrational to shatter the rational veil of the capitalist-materialist complex, and reveal its absurdities. To paraphrase David Attenborough, anyone who thinks that we can sustain infinite growth on a finite planet is either mad, or an economist! Surely to get ahead of the absurd, we must first know absurdity.

The absurd is also evident in the particular deployment of humour that this performance utilises. It is the form of humour that makes you think about the nature and purpose of humour itself. First things first, Everybody Loses is funny. At one point Schmidt asks the audience, “How’s everybody feeling? I’m using a complex system of nerves, electrical and chemical releases, distributors, and receptors”. Funny, right? But humour is important within this performance not because it sooths, or massages our intellectual egos (in the sense that we get the joke). Here humour operates on the level of enabling us to recognise that we can see the absurdity, that we can even rise above it enough to find it entertaining, perhaps that we can actually do something about it.

Doppelgangster_km290_

Photograph by Keith Morris

If I am honest, watching The Death Diary of Dr. Karl Patterson Schmidt was a challenging experience. It expects a lot of the audience. But isn’t this what true theatre should be about. Everybody Loses is enlivened by an incredibly diverse, thoughtful, and thought-provoking script. Dr. Tom Payne’s performance of the eponymous Dr. Schmidt was eerily effective, committed, and strangely charming. If I have a criticism it would be that Everybody Loses can so easily lose you in its disorientating fabric. But this is a harsh criticism, given that its intent is to generate an effect of disorientation and confusion. The issue here then becomes a question of balance between the relative values of bewilderment and comprehension. As an artistic intervention within contemporary human-environment affairs, Everybody Loses is both original and unquestionably effective. It is gripping and intelligent and should offer inspiration to others engaged in bringing the performing arts and the ecological crisis into conversation.

At one point Dr. Schmidt asks the question, “Vox Pop. Is anyone here a reviewer. Suggestion. To whit: Five Stars. He was a good man. He was stimulating, and exciting. Both a true exchange, and it was good. Sharing our fortunes, and fates, and becoming one”. I find this self-assessment to be entirely reasonable.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

8 Tips for Lecturing

BpYhrAnIYAAsrCh.jpg-large

I have recently been getting back into the swing of lecturing after 2 years out completing a research project. I thought the transition back into teaching would be a little more straight forward than it has been as I have strained to remember the key ingredients that make a good lecture. One problem is that I am not entirely sure what makes a good lecture. I think I probably fail at least as much as I succeed. I certainly leave the lecture room sensing that I didn’t quite hit the mark as much as I skip out thinking well that went well. Moreover, I am increasingly unsure that my own experience of a lecture actually reflects how effective it has been.

Anyway, for what it is worth, here are some things that I have remembered over the last few weeks that have helped me reconnect with the lecture room.

1. Don’t forget to pack the roadmap: It is always helpful to have a pretty clear roadmap of where the lecture is going. I think that this helps overcome the sometimes arbitrary feel of lecture content; provides some reassurance to students; and reminds me of the logic of what I was trying to achieve in the lecture. By referring back to the roadmap I also find that the significance of certain sections (through their relations with others) can be more easily emphasized.

2. Dig those whiteboard markers out. I am actually a big fan of PowerPoint, but having whiteboard makers ready-to-hand enables you to really emphasize a point, or engage in some creative doodling that can help explain an idea in a way that a prepared slide simply can’t.

3. Get the class involved: I often give a lecture after dropping my eldest daughter off at school. It was in this context that I got to thinking how strange it would be to lecture to primary school children. Interaction is clearly the name of the game in my daughter’s classroom, and lectures appear to progress much more effectively when they incorporate some element of interactive learning. In addition to breaking up the monotone lecture, I sense interactive learning (while often viewed with some caution by students) provides a form of validation for students, who can road test their own ideas and understandings, and gain some valuable confidence in the process.

4. Don’t forget to bring the funny. I personally find that some use of humour enhances the lecture experience for all involved. If I am totally honest I think the sense of connection that making people laugh brings helps me to relax and enjoy the lecture more. But in more serious pedagogic terms the humorous reflections tend to be the ones that are remembered. The only point of caution here (at least for me) is to avoid orchestrated humour. The pre-planned anecdote rarely works and can leave everyone feeling a little awkward when they fall flat.

5. Audio visual systems on: I routinely show short documentaries towards the end of my lectures. I find that these can be really useful ways of enlivening the graveyard end of a two hour lecture. Care needs to be taken here though not to show too many audio-visual segments. In addition to tempting the technological gods of doom (something will normally go wrong), too many voices and perspectives can generate confusion.

6. Pre-lecture readings: I find it useful to get students to read a short media article (from a reputable newspaper) ahead of a given lecture. I sense that this helps to get the students thinking about the themes that the lecture will address in advance and gives them a stake in proceedings. I try to have a group discussion of the reading about 30 minutes into the lecture to recharge the concentration batteries and get the students’ perspective on relevant issues.

7. Case study stories: over the years I have found that case studies (either institutional or geographical) provide a really helpful context for delivering lecture material. In addition to grounding the theories I discuss, they offer a natural narrative setting within which to convey insights. Stories are always a meaningful way to teach.

8. Bring a snack: I recently used donuts as props to explain the principles of sustainability. In addition to being a helpful visual aid the donuts also provided a useful way of encouraging student participation! When I have previously brought food props into the lecture room they have always generated an interesting dynamic.

Thanks to the excellent students on my current undergraduate and graduate courses on sustainability for helping me remember how to lecture again, and for being patient when I consistently forget.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Katrina Effect

There is an interesting new book out on the impacts of Hurricane Katrina – The Katrina Effect: The Nature of Catastrophe. Marking as it does the 10 year anniversary of the Hurricane the book promises to be of interest to those concerned with the complex connections between urbanisation, social justice, and environmental catastrophe. I think this volume will be recommended reading on my Third Year Module this year

For me information see here.

hurricane-katrina

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Big Climate Debate

GERMANY GREENPEACE

The Climate Change Consortium of Wales’ Big Climate Debate is now available to listen to online

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cohen’s Homo Economicus – A Book Review

Homo Economicus: the (lost) prophet of modern times by Daniel Cohen. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014, 155 pp notes and index, £16.99 hardcover. ISBN 978-0-7456-8012-5.

hatman Magritte, Rene – Perpetual motion 1935(1)

Across the social sciences the idealized figure of Homo Economicus is coming under increasing scrutiny. While for many the deliberative, self-interested and inherently entrepreneurial figure of Homo Economicus was only ever a necessarily myth—a figure whose assumed existence gave credence to neo-(and paleo) liberals’ assertion that we could have both economic freedom and economic stability—developments in behavioural psychology, neuroscience, and (in particular) behavourial economics have discredited this vision of the human subject. But if Homo Economicus is dying, what collective vision of humanity is taking its place? In this broad-ranging, highly engaging, and, at times, disorienting volume, Daniel Cohen unpacks the socio-economic and ecological features that characterize a world that has been built for Homo Economicus, and considers what a post-Homo Economicus world may look like.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New book – Environmental Transformations: A Geography of the Anthropocene

transformations

For those who may be interested, the book which I have written along this blog is now out. The volume is primarily aimed at undergraduates, but I hope that it may be of general interest to those concerned about environmental change. The book derives largely from my teaching on environmental issues for the past 14 years.

The official blurbs described the book on the following terms:

Environmental Transformations offers a concise and accessible introduction to the human practices and systems that sustain the Anthropocene. It combines accounts of the carbon cycle, global heat balances, entropy, hydrology, forest ecology and pedology, with theories of demography, war, industrial capitalism, urban development, state theory and behavioural psychology. This book charts the particular role of geography and geographers in studying environmental change and its human drivers. It provides a review of critical theories that can help to uncover the socio-economic and political factors that influence environmental change. It also explores key issues in contemporary environmental studies, such as resource use, water scarcity, climate change, industrial pollution and deforestation. These issues are ‘mapped’ through a series of geographical case studies to illustrate the particular value of geographical notions of space, place and scale, in uncovering the complex nature of environmental change in different socio-economic, political and cultural contexts. Finally, the book considers the different ways in which nations, communities and individuals around the world are adapting to environmental change in the twenty-first century.

Particular attention is given throughout to the uneven geographical opportunities that different communities have to adapt to environmental change and to the questions of social justice this situation raises. This book encourages students to engage in the scientific uncertainties that surround the study of environmental change, while also discussing both pessimistic and more optimistic views on the ability of humanity to address the environmental challenges of our current era.

The book can be purchased at Amazon, see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Environmental-Transformations-A-Geography-Anthropocene/dp/0415809843

If you manage to read the book I hope you find it offers some useful insight.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Price of Everything/Value of Nothing

Oscar_Wilde,_1882

This is my editorial for a forthcoming issue of the journal Environmental Values

Several years ago I participated in a Welsh Government seminar that discussed emerging environmental valuation techniques. During the course of the seminar we learned about the latest techniques of determining the economic value of different fragments of nature. Based, in part, on a “willingness to pay” approach to environmental valuation, we learned some interesting, and disturbing things. We discovered, for example, the economic value of an otter! If my memory serves me correctly this stood somewhere between £30 and £50. We also learned that attributing economic value to nature is an increasingly important way of protecting nature. For evidence of this process you need look no further than The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity programme (or TEEB as it is better known) and its attempts to provide a global balance sheet for the value of nature.

Precisely how we should value the environment is, of course, a founding concern of this journal. The contemporary penchant for developing economic benchmarks against which to assess nature does, however, leave many environmentalists feeling somewhat queasy. It is commonly acknowledged that being able to place the environment on the spreadsheets of governments and business is a hard-nosed way of ensuring that nature is not seen as a costless externality. But it is also commonly felt that attributing economic value to the things of nature fundamentally demeans a natural world that was pre-economic and will one day probably be post-economic. These expressed concerns raise interesting questions about the relative advantages and disadvantages of establishing recognized systems of value that can be applied to the natural world. It is important, for example, to consider who gets to determine value systems; what happens to valuations of the environment during significant forms of economic fluctuation; and what are the long-term implications of the marketization of nature.

It was in his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray that Oscar Wilde famously wrote, ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ It seems to me that this quote could have been written specifically with certain branches of environmental valuation in mind. It serves as a reminder that we should not concede too much power, too quickly, to narrowly conceived systems of economic valuation of the environment. I sense, after all, that is was not just the price of the otter that seemed some how wrong to me, but the very practice of pricing it.

My own concern with the alignment of ecological value with economic price raises another aspect of the values debate. Alongside discussion of the valuation of nature, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in personal environmental value systems. In contrast to discussions of environmental valuation, analyses of environmental values consider the role of internal value systems in guiding human behaviours towards nature. On these terms values (such as egalitarianism, hedonism, biocentrism, security, and benevolence) as seen as meta-behavioural categories that guide our long-term relations with the environment. Recent years have seen a rise in public interest in the role of values in shaping human-environment relations (see Crompton, 2010). The renewed interest in behavioural values has, in part, been a response to the fairly narrowly conceived understandings of human behaviour that inform the nudge polices of behavioural psychology, which have gained significant political traction over the last five years (see Jones et al. 2013). It appears that in order to achieve significant, long-term shifts in human relations with the environment behavioural policy must address the value frames through which human decision-making is filtered. Reshaping the dominant behavioural values that exist in industrial society is, however, clearly a herculean task.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment