Seeing the Flint Water Crisis

In our first accompaniment to Longer, a new ClimateCultures in-depth feature, arts researcher Jemma Jacobs introduces her recent study of the Flint Water Crisis and environmental racism as seen through one photographer’s work to make visible hidden perspectives.


1,830 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Longer is the new ClimateCultures offering of works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog: essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces them here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it. Jemma’s essay for Longer is The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis.

***

Environmental violence is racially discriminative; this is something I have always known, and my recent research provides mounting evidence to support it. When my Master’s course provided me with more opportunities to build on this knowledge — and add to the academic field in some way — I thought it would be dismissive to ignore the patterns of racial discrimination that I have recognised within the Anthropocene discourse.

At Goldsmiths University, I am completing a Master’s in Contemporary Art Theory. I have found that the Visual Culture department gives me the scope to explore topics utilising various schools of thought. With sustainability, environmental justice and art being three of my major interests, my course has given me the space to explore their intersections. Within the course I have explored Black Aesthetic Theory with regard to black music and poetry and the intersection between ecology and art theory, along with notions of power and subjectivity. Having completed my undergraduate degree in History of Art, my interest in visual culture remains strong. My move to Goldsmiths supported my growing curiosity in theory and environmental issues while allowing me to base my explorations within the visual. So, when given the chance to expand on my knowledge on the Anthropocene and its intersection with racial narratives, I decided to explore the Flint Water Crisis through the photographic lens of LaToya Ruby Frazier. My essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis is published today on ClimateCultures.

The Flint Water Crisis & the Black Anthropocene

Beginning in 2014, with its effects predicted to last for many more years to come, the Flint Water Crisis saw the water of a community in Michigan become toxic. The health of adults and children was put in danger. Residents of Flint experienced a range of impacts, from hair loss to miscarriages and disease. Children’s brains were affected, showing damage to their learning, behaviour, hearing and speaking skills. The issue sits deep within a history of environmental racism, particularly when understood with these facts: the crisis was caused by the distinct ignorance and mishandling of those with power, in a city where over half are black or African American and over one third in poverty. The catastrophe highlights racial power imbalances that can be recognised globally. It therefore proves the need to expand on the idea of the Anthropocene – humanity as a whole is not the cause of the changing climate which we see today. Rather, the western powers of white supremacy. Kathryn Yusoff’s concept of the ‘Black Anthropocene’ recognises the inextricable link between the history of racial and environmental violence — arguing that one cannot exist without the other. Ultimately, environmental neglect has its roots in colonial ideas of power and possession.

Flint Water Crisis - showing Flint Water Plant
The Flint Water Crisis Is Ongoing
Photograph: George Thomas CC 2016 Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hz536n/27805760502

Exploring the discriminatory aspects of the Flint Water Crisis through photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier provides a perspective that is otherwise left invisible. She gives visibility to the black community, emphasising their strength and perseverance within such a catastrophic moment. The title of her photographic series alone, Flint is Family (2016-2021), readdresses the imbalance of power underscored by the crisis. Frazier is an incredible American artist who draws off her own childhood in late 20th century Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, she experienced a declining economy and city. Frazier’s 2001-2014 series The Notion of Family captures the ‘ghost-town’ in a documentary way that sets up her style for later works. Expanding on the neglect she experienced herself, Frazier’s perspective on the Flint Water Crisis is extremely valuable in underlining the American experience, while demanding justice.

Living in the wake

In preparation for my body of work, I read many texts that gave me a theoretical understanding of the black experience. This work is imperative but does not override how I am part of the western white bias that is caught in the colonial modes of thinking that my work seeks to dissect. Making myself open to black authorship was not only important but essential prior to any exploration. Doing so allowed me to approach Frazier’s images with deeper consideration of historical patterns of injustice. Essential contemporary works, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, grounded my study of the Flint Water Crisis in a history of racial injustice. Sharpe, specifically, allowed me to explore the existence of colonial attitudes within contemporary society as black communities live ‘in the wake’ of slavery. Her work permitted an investigation into the term ‘wake’ and its various denotations: such as the wake of a ship, referencing slavery but also its everlasting impacts in society today; and the act of being awake.

As mentioned before, Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None grounded this within a more environmental framework. Alongside this, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything exposed me to the notion of the ‘sacrifice zone’ — “whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.” This allowed me to see the city of Flint in a way that those in power at the time did: as geographically disposable.

Flint Water Crisis
Protestors march demanding clean water outside of Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan.
Photograph: Flint Journal © 2015

My research confirmed and extended my knowledge of the need to recognise power disparities within our changing climate and how they are intimately tied to modes of governing. Seeking a recognition of this, my paper views Frazier’s photographs as making visible the invisible. The community of Flint were ignored, their health left to decline as those in power denied the state of their water system. Frazier’s series sheds light onto those communities and shouts their significance.

Visual culture as a positive force

In a world where our environment is being neglected, abused and exploited, black communities are disproportionately impacted. The mistreatment exhibited in the Flint Water Crisis is symptomatic of the greater black American experience at large. In my paper, I explore how contemporary inequities can be traced to the colonial period, how the importance of water is symbolically linked to such concepts. I explore how the visuals of photography reveal the climate crisis as compounding injustices that have been present for many years.

While it is important to be critical of those with power, especially those who use it in discriminatory ways, Frazier provides an alternative approach, one which should be focused on more: how it may be more productive to shed light on those vulnerable to that force. Lifting up communities who are at a disadvantage, especially when they’re portrayed as active agents and not simply passive victims, can work to bring equity to societal relations. Frazier undoubtedly produces a positive force. Her use of the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic arouses curiosity and emphasises the normalcy of racial discrimination. In her documentary photographic style, Frazier provides an intimate insight into the crisis — an understanding that photojournalism within the media is unable to fully render.

Flint Water Crisis - LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019 https://www.ted.com/talks/latoya_ruby_frazier_a_creative_solution_for_the_water_crisis_in_flint_michigan

Environmental violence can manifest in a variety of ways. The Flint Water Crisis acts as a prime example of its unjust and discriminatory pattern. Frazier’s photographs work brilliantly as a counter, productively expanding and flipping the narrative. My exploration of this in my paper helps to magnify links between past and present inequalities, while simultaneously adding to the discussion of visual arts and its contribution to historical understanding.


Find out more

You can read Jemma’s full essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis, with a full bibliography. Visit our new Longer feature for more pieces from our members.

Unfortunately, we are not able to share LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images here but you can see her series (and video) Flint is Family, and other works, at her website. “In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, access to clean water, Workers’ Rights, Human Rights, family, and communal history. This builds on her commitment to the legacy of 1930s social documentary work and 1960s and ’70s conceptual photography that address urgent social and political issues of everyday life.” You can watch A creative solution to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the TED Talk Frazier gave on the Flint Water Crisis, her Flint is Family project and the work with communities in Flint that the project has helped to fund.

You can find out more about the Flint Water Crisis in The Flint water crisis: how citizen scientists exposed poisonous politics a Nature (2018) review of two books on the issues (The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy and What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City), and a series of articles published by The Guardian over several years.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) is published by Harvard University Press. In The last humanist: how Paul Gilroy became the most vital guide to our age of crisis, The Guardian profiles Gilroy and his work. You can also explore Tate’s use of the term Black Atlantic and work by artists inspired by his book.

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (2016) is published by Duke University Press. On the violent language of the refugee crisis, published by Literary Hub (11/11/16), is an excerpt from the book. It is among the books that Ashlie Sandoval writes about in the “Books I Teach” series from Black Agenda report (19/2/20). 

Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) is published by University of Minnesota Press. Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. You can read a review published by New Frame (28/8/19), a not-for-profit, social justice publication with “a pro-poor, pro-working class focus that aims to report faithfully and informatively about the lives and struggles of ordinary people.”

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2015) is published by Simon & Schuster, where you can read an excerpt. You can explore more at the This Changes Everything website.

You can read about the use of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ in photography in So what exactly is deadpan photography? from New York Film Academy (2014).

Finally, you can find out more about MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths University of London.

Jemma Jacobs

Jemma Jacobs

An arts researcher focusing on climate communication within the Anthropocene and its relationship with art, and drawing attention to those suffering disproportionately from climate change impacts.
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Solarpunk — Stories for Change

Writer Mick Haining discusses the role of stories in helping to bring about change — to mobilise, not paralyse — the XR Wordsmiths group that he’s part of, and their call out for new Solarpunk stories that give us hope.


1,530 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


Stories form and change the way we think and therefore act. The ‘stories’ we are told as children by our family tell us about our relatives, our neighbours and the place in which we live and we form attitudes and behaviour as a result. Growing older, we read and watch TV — we may not fight in Vietnam or Yemen but the stories we swallow help us decide who the ‘good guys’ are. Reality at times makes us doubt the veracity of some stories but never all. There’s a difference, of course, between stories that constitute our communication of events to one another and stories that are deliberate works of art. It’s the latter I deal with here. (As an ex-teacher, I became used to student excuses that were clearly works of fiction but not intended as works of art…)

Clever stories can shake earlier beliefs — I was OK as a young man with capital punishment until I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Stories may be warnings about what to avoid. The 1966 film War Games by Peter Watkins showed graphically and horrifically what could happen in the event of a nuclear air-strike on the UK — it seems credible that it and two subsequent films, Threads and The Day After, have actually helped the planet avoid a nuclear conflict. Stories, though, can also show us not just what to avoid but a goal to aim at.

Promoting our bond with life

The human race, steadily and somewhat blindly, has been creating the conditions for a future about as bleak for the whole planet as a nuclear war would create. There’s a growing sense of how cataclysmically awful that might be from an increasing number of ‘stories’ in the media and in art. That in itself might prompt some to change their lifestyles — even from a sample of only 100 U.S-based readers, a 2018 Yale study found that climate fiction (‘cli’fi’) nudged readers “in a slightly more progressive direction”. However, the same study concluded: “​From the emotions these readers described, it is clear that their affective responses were not only negative but demobilizing.” For us — humanity — to find a way to cope with and maybe mitigate the climate extremes that we have already locked in, we need stories that will not paralyse but mobilise. We need stories that will give us hope, stories that will not just ‘nudge’ but inspire readers to act in ways that show respect for the nature without which we could not possibly exist. We need stories to help us create societies that appreciate and promote our indissoluble bond with life in all its magnificence on the only planet we have.

That’s where Solarpunk comes in. I am a writer with XR Wordsmiths and we are launching a showcase for writing stories in that genre. Some of you may be in the position I was in a few months back — despite shelves full of books and an age full of years, I had never heard of Solarpunk. To save some of you the trouble of looking it up on Wikipedia, their definition is that “Solarpunk is an art movement that envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability problems such as climate change and pollution”.

Solarpunk architecture
La cité des habitarbres
Art: Luc Schuiten © 2021

I’ve personally never written anything myself in a purely Solarpunk style though I did write a series of short stories set in the quite near future where I imagined a small group living on a very small peninsula who were rediscovering skills that instant meals and supermarket shopping had eroded. Their names relate to what they contribute to the community — the central character is ‘Reader’ and there’s Little Crabber, Big Fisher, Cobbler, Wireman, Knotter and a pile of others. It’s a little like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker though set much, much closer to the present day and thus the mutations of cultural conventions are in their infancy — the local bandits are called ‘vikings’ even though they know all about horses and nothing about ships. In the first story, ‘Easter’, the hero’s daughter sings a Christmas carol… 

It isn’t that the characters have “succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges” but they have found a way of surviving that doesn’t just bring constant fear — Reader still finds time to read to his daughter and on the extraordinary day when snow falls for the first time in the lives of most of the inhabitants, there’s a snowball fight and a snowman built.

Solarpunk — writing as hope and defiance

Solarpunk - XR Wordsmiths callout for stories of a better future

For our XR Wordsmiths showcase, we say that: “whether you are totally new to the world of eco-fiction or a seasoned enthusiast, this contest is open to any adult, teenager, or child who wants to combine their passion for writing with getting the message out there about the climate and ecological emergency.” 

Maybe, like me, you don’t quite have the nerve — yet — to be arrested at a demonstration. That’s probably why I’m with XR Wordsmiths. There are several dozen of us but only a small core of about half a dozen get together via Zoom every Sunday at 4.00 p.m. to work out ways of welding words that might move people to rise peacefully and effectively against the authorities that seem to move like sloths in relation to the climate and ecological emergency.

We were XR Writers for a while but there’s another group of XR Writers who are actually published authors so we gracefully changed our name to avoid confusion and better match our work — we write letters, slogans and we’re even on the verge of completing a book for publication, a gardening handbook, in fact. If that seems a little odd as a form of rebellion, our intention is not to teach people how but to persuade them to take gardening up as an act of hope and defiance — you don’t plant a seed in the belief that it will never germinate. If any of you reading this want to join us on a Sunday, you’d be most welcome!

But here, then, is your chance to rebel through the Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase. This is your chance to put pen to paper and to put people on the path to a better future than might be the case. You may not find many or even a single, complete answer to all of the problems we have been piling up but, as an Al Jazeera piece in 2014 declared, “this is a life-or-death situation now, one in which even partial solutions matter.” So — tell us a story. Transform our futures, one word at a time…


Find out more

You can submit as many stories as you like to the XR Wordsmith Solarpunk Showcase, there are three age bands and the word limit is 2,500. Submissions do, sadly, have to be in English at present but subsequent years may differ. The submission deadline is 14th September 2021.

You can find full details of the open call for stories (and a few prompts to get you started) at Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase — which also links to a Definitive Guide to Solarpunk from Impose Magazine, exploring fashion, architecture, technology, literature and more. You might also like to read At the very least, we know the end of the world will have a bright side, a 2018 Longreads review of the growth of solarpunk, Solarpunk or how to be an optimistic reader at The Conversation (19/7/19), or A Solarpunk Manifesto (2019). Inside the Imaginarium of a Solarpunk Architect (10/6/21) reviews the work of Belgian architect Luc Schuiten, one of whose images is used in this post.

The winning entries will be selected by a panel of judges that includes eco-poet, writer and ClimateCultures member Helen Moore (who wrote about her own writing practice in our recent post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature), children’s climate fiction writer Gregg Kleiner, Ecofiction YouTube vlogger Lovis Geier, and Green Party politician Zack Polanski. Winners will have their stories published in the XR Global blog and on the Rapid Transition Alliance website. Other prizes include three £1000 scholarships to the world’s first global online climate school terra.do. 

You can explore XR Wordsmiths via their site and blog (get in touch via xr-writers [at] protonmail [dot] com), and Mick also mentioned XR Writers, whose work is featured on the main Extinction Rebellion site, including a podcast.

There is also XR Creative, an evolving anthology of songs, fiction and poetry that’s inspiring, meaningful and original, and that reflects the principles, concerns and values of the Extinction Rebellion from a global, regional or local perspective. You can read three of Mick’s Tales from the Nab at XR Creative: Easter, The Journey, and The Flare.

You could also read Mary Woodbury‘s two-part series on A History of Eco-fiction and David Thorpe‘s two-part series on The Rise of Climate Fiction; and there’s more on the power of stories to promote (or resist) change in Mark Goldthorpe‘s post The Stories We Live By.

Mick Haining

Mick Haining

A retired drama teacher and writer of short stories, plays and haiku on nature -- and 'rebel haiku' on post-it notes left in significant sites, usually
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Climate Conversations to Save the World

Environmental researcher Matt Law reviews an online performance about climate conversations: an interactive journey inviting us to consider how different connections and storytelling could have led to a different world today, and help save the world for tomorrow.


1,180 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


Are there pivotal moments where, if only somebody had said something different, the progress of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock could have been slowed? What if you could be transported to one of those moments? What choices would you make? Would you know what to say? In a talk to TEDWomen in 2018, US-based Canadian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe tells us that the most important action we can take on climate change is to talk about it, not by bludgeoning people with depressing facts, but by connecting the risk to your audience’s core values. Tassos Stevens and Michelle McMahon’s How We Save The World, commissioned from Coney by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), explores the ways our conversations about climate change can shape our futures, by putting decisions in the hands of the audience.

Meaningful interventions

We are time travellers, guided on an interactive 75-minute journey by our reassuring and informative pilots (Naomi Stafford and Richard Popple, who also represent all of the characters we meet on our journey and are a joy to watch) to choose from a selection of places and times where we could make meaningful interventions. At a house party in Clapton in 2009, can we plant the seed of an idea about consumerism and plastic waste in the mind of young Fergus, playing in the kitchen with his Hot Wheels; or reassure Lucy, drinking gin on the balcony, who has abandoned her vegan lifestyle, having become jaded with the complexities and enormity of the sustainability choices we face?

Before audience members are called on to talk to the characters we meet, a disembodied voice, the voice of NERC-supported research, tells us about some of the psychology that impacts our choices — the rewards of consumerism, our reluctance to speak up out of fear of being judged; or the physical science of climate change, such as the influence of atmospheric carbon dioxide on clear air turbulence, and importance of forests for diversity.

Showing an image from How We Save The World
How We Save The World
Photograph: Thomas Scott on Unsplash

How to save the world

Interventions having been successfully made by audience members at Clapton, we are presented with further choices of times and places to visit. Can we suggest a more successful term than ‘global warming’ at a focus group in Dallas in 1989 (the winning suggestion from our cohort was ‘Bonfire of the World’), or convince the daughter of a wealthy industrialist in early nineteenth-century Bingley of the dangerous path those profitable factories and fossil fuels are leading us down? The crunch choice comes in South Sumatra, in 2005, where we — now assuming the role of islanders of differing financial circumstances — are split into break-out rooms to discuss the choice between allowing PalmOilCo use of our forest, with an immediate monetary benefit, or to allow EuroNGO to protect the forest, giving us less of a financial reward, paid less immediately. Do we lift our families out of poverty now, or listen to the person from half a world away telling us what is best for the planet?

Matt Law’s screenshot from How We Save The World

Placing the audience in control of the decisions, making a game out of climate conversations, forces us to think with empathy and care about the interests of the characters we are talking to. What angle can we use to help them see that the consequences of climate change will be to their detriment too? And how confident are we that we can do that on the spot in front of an audience of strangers? Drawing from research in environmental psychology, How We Save The World distils the idea that storytelling and human connections are among the most powerful tools in climate action at its most immediate and intimate level: the way we talk to each other about the part we can play in climate action.


Find out more

Matt Law was one of five ClimateCultures members who took part in recent conversations with fellow member Julia Marques for her series Directing the Change, which Julia discussed in her recent ClimateCultures post, Conversations with Work That Connects. In his interview — which you can see in full as well as an excerpt in Julia’s post — Matt discusses how he is crossing disciplinary borders within Bath Spa University and has co-created a piece of theatre with the drama department there: The Last Hurrah (and the Long Haul) is a piece very much focussed on the community level of climate change and how incremental changes can unravel but also eventually strengthen a tightly-knit group.

You might also like to read a previous post by Julia, where she explores theatre as a space for thought about our options and what climate change means for us individually.

How We Save The World is a story game by interactive theatre-makers Coney. Written by Tassos Stevens and Michelle McMahon’s, it was created in collaboration with environmental scientists and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It was first presented in 2018 at The Natural History Museum in London, and then re-imagined for our new global context as a live online performance, on Saturday 20th February 2021. “By looking at how we got to where we are today, together we’ll explore moments where small actions might create a ripple of change in the world – and learn how to take that forward in our own lives.”

You can read an interview with Michelle McMahon hereConey will be announcing new performances of How We Save The World in the next couple of weeks — do check their blog for news.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is an independent, nonprofit organization that gathers a diverse array of informed and influential voices tracking man-made threats and brings their innovative thinking to a global audience. The Bulletin focuses on three main areas: nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies. What connects these topics is a driving belief that because humans created them, we can control them. The Doomsday Clock is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet. When the Doomsday Clock was created in 1947, the greatest danger to humanity came from nuclear weapons, in particular from the prospect that the United States and the Soviet Union were headed for a nuclear arms race. The Bulletin considered possible catastrophic disruptions from climate change in its hand-setting deliberations for the first time in 2007.

Katherine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Climate Science Center. You can join the 3.8 million people who have watched her TEDWomen 2018 talk The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it — and then talk about it. 

Matt Law
Matt Law
An environmental change & sustainability researcher interested in environmental archaeology and public engagement, working on a theatre project to explore climate change's disruption of everyday lives.
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Gulp! Water Choices, Stories and Theatre

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre projectTheatre-maker and arts academic Adam Ledger shares the thinking behind Gulp!, The Bone Ensemble’s project on global water issues, and the challenges of creating an engaging and participatory family drama on environmental issues, inequalities and opportunities during Covid-19.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It seems strange to be putting down some thoughts about a theatre project that couldn’t quite finish its tour because of the COVID-19 crisis. But the ongoing situation makes me reflect on art-making, connection, on possibilities before, during and after the peculiar feeling of simultaneously being stuck but too busy. And all in the context of a world dealing with a pandemic, how to emerge from lockdown, and where — outside of the four walls we are obliged currently to occupy — another set of issues remain: of environmental challenges and inequalities, but also opportunities. So as lockdown gripped, the skies over major cities began to clear as pollution dispersed, yet at the same time the UNESCO World Water Development Report was published. Its headline findings make for grim reading:

climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people. The alteration of the water cycle will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre project

Gulp! More than a drop

It is in these contexts that there are only two ways forward: to do nothing, too often what seems to be the environmental policy of those who purport to be our leaders; or to do at least something. On offering feedback on The Bone Ensemble’s second environmentally-themed family theatre performance, Gulp!, all about water, one rather ill-judged, academically-cocky comment that came my way was ‘how is this more than a drop in the ocean?’. This is an odd way of thinking. Put it this way; if you throw some sort of recyclable plastic item straight in the bin, you’re harming the planet in an almost immeasurably small way. If you put it where you should, in a tiny way you’re triggering help. What choice should you be making?

Back in 2018, the impetus to make Gulp! came from a bit more than a drop, and actually before we created its forerunner, Where’s My Igloo Gone?, a piece about climate change (as a theatre company, we do tend to take on the big stuff..!). We began to realise just how ridiculous bottled water and the consumer con-trick around that ‘industry’ is, let alone the environmental impact of bottled water. We began to think more widely about water. Like the previous production, we wanted to create a positive, participatory experience for our audiences, made up of children 7+ and their families and carers. We continued to hold fast to earlier principles; we would reject dystopian imaginaries, the dramatic tropes of the disaster movie, which we had seen in some work. In no way do we have all the answers, and there is ongoing reflection about the strengths and weakness of the work, but it seems to us that a fundamental dramaturgical shift (the form and content of the work) has to be from a bleak mirroring of a problem, to a principle of empowering and empathetic stories and experiences.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! with audience participation
Gulp! participation
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

No work can happen without a web of partners. Our theatre-making has been significantly funded by Arts Council England, several trusts and venue partners, the University of Birmingham and through a collaboration with Severn Trent Water. In the academic bit of my life, the two pieces combine to create a practice as research and ‘impact’ project around the efficacy of empathetic, positive dramaturgies of performance and the environment. We also benefit from ongoing relationships with a set of scientists and, because our work is made to be accessible, with advisory d/Deaf artists and those that help us with ‘relaxed’ performances.

Working together in water scenarios

In terms of empathy, both shows have a central character, who undertakes a kind of journey. This has been crucial as a dramatic strategy, and one which is actually pretty classic. Spectators (in order to involve everyone, there are only sixty at a time) see someone in a situation and it’s important that they can somehow identify with them. The story of Gulp! centres on Maya (the name means ‘water’ in Hebrew) who — wait for it! — gets sucked up a tap! Early on, we had also decided that the feel of Gulp! should be contemporary, whereas the earlier Where’s My Igloo Gone? was quite ‘other’, perhaps a folk setting of some kind. In Gulp!’s recognisable world, complete with adverts for bottled water (ours is cheekily called ‘EviClever’), Maya gets spat out of the tap in various locations: a city experiencing a flood; a rural location being polluted by discharge from a factory; the ocean; a desert. Spectators see Maya getting into problems, but as a kind of coda to the story, through participation they help Maya to sort things out: they lend their sandbag cushions to hold back flooding, protest at the ‘baddie’ polluting factory boss, by working together they help to bring water to the elephant at the empty watering hole. Drawing on earlier experience, the show also features no spoken English, in part to reach EAL (English as an Additional Language) and d/Deaf audiences, but also to stimulate a communicative world of sound, partly comprising the made-up language of ‘Waterish’. Overall, too, the audience help make the show’s soundtrack, which we layer live with a loop-station.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! in performance
Gulp! performance
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

The real problem was finding a story that would ‘hold’ the topic of water. Climate change — and this is, of course, a big generalisation — is a ‘thing’, a more or less tangible issue. It is a recognisable problem, but there appears to be some means of addressing it. For many people, water is just not a problem — we turn on the tap and water comes out of it — it is instead a phenomenon with which we have a relationship. Made up of several perspectives, ‘water’ won’t easily be marshalled into a storyline. Yet it is one of the few, and indeed fundamental things that unites all of us globally, even if many in the world have no tap and no clean water. One of our scientific advisors, Professor David Hannah (University of Birmingham) thus shared how water can be conceived as part of a continuum: too much, too little, too dirty. Part of the narrative answer was to have Maya ‘land’ in different scenarios which, if you look back at the list of locations above, are underpinned by this conception. In the heat of rehearsal (something actual, rather than virtual, in August 2019!), we wrestled still more with the dramaturgical organisation, eventually also conceiving of water as a set of binaries: global and local; need and taking for granted; and also through climatic extremes (heat and flood); and human interventions such as access, control and denial. These themes also hold the topic together across the story.

Small choices matter

Over 2019-20, the production toured extensively to schools, theatres, community and rural settings. Funded by Severn Trent Water, we also produced three thousand copies of what we quite grandly called a ‘children’s graphic novel’, a comic-book version of Gulp! beautifully illustrated by Emily Jones. This was given out free after many performances and also made available digitally. Emily found a way also not to use English in the book; where necessary, the characters speak or think pictures in speech bubbles. Severn Trent Water also produced a very extensive education pack to go with the show and took part in post-show discussions, as well as funding twelve performances in six diverse schools local to us. We also created a ‘PPP song’, which cheerily celebrated what should only go down your loo: paper, pee and poo!

And, of course, we had to gather feedback through several mechanisms. One of the more usual is to use post-show questionnaires. Analysis of their free-text responses (we tried to resist too-leading tick-box questions…) demonstrated that a quarter of people confirmed their changed perception around water use and waste; another 25% of respondents wrote about their changed behaviour in terms of consumption, significantly around the use of plastics. A further 25% of respondents most explicitly wrote that they would cease the use of bottled water. Perhaps this is a response to the thread of ‘EviClever’. But I hope too because of the ocean scene, when plastic objects are turned into an underwater world: at first beautiful, but then where plastic-bag jelly-fish get caught in a turtle’s jaws, and a plastic water bottle is swallowed by a tarpaulin whale. As the UNESCO report also says, water is a direct way we experience climate and the way we understand it, use it and what we allow to be in it (the report speaks of adaptation and mitigation) has global consequences. Again, small choices help.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp and small choices on water
Gulp! choices
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

I’m not a social scientist, a scientist, or even much of an overtly political-environmental activist; I’m a theatre-maker and an arts academic and I have to start from that point. At times, I have to resist or at least find a way to work with some of the instrumentalisation that creating this kind of work attracts, appearing at worst as the academic capitalism that imbues some of the institutional aspects. On the other hand, there is a great pleasure in meeting the spectator’s gaze. This is the real meaning of the work.

Environmentally-based artworks cannot be only negative, nor comprise only information, like some kind of illustrated lecture. Participation is one means whereby spectators often end up modelling a different behaviour, showing how change and intervention are possible. A factually-informed but inherently well-made, emotive piece of artwork really stays with people. If you want to shift people’s knowledge, intentions and, perhaps, behaviour, a means to engage what really leads to change needs to happen. Ultimately, this is people’s hearts and minds.


Find out more

You can read Adam’s ClimateCultures post on The Bone Ensemble’s 2017 climate change production: Action, Participation, Feeling: Where’s My Igloo Gone?, and explore The Bone Ensemble website.

As well as Co-Artistic Director with The Bone Ensemble, Adam is also a Reader in Theatre and Performance at the University of Birmingham, and you can find out more about Gulp! at the university’s Performance and the Environment website — including the lyrics and music for the PPP Song. You can read the e-book of Gulp!, illustrated by Emily Jones, on Issuu, with further resources at the back of the book. Plenty of things to do at home and at school!

The UN Water Development Report 2020 – Water and Climate Change is available at the UNESCO website, along with a ‘Main Messages’ download.

For an explanation of the d/Deaf distinction, see this post from the Royal Association for Deaf People. 

Adam Ledger
Adam Ledger
An artistic director interested in how art practices can bring empowering messages about climate, and a senior lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts (University of Birmingham).
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In Time: Crisis, Care, Creation

Artist Margin Zheng felt moved to perform Lola Perrin’s work, Significantus, as part of their climate activism, and adapted the piano suite to new conditions when Covid-19 prevented public events, producing a unique online concert: Crisis, Care, Creation.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It is often the most peculiar motifs of circumstance that make life and art — and the art of life — tremble beautifully, in truth unveiled.

I first learned of Lola’s composition by a chance Internet-search, motivated by a serendipitous moment of curiosity. I was creating a foothold for myself in climate activism, having led a climate rally in September at my college (Haverford College) and started a hub of Sunrise Movement on campus. I knew of — and also personally knew — composers who wrote politically oriented music, and I also was familiar with composers like John Luther Adams who wrote music evocative of the mysterious, mesmerizing powers of nature. So the question came to me — it might have been in November: had anyone written a piano piece about the climate crisis?

Someone had, in the UK: her name was Lola Perrin. Elated, I ordered the score and tried it out, and, entranced, I soon had the inescapable conviction that I would perform Significantus in public someday.

Lola Perrin’s ‘Significantus’
Photograph: Margin Zheng

After a few emails and conversations, including an email and WhatsApp exchange with Lola herself, and an application to a student performance fund offered by my college, I received in January the happy news. I had received the E. Clyde Lutton 1966 Memorial Fund. With the support of Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, I was going to perform Significantus in a concert in Earth Week — with a personal spin.

Climate activism under lockdown

The general format of the performance was to mostly follow the score: first seven movements of music, then a short talk by a guest speaker, after that audience participation in breakout groups, and finally the last musical movement, followed by a reception and informal conversation. But instead of focusing on sharing information on climate change for the audience to reflect upon, my event was to center on storytelling and emotional connection: the guest speaker was to share a personal story about how they became called to climate activism, and the audience was then to share in small groups their own stories of thinking, feeling, experiencing a world in crisis. The final movement was to be a collective improvisation, beginning with just me playing, then continuing as a duet with the guest speaker (also a performer), and finally expanding to the audience members, who were to contribute something of their own to the performance by singing, speaking, playing an ‘instrument’, dancing, whatever else they imagined, symbolizing the collective creation of a better future.

Logistics were a battle from the start, mostly because I was so unfamiliar with the challenges of planning a concert and thus approached the task too dreamily. It was not until spring break, in March, when I finally got my guest speaker confirmed, but by then all plans were in peril. The pandemic had penetrated the county where my college was, and soon after it spread all over the region. After a few weeks, what was increasingly likely became inevitable: classes were to be online for the rest of the semester, and all on-campus events were cancelled. Most students, including myself, were barred from returning to campus (exceptions including many international students and students without a safe home to stay in); I was to spend the rest of my semester at home.

I was devastated. I had such wonderful visions for a concert of compassion and creation, and now they were stolen away! The fund that was supporting the concert required performances to be in the semester the money was granted, so there was no chance for the concert to be postponed to the fall, when hopefully on-campus activities would recommence. Besides, there was intentional meaning in scheduling the concert during Earth Week, two days before the mass strikes that were to sweep the U.S. — it was the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, in a crucial year for action.

Crisis, Care, Creation

The concert was always about performing ‘in time’: not just tickling vague eternities with delicate trained fingers in hypnotic moto perpetuo, but contextualizing my performance — and generally my being — in the tensions of my times. In the great existential crisis of a humanity that seems so determined, to its own peril, to go on and on and on producing — but needs to stop and reflect and confront itself: whom is ‘business as usual’ hurting the most? (The already marginalized and oppressed: people of color and especially Indigenous people, poor and working-class people, people with disabilities, young people, etc.) And what are they saying, doing, demanding? 

I am a young, Chinese American, genderqueer person from a middle to upper-middle class background. I was born a U.S. citizen and am the child of immigrants. I was not raised in any religion, but I feel deeply spiritual, a Seeker. I exist with a particular combination of privileges and challenges, and though I cannot speak and act for anyone else, I must live with full intention as who I am, embedded in human and nonhuman space and time.

Before I sent the audience into breakout groups, I shared my own story of living in the climate crisis.
Margin Zheng

So when I realized that the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency were really twin crises, both the result of governments caring more for concentrated profit and political power than for the health and wellbeing of people, I decided that my project — early on titled ‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ — had to continue, in whatever way it could. This was the gift I had for this moment, a gift I had to give.

The result was a Zoom-based concert on April 20th. The original format I had planned turned out to speak profoundly to the needs of the times and to require only a few adjustments: in lieu of a guest speaker/performer, I spoke my own story after the initial half-hour of music; audience members joined Zoom breakout rooms to reflect upon how they were emotionally processing the moment of multilayered crisis and to practice collective care; and the final movement still invited audience members to join me (while on mute) with their own musical, kinesthetic, or visual performances (some people even drew pictures) as I gradually broke away from Lola’s score and started improvising.

While performing, I felt thoroughly in a state of flow.
Margin Zheng

After the initial awkwardness of speaking to a Zoom audience (since my video was pinned onto the screen, I had to watch myself as I spoke!), the experience was for me one of intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually engaging flow. I took many artistic liberties in my interpretation, breathing through the music and dancing through its spirit. I embodied yearning, awe, sorrow, numbness, anger — every emotion a different subjective time, every movement in time like a river. I spoke the first words of my personal story — “This should be my time of dreams!” — with the final chord of the seventh movement (entitled ‘We are playing with fire, a reckless mode of behaviour we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on ourselves’) still resounding, and I still panting from exertion. After speaking, I then joined a breakout room myself, shared in heart-to-heart dialogue. Afterwards, I concluded with the last movement — a joyful part-planned, part-spontaneous performance despite my not being able to hear the audience’s own improvisations — and then some last words, though by then I found it hard to speak, how exhausted and elated I was from it all. 

Imagine better, create!

Throughout the performance, my body and spirit were spellbound, and — I am told — many in the audience were too. Even without the usual physical performance space enabling a palpable sonic resonance, there was communication, fellowship, spiritual reverberance. Many were stressed and lonely, and in music, conversation, and creation, they found emotional grounding and solace. As I read the messages people sent me afterwards, I felt joy, pride, gratitude. My ‘crazy’ idea worked! — and it meant something.

After the concert, one audience member shared with me the drawing he made during the collective improvisation as an expression of thanks. Image used with permission.

This was an event I shall always remember, as it brought people together, and it touched them deep.

I write this nearly two weeks after the performance, on May Day 2020, the International Workers’ Day, when many people in the U.S. and elsewhere — especially those deemed ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic — are striking, protesting, and otherwise mobilizing for urgent aid and protection: for safe working conditions, for accessible medical care, for rent and mortgage cancellations and an end to water shutoffs, for the release of those confined in unsafe prisons and detention centers, for a #PeoplesBailout: for the basic right to life. I stand in solidarity with the people who striked that day as well as with the people who cannot or do not strike but still call upon those with privilege to support them and to demand crucial change — both the immediate and the deep.

The climate crisis is not just about nature, and the pandemic is not just about a virus. They are both manifestations of the greater plague of capitalism and of money-run politics: life-devaluing systems that if we — the united peoples of Earth — do not soon uproot will only cause even more death and irreversible destruction. Can we act — in time? Connected with our identities, our personal and collective histories, our individual and shared longings for the future, can we move the rhythms of our world and dance a variegated, syncopated, yet more harmonious tune?

Showing Margaret Zheng's performance, Crisis, Care, Creation on Earth Day 2020
At the end of Crisis, Care, Creation, I departed from the score in partly planned improvisation, synchronously performing with each audience member.
Margin Zheng

I would like to end with the words with which I concluded my virtual concert. Let them resonate with you, my fellow human being, a being in time:

So long as we live in a world of crisis, we must continue to practice care for ourselves and other living beings and to day by day strive to create a thriving, more beautiful future. Thus I leave you with one more question, to be answered in contemplation and in action:

How do the crises of the emerging world compel us to live anew?


Find out more

Signicantus composer Lola Perrin is a fellow ClimateCultures member and creator of the  ClimateKeys global initiative.

Sunrise Movement is a movement in the USA to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.

‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ was performed for Earth Day 2020. Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, Earth Day Network aims to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide.

Margin Zheng
Margin Zheng
A philosopher, artist, awakener, and spiritual intellectual, formally studying music and mathematics, informally learning voraciously about our world in transformation, involved in actions promoting climate justice.
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