Opinion: Scientists and policymakers must talk about climate change as if it were a tragedy we can avoid
NEW YORK (Project Syndicate) – “How terrible it is to know when, in the end, knowing doesn’t bring you anything”, laments the blind prophet Tiresias in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Oedipus had summoned him to reveal the source of the plague and the ecological disaster ravaging Thebes. But Tiresias knew the king would reject the truth. Today’s climatologists and epidemiologists can relate.
Like Tiresias, modern scientists know where the planet is going and why. They discovered it not through prophecy, but through countless double-blind experiments, randomized trials, and rigorous peer review.
We need language to convey the gravity and complexity of the unfolding global tragedy, and the ancient Greeks provide it.
Their evidence is beyond reproach and the consensus among them is overwhelming. But their secular omen cannot seem to overcome the willful indifference of politicians or the public. Knowing does not bring them anything, because very few listen.
Watch The Oedipus Project’s Climate Crisis Trailer from Theater of War Productions:
If there is a way for scientists to communicate with people and their leaders, the key will be to change not what they say, but how they say it. The language of science is passionless by design.
Language devoid of passion in the midst of urgent crises
In contrast, the multiple crises facing our planet are urgent and intense, and the individual and collective decisions that fuel these crises have high emotional and ethical stakes. A virulent pandemic has claimed the lives of three million people. Earth is in the throes of a sixth mass extinction. And the problems will get worse.
We need language to convey the gravity and complexity of the unfolding global tragedy, and the ancient Greeks provide it. Their tragedies are stories of people learning too late (usually in milliseconds). Their characters stubbornly pursue what they believe is right, barely understanding the forces they face: chance, fate, habits, governments, gods, time. By the time they do, the characters have unwittingly made an irreversible – and devastating – mistake.
Scientists may think that anything other than qualified statements made in careful and measured tones would undermine the legitimacy of their findings. But humans are emotional beings facing an existential crisis.
For centuries, Greek tragedies have been viewed as pessimistic expressions of a fatalistic society, which portray the futility of fighting fate. But, for the Greeks, the effect of these stories may have been counterintuitive. By showing people how limited and fleeting their power to determine their own futures was, tragedies discouraged apathy. Emphasizing how the devastating self-delusion can be encouraged to become aware. And providing the language to describe difficult experiences improved the agency.
Oedipus the King is believed to have been created in the spring of 429 BC, i.e. between the first and second wave of a plague that killed nearly a third of the Athenian population. For a community that was both dealing with shared trauma and wondering how inevitable loss was, a story of arrogant leadership and willful blindness would likely have struck a chord.
What the modern audience gets
But it was not only the ancient Athenians who were inspired by Greek tragedies. Over the past decade, I have performed over 1,000 performances of plays by Sophocles and his contemporaries in seemingly unlikely places, such as homeless shelters, hospitals, prisons, military bases, halfway houses, senior centers and public parks around the world.
In the discussions after the performance, audience members were able to once again express the challenges they had endured and the sacrifices they had made. For example, after showing an audience of 400 U.S. Marines scenes from Sophocles Ajax and Philoctetes—Two ancient tragedies that took place during the Trojan War – typically stoic modern warriors were able to talk about their moral, emotional and spiritual struggles after returning from war.
Saying out loud what was once indescribable can be a burden in itself. But naming a problem is also the first step in dealing with it. Many audience members later informed me that they had continued to exercise free will in their own lives, for example by participating in a drug rehab program.
Just as the language of tragedy can help bring about personal change, it can also stimulate systemic change. “People are suffering,” Greta Thunberg told world leaders, her voice charged with emotion, at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019. “People are dying.. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the start of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
It could have been a speech in a Greek tragedy, a warning from a desperate and angry prophet – someone who knows, as we all know, disaster is coming and we have very little time to avoid it. .
Thunberg and many of his fellow climate activists know that the language of tragedy is the only way to express the cataclysm we face. But, as Thunberg knows firsthand, young people can easily be seen as overly sensitive and melodramatic. That is why adults – especially scientists and world leaders – urgently need to join the youth choir and speak in the language of tragedy.
Scientists may believe that anything other than qualified statements made in careful and measured tones would undermine the legitimacy of their findings. But humans are emotional beings facing an existential crisis. The language of tragedy is our best – and possibly last – chance to open the eyes of the world before it’s too late.
Bryan Doerries is artistic director of Theater of War Productions and author of The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.
This comment was posted with permission from Project Syndicate – The Tragedy of Climate Change
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