Everything Is Just Dandy!

Place as Message: Anarchist Climate Communication Through Performance by Taiga Christie

The Institute for Anarchist Studies
IAS
2022-07-25
https://anarchiststudies.org/climatecommunication/

“This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honor… no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.”

– Sandia National Laboratories warning text for labelling nuclear waste repositories, 1992.

 

Thomas Sebeok authored a report in 1981for the US Department of Energy. In it, he proposed establishing an “atomic priesthood” to communicate the site of a nuclear waste repository to future generations. The priesthood would carry forward the knowledge of a planned nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada passing the location and the danger of the waste buried there from one generation of priests to the next, in hopes that the message would last the 10,000-1,000,000 years until the site was safe for human habitation. A semiotician by training, Sebeok posited that the priesthood would be more successful at preserving the important information–the location of the repository and the threat it posed–if the priests alone carried the knowledge. Rather than spread this knowledge to the public, they would create a religion built on shunning Yucca Mountain. Like the Catholic Church, this priesthood would use religious doctrine–and if necessary, “perhaps the veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be tantamount to inviting some sort of supernatural retribution” –to create a long-lasting tradition of avoiding the site, impacting human behavior in the hopes of keeping people safe from the radioactive waste buried under the mountain.[1]

Sebeok’s report contained a basic description of the semiotic problem of communicating with people 10,000 years in the future: how can we communicate across a divide twice as long as the history of written language? It also described lessons learned from a collection of possible solutions to this problem, solicited from physicists, semioticians, behavioral scientists, and science fiction writers from around the world, a group that would come to be known as the Human Interference Task Force. Suggestions came mostly from American and European scholars and writers, and ranged from making the site physically inaccessible through highly technical means, to creating satellites that would beam messages about the site to earth for centuries into the future, to encoding plant DNA with information about the danger and introducing these plants around Yucca Mountain.[2]

The report also contained some omissions, such as the proposal by French scientist François Bastide and Italian semiotician Paolo Fabbri that cats should be genetically engineered to change color when exposed to radiation. These “ray cats” should then be incorporated into the mythology, music, and fairy tales of American culture, creating an intergenerational understanding that when cats change color, humans must leave. Bastide and Fabbri believed we would only succeed in maintaining knowledge for 10,000 years by popularizing it: making it available and understandable to everyone, collectively held and communicated from one person to the next. Sebeok disregarded this proposal; considering it too wild, frivolous, and impractical, he omitted it from his final report.[3] As Fabbri stated in a translated interview for a 2015 short film, “I think Sebeok…he probably had a good laugh, but I think he didn’t like our proposition. I think he dropped it. He was expecting a concrete proposition, utopian but concrete, and he thought our solution was a bit funny.”[4] In retrospect, creating an entirely new religion as “utopian but concrete,” while seeing color changing cats as being “a bit funny” might seem arbitrary. But ray cats remained absent from the report.

The report also left out a much larger and more fundamental piece of information: the fact that Yucca Mountain is located on unceded Western Shoshone lands, and is a site of specific sacred importance to several tribes in the region. An Indian Claims Commission case ruled the US government owed the Western Shoshone limited compensation for lands, including Yucca Mountain and the adjacent Nevada Test Site–a place that sustained nearly 1,000 atomic bomb tests–amounting to fifteen cents per acre. The Western Shoshone Nation refused to accept this money, continuing to claim rights to the land. Plans to build the Yucca Mountain repository moved forward anyway, in the face of local Indigenous resistance, and despite threats to the safety of local groundwater.[5] Yet this context is nowhere in the report, which treats the space around the repository as an empty and unwanted wasteland.

Like many examples of science communication, Sebeok’s report on the work of the Human Interference Task Force left out the vital contexts of systemic oppression, settler colonialist history, and environmental destruction. It also left out the value of popularizing scientific knowledge, particularly knowledge with the potential to prevent massive harm.

My theater ensemble, Faultline, discovered Sebeok’s report as we began to create This Place is a Message, a performance about climate change communication during the age of COVID. Our project set out to address several questions: How can we communicate more effectively about the climate crisis and its massively disproportionate impacts? What lessons can we learn from the COVID pandemic about how to talk to one another across divides? How can the disproportionate impacts resulting from systemic oppression be centered in this conversation? And can we build solidarity rooted in the emotional experience of failing to communicate life and death information to those we love? Sebeok’s Task Force provided an unexpected window into these questions; an example of a group of people struggling to communicate across a vast divide, coming up with wildly imaginative proposals for envisioning the distant future.

Our project began with the discovery of Joe Duggan’s Is This How You Feel project, an effort to communicate the urgency of climate change through the emotional experience of climate scientists. Over the past five years, this Australian science communicator has compiled an online collection of handwritten letters from climate scientists, all answering the same question: How does climate change make you feel?[6] These letters demonstrate the enormity of the climate crisis, not through scientific fact, but through personal expression of its mental health toll on frontline scientists.[7] Faultline’s hypothesis–as anarchists, storytellers, health workers, and antifascist activists–was that personal stories might reach people who struggle to hear and respond to scientific reporting on climate change.

But the project actually began even farther back, on an afternoon towards the end of my time as a public health grad student, when I was weeding a hillside at the medicinal plant collection and agroforestry project where I worked. I was talking with a coworker, a student at the Yale School of Forestry, while we pulled mugwort, an invasive rhizome brought to this content by colonizer ships in the 1600s. It is constantly taking over this small farm and permaculture site, and pulling its long stalks and network of roots is a never-ending task. As we worked, my coworker mentioned research she was reading on the mental health toll of studying climate change: statistics on the vicarious trauma-like impacts of examining the climate crisis up close.[8] [9] I had spent my life avoiding facing the terrifying facts of climate change, but suddenly a new way of facing its immediacy opened up. What would happen if we shared the emotional experience of studying climate change with wider audiences? Would that provide a new window into the crisis, one that is easier to grasp than facts and statistics?

By mid-2020, this question seemed both less urgent and more. In a country consumed by police violence against Black lives and the resulting uprising against it, in the context of the acute COVID pandemic, on-going climate catastrophe felt both irrelevant and constantly present at once. Working in public health during a pandemic was also an exercise in communicating crisis information across vast divides. So when I was given the opportunity to pitch an education project to a climate change communication foundation in collaboration with the Yale School of Public Health, I remembered the conversation from that day of weeding and proposed to write a play applying lessons learned from COVID to climate change communication. The foundation’s response was to fund their first theater-based project, starting us down a road of creating a play about the process of communicating about chronic climate disaster, while living through the acute disaster of the pandemic.

My queer anarchist and health worker self was raised by street medics, most foundationally the Rosehip Medic Collective in Portland, Oregon, where I was a member for seven years. Rosehips’ values include democratizing health knowledge, teaching and sharing lifesaving skills, and reducing reliance on the mainstream medical system.[10] Bruno Latour–a good friend and colleague of ray cat creators Bastide and Fabbri–and others have pointed out that much of scientific, medical, and public health knowledge exists in a “black box” space. A black box is opaque; only specialists with specific, carefully-guarded knowledge can see into it and understand the processes taking place. Laypeople see only the output (an x-ray, a diagnosis, a Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendation) without understanding the process by which the output is created.[11] We see this “black-boxing” in the high cost of medical and scientific education in the US and historical barriers to entry into these academic settings. And we see it in the CDC’s opaque COVID recommendations, shared as top-down decrees from within the black box of health research, with little consistent explanation or public education.[12]

Sebeok’s atomic priesthood would replicate this black box by creating a priesthood that holds tightly-controlled knowledge, and only shares publicly one specific message, with no reasoning behind its creation. Climate science also falls into this black-box area. The public receives output–usually in the form of frightening statistics, facts, headlines, and occasionally images–without clarity on the knowledge leading to its formation. It comes from the top of the scientific hierarchy, with the assumption that laypeople are unqualified and incapable of understanding anything but the end message. It generally fails to account for the greater impacts the crisis has on communities historically locked out of the black box, focusing on the impacts on those controlling the narrative.

Long before COVID, the antivax (anti-vaccine) movement showed us that data, information, and statistics fall flat in the face of anecdotes. As humans, we are wired to be emotionally impacted by the personal stories of others. Individual stories about adverse vaccine reactions–even when proven false–captured the imaginations of concerned parents far more than CDC guidance, statistics, or recommendations, leading to a decrease in childhood vaccinations.[13] Black-boxed, top-down commands and recommendations were no match for narrative, emotional experience, and the popularizing of personal story. In creating a performance model of climate change communication, Faultline believes that an anarchist climate change communication project must instead rely on democratizing knowledge, sharing information horizontally, and grounding our process in personal and community-level narratives.

What would it take to develop antiauthoritarian forms of communication about climate change:  communication methods that are horizontal, grassroots, community-level, rooted in individual lived experience, and moving at the speed of trust? Methods that democratize knowledge, share power, reduce hierarchy, and inspire collective action? It would necessitate simultaneous speaking and listening to one another about the climate crisis, centering voices of those most impacted–whether by the emotional experience of facing traumatizing knowledge, or the concrete experience of being impacted firsthand by the growing disaster–rather than those with the most authority and power. And it would mean ‘unblack-boxing’ messages in order to promote shared knowledge, complex understanding, and transparency. Joe Duggan’s Is This How You Feel project is one opportunity to do this; to learn from the lived experiences of impacted people. Our live performance, This Place is a Message, is an effort to amplify those voices, and to argue for new forms of personal narrative-based climate change communication.

Anarchist projects require anarchist process. As anarchist fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “The end justifies the means. But what if there never was an end? All we have is means.”[14] Since its 2014 inception, Faultline has been committed to a values-based process over final product, believing that nonhierarchical, trauma informed processes will lead to performances that reflect those priorities. In order to create This Place is a Message, we built a small team of collaborators using Bruno Latour’s concept of the “tracing of associations,” reaching out to our personal connections, relying on individuals to gauge their interest, know their own context, understand and share their relationships with the people, communities and ideas we worked with, and to be the experts of their own experiences.[15] Latour’s model involves a commitment to:

‘Follow the actors themselves’, that is try to catch up with their often wild innovations in order to learn from them what the collective existence has become in their hands, which methods they have elaborated to make it fit together, which accounts could best define the new associations that they have been forced to establish.[16]

Faultline is committed to working with new artists, emerging artists, health workers, and individuals with relevant lived experience, regardless of artistic experience. Our imperfect process was one of continually asking ourselves and each other how we feel about climate change, what we believe about communication, and how we understand our responsibility to one another. Our writing team organically emerged as a team of two, myself and cowriter/codirector Ezra Batson, with a small network of advisors and editors. As we cast actors, they were brought into the writing process, where they shifted the identities, roles, and personalities of characters, helped to rewrite scenes, proposed line changes, and discovered new insight into their characters that impacted how the stories evolved.

The play opened in May, 2022 as a roving outdoor performance at the permaculture and agroforestry site where it was first conceived. After two years of virtual abandonment during the pandemic, the site is overgrown by invasive mugwort, a constant character and world-building presence growing up to six feet tall.

The play contains three storylines, each unfolding in a distinct world: a team of four members of Sebeok’s Human Interference Task Force, arguing proposals for marking the waste site at Yucca Mountain and eventually discovering the history of Indigenous repression and colonization behind the waste repository site; a group of four gardeners struggling to defend their farm from colonizer-introduced invasive mugwort, a task made more difficult by warming global temperatures; and a collection of four climate scientists, sharing the emotional experiences of failing to communicate the urgency of the climate disaster. Audiences move throughout the site, walking down forest trails and through garden paths to witness scenes from these interweaving stories. Climate scientists are positioned at intervals along the paths, speaking their feelings about climate change, with audiences instructed to listen as much or as little as they like. Towards the end of the play, the worlds merge as characters wrestle with their colonialist pasts and begin to imagine what the future might hold.

Together, these stories are three sides of the same process. The task force posits ideas about communicating life and death information. The gardeners act, employing diverse tactics for sharing their needs and messages. And the climate scientists reflect on the deeply emotional experience of failing to communicate in the face of disaster. As an art form, theater shines in its ability to try on new strategies, visions, and ideas; at its best, a play can be a utopian experiment in creating a microcosm of the world we hope to build. Our audiences witness these three groups of characters–most fundamentally the gardeners, with their concrete, hands-on experimentation–trying on different ways of moving forward as crisis looms. Audiences explore alongside our characters, and we hope they too are inspired to imagine new paths forward. In a recent Faultline post-performance discussion, antifascist journalists and Faultline collaborators Robert Evans and Laura Jedeed articulated that fascism necessitates an aesthetic of collapse, a moving back to an idealized past, where no future is possible.[17] Antifascist movements, then, must be motivated by visions of the future, and an anarchist climate change communication must encourage this collective imagining.

Central to the process of envisioning futures is Carl, a nonbinary character in our play based loosely on Carl Sagan and played by a young woman of color. Carl is the only character able to witness all three storylines. They travel with the audience, part witness, part guide, and an active participant in some scenes. Early in the play, Carl encounters the climate adaptation strategies of zebra finches, small birds from the Australian outback. These finches sing to their eggs, singing different notes when the temperatures soar above seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit. These songs impact the physiology and behavior of their hatchlings. Young who hear these notes before hatching emerge from their eggs smaller, don’t grow as big, and build nests suited for warmer temperatures.[18] Inspired by the ability to sing change and adaptation into others, Carl spends the play trying to build an instrument that communicates to humans the urgent need to take notice, change course, and adapt. They borrow objects from each world within the play, attempting and failing to build a device that will allow others to hear and respond to their message of warning. Like current climate messaging, Carl’s instrument seeks to deliver top-down information, control others’ responses, and cause humans to take prescribed action, leaving little room for horizontal communication and collaboration.

Carl abandons their instrument during the climactic scene of the play, where they wander through a graveyard of downwinders: people lost to cancer from fallout from the Nevada Test Site at Yucca Mountain. Nuclear testing and waste storage disproportionately impact Indigenous and Black communities, including severe harm to water supplies on Indigenous land.[19] As the play’s storylines weave together, Carl witnesses the experience of Brill, a Black woman from a rural downwinder town. As Carl’s makeshift instrument fails to communicate the urgency of death rates in downwinder communities, they finally try a new strategy: rather than speaking, they begin listening to and learning from the stories of impacted people around them.

Sebeok’s Department of Energy report was never used to mark Yucca Mountain, as the repository project was postponed so long by local and state-level resistance that it was eventually defunded during the Obama administration.[20] However, ideas from the report influenced conversations about warning signs at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository in New Mexico and the Onkalo repository in Finland,[21] nearing completion now to take Yucca Mountain’s place as the first high-level radioactive waste repository in the world.[22] Despite being left out of the official report, Bastide and Fabbri’s ray cat solution has spread even further. It has captured public imagination, and been featured in podcasts,[23] a short film, songs, t-shirts, and even a Canadian science lab working towards genetically engineering color changing cats.[24] As Bastide and Fabbri anticipated, the evocative and uncontrolled nature of the ray cat message has created a subcultural fascination, passed from one person to another, spreading horizontally like mugwort rhizomes. Fabbri once stated that the continued interest in ray cats “proves that invention can benefit from imagination…the ray cat solution is an excellent idea, not because it can solve the problem by itself, but because it can inspire someone to use his imagination and to finally find a solution to the problem.”[25]

As Carl moves through our play, they learn lessons from each storyline, ultimately abandoning their instrument as they grow from a person demanding that those around them wake up and do something different, to a person listening to those around them for inspiration for where to turn next. Eventually, they invite the audience into this process, co-creating an installation in the trees around the final scene, inviting audience members to add their thoughts and emotions in ribbons hanging from the tree limbs. Carl concludes the play by returning to the language of birds, a vision for collective action in the face of climate crisis:

I imagine I am a bird. I imagine I am one of thousands. My flock flows like water over the land. We change shape so often it feels like we have no shape at all. We build nests and hatch young. We fly together and I don’t know where we are going or how to get there, but I know we need to turn to not run into the barn. I know we need to turn right now. Someone next to me knows where to go after that. Someone next to them knows where to go after that. Not one of us knows the whole route.[26]

Carl’s journey is, above all else, one going from speaking to listening. From commanding obedience to crowdsourcing knowledge. And from individual control to emergent collective action. This is the journey we hope anarchist climate communication can invite us to share: a process of moving from authoritative control to collective world building, from denial and isolation to mutual aid.

 

Taiga is a theater artist, street medic, and rural health worker creating work at the intersection of performance and community health. She is a founding member of Faultline Ensemble, whose work focuses on theater for community resilience, and holds an MPH and EMT certification. Taiga has worked as a street medic, EMT, artist and emergency preparedness educator in the rural Northeast and Pacific Northwest. She is excited about collaborative, interdisciplinary, and nonhierarchical art, healthcare, and activism.

 

(All photos are of the rehearsals for, and performance of, The Place is a Message by the Faultline Ensemble, provided by the author.)

 

Notes

 

[1] Thomas A. Sebeok, Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millenia (Columbus, OH: Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation, 1984), 24-27.

[2] Thomas A. Sebeok, Communication Measures to Bridge Ten Millenia, .

[3] The Ray Cat Solution, directed by Benjamin Huguet (2015; United Kingdom).

[4] Fabbri, Paolo, interviewed in The Ray Cat Solution, directed by Benjamin Huguet (2015; United Kingdom).

[5] First Nations Development Institute, Native American Asset Watch: Rethinking Asset-Building in Indian Country (Longmont, CO: First Nations Development Institute, 2009): 137-140.

[6] Joe Duggan, “Is this how you feel?” accessed December 2020, https://www.isthishowyoufeel.com/.

[7] Joe Duggan, “This is how scientists feel,” accessed December 2020, https://www.isthishowyoufeel.com/this-is-how-scientists-feel.html.

[8] John H. Richardson, “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job,” Esquire, July 20, 2018, https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815/.

[9] Susan Clayton, “Mental health risks and resilience among climate scientists,” Nature Climate Change, 8 (April 2018): 260-261.

[10] Rosehip Medic Collective, “Who We Are,” accessed 24 March 2022, https://www.rosehipmedics.org/who-we-are/.

[11] Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[12] Zeynep Tufekci, “The C.D.C. Is Hoping You’ll Figure Covid Out on Your Own,” New York Times, January 5, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/05/opinion/omicron-covid-testing-cdc.html.

[13] A. Shelby and K. Ernst, “Story and Science: How providers and parents can utilize storytelling to combat anti-vaccine misinformation,” Human Vaccine Immunotherapy, 18, no 5 (2013): 1795-1801.

[14] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (New York: Scribner, 2008).

[15] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New

York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 5, emphasis in original.

[16] Latour, Reassembling the Social, 12.

[17] Laura Jedeed and Robert Evans, in conversation with Katrina Enyeart, Shane Burley, and Taiga Christie, “A Bright Room Called Day Post-Show Discussion,” Faultline Ensemble, October 30, 2020.

[18] Joshua Rapp Learn, “Birds Sing to Their Eggs, and This Song Might Help Their Babies Survive Climate Change,” Smithsonian Magazine, August 18, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/birds-talk-their-eggsand-song-might-help-their-babies-deal-climate-change-180960168.

[19] Tommy Rock, “Uranium Mining, Testimony of Tommy Rock, Ph.D. Before the US House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources,” January 25, 2019, http://www.congress.gov

[20] Sedeer El-Showk, “Final Resting Place,” Science, February 24, 2022, https://www.science.org/content/article/finland-built-tomb-store-nuclear-waste-can-it-survive-100000-years.

[21] Andrew Curry, “What Lies Beneath,” The Atlantic, October 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/what-lies-beneath/537894/.

[22] Sedeer El-Showk, “Final Resting Place.”

[23] Roman Mars, “Ten Thousand Years,” 99% Invisible, Episode 114, May 12, 2014.

[24] The Ray Cat Solution, directed by Benjamin Huguet.

[25] The Ray Cat Solution, directed by Benjamin Huguet.

[26] Taiga Christie, Ezra Batson and Faultline Ensemble, This Place is a Message, March 22, 2022.