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What War Horse could do for the Environmental Movement


Two days ago, I saw War Horse, the play not the movie.  I was fascinated by the skill with which the actors took some scraps of leather, plastic, wood and metal, and turned them into a horse.  Not just any horse, but a horse I cared deeply about.  The transformation was almost immediate; the puppeteers disappeared and a living, suffering horse was in front of me.  The myth was maintained for the entire production, and the horse got the biggest ovation at the curtain call.  I still think and feel that the play was about a real horse called Joey.  If theatre can do this, perhaps there is help for the environmental movement.

The environmental movement can learn a lot from the arts.  Long ago, conservationists recognized that abstract concepts like biodiversity loss had to be made real by reference to charismatic animals.  So rather than save biodiversity, communities work to save Siberian tigers, giant pandas, humpback whales and monarch butterflies.  The hope is that the rest of biodiversity will be saved along with these specific creatures.  But we need to do more than pick a few poster creatures.

If the world is going to become energized to confront the global environmental crisis in any really effective way, the environmental movement has got to find a way to connect to the emotional side of humanity, a way to get the right half of our brains working on the problem as well as the left.  Rather than focusing solely on explaining the problem (of the environmental crisis) so that people understand the difficult situation we are creating for ourselves, the environmental movement has got to find ways of building emotional connections so that people come to feel that the situation really is difficult.  In short, the environmental movement has got to learn how to build a living, breathing horse out of bits of leather, plastic, metal and wood.  It has got to make the information that needs to be conveyed into stories that resonate with the mythic structures around which we build our lives.  The challenge, of course, is also to do this without distorting the information that is being delivered.

I do not know how to do this, but here are some critical messages that need to be imbedded into the psyches of people around the world.  They must be put there in ways that make sense to the left brains, yet also appeal to the right brains because they resonate with the other factors that drive how people feel and how people respond to issues, to ideas, and to suggestions.

We need to understand, and viscerally appreciate, exponential change and the rapidly growing risks such change can bring.  I discussed this need in Our Dying Planet, and used the story of the young man with a chessboard, who rescued the damsel in distress to explain the issue.  That story is a good beginning, but even it does not convey the sheer terror of exponential escalation – otherwise none of us would misuse our credit cards.  Al Gore riding a cherry picker was also a good beginning, but few people remember that scene, and many who do did not connect emotionally – it was remembered as a ‘cute way to get to the top of the graph”.

We need to understand that humans really are powerful enough to change the planet without intending to.  There is enormous resistance to this idea, fueled by fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world, coupled with a Pollyanna –ish lack of willingness to believe that we could disrupt our life support systems.

We need to understand that death by a thousand cuts is still death, and that our many deleterious impacts on the natural world amount to at least a thousand cuts.  Understanding the concept of a perfect storm of problems may grow easier as the frequency of bad events rises, but there still needs to be a way of making that understanding visceral.

So, how does the environmental movement reach out to the theatre arts for guidance, inspiration, and new ways of communicating the stories that need to be told?

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