Ian and Tom Roberts: Do not go gently – two plays on climate change

Ian and Tom Roberts(IR) Although I cannot be certain, I suspect that humans are unique amongst animals in the ability to contemplate their own death. We all know that death is waiting. We might rage against the dying of the light but we know that the darkness will win. We scrutinize death solemnly and earnestly as we would examine a swollen lymph node. Montaigne believed that by practicing an awareness of death we rip off its fearful mask and since we can never know where death awaits us we should “wait for it everywhere.”

But how do we practice the death of our civilization? Signs that we are fast approaching an ecological catastrophe are all around us. We were warned that climate induced food shortages would spark political unrest, violence and social collapse. Is the turmoil in the Middle East the beginning? It began with food price riots and we should not forget that it was the biblical deluge in Pakistan, the floods in Australia and Canadian, and the record high temperatures across Russia that devastated the wheat crop and pushed up prices.

Perhaps a civilization contemplates its demise through its art. At least this is what I pondered leaving the Royal Court Theatre after “The Heretic” by Richard Bean. The heroine is Dr Diane Cassell, a lone academic at odds with the faculty as a result of her skeptical research conclusions on climate change. Her dialogue is barbed as she flays her colleagues for going too gently into the long good night of climate chaos. Judging by the laughter, the audience are longing for her to be right and for climate change to nothing more than a bad dream. But surely they can feel the lump under their fingers? And is it not growing?

Meanwhile across town my sixteen year old son Tom, who will inherit from my generation the reality or myth of climate chaos, was reviewing another play on the same theme. He takes over from here.

(TR):  At the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre, the production “Greenland” asks the big question “What on earth is happening to our planet?” Even as I stood with the lads in the lobby I started to speculate whether the play would answer the question or goad me into finding out for myself.

Greenland explores three perspectives on climate change, that of the politicians, the scientists and the public. As I sat in an enthralled full house I soon realized that this play is more about problems than solutions. What a pity. We would all love to be told what to do, of course provided that the answer does not mean that we have to change our behavior or make modifications to our lives.

Despite a captivating performance and an impressive storyline that mixed polar bears, Copenhagen talks and Deal or No Deal, I left disappointed. But then it is so easy to kid yourself into believing that someone else knows the answer. Like death, we never know what the future will be like. We can speculate, ponder, imagine but there is no knowing what ecological meltdown will look like until it comes.

Leaving the theatre, walking back to the tube with the boys, I knew that I had seen one perspective on climate change but now I needed to work on my own. Bertolt Brecht worked passionately to provoke his audiences in the hope that they would leave the auditorium determined to act on what they had seen. In this respect Greenland was a partial success. I want to act but I don’t know how. All I know is that climate change will be a big theme in my life and for my generation.

Ian Roberts is professor of epidemiology and public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Tom Roberts is his son.