Introduction. Reading plays in the Anthropocene

THIS STORY COULD start in many places and one of them is the Pacific island of Mauna Loa. Since 1958, an observatory on the island has been monitoring the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When continuous observations began in the late-50s, the figure stood at 315 ppm (parts per million).

Four years later, when I was born, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere had risen by three to 318 ppm. When I went to university, it had risen a further 20 to 338 ppm. When my children were born, it was 360 ppm and 363 ppm. …


Simon Gray wrote 30 plays. The one set in Central Africa offers a clue to the climate crisis

Simon Gray on the back cover of “Gray: Plays One”

FOR SOME REASON my local library has a set of the complete plays of Simon Gray. A sharp, erudite and prolific playwright, Gray wrote more than 30 stage plays, along with another 20 plays and films for television. The complete plays runs to five volumes.

To flick through the volumes on the library shelf is to be reminded, among other things, of the economics of West End plays in the 1970s and 1980s. In its way, the producer’s balance sheet shaped how the world might be represented to its audience. More than one set was expensive. More than eight actors…


Weird weather and migrating terns — but what about burning fossil fuels?

Detail from the front cover of “Weather” by Jenny Offill. Cover photograph @ Getty Images

Over the weekend an authoritative round-up of new fiction about climate change mentioned 20 novels that were part of “the young genre” of climate fiction — or cli-fi.

The Guardian article was titled “Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction.” Nothing in the article mentioned what might need to happen for a novel to save the world (whatever that means) but the intro went on to state that:

Now more than ever, novelists are facing up to the unthinkable: the climate crisis

What exactly was it that had previously been unthinkable? The answer, mainly, was weird…


Any great shift requires new images, metaphors and stories

“The Sun”. Photo by Rajiv Bajaj on Unsplash

A central argument in these blogposts is not that we are doomed because of climate change. It is that the effects of climate change are leading to an extraordinary reimagining of the relationship between humans and the rest of the planet.

Over the last 30 years, the evidence has become overwhelming that vast amounts of CO2 deposited in the atmosphere are dangerously altering the planet’s behaviour. As a discovery, it is as far-reaching in its implications as the news from Copernicus and Galileo that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round.

But what does this…


Seven thousand miles separate whether this picture is highly visible or almost invisible

Earlier this year, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a large gala reception in Beijing to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. He announced to the hundreds of dignitaries that this was a “miracle” that would “go down in history”.

As China expert, Ian Johnson, writes about that remark

For a party that aims to guide China towards domination in the future… the first priority is controlling the past… history is legitimacy.

But just to make sure that history really appears to be on its side, the party spends an inordinate amount of time writing…


The king, the worm, the fish and the beggar are all one story

Before the play even starts, Hamlet’s world has been turned upside down. A student in Germany, he gets news that his father — the king of Denmark — has died and he returns home for the funeral.

Not long after that his mother marries his uncle and the newly-weds insist that Hamlet doesn’t go back to college, but stays at the court.

In a short period, the most basic aspects of Hamlet’s life — his dad is king, his mum is married to his dad, and he is a student — are no longer true. …


When he moved south, the plays flowed “so quick and exciting from the pen”

Photo: Anne-Marie Duff by Dean Chalkley

In his early 20s, D. H. Lawrence left Eastwood in the east Midlands, where he was born and where he grew up, to take a job as an assistant teacher at a new elementary school in Croydon, south London.

This was another town that was developing fast: both the school and the lodgings where Lawrence stayed had only been built in the previous two years.

Although Lawrence came from a mining town, and had seen hardship, he had never encountered the degree of poverty experienced by some of his pupils, who were from a local institution, a “Home for Waifs…


But he couldn’t imagine where people he saw on the station platform were heading

The political theorist Hannah Arendt defined thinking, very simply, as “training one’s mind to going visiting”. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem on the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Arendt found that one of his most striking features was his “inability to think”.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and minister of war, was far more intelligent than Eichmann but, in his own way, he offers an extraordinary example of both the power and the limits of the imagination.

This is strikingly dramatised in David Edgar’s play Albert Speer (2000), closely based on Gitta Sereny’s book Albert Speer: His…


What happened then is becoming more and more visible now

It might seem easy enough: historians look backwards and climate activists look forwards. But the title of a recent discussion between historians messed around with that idea.

It asked: “What should historians do in the next decade of the climate crisis?”

The session opened – a nice moment of self-awareness – with a reference to Monty Python.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail an academic historian is standing in front of the TV camera, talking about King Arthur, when a knight rides past and cheerfully hacks him down.



Imagine if this diagram of interactive systems was more widely adopted

Bretherton Diagram (NASA 1988)

In the 1980s, the scientific disciplines that studied the Earth’s atmosphere as separate subjects — oceans, land, cryosphere, ecology — realised they should present their work as one big subject.

Since the Earth was an interactive set of systems, and since human activity affected these systems directly and indirectly, it would be good to convey this to the public in a way that could be easily grasped.

To do this, NASA produced a series of reports led by a meteorologist called Francis Bretherton. The reports came up with a diagram — or conceptual framework — the so-called “Bretherton diagram”.


Robert Butler

Top writer in Climate Change. PhD in Geography. Theatre books: “Art of Darkness” and “Alchemist Exposed”. Co-editor: Culture & Climate Change

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