The Hunt for Humanity in Global Climate Change: Anthony Lioi on “The Great Immensity”

Environmental literary critic Anthony Lioi unpacks the work of environmentalist media and artists who grapple with global climate change.

Dan Domingues in The Civilians' The Great Immensity at The Public Theater, 2014. Photo Credit: Richard Termine

In “Sense of Place and Sense of Planet,” Ursula Heise argues that American environmentalism is torn between the need to act in a planetary emergency and the desire for a refuge of ecological virtue. “Environmentalism concerned itself with issues of global citizenship and activism long before such questions were fashionable in academia,” she says, but “it also invested much of its utopian capital into a celebration of the local.” At worst, this tension devolves to a Not-in-My-Backyard insularity that retards response to a cosmopolitan problem.

Environmental literature has likewise suffered decades of marginality relative to more “universal” themes of love, death and taxes. One of the joys of “The Great Immensity,” the Civilians’ play about extinction and climate change, is the way it overcomes this problem by staging it. The personal narrative of a woman looking for her missing husband forms the center around which questions of environmental justice and activism emerge. Phyllis’s search for Karl, a burned-out documentarian, leads from a “Shark Week” debacle to Panama, the Canadian Arctic, and the wilds of 4chan. The play moves the personal through the planetary in a manner that recommends quest narratives as a model for environmental theater beyond jeremiad, a form that alienates as much as it enlightens.

The connection between empire and environmental crisis cannot be overestimated.

To understand what Steve Cosson, Michael Friedman and company have achieved, it is helpful to compare “The Great Immensity” to other events in environmentalist media. One of the central Green genres is the hortatory lament, pioneered in the 1960s by Rachel Carson in “Silent Spring.” “Silent Spring” begins in a Midwestern town under assault by pesticides that kill the wildlife, resulting in a land “where the sedge is wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing,” as Keats wrote. The book explains the chemical structure of pesticides and the evidence of their overuse, ending with an exhortation to wiser living. This strategy, which depends on an appeal to reason, fear and prudence, has been copied by writer-activists to the present day. Its capacity to inform and to warn is a strength; its weakness is a reliance on rectitude that fits better with the Puritan past.

In contrast, the Hollywood climate blockbuster relies on family drama transposed into a global key using elements of the disaster film. A relatively recent example, “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), starred Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhal as a father and son who must find each other in the frozen wasteland of New York after a climate disaster. While it is easy to root for charismatic megafauna, the sensational nature of the plot obscures the science the film wants to convey. There is a lot of boom and crash, making it easy to dismiss as pandering to the environmentalist id. Green media in the twenty-first century must reconcile reason and empathy, the need to explain with the need to inspire.

“The Great Immensity” squares this circle through strategies of scientific reporting, musical theater, and digital mediation. Grounded in years of field research, the accounts of climate change and species extinction emerge from characters who look and sound like real researchers. In this sense, the play learned from “Silent Spring” that the public trusts experts speaking as citizens rather than philosopher-queens snubbing hoi polloi. Whatever you knew about environmental science before the play, you emerge with credible data because playwright and composer researched the scientists and locations they wrote about, using an innovative technique called “investigative theater.” In this tradition, the stage becomes a public forum rather than a dream-like otherworld. The data are mediated by living voices and by digital representations projected on the scenery, a powerful combination of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic rhetoric. One has only to remember the ascent of Al Gore in a cherry-picker during “An Inconvenient Truth” to appreciate the way “Immensity” stages science.

At the same time, the play appeals to emotions as the audience roots for Phyllis to find Karl, for the teenage “Earth Ambassadors” to succeed in their daring plan, and for humanity to get its $&*! together in time for the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris. Perhaps the most surprising success lies in the fusion of the American musical and environmental politics: the song for a lost love, the tango, and the barbershop quartet allow the play to present dead species and stymied politicians alike as agents in a planetary drama. As I cried for the last passenger pigeon and laughed at the “Schoolhouse Rock” of climate treaties, I wished that other writers would use the full toolkit of comedy, tragedy, and farce to dramatize our ecological condition.

Perhaps the most important thing about “Immensity” is the way it expresses the emotional crisis of the Anthropocene without leaving the audience in despair. Coined by the ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s, the term “Anthropocene” designates the geological era of human domination as a break with the Holocene, in which civilization first emerged. George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 book “Man and Nature” introduced the Anglophone world to the idea that humanity is now a physical force at the scale of the planet. Marsh argued that the devastation of Mediterranean ecosystems by the Roman Empire was now being duplicated all over the earth. The connection between empire and environmental crisis cannot be overestimated at a moment when great powers vie for economic primacy in a neoliberal world order. However, that line of reasoning leads to the fear of total civilizational collapse that cannot be prevented by individual rectitude. Young adults now know, consciously, that they may witness the end of the world as we know it. This thought leads to panic, then resignation, then quietism: a perfect storm of self-fulfilling prophecy.

To its credit, the end of “The Great Immensity” disrupts apocalyptic despair. When Karl, in the final scene, goes off with the Earth Ambassadors to a future of struggle and uncertainty, he sings: “Since you left me alone/I have felt like the last human being that is known,” a gesture to the songs of lost love sung by the passenger pigeon and the lemur. But Karl is not alone. He joins the teenagers, their hacker allies, the scientists, and the indigenous people of Churchill, Canada, in a conspiracy of hope. His mate, Phyllis, does not die, but travels to Paris, the site of the next climate summit, to fight for a global treaty to curb greenhouse gases. In a moving envoy, Karl sings “for the next fifty years, for the next hundred years, for the next forever,” an ode to the Anthropocene as our new epoch. This ending is neither apocalyptic nor melancholy, nor is it fixed on destruction or mourning. It is plangent instead, ringing through the theater like a call to wake up from a dream of comfortable despair. If “Immensity” marks the new theater of the Anthropocene, engaged in the present in the name of forever, then that is a cause for hope.

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