From the Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment

NOV 12, 2021

by Daniel Schrag

“Our secret weapon for making progress on climate change is the arts.” This is what I said to Diane Paulus at a dinner over seven years ago, as we were discussing how the Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE) could effectively engage with the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.). And I believe it. The public usually hears about climate change from scientists and economists, environmental activists, and politicians. But a critical part of making progress on climate change is shifting our sense of collective responsibility for the world of the future. Just as culture carries our shared memories of the past, our visions of the future are shaped by literature, music, and theater just as much as science, technology, and economics. Think of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Does your mind turn to facts from history, economics, and science? No—our memory is stored in the works of John Steinbeck, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Woodie Guthrie. And the arts may be a better way of helping the public think about values and fairness—principles at the heart of the climate crisis—than political commentary or academic studies.

I had been talking with Diane and her team—Ryan McKittrick and Diane Borger—for several months, as we shared this vision for how the A.R.T. could play a role in helping audiences think about the environment, but also take advantage of the breadth of environmental scholarship at Harvard. They explained to me how the process of creating a dramatic work comes about, from the initial work by a writer, to an extended process of workshops and readings, to the eventual scaling-up of staging and production. There were opportunities for engagement throughout this process, but Diane and Diane and Ryan pitched an idea to me: what if HUCE were to fund a series of playwrights who would create new theatrical pieces related to environmental subjects? But rather than merely handing them a check and sending them off to create their art, what if we brought the artists together with the environmental scholars at Harvard, the historians and scientists, economists and engineers? The idea was not to have scholars try to tell the artists what to do—or even to evaluate or scrutinize their ideas for accuracy. The point was simply to engage and inspire. We hoped that by bringing together scholars and playwrights, new conversations would happen, new perspectives would be shared, and new ideas would emerge.

This is how we started our experiment in creating environmental theater. We have brought writers to Harvard, sometimes for individual meetings or sometimes for a large dinner or discussion. Ocean Filibuster grew out of one of these experiments—“suffering a sea-change into something rich and strange.” One can see the influence of the conversations in all sorts of interesting ways, most of them entirely unpredictable. And the partnership between HUCE and A.R.T. has broadened to include other modes of engagement, including informal discussions with writers, directors, and actors, along with faculty conversations with audiences. WILD: A Musical Becoming was not commissioned by HUCE, but Diane Paulus’s interest in climate change as a subject of musical theater was supported by her engagement with our community. I really do believe that the arts will play a central role in confronting our environmental challenges. And I am so happy to support the process through the magical and simple act of bringing people together to talk and dream.

Daniel Schrag is the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology; Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering; Director, Harvard University Center for the Environment; and Director, Science Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard University

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