Wrapping up Volume II, our mini-season centered on climate change. Douglas Detrick writes about what he’s learned about how artists can effectively address climate change in their work, and how it matters to all of us as we struggle with this global crisis.
Photos in this post by Tim Keenan-Burgess and Kim Gumbel.
Hey there More Devotedly listeners. This episode is a wrap-up to Volume II, a mini-season of three episodes and a live performance on the theme of climate change. I wrote most of this episode before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States. My family is doing fine, and I hope that you and your loved ones are able to stay safe and ride out this crisis.
Before we get into the epilogue for Volume II, I wanted to let you all know I’m working on producing a special episode about the coronavirus outbreak and I’d like to hear from you. Have you or someone you know found a creative way to address this crisis?
If so, you can call (503) 454-6274 and leave a message for me. You can also write or send a voice memo by email to email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
Welcome to More Devotedly, a podcast for people who see the arts as a force for positive, progressive change. I’m Douglas Detrick.
In this second volume of the show, we’ve been talking, thinking and making work about climate change. This crisis that we face is vast and complicated, and after this episode is finished, the crisis will remain unsolved. We know that for sure, but I hope we have learned about a few more things that we can be certain of as a community of artists and arts supporters.
I’ll get into what I think those things are. But, for now I just want to thank all of you for sticking with me this far into this journey. I’ve been hearing kind words from many of you about the show, and it’s a real privilege to have access to your pretty little ears. Thanks for that honor, I hope that you’ll continue to find something here that makes your life better.
Here’s the episode.
This volume began with an idea suggested by the first guest, Stephanie McCollough. As she and I began talking about creating something together that would respond to climate change, she wanted us to do so from the perspective of the heart, the emotional response to this situation.
To begin, we asked ourselves some questions. How do we feel about this situation? In the face of all the scientific facts of the problem, do our feelings matter at all? And once we’ve sorted out what our feelings are, what the hell do we do with them?
That became the focus of all of the interviews I conducted for this volume. And I found that you and I and the three artists I talked to have a lot in common—we’re angry, and sad, and disappointed, and overwhelmed, and some of us feel broken.
The despair that many of us feel is real, and it’s obvious, like an open wound. But I found we’re ready also to make ourselves whole again. We’re ready to use our creativity as a tool to heal ourselves and others, and to draw a map to the sustainable future that we need. We don’t know which poem we write or song that we sing will inspire the next treaty maker or carbon sequestering scientist, but we know that the potential is there everytime we put a new idea into the world. We are wounded, but we’re determined to exert our power.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how we can do it.
In episode one of Volume II, Stephanie McCollough showed that your feelings matter. Yes, we have ever-growing mountains of scientific data, but data doesn’t take action in the real world. Only people can do that. And only the people who have distilled their emotions into a focused strategy will be effective.
I had a conversation with an artist who had written a new piece for Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, where I’m the Executive Director. Their piece was a response to psychological trauma, which they had dealt with personally, as well as professionally in their work at a shelter. I remember doing some research before we talked to try to get a better idea of what “trauma” actually was, but I couldn’t find a written definition that made much sense to me.
In the interview, as we talked about this question, I realized that I really wasn’t getting it. they tried to explain to me, but I think it was pretty clear to both of us that it wasn’t working. It certainly wasn’t their fault, though. I didn’t understand the difference between bad experiences and bad memories, which we all have had, and trauma.
I’m still no expert on this topic, but I’ve learned since then that trauma is something that takes you out of control of your mental state, of your emotions, maybe even of your whole life. Someone experiencing trauma can try to avoid situations that trigger them, but no one can do so forever. Eventually, you have to take back control, using as many tools as possible to achieve that, like therapy, medication, life changes and more.
Comparing trauma of this type to our country’s response to climate change is imperfect, I acknowledge that, and I don’t mean to diminish the psychological traumas that people face every day.
But my conversation with Stephanie about climate change made me feel that many of us are traumatized by the worsening effects of climate change and the ongoing resistance to taking meaningful action to mitigate them.
We’re exhausted by all of it. That exhaustion leads to despair, and despair leads to a kind of trauma. But, we can’t allow ourselves to be traumatized, we have to take control of our emotions. That means feeling them, understanding them, and putting them to work for us.
I’ve learned a lot since that conversation a few years ago, and I’ve experienced that out-of-control feeling in my own life since then as well. It’s real. And the work it takes to address it is hard. Making this podcast, doing these creative projects, that’s been part of how I address it in my own life, even though sometimes the work causes even more stress. I’m still figuring this all out, but I still think it’s worth doing.
As I listen back to my conversation with Stephanie, I hear that process happening in real time, and I saw it happening as we performed together back in February. That’s the work for me. I hope that it was helpful to you as it was to Stephanie and I.
But how do we take control of our emotions? In episode 3, Craig Santos Perez’s example shows that one way artists can address that issue is to rely on the emotional safety net that has always been available—our families, friends, and communities, in whatever form that’s meaningful to you.
Over and over again, Craig talked about his culture, his family, his students, and fellow activists that he has connected with as he talks about the emotional impacts of climate change. It’s clear that Craig has made a serious effort to integrate his personal life, family life, academic and activist work into a cohesive whole.
In Praise Song for Oceania, Craig puts gorgeous invocations of his own Pacific Islander heritage alongside a detailed listing of problems facing the ocean right now. The problems as he describes them in the poem with this langguage—”Praise your capacity to survive our trawling boats taking from your collapsing depths”—and the solutions—”praise your sanctuaries and no-take zones”—live alongside each other in all their wonkish detail, moving back and forth from a scientific, policy perspective to a view of the ocean that stretches back into time immemorial. We can place ourselves in the scientific discussion of climate in this way, making our own stories relevant in an otherwise abstract debate.
However, Craig’s example also shows how important balance is. Without an anchor dropped into the global, shared facts and realities of the issue, it would be hard for all but a tiny audience of people to relate to the poem.
Without that anchor, you can lose the audience, but importantly, I think there’s also a risk of losing the poet. If we expect all of our artist-activists to put themselves into their work in such a way that exposes them to the unmitigated gaze of the audience, we risk driving people away from doing this work. And then we’d be back to just the numbers, just the reports, just the graphs and charts, important though they are.
So, artists and audiences, look for balance, respect the personal, respect the private. Look for work that respects the depth of the problem, but also respects the depths of your own soul and that of your audiences.
EM Lewis’s play Magellanica, that we talked about in episode two, isn’t directly about climate change, but the example of this play teaches one of the most important things that I learned over the course of making this volume— that we artists need to imagine solutions.
In Magellanica, Ellen brings the audience into a deep intimacy with a team of researchers who are taking on a struggle with the elements, a global environmental crisis, and each other’s distrust as they do their research in Antarctica. She shows how human beings can confront all of these issues and still reach a successful solution, as we really did do in 1988 with the Montreal Protocol, the international agreement that has reversed the growth of the hole in the ozone layer. Through all of the struggle these characters endure, we know that their efforts were worth it.
Of all the tools we have at our disposal, our ability to stimulate the imaginations of our audiences is the most powerful. We can imagine worlds plagued by the real problems we face, and imagine an unlimited range of solutions. We can test them out as we work through our creative process, dropping the ones that don’t work, and taking the ones that do to their fullest extent.
Do that work in front of your audience, let them find themselves in that imagined future, and we’ll be a step closer to getting there together.
Though this podcast is dedicated to the idea of the arts as a force for positive, progressive change, attentive listeners will notice that I’ve shied away from talking much about electoral politics in a direct way, by endorsing any candidates, for example. I set out to learn about how this community is addressing the political reality of 2020 in its work, not necessarily to influence it one way or the other.
As I become more fluent in the political process, that’s something that could change, but for now, I’ll be continuing to listen, and to share what I’ve learned with all of you. Bringing attention to issues and building a community of supportive artists is the best way I can contribute right now.
In addition to artists, people across many different fields are working on climate change, though our political system in the United States is lagging behind. To take action on the massive scale that we need will require our government to lead the way with strong legislative action.
In my home state of Oregon, Republican state senators have boycotted two legislative sessions in a row in order to kill climate change legislation. Though Democrats haven’t been uniformly strong on climate change yet, it’s clear that the Democratic party is the only party in American politics that will take meaningful steps to address climate change. Government action on climate change means voting Democratic. In the 2020 election, we need to keep the House, flip the Senate, and take the White House.
As I write, Joe Biden has all but clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. From what we know so far about how the primary contests have gone so far, the young voters that were supposed to propel Bernie Sanders to victory stayed home. There are some systemic issues at play here, it isn’t the case that young people aren’t interested in voting, but rather than many forces work together to make it more difficult for them to do so. But, the truth is that if they had voted, we’d be having a much different conversation now.
Joe Biden wasn’t my favorite candidate, I wanted Elizabeth Warren, but now that he’s the clear frontrunner, I’ll do what I can to help him get elected, and this podcast will be part of that. Whether you’re Team Bernie or Team Biden, I hope you’ll join me in that effort.
Thanks so much for listening to Volume II of More Devotedly.
Thanks to Joe Kye for his violin playing on this episode. I wrote the words and composed the music, and I produced the whole mess of it here in Portland, OR.
The More Devotedly logo was created by Lindsay Jordan Kretchun. Thanks so much to Stephanie, Craig and Ellen for talking with me, and to Joe Kye and Lara Messersmith-Glavin for performing with me in February and to Kim and Happi for working behind the scenes. And thanks so much also to Portland, Oregon’s Regional Arts & Culture Council for supporting the performance and this volume of the podcast.
I wanted to make a big announcement about Volume III of the podcast, but given all the uncertainty caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus, the plans for the live performance and the podcast episodes are all up in the air. I’m hoping to still release a volume of episodes in May, but the details are still changing rapidly. So, all I can say now is to stay tuned.
What you’re doing is beautiful. Can you do it more devotedly?