New Clear Vision

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Extreme Whether

July 18, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, David Swanson, Ecology

New Play Highlights Challenges of Climate Change 

by David Swanson

When my dad, Neil, goes to rallies against the tar sands pipeline, people rush up to him and thank him for everything he’s doing. They don’t actually have any idea what a great guy my dad is. It’s just that his Scandinavian face looks a lot like James Hansen’s.

Extreme WhetherSo, I already had a weird sort of family relationship to Hansen, whom I’ve never met, before I read Extreme Whether, a new play by the brilliant Karen Malpede that tells a personal story of Hansen in which everything is also political.

Hansen, of course, is the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and an outspoken advocate for putting a halt to global warming. Hansen warned Congress in the 1980s, revealed government deception in the 2000s, and has been speaking the truth, even more bluntly, if possible — and getting arrested for it — in recent years.

“Several times in Earth’s long history,” Hansen says, “rapid global warming of several degrees occurred.… In each case more than half of plant and animal species went extinct. New species came into being over tens and hundreds of thousands of years. But these are time scales and generations that we cannot imagine. If we drive our fellow species to extinction we will leave a far more desolate planet for our descendants than the world that we inherited from our elders.… And if you melt all the ice, sea levels will go up two hundred and fifty feet … producing a different planet.”

Hansen does not describe global warming as a mysterious ineluctable force, but as a policy choice made by certain powerful criminals (his word). This does not endear him to many in power, and the attacks on him are relentless, with New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera repeatedly denouncing him for hurting his own cause by being an activist, getting arrested, opposing the tar sands pipeline, and making “apocalyptic pronouncements” — never mind if they’re accurate.

Truth is not always stranger than fiction. Hansen’s story involves some pretty strange truths, but Malpede’s play adds emotional drama and strangeness aplenty. Hansen writes and speaks about his grandchildren and the fate we’re condemning all of our grandchildren to. Malpede imagines the life of a family in which Grandpa has figured out that the world is being destroyed but the world’s communications system works for the destroyers.

The fictional family includes a climate scientist, his lover (also a climate scientist), his teenage daughter, his twin sister and her husband (denouncers of climate science), an uncle, a frog, and a piece of land. The uncle is dying, like the earth. The scientist’s wife has died from an illness diagnosed and acted upon too late. His lover has received a death threat. He has received death threats. The frog has grown six legs. The land has been polluted. The sister and her husband declare the earth in perfect health, while the scientist struggles with his situation.

Like a descendant of Cassandra, the Hansen character has spoken and has not been heard. Would better language have helped? Better charts? Was there a different way to say “the world is being destroyed” so as to make it understood before the world was destroyed? He has given up and ceased speaking publicly, but is mulling over the possibility of trying again, while his sister tries to silence him — or perhaps to entrap and belittle him. At the same time, the frog, a male, has been “feminized” by poisons in the environment, a process described as happening to young male humans as well.

And then eight years flash by, global warming gets hotter, the evidence begins to become apparent to non-scientists. But the denouncers of reality double down on their hostility toward recognizing that the earth has a problem. The struggle to speak truth to power continues through Act II, by the end of which we all have a strange family relationship with James Hansen, and each other, and all of our grandchildren. The trillions of future people whose future lives are being ruined by our coal and oil consumption are a statistic until we understand one of those trillions as a grandchild and a friend and a lover and a cousin and an aunt. Then the multiplication of that intensity of suffering by a trillion becomes almost impossible to comprehend, except perhaps with the aid of Malpede’s art.

*           *           *

“Extreme Whether” by: Karen Malpede

Featuring George Bartenieff, Zach Grenier, Kathleen Purcell, Di Zhu, and Alex Tavis

Reading: September 10, 2013
The Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., New York, NY

Script available at: http://theaterthreecollaborative.org

David Swanson is the author of War Is a Lie and Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. He blogs at davidswanson.org and warisacrime.org, works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization rootsaction.org, and hosts Talk Nation Radio. Among his many publishing venues, Swanson is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. This review originally appeared in The Humanist.

1 Comments to “Extreme Whether”


  1. Three cheers for Hansen!
    There are all sorts of ways of declaring the destruction of the world. The trouble is that our audience of 7.4 billion people does not want to hear the message.
    If we are to stop the pollution of the atmosphere, we must stop the emission of toxic gases. This will mean that cars and all vehicles will have to stop being made and used. People will have to walk. Oil and gas will have to be left in the ground, and tankers remain in port.
    I do not have to go on before it becomes clear that Hansen’s messages involve the complete change to our ways of living.
    The benefits of capitalist economy are totally enjoyed by the 1% of the world’s population. But if our natural world is to be conserved, the 99% will have to return to a more ‘primitive’ life, with local farming, family and community life, walking and bicycling.
    And yet we are trapped in a world where 5.5 billion people try to survive on less than $10 a day, while dreaming of a life of luxury as portrayed on the television and media!
    It is not surprising that the people of the developing world think that they are subject to a conspiracy by the developed world.
    We must all speak louder of the dishonesty and deception of the capitalist minority who exploit the poor majority.

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