When it comes to the climate crisis, we already have all the science and the technological solutions we need. What we lack is the willingness and the ability to imagine what it could be like to live with the climate crisis, and in much hotter cities.
The heart of this project was the Berlin 2039 scenario that I created in collaboration with Francesca Desmarais. The posters, designed with Ervin Parashumti, were just one part of a wider project designed to make this scenario tangible, one in which people could take an active role and help to shape. To that end, Francesca and I hosted a weekend of participatory futuring—a space to explore the scenario through storytelling and playful performance. To help facilitate these workshops, I invited an expert in storytelling: writer, actor, and PhD in Creative Writing Geoff Mills.
How do you get people to engage with issues of climate change? Or, to frame the question differently, why and when do people engage with issues of climate change? What sparks that genuine interest, nudges them to care?
I suspect what doesn’t work (and it certainly didn’t for me, for twenty years) is drowning people in words. Words spoken at you at high volume, in shrill tones. Words sprayed at you from the pulpit or podium. Words spilling out from the pages of a newspaper or magazine. Images may work better, perhaps because they provoke a more visceral response. But images can be too abstract: they so easily float free from context and fail to grip you by the collar.
What Juli and I seem to agree on is that the emotions are most effectively engaged when the individual is invested in the specifics of a scenario. In June I helped design and deliver a weekend of creative writing and improvisation in which participants co-created a quotidian Neukölln of the future. Participants wrote monologues and poetry, dialogues and microfiction. They improvised scenes both heavy and humorous, cataclysmic and comic. Through written narrative and drama, we were able to step inside the shoes of citizens living in a climate-changed future, as well as define and explore our jointly imagined territory.
Stories were told involving corrupt tech companies, relationship problems, the theft of much-needed water supplies. We also explored moral conundrums. Who do you give the last heat pack to? Do you distribute scarce resources to thoughtless heat-stroke-patients? Participants improvised infomercials for the newly elected chancellor and products to heat-proof one’s home and pets, as well as staged interviews with workers and citizens in the new socio-ecologically evolved economy, including a “carbon influencer.” As a group, we also partook of the solstice celebrations at Tempelhofer Forst which, in our projected future, has developed into the most biodiverse area of Berlin, and the site of some of the most exciting festivals in Europe.
Francesca’s fictionalized headlines were very powerfully rooted in our imagined future. Nothing nails down the specifics of time and place more than a journalistic article. For example:
Grid overloaded from illegally-cooled nightclubs and bars
Berliners are letting off steam and dancing away the tropical evenings in secret, underground nightclubs with illegal air conditioning. Officials warn that the unsanctioned energy use is overloading the grid, but the beat goes on.
Finally, the location of the workshops suited our purposes very well indeed. As a former church on Hermannstrasse, the space would serve as an ideal cooling centre in a heat crisis. And it was a hot weekend. In the breaks the participants sat in the sun, and during the exercises we sheltered from it in the cool shadows of the echoey church.
In the feedback sessions afterwards, some of the terms participants used to report their emotional response to the workshop’s immersive experience included “lonely,” “guilt,” “anger,” “inspired,” “frustrated,” and “cognitive dissonance.”
And as a facilitator watching these scenes, I also observed characters go through a whole range of other emotions, too. There was laughter and sadness, confusion, outrage, and panic. It was an intense and meaningful weekend, but we shared something special, and that is borne out by the fact that many of us have stayed in touch.
For years I had been aware of, but mostly impervious to issues of climate change, but now I was beginning to care. The stories the participants told were rooted in local detail, and infused with rich emotional life. Mere knowledge has passed into feeling, and the vagaries of climate change had suddenly become tangible—real, almost.
Now I feel alarm. Now I feel the urgency. Now I feel a need to act and the need to inspire others to do so, too. And now that I understand better how time and space can be used on stage and within narratives to engage at an emotional level, perhaps I can begin my project of nudging what people already know about the climate crises into something they feel.
More about Juli Sikorska’s project »Urban Heat Island Living: Berlin Neukölln«