Erasing Lines and Unsettling Truths: What Lola Heard

Image from Lola stayed too long by Nathaniel Fay.

Try drawing a line around the “social” and the “natural” in the cultivation and consumption of food. In a rice paddy or a wheat field, in a cattle feedlot or on our dinner table, where does the natural process end, and the social process begin?  (Jason Moore, 2013 cited in Taylor, 2015, p.12)

In politics and the media climate change is granted all the malevolence of the grim reaper. It is a violent, unstoppable force unleashed on a helpless multitude. This follows the familiar dichotomy between nature and society as two distinct systems that enable us to interpret the world; to make sense of calamity, improbability, and change on a scale we cannot otherwise imagine.

In following the experience and death of an elderly woman in a heat wave, Michelle St Anne’s haunting and brilliant example of composed theatre What Lola Heard: Theatrical Sounds from Climate Change dissolves this false separation. By bringing the elephant in the room out of the shadows – literally – St Anne exposes climate change adaptation as a socially constructed notion with its roots in historical tradition.

Through a combination of recorded witness accounts, mesmerising musical compositions, and unsettling improvisations The Living Room Theatre ensemble provoke us to question the social, political, and cultural dynamics at work in the construction of vulnerability.

For the impacts of climate change will be disproportionately felt by those already marginalised – by those affected by over- and under-nutrition, by poverty, by statelessness, by age and infirmity.

Adaptation discourses themselves tend to limit and depoliticise the forms of power that are produced and reproduced depending on one’s ability “to influence, profit from and find security”, says Marcus Taylor, author of The Political Ecology of Climate Change Adaptation (2015).

In his analysis of agrarian livelihoods in Pakistan, India and Mongolia, Taylor defines adaptation less as a “valid analytical tool” than a “politically constructed concept” that erases the difference in highly unequal contexts.

Climate change needs to be addressed on a global scale, yes, through co-ordinated and cooperative efforts to limit emissions and mitigate impacts. But vulnerability will continue to be produced and reproduced in specific ways in different places unless we, as a species, acknowledge the relationships between local vulnerabilities and established structures of power and privilege.

Without this recognition, adaptation is reduced to an “abstract appeal to defend communities from external environmental disturbances and threats” that denies the complexity of socio-cultural and economic difference.

Accordingly, climate change is not a demon unleashed on hapless humanity but a clarion call to consider how the living conditions of individuals, already highly unequal, are masked by the urgency to adapt as a species.

For how does one adapt when one is already a victim of dispossession through the accumulation of others?

Amitav Ghosh goes beyond the accumulation thesis to identify the role of empire and imperialism as the foundation of vulnerabilities across the globe.

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) he marks out Asia, where the Bengal, Irrawaddy, Indus, and Mekong Deltas are submerging faster than oceans are rising while the activities that accelerate this process – dam-building and extraction of gas, oil and groundwater – continue apace.

Half a billion lives are at risk in these regions, the sites of global cities established under colonial rule like Chennai, Mumbai, and Kolkata.

In reading a World Bank report that Kolkata, his home city, is particularly vulnerable to damaging floods Ghosh fears for his elderly mother’s safety. She believes Ghosh is crazy to suggest that these wild scenarios, developed from impenetrable data sets, are grounds to leave the family home.

And indeed, how do we leave the places where our memories and attachments give our lives structure and meaning, even in the face of terrible threats?

Ghosh realises an important human truth in this exchange…” my life is not guided by reason; it is ruled, rather, by the inertia of habitual motion”. He resolves that if we are all to “adapt” to the oncoming flood, decisions must be made collectively, and implemented by international institutions.

What Lola Heard provides audiences with access to the lived experience of those most affected by existing inequalities – the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the landless, and the homeless. Those without the resources to adapt themselves, or their local environments, to climate change.

But most resounding are its silences, echoing the global governing bodies responsible for a failed development model that has left the most vulnerable exposed to an even more uncertain future.

Alana Mann joined the University of Sydney in 2007 after a professional career in the media and non-profit sectors. Her teaching and research focus on how ordinary citizens get voice in policy debates regarding wicked problems such as food security and climate change. Her book Global Activism in Food Politics: Power Shift was published in 2014.

Currently, Alana is involved in cross-disciplinary research projects concerning food systems with colleagues in the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI) and the Charles Perkins Centre. She is on a Faculty-wide project team exploring the crisis of ‘post-truth’ discourse, funded through the Sydney Research Excellence Initiative (SREI, 2017), and is co-CI on an Education Innovation project based in Glebe, the Social Justice Learning Lab. Her international collaborations include a comparative study of ‘land-grabbing’ with researchers in Brazil and South East Asia.

Join the Sydney Environment Institute and The Living Room Theatre for ‘I just wanted to be alone with her’ – a new theatrical work which explores the physical, ethical and emotional resonances of the life of an elderly woman who collapses during a heatwave. For details and tickets, click here.