In the eighth essay in the Notes From Underground series, Dougald Hine looks at the production of scientific knowledge around climate change and what we do with that knowledge. This week’s instalment is also about the history of environmentalism and what happens when climate scientists and artists collaborate. As usual, the essay is also available to listen to as a podcast or to watch on YouTube.

The first time we meet, he takes me around his lab, explaining the devices they are working on just now: this sealed metal tub contains a simulated ocean, churning with the gases they pump through it; in the rack over there, a kit for taking high-altitude measurements is assembled from a mix of off-the-shelf equipment and new components being made here for the task. He lights up when he talks about this work, and it’s a look I’ve seen before on the faces of craftsmen, hackers and engineers: the deep satisfaction of applying ingenuity to hard material problems and getting to take the time the job demands.

In the corridor that leads back to his office, he points out a photograph on the wall: a research station in the Arctic where he did fieldwork as a post-doc, thirty years ago. Later, I learn that this was also where he met his wife. On the shelf over his desk is a model of a Soviet spy plane his team hired in the mid-nineties from some offshoot of the Russian military. They used it to take measurements in the outer reaches of the atmosphere. ‘I do love flying,’ he admits.

I’m here because I’ve been commissioned to write a play – or rather, a quarter of a play, since four of us will work together on the script. Each writer is paired with a scientist. Our partners come from different fields, different backgrounds, different stages of career. What they have in common is that their research has brought them to the front line of the ecological crisis. Our task is to learn about their lives and tell four stories about what it’s like when the Anthropocene is your day job; when climate change is not something you read about in the newspaper, or make a placard about, or try not to think about, but the thing that is waiting on your desk at nine o’clock each morning. What does that do to you, as a human being?

So we sit in his office with cups of tea and I switch my recorder on and he starts to tell me the stories of his life.

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I’d met climate scientists before. I’ve sat in public meetings and conference halls as they present their latest findings in everyday terms. As a journalist, I interviewed them about their work. But there are things that struck me only as a result of working on this play.

The first thing is that you don’t end up as a climate scientist because you started out with a burning concern for the damage we are doing to the planet; this must have been especially true among the older generation, those who set out on their careers before the evidence had mounted up. Rather, it starts with having a certain shape of mind, suited to particular kinds of intellectual tasks, and this, combined with the influences of your childhood – the world events and TV shows you grew up with – sets you pinballing through the early stages of an academic career. So you happen to take this course rather than that one, you wind up doing a PhD with a professor who has this big project going on, you find yourself doing fieldwork at that research station and meet someone and end up moving continents to live together, where you get put in an office next door to this other professor who needs help with an international research network he’s setting up – and somewhere down the line, suddenly or slowly, it comes to you that what you are working with is no longer just intellectually rewarding, but existentially terrifying. And this is the second thing that struck me: when you reach that point, there is little in your training as a scientist or in the culture of science that is going to help.

The methods of knowledge production that lead to our understanding of a thing like climate change depend on detachment. By acting as if the world can be held at arm’s length, science is able to learn about its workings. The power of this way of acting is undeniable, but when detachment is no longer possible – or desirable – the producers of knowledge reach the limit of their power. Some other kind of knowledge work is called for here, a set of practices less clearly marked on the maps of authority which our societies have drawn.

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The modern Western environmental movement differed from the other new social movements that emerged in the second half of the 20th century in the closeness of its involvement with science. Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring is widely acknowledged as the catalyst to the grassroots environmentalism of the 1960s, was a marine biologist by training, and her professional background helped her to piece together the story of the impact of pesticides on ecosystems and humans. The figure of the concerned scientist continued to play a strong role in the movement’s development, as did the findings of research into the impact of human activities on the living world, but this was also a movement that was involved in questioning world views: the background maps and stories that shape our perception of the world and our sense of what is possible, while mostly appearing as just how things are.

As it traced the consequences of industrial production, environmentalism started to reopen political questions which had largely been closed off since the mid-19th century, when movements of left and right converged on a framing of the space of politics as the organisation and the distribution of the outputs of industrial society. By drawing attention to its disowned outputs – the scale of its ‘negative externalities’ – this movement called the core assumptions of industrial society into question. It entered into cultural critique, the calling into question of a way of life, and it opened a conversation about what other ways of living together might be possible.

This kind of environmentalism had its heyday in the 1970s, or so I’m told by those who are old enough to remember it. My own early political memories coincide with the green wave of the late 1980s, when the Green Party took 15 per cent across the UK in the Euro elections. Its German sister party had already established itself as a parliamentary force, while one of the lesser-known stories of 1989 is the role of environmentalism in the dissident movements which contributed to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. By then, the Brundtland Report had established ‘sustainable development’ as the frame within which the international community would talk about the planetary situation and the responses this might call for: a framing which yoked the pursuit of ecological sustainability to the trajectory of economic and technological development, without having demonstrated that this pairing could pull in the same direction.

The five years between the Brundtland Report and the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 mark a high tide of international concern and intergovernmental action around the environment that remains unsurpassed to this day. This was also the moment at which the environmental movement turned away from cultural critique and established a new relationship with science. No longer was the scientific evidence a starting point for a larger questioning of society or making political arguments; now the evidence itself was to make the case for change, to carry the weight and do the work of politics.

The turn is not hard to understand: in countries where Green politicians had entered parliament, the demands of working within existing institutions drove a certain kind of ‘realism’. Meanwhile, the journey of David Icke from third-division goalkeeper to BBC sports presenter to Green Party principal speaker to promoter of lizard-related conspiracy theories offered a cautionary example of how the attempt to call your whole culture into question could unravel.

The logic of the turn was clear enough, too: with the scientific evidence for the consequences of industrial activity growing, why get tangled up in arguments over world views and values? Surely the way forward was to bypass that kind of politics, to lay out the facts and figures that would prove the necessity of massive societal change? It helps that this is the kind of language our society says you’re meant to speak if you want to get taken seriously, if you want to get invited to the grown-up policy discussions. You can see the legacy of such a turn to this day in the fiercely dedicated journalism of George Monbiot and the standards to which he holds himself, publishing footnoted versions of every newspaper article he writes, his statements backed up with references to peer-reviewed papers. Though the gap between his self-imposed standards and those to which the rest of his profession holds itself might give a clue as to the flaw in this logic: the gap between the story about the authority of scientific evidence our society likes to tell and the way things work in practice.

Meanwhile, this turn within the environmental movement coincided with the rise of climate change in the environmental debate. In 1988, when the IPCC was set up, global warming was still seen as one among a number of potentially ominous threats; as the data came in and the models became more robust, its status was upgraded. If the grounds for alarm were growing, it’s also true that climate change – and the way that climate change is represented – was particularly amenable to quantitative evaluation. All the specific factors and local implications can be crunched into a global figure: the number of parts per million of CO2equivalent; the average temperature rise by 2100 as forecast by the models. This fungibility extends to encompass other ecological concerns, becoming a kind of currency of crisis: in place of older arguments for saving the whales, we now get papers demonstrating the contribution of whales to carbon sequestration.

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The third thing I came to understand from the climate scientists I met, during and after the writing of that play, was their own shock at discovering how little the authority of science meant in practice. It reminded me of going to speak at a conference of hacker activists, a year or so after the release of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Their disillusionment was palpable: the evidence was there for everything they had suspected, everything they had tried to warn the rest of us about; now you could read about how the NSA was spying on you on the front page of The Guardian and The Washington Post– and it changed nothing.

Something similar seemed to have happened in the community of researchers whose work feeds into the IPCC.

‘You have to understand,’ someone told me, ‘there’s no precedent for the attempt to create a process by which the findings of science feed directly into political negotiations.’ The IPCC is an intergovernmental body: that’s literally what the ‘I’ in those initials stands for. The convention signed at the Earth Summit in 1992 which created the framework for negotiations, the COP meetings that come around each autumn, established the IPCC’s reports as the baseline for political decision-making.

I get the impression that many scientists were honestly unprepared for the lack of good faith on the political end of this process. There was a belief that, should they deliver a strong enough warning with a high enough level of certainty, action would follow. Gradually, this gave way to a new dismay at the brokenness of the system that was meant to translate evidence into action.

I don’t want to claim too much authority for the impressions I am reporting here. There’s nothing systematic about the conversations that led me to them. They are, in all senses of the word, anecdotal. But they point to a possibility which I find compelling: that the status which science is accorded is a sham. Let me say this clearly: the work of science is real, it is done with integrity, its findings deserve our attention. But the high status given to scientific knowledge, according to the story modern Western society tends to tell about itself, is an ideological facade. The figures in white coats are useful as long as they feed the ideological structure of industrial society – as long as their labs contribute to the GDP – but when their findings call the aims (or even the viability) of societies like these into question, their voices carry little more authority in the summit room than those of the protesters at the gates.

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Strange things happened when our play was staged.

The theatre is set in the round, the actors sit on the front row, among the audience, at the four points of the compass. Sometimes they get up and walk through the space in the middle, mostly they speak from where they sit. The setting is never made explicit, but you can imagine that they are stuck in transit, waiting for a flight that has been indefinitely delayed by unseasonable weather, and so they get to talking. The monologues the four of us had written were woven together by a skilful dramaturge, so our researchers question each other, tell stories and compare notes. The play itself lasts three-quarters of an hour, but when it ends, everyone is still there, sitting around in those circles, and the audience is invited to join in a facilitated discussion.

The premiere took place with an invited audience, a mix of scientists and staff from the theatres involved in the project, part of a day-long event. There were laughs of recognition from the scientists, so we must have got something right, but unease among the others, and the discussion spilled on into the rest of the day. To come to a play about climate change and meet the scientists as human beings, struggling with the implications of the knowledge they produce, turns out to be an uncomfortable experience. ‘We want to be told what to do,’ I remember someone saying. ‘We want to be given answers.’

This pattern repeated itself on the tour that followed, as the production travelled to university towns, with public performances at night and daytime shows for academics and students. At one show I attended, an audience member insisted that he had recently watched a lecture by an economist explaining how we could solve climate change and why hadn’t we included someone like that? All I could say, because it was true, was that there had been no agenda behind the selection of the scientists we worked with; indeed, as writers, we had no involvement in that part of the process. If the characters we created were not literal portraits of our partners, they were based on their words. Thinking about the strength of his reaction, it struck me that what such audience members wanted from our scientists was not just to be told what to do, but to be told that everything will be OK.

Most of the theatre, fiction and cinema that gets made ‘about’ climate change fails. This is a massive generalisation and there are exceptions, but I think the failure is significant. I think it has things to tell us. A few years ago, I asked the theatre writer Maddy Costa about this, and the only exception she could think of was David Greig’s adaptation of The Lorax. I don’t say that our short play succeeded, I’m not sure the reactions were proof of that, but at the least we failed differently. We didn’t do the scene where the climate scientist stands in front of an audience and explains the science. We wanted to stage the quieter conversations that happen around the edges of a conference, the stories people tell when they are at ease, the thoughts they might not usually voice when there’s a microphone involved.

The commissioning of artistic work about climate change comes out of a recognition of the limits of scientific knowledge production, a sense that something else is needed, but such projects are mostly conceived as communications work. Artists are enlisted to help ‘deliver the message’ and ‘raise awareness’, as though art were a sophisticated extension of the PR department or a cheap alternative to an advertising agency. This is not only a misconception of what art is and what it’s good at, it’s also a misconception of the knowledge work that remains, when the scientists reach the end of their road. The work that remains is not a secondary task, a delivery mechanism for the payload of knowledge. Its scale is at least as great as the work that went before it, and its scope includes attending to the consequences of treating the world as if it could be held as arm’s length. I’ve come to think of it as the work of bringing the knowledge home.

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Image: Krister Kern, Julia Dufvenius, David Lenneman and Jennie Silfverhjelm in Medan klockan tickar, the play co-written by Dougald Hine. (Photography: Sören Vilks, Mira Åkerman, Fotografica. Illustration: Mattias Broberg.)