COAL: the Vagina Monologues of climate change

Culture change takes us to some dark and painful places, yet art and music remind us that love and beauty are vital for social transformation.

Veena Vasista
4 April 2016

First public reading of COAL: The Musical (work in progress), performed at The Lensic, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Credit: Kate Russell, 2013. All rights reserved.

Kristin Rothballer’s job title is ‘Director of Strategic Miracles’ for COAL—a new musical on climate change that debuts in San Francisco in October 2016. Based in New Mexico but with members and partners across the USA, COAL is intended as a wake-up call that puts the performing arts at the forefront of mobilizing collective action on fossil fuels and the environment.

Activists frequently draw people into movements by articulating an urgent need for change and tapping into their fear, anger and frustration. The climate change movement has done this by using scientific data to draw attention to the destructive forces of global warming. But with the 2015 Paris climate agreement this movement seems poised to make a fundamental shift—from making the case for action to diving into the specifics of addressing root causes.  And that means keeping fossil fuels like coal firmly in the ground.

To aid in this task, COAL doesn’t focus on protesting against the giants of the mining industry. Instead, its goal is culture change—helping to create a stronger foundation for redesigning the way we live. And that requires working with the emotional complexity of climate change, cultivating meaningful relationships, and giving people opportunities to gain confidence in their creative powers. COAL uses theater, story, music and song to nurture and support these processes.

Rothballer first heard about COAL when she was living on a ranch outside San Francisco, feeling burned out by years of traditional activism on climate change. That was COAL’s attraction as something different, something that was more deeply rooted in spirituality and love for the world. “Reverence,” she told me in an interview, “I love nature and people. I love this magical planet Earth, floating around in the universe. I care about it and want to protect it. It was from that place that I set out on this path in the first place. But through years of activism and trying to engage other people, I lost some sense of that along the way."

The same story is echoed by her colleagues, like COAL Founder and Artistic Director Molly Sturges. When I spoke to her, she explained how most of the meetings she attended were focused on getting people to sign petitions. Rarely was anyone asked “Why have you come here?” This experience nudged her to dig more deeply into her own motivations for action: “When this project got started I felt a calling—a spiritual and moral calling—to address climate change as a mom, and as a community member.” And that meant focusing on values before embarking on specific actions: ‘what do we share in common, and how do we realize our values together in practice?’

It’s here that the arts have a vital role to play because they encourage the expression of people’s deepest feelings and capacities. As COAL’s Producing Director Jaimie Mayer put it to me, “How do we create a brilliant piece of theater that is going to move all of these people into feeling they have a voice around these issues, and with that, move into being involved and taking action?” In saying this, she was also clear that the musical must stand on its own as a work of art that appeals to a mass audience rather than attracting only a small segment of activists on climate change. 

Mayer is emphatic about her belief in ‘artivism’—the importance of the arts to social and environmental justice. “I think the performing arts have a power that nothing else really has,” she told me, “Look at the civil rights movement and other movements and the ways the arts have been attached to them.” Mayer imagines that the memory of a song or a character in the musical will inspire people to get out of out of their comfort zones and take action in new ways. 

This is important because climate change can be hard for most people to connect with on a personal level, since the scale and complexity of the issues keeps them at a distance. The arts can address this by “making intimate the world” according to Sturges. COAL aims to steer people into connecting with issues emotionally by presenting the stories and voices of people, animals and trees, and of coal itself.  

COAL tells the story of divided loyalties in the fictional mining community of Hopewell Junction. The musical takes the audience into the lives of a student, a former miner, a mother, a healer and other characters who are grappling with the tensions that exist between the needs of different groups, the discomfort of challenging the status quo, and the decision-making dilemmas on energy consumption that everybody faces.

But COAL isn’t simply a performance for consumption by a passive audience. The musical is meant to encourage people to create their own adaptations in schools, faith-based venues, and around the dinner table. Both audience and performers will be supported to reflect on their relationships to people, community, planet and climate change itself, and to become active participants in changing the way we live together. In this sense, COAL resembles The Vagina Monologues—a piece of theater that gives an intimacy to larger topics and acts as a catalyst for conversations on a much bigger scale.  

Performances are stepping-stones in building the relationships required for collective action, so local COAL organizers will have access to a menu of pre and post-performance activities designed to foster dialogue, learning, connection and creative expression.  An interactive website will map out and connect what COAL calls ‘SPARKS’—actions on climate change that are sparked by the musical. COAL toolkits will support organizers to make people feel welcome, create talking circles, navigate conflict, and work together in ways that acknowledge that all people bring gifts and value to the movement.

A core aim of COAL is to root the climate change movement more deeply in wholehearted relationships, rather than in mechanical or transactional actions and connections like petition-signing. The emphasis is on the audience and performers as co-creators of regenerative ways of living, rather than as sleepwalking consumers of the extractive and depleting norms of the status quo.

Too many people are disassociated from the destructive nature of dominant forms of energy production, so COAL becomes a platform to pose a key question about the future: “where do we want our energy to come from?” Fossil fuels have powered economic growth and helped societies unleash enormous human creativity, but they are lethal.  As Sturges learned in reading Coal: A Human History, fossil fuels are sequestered in the earth for good reason—when we dig them up we unleash life-destroying forces.

What does this kind of behavior tell us about ourselves? Where’s the love in this way of living? And what responsibilities do those in the rich world have who are the biggest energy consumers? Arriving at the energy transformations that are necessary involves much more than working with science and the intellect to create renewable alternatives. Systems change is rooted in culture change; it involves reconfiguring our relationships to ourselves, to each other and to the planet, and seeing ourselves as co-creators of a different future.

One of the best ways to do this is through direct experience, which is why COAL is so important. It will offer lots of opportunities for people to experience creative collective action as a joyful and restorative process. Culture change is hard graft, and it will take us to some dark and painful places. Yet art and music remind us that love, play, experiment, magic and beauty are vital for social transformation, and they invite us to hold spaces in our activism for all of these things.

The call to keep fossil fuels in the ground is ultimately a call to come together and co-create a radically different way of resourcing and enriching our lives. Curtain up.

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