Is Climate Change Big or Small?
Is Climate Change Big or Small?
by Benjamin Kunkel
Directed by Lian Walden
Gemini & Scorpio Loft, Brooklyn, NY
Bodies in mock hazmat suits unpack a faux Gowanus loft apartment in which everything is white, while you sit on a brown couch chatting with a friend. On a particular Wednesday, there are twelve of us sitting on the designated upholstery, with room for six or seven more. “This makes me nervous about bed bugs,” my friend says as a hazmat crawls by. I pretend not to be.
The hazmats leave and a pregnant woman called Sasha walks on in a cream slip. A few lines in, she says, “I don’t really know if it was unusually bad in here. May be getting worse everywhere… Or maybe when you’re expecting it changes your perception.” A man in white boxer briefs and a three-quarter-length wool coat—Tom—walks on stage and takes off his coat. Soon dinner guests, also wearing white underwear, join the leads. We learn that the hazmats were trying (unsuccessfully) to exterminate the apartment’s flies, which global warming has rendered ubiquitous.
Welcome to Buzz, Benjamin Kunkel’s new play about climate change.
It does feel strange to write about the play’s ideas when Kunkel has already issued the Cliff’s Notes in the New Yorker. Maybe Kunkel worried that the marginality of theater invoked by the lead, Tom—a playwright!—was a little too true to life. Or maybe, having told an interviewer from New York magazine that Buzz “sounds like the worst French existentialist play of all time,” Kunkel wanted to reestablish its credibility.
I saw Buzz before reading Kunkel’s essay, where I was surprised to find him argue that the play is a comedy and the funniest thing he has written. Sure, there are funny scenes. But the play’s basic conceit, as I understood it, was both interesting and un-funny.
Climate change, we are told over and over, is big. Just glance at the titles of some of the movies, novels, plays, and non-fiction on the subject—The Day After Tomorrow, Odds Against Tomorrow, The Great Immensity, A Vast Machine, The Global Risk Society, This Changes Everything. And on it goes. Even more modestly framed efforts like Snowpiercer—where all that remains of humanity inhabits a single train—deploy allegorical compression to grandiose effect.
Granted, social psychologists of climate change have been quietly parsing the psyches of ordinary people confronting the phenomenon in everyday life. But the research poses more questions than it answers. There is a huge opportunity here for literature to intervene.
And that’s exactly what Buzz achieves. It’s true, an allegorical play for a tiny audience in a cramped loft, about characters struggling with omnipresent little bugs, seems a curious approach to the temporal and spatial enormities of climate change. But this is precisely Kunkel’s point. The paradox of climate change is that the very thing that should planetize us, making us all global cosmopolitans under the hot sun of philosophical reckoning, instead drives us back into the cave—ideally, to a dark and isolated nook—even as ghosts of the blinding light dance on our retinas. Climate change is so big that we shudder and shrink.
“I want a home that’s not the same as the world,” the pregnant Sasha pleads in exhaustion. It doesn’t help that her partner Tom, a gloomy fellow, is despondent that they’re having a child: “Our darling little children will live in a casualized labor market in a precarious ecological situation,” he intones half-sarcastically. “Their jobs won’t be secure even if they’re good ones, the climate won’t be reliable.”
Tom is the cerebral misanthrope, unable to ignore the omnipresent, buzzing flies with which the others make a troubled peace. Perhaps he would rather walk back out into the sun, lie down, and bake. But can an honesty that saps one’s vitality be heroic? In the intellectual traditions of existentialism and the theater of the absurd, whose themes saturate Buzz, writers celebrated brooding resistance to conformist post-war optimism. But even Jean-Paul Sartre grew bored of his own boredom. Kunkel, too, clearly wants to insist that we can survive in the sunshine, harsh as it is. But how?
I was disappointed to see Buzz associate the passion for life with having children, as Tom’s defiantly peppy partner Sasha insists on doing. “I want the baby to not even think about the parts per million,” she says. “I want the baby to die in peace as an old man with a big white beard by the side of a river that still runs the temperature God intended.”
Fertility against extinction; childhood against cynicism. These are old themes. You’ll find the pregnancy-vitality circuit everywhere in discussions of climate change, from op-eds to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything to the more opaquely allegorical Children of Men. There’s an unfortunate gender dynamic at play here. And we’ve all encountered enough stories and arguments that enlist the vulnerable child trope for too-easy emotional effect. In Canada, the last volley of anti-gay marriage ads demanded, “What about the children?” Yes, yes, yes, our grandchildren will suffer more from global warming than we will—not to mention the children overseas, in more vulnerable locales. The more difficult and interesting problem is: how should we, living, self-conscious beings, balance freedom, pleasure, and responsibility in our own selves, right now?
From this perspective, Sasha’s opening double-entendre—“maybe when you’re expecting it changes your perception”—is a disturbing conflation. It takes our own challenge—how to fuel our vitality in the face of climate chaos and its attendant despair—and yokes it to those who will succeed us, just as a disappointed father demands that his child achieve the success he never did. In each case, the present cares for the future. But who’s caring for the present?
Buzz is good to think with, though as theater, it is sometimes clunky. A failed dinner party, a moving flashback scene, and a metaphor-transcending conclusion are well done. But when the charismatic Sasha vanishes for most of the play’s final third, leaving Tom to stutter self-consciously before an attractive (and only apparently naive) woman college journalist, Buzz loses its edge. At some level, the journalist’s plucky insistence on carrying on seems to offer a third way between Tom’s despair and Sasha’s maternal drive. But her character is too roughly drawn.
Still, Tom makes a clever point during their exchange. Twentieth-century theater’s long-standing contribution, he says, was to document the miseries of conventional, bourgeois family life. And so, paradoxically, the theater is an amusing distraction for the very social class whose dysfunction it exposes. It soothes the yearning for a big life within the confines of a small one.
Does Buzz escape the claustrophobic circuit of self-sustaining self-criticism that its protagonist laments? I can’t decide. Like its actors’ white underwear, Buzz draws attention to a more naked radicalism without going all the way. But of course, the restrictive stage directions only apply to the stage.
Daniel Aldana-Cohen is a PhD candidate in sociology at New York University and a founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab. He has recently written about climate politics and social movements for Jacobin, Public Books, The Center for Humans and Nature, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. Follow him at @aldatweets.