‘12 Characters in Search of an Apocalypse’, written by Andrew Boyd and published in Dark Mountain: Issue 11 in 2017, is a collection of twelve ‘Characters’ or short snapshots of how diverse individuals living in the USA relate (or don’t relate) to the climate emergency. It has been succinctly described as a ‘Vagina Monologues’ for the climate apocalypse. After reading 12 Characters a slow, inner alchemical process took place that prompted me to read the individual Characters out loud to anyone who paused long enough to listen. This is the story of what happened.
Somewhere far far up ahead there’s a cliff, an unavoidable cliff.
– I have kids, hopelessness is simply not an option
We’ve screwed up the planet and we’re never gonna turn things around in time, there’s just no way. So fuck it.
– Let’s party like it’s 2099
Thus was initiated a two-year road trip around the UK, bringing the words of the 12 Characters to village halls, living rooms, cafes, churches, and Quaker meetings. With the support of my wife and four friends, I have hosted over 40 independent events with participant numbers ranging from three (at our home in Wales) to over 50 at the Quaker Centre in Birmingham. We started knowing little more than we would have three hours: half for reading the 12 Characters and half for cultivating dialogue about the climate emergency. Over that time, much has changed: the Characters have swollen from their original 12 to 19 – adding scientists, fundamentalist Christians and teenage climate activists to their ranks; Extinction Rebellion launched and became an international movement; the British Parliament and many county councils have declared ‘climate emergencies’; and the sideshow debate whether the unravelling around us is ‘man-made’ or not has disappeared from the media. Now looking back across the miles and the years, I’m taking stock, and looking ahead to what we can see coming down the road towards us.
I’m going somewhere. We’re all going somewhere, and we’re going there together.
– Better to be hopeful
Our first year on the road was an uphill climb: Portsmouth, Totnes, Norfolk, Carmarthenshire, Edinburgh, Oxford, Shrewsbury – anywhere we were invited. We first took a group of ‘Readers’ to each event and would pre-plan which Characters would appear that evening, in which order, and who would be responsible for bringing them to life. Eventually we began hosting them alone and many are now being hosted by people who have downloaded the Characters from the project website who have never seen us. Now we choose each Character at random and invite a willing participant to give voice to them. Initially we imagined we would be gathered in venues – halls, cafes, churches – and seated around tables in large numbers but our most common setting has been a living room in a private home with a dozen or so participants sitting in a circle.
When I imagine the climate apocalypse, when I play out the nightmare scenarios, I’m never in them.
– It’s gonna happen – but to somebody else
We had to learn on our feet what to expect in terms of reactions from people – would it be like bringing a newborn to a warm family gathering or that awkward uncle with Tourettes Syndrome to a fine restaurant? Was this a performance where people would sit back and listen, applaud politely, and leave? Were we hosting a debate? Certainly, most people who attended our initial events had little idea what to expect other than we would begin at 7pm and end at 10pm. I know the level of courage (or desperation) required for them to walk through the door and the learning that came to us from this unwitting sociology experiment.
Slowly, like a rough, granite carving, some aspects began taking shape: a rhythm of Characters emerged, sets of three, followed by a pause for reflection, inviting listeners to speak briefly in small confidential huddles; and after all 12 had been spoken into the room we would host a whole group conversation while the spectres of the Characters hovered around the edges, troubling us.
The arc of the moral universe might be long, and it might bend towards justice, but we’re never gonna find out because: total ecosystem collapse.
– Hopelessness can save the world
The whole group conversation at the end has changed little since the beginning but the role of the host and the purpose of that conversation has been refined over time. The host is not there to control the tone or content but instead to enable the participants to craft a conversation they are not able to have elsewhere, to encourage them to take risks and reveal what’s present in the room just under the surface – thoughts, fears, desires, wishes, emotions, and wonderings. Also, the host learns to detect where the edges of comfort are and asks questions whose answers lie on the other side of comfortable/ Questions that serve to uncover how everyone is being affected by the unravelling of the living world and to break the spell of silence that has stricken our families, villages, and workplaces.
What else is this if not war?
– This means war
How each conversation will proceed is always unknown and I still find hosting them deeply uncomfortable. People are invited to share their thoughts and feelings about a highly charged topic: possible fears of being judged badly, guilt and shame about not doing enough, dread of violence that might be coming, or anxiety of not knowing when it all might fall apart. Not anyone’s idea of a great Friday night…
If this were true, how could we be talking about anything else? As soon as you turned on the TV, everything ought to be about that.
– We can’t save the world by playing by the rules
The conversation tends to be emotional, but when someone under 30 joins it can become more so, more grounded in personal experience (less philosophising), and the tone much more urgent. When someone over 50 looks that young person in the eyes and talks about the coming collapse – that happened on our watch – it can be a highly charged dramatic moment. Once, a group of young people voiced their anger that so few older people publicly acknowledge they have failed the coming generations, or offer to listen to their responses.
Describing how these encounters differed from previous climate emergency discussions, an organiser in Oxford told us: ‘This brings the ritual of theatre’. But it was only later that I made the connection with how ritual could be a key to enabling our conversations – in the same way that ritual can provide a moving away from the profane and towards the sacred.
All you deniers – and all you enviros trying to prove them wrong – go on and have your silly votes in the Senate. Keep on arguing about the problem.
– The apocalypse is my gravy train
In a recent one-man performance in London Sir Ian McKellen remarked how TV and movies are so then – prerecorded and unchanged by the presence of the audience – and that theatre is always now. During 12 Characters each new reader gives that Character a voice in the present moment – in a room filled with new people listening to the Character speak for the very first time. Their reactions all ripple around the room: the thoughts – ‘Thank God I’m not like that!,’ ‘Am I like that?’.‘I hope nobody can tell that’s how I am’; the emotions – sadness, fear, anger, despair, relief; and the outward expressions – tears, nervous laughter, staring at the floor, shifting uneasily on the chair.
I try not to think about it too much.
– I did the math
Someone said recently, ‘We’re not good at endings’. On tour, I witnessed repeated attempts to turn the unfamiliar into something more recognisable and hence more comforting. These times are times of endings of all kinds – political, social, ecological, biological – and yet in those conversations talking about endings of any kind appeared impossible. Instead, the endings morphed into non-endings: ‘transitions’ or ‘changes’ were popular. Often there was a pull to ‘stay positive’ or a plea to ‘see the bright side’ (an aversion to the dark places). Most people wanted to be anywhere but the time and the place they find themselves in.
Maybe that is the plea from the 12 Characters – to cultivate what is needed to become faithful witnesses to the troubles of our times – to take on the discipline to not turn away as things get rougher and to begin testifying to the poverties and grief they bring.
When Nature finds its own rhythms again, we can, too. The only way forward is backwards. The only way forward is collapse.
– Bring it on!
Two years later I have become a collector of difficult questions that resist efforts to quell with easy answers. One comes from the ‘train-over-the-cliff’ scenario from I have kids, hopelessness is not an option: ‘How much time do we have before the train goes over the cliff?’ Everything appears safe so long as the conversation stays about ‘runaway trains’ and ‘far-off cliffs’ in metaphor-land. However, this question pulls the group out of Schrödinger’s Box and forces them into a very specific moment – turmoil appears. ‘What do you mean by soon?’ or ‘What do you mean by cliff?’ are some of the brakes applied in lieu of the hard work of risking an answer to that kind of question. In one gathering as the familiar turmoils began rumbling someone said: ‘it’s already gone over the cliff’. Pregnant silence and a nodding of heads in mournful agreement followed. Such moments change the weather system in the room – and suddenly you can see clearly for miles.
Afterwards a quality of conversation and a candour can blossom into the room until the gathering closes and everyone says goodbye. The gift of such a moment is the reason I keep asking the troubling questions – helping groups find the door into that room and have that kind of conversation, even briefly with the people whose actions will have ongoing consequences in their lives because they live together, work together, or are friends or family.
And then I think: if enough of us fall into a dark enough despair, who knows what we can do together.
– Despair is our only hope
Having the privilege to participate in so many conversations has rekindled my faith in people. When I began, I had been in a dark despair for three years. When I looked around I didn’t see or hear anyone speaking about the unravelling I saw happening right in front of my eyes. I assumed that either people couldn’t see it (and were therefore blind), or they could see it but didn’t care (and were therefore heartless), or they did care but weren’t bothered (and were therefore ignorant). Living in a world surrounded by people whom I was convinced were blind, heartless, or ignorant was turning me into an alienated misanthrope.
If catastrophe is where we’re headed, let’s fight hard – lay down our lives if we need to – to get the best catastrophe we can.
– I want a better catastrophe
I’ve finally recognised what our organiser in Oxford meant when she spoke of ‘the ritual of theatre’ – some conversations are too important or too large to take place in cafes, pubs, or over the dinner table – they require someone to create a dedicated space to invite in the conversation and the people. Learning of this kind seems to require subterranean spaces cultivated by ritual and ceremony. So when I look now I no longer see the blind, ignorant, or heartless but instead people struggling with events that are either too big or too unfamiliar or too overwhelming to address by the light of day.
But you fight where you stand. You do what you can. You defend your little patch of ground. I’m not going anywhere.
– Defend this ground
Four gratitudes and a blessing are required of me: to Andrew Boyd whose insight to recognise this was needed, and your generosity for making them available to us; to all those who came to a 12 Characters gathering and troubled themselves aloud with us on the road; to the ‘motley crew’, Clara, Jude, April and Emma, who believed in the importance of creating dedicated spaces for conversations about the unravelling; and to my wife, Gayano, without whose encouragement and guidance none of this would have happened.
May those who hear the Characters be stirred into proceeding as if those who are yet to come matter.
To learn more about the project, invite the team to host a gathering near you, to download the materials and host a gathering yourself, or help translate the materials please visit the website 12characters.org.uk.