On the Road with 12 Characters in Search of an Apocalypse

A global call for community dialogue regarding climate collapse

In the second half of our theatrical double bill, Jason Stewart reflects on a two-year tour of readings and discussions about the climate crisis. Conversations he concludes that 'require subterranean spaces cultivated by ritual and ceremony'.
is an over-educated, ex-resident of North America who, when told to pursue a career thought instead to pursue a life and an authentic connection with people and land; He now lives in the hills of Wales with an unlikely collection of friends ‘remembering what a sane, original existence for a viable people might look like’. 

‘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

In the heart of a beech and oak forest late one stormy summer’s night my four companions and I had sealed ourselves inside a bell tent. Outside the weather gods choreographed the dancing, clashing trees into a drunken chorus line. Emboldened by my copy of Dark Mountain, I suggested we take turns reading the 12 Characters from Andrew Boyd’s essay to each other, giving voice to their words and breathing life into their spirits. As we brought each of them through that night they stood amongst us, unsettling us, as if to say, ‘I shouldn’t have to be telling you this – you should have been able to see it all without my help’. Then, their moment over, each of them drifted off to join the others in the shadows: unruly, uncertain, waiting. When the final pronouncements of Hopelessness can save the world ended it seemed everything in the world was holding its breath – trees, weather gods, and ourselves included – and we lay wondering what it would come to mean. 

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

Hitchhiking family waiting  by the highway,, Georgia 1937 by Dorothea Lange (Library of Congress)

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

Acknowledgements

Missouri family of five, seven months from the drought area,, near Tracy, California 1937 by Dorothea Lange (Library of Congress)

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.

The original Twelve Characters by Andrew Boyd can be found on his website here .It forms part of a larger book project, I Want a Better Catastrophe, forthcoming soon bettercatastrophe.com

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 11 (PDF)

The Spring 2017 issue is a classic Dark Mountain collection that begins with the notion of 'endings'.

Read more
Comments
  1. Such a relief to read this post.. I’ve been melding deeper and deeper into sacred grief, a state of speechless overwhelm, since taking part in XR’s October (and April) rebellion. The juxtaposition of the current system and the world only now possible in dreams, where humanity falls like a cog back into the great wheel of nature and dances in fine revolution as a piece within it, just throws me into a dizzy state —a cognitive spin. Opening the conversation in a space under the stage, deep in the orchestral pit, out of the spotlight of societies gaze offers a chance to speak the truth of the madness being feed into consciousness by sights, sounds, senses locally and newsfeeds and transmissions globally. Rambling, ruminating, integrating and grappling to reach a perception of reality.. knowing that the challenge is really to work out how to fly, or rather Fall in Style. (hope you’ve seen Toy Story!) I could help to hold a space for 12 Characters in North Devon. When I first heard of DMP 5yrs ago I was quite irritated by what I saw as it’s fatalist negative outlook, and hope to hold this feeling in order to connect to those buckling themselves in to the sturdy yacht ‘The Bright Side’ and sailing off into the sunset away from the apocalyptic fires of Australia and the sweeping floods engulfing islands – and try to create a rickety rope bridge for us all to crawl along together to reach nirvana together when the time comes.
    I hope these unedited ramblings make some sense but will just press send anyway…

  2. I am honored to have been part of the event in Birmingham as well as sharing events at a Family Camp and a Co-Housing Community. It is the ritual of the readings in the voices of ages from adolescent to elder that continues to touch me in this work. I am encouraged by living this better catastrophe. I am grateful for Jason’s commitment to it.

  3. What a delightful joy to read your words of praise Rhonda,

    It’s been such a gift to be a part of your family over the years, and to watch your work with SPEAK evolve to give young women a platform for their voices to be heard. I’m so grateful for your presence at the Birmingham event because without you and your connection to the young teens there, I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have found in myself the courage to ask them to do a 12 Characters with me that week – and that event was a huge turning point for the project – it was the first time any Characters got read in a language other than English and it kickstarted the translation project. Your presence has been a wonderful gift for me and the project.

  4. So many intersections here for me and a sense of hopefulness, much appreciated in these times.

    I have been a loyal follower/supporter of Dark Mountain for several years. I served 12 years at the University of California Santa Cruz as a facilitator of conflict resolution/effective communication with NVC as one of my primary strategies. I am a long time advocate of Dialogue (vs Debate/Discussion) to deepen connection and understanding among people in difficult situations. And, as a recent transplant from California to Albuquerque New Mexico, have just connected with CNVC, the home base of NVC practice worldwide. That’s a lot of intersection!

    Not sure where all this connection / intersection will lead. But I can say that after quite a few years following Dark Mountain and its many contributors, often feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the problems and the difficulty of finding an entry point for action, I now feel a spirit of possibility, a gift of hope, for engaging others in meaningful conversation about climate change. And a model of how to do it.

    Thank you!

  5. Greetings Grace,

    Thank you for your willingness to offer words of gratitude. You’re most welcome to join the 12 Characters online community forum and get more information about setting up events (all info for joining the forum is on the website).

    I appreciate your words about fatalism and its costs. It took me quite a while to understand that misanthropy as a response to the bad news of what we are doing to the world was just another side of the same coin of human-centeredness.

    Looking long and hard at what is happening around us, I think we all agree that we have a job to do, it’s a big job, and in the West we’ve been abdicating that job for generations upon generations. I think that’s fair.

    And I think we can also all agree that it’s time to roll up the sleeves, step forward and begin working so that there can be a tomorrow for any living being on the planet – that the time is now and it’s been now for a long time. I think that’s a fair judgment as well.

    I guess the challenge I might in the 12 characters gatherings is the huge level of confusion as to what that work might be. And what I’ve learned is that it is impossible to have THAT conversation – what the work might be – before we have the other ones about how angry/ sad/ despairing/ numb/ terrified/ etc we all our right now and talk about all the things we see and think and how deeply we are all affected. I think we dive straight ahead for solutions to *fix* some problem. And what I find is the fix carries the problem right along with it – like an alcoholic *fixing* the alcoholism but only by being drunk…

    My unlikely recommendation is that instead we slow down, get brave and small and gather all the courage we need to stand up and to be defeated by the troubles of our times in a way that leaves the most inspiring story of human love and skill possible so that the coming generations know that they were deeply thought of and held regardless of how it all turns out.

    Needing to have a payday of hope or inspiration before we step up to do the torturous work ahead is not now, nor has it ever been, defensible. I’m convinced this isn’t a feel-good story with a happy ending – I would hope that gives us all the more reason to act now and soon.

  6. Greetings Laurie! Thank you for offering the connections – here are a few more for you:

    I too once lived in ABQ and I will be visiting there soon for the first time in over 15 years. My son and daughter live in Taos and we will host an event in ABQ and one in Taos – it would be lovely to see you and some of the folks from CNVC (I’ve worked with Danielle helping host the Birmingham event in Dec 2018) and some of my friends are ex-board members.

    I moved to Santa Cruz back in 1989 just before the October Loma Prieta quake (7.1) – because highway 17 was closed for so many months I had to move out in order to get to my work in Sunnyvale.

    I appreciate the sense of bigness of what’s happening that can so easily become overwhelm. I remember Sam Miller McDonald sharing with me one time over a beer in Edinburgh that what kept him able to continue was writing about what was happening or talking about it with others – keeping the dialogue moving. Blessings.

  7. Jason, apologies for the delayed response! Not always sure how to find my way around in IT world, I guess I thought I would get a *ping* indicating a response to my post.

    Anyway, I would LOVE to participate in the Taos and ABQ events! Please send dates at your earliest convenience, if you have them. Now that the holidays are officially over, everyone seems to be jumping up and filling their calendars, myself included. Would hate to miss out because something else parachuted into those particular little squares. Also I would be happy to help out as needed / possible.

    In the wry recollections department: I was a Comp Lit major at Berkeley (French, English and Russian) many years ago and remember reading Pirandello’s play and thinking “This is stupid, chaotic – it doesn’t make any sense, what a waste of time!” In these times, it makes all too much sense.

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