In a scene from my play House Hunters: Erickson Edition, an American white pelican speaks:
“I love being outside. Outside is where I live. But I tell ya, some nights I’m up there flying and I think I might not make it. I think, there’s not enough outside left.”
The pelican is one in a series of species who come forward to explain to a house hunter and her real estate agent why draining the wetlands they call home, and building a housing development in its place, would be disastrous for them.
I wrote the play to teach children and grown-ups alike about the Erickson Conservation Area, a small wetland in Argyle, Wisconsin that is owned and managed by the Driftless Area Land Conservancy. But the play can be adapted to any wildlife refuge, park or conservation area. I wrote it because I want to see the last of our wilderness areas, large and small, protected.
I am an artist, but like scientists across the globe, I understand how quickly our wild places, and the species who depend on them for their survival, are becoming extinct.
Whether it is Antarctica, a national wildlife refuge or a neighborhood nature center, we have to make people love the outdoors. Because if people don’t love a place, they won’t work to save it. That’s why I’m calling on scientists and artists to work together to engage people emotionally in the planet’s plight—to find new ways to use stories in conjunction with science.
In order to put this science-meets-story idea into practice, I’ve founded a not-for-profit theater company called Let’s Play Outside Productions. House Hunters: Erickson Edition is our first play, and it premiered last month. I wrote it to be performed outside at the Erickson Conservation Area.
But because Wisconsin was hit with unprecedented flooding in October, we had to move the performances into a nearby school. Yes, our outdoor play about the mitigating effects of wetlands on climate change had to be moved indoors because of climate change.
Even if the play had gone exactly as planned, I don’t think it would have miraculously saved the world. I’m not delusional. A small, not-for-profit theater company doing site-specific outdoor plays for children is not going to stop or repair the damage we’ve done to the planet.
But it’s a start. And we all have to start somewhere.
Yet it seems no matter how hard our scientists implore us to save our remaining wilderness areas (and by extension, the planet), too few people know they exist or care enough about them to take meaningful action. This has to change if we want the planet and our own species to survive.
The United Nations’ 14th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity is convening in Egypt through November. Scientists, non-governmental organizations and representatives from signatory nations are working together to complete a strategic plan for the protection of biodiversity after 2020. In a recent call to arms published in the journal Nature, a group of scientists, led by James E. M. Watson and James R. Allan, urged the convention’s participants to include a mandated target to define and conserve 100 percent of all remaining intact ecosystems worldwide.
I want to echo their call and ask my fellow artists to join in this fight and bring it close to home. We have to do whatever we can to save our intact ecosystems.
I’ve been writing plays for 36 years. I went into the theater because I believe that stories matter. I have spent my career writing about people who are powerless in our country, especially people whose options are limited by economic injustice. I’ve always felt that artists have a moral obligation to explore what it is to be disenfranchised and invisible in this world. If nobody hears your story, nobody knows you exist. If nobody knows you exist, nobody cares what happens to you.
And these days, not enough people care what happens to our planet. That is why I’m making the shift to write about species other than our own. It’s not because I don’t care about people anymore. Quite the opposite. If our planet dies, we die with it. The stakes for all forms of life couldn’t be any higher.
Like many of us, I already do many of the things I’m supposed to do for the planet. I give to conservation groups and organizations that litigate on behalf of the environment. I volunteer my time to those same groups to help with restoration, stewardship and citizen science projects. I lobby my elected officials, urging them to fight against this administration’s disastrous environmental policies. I recycle. I’m a vegetarian. But I want to do more, and so do most of the artists I know.
Bigger—and yes, more dramatic—action is necessary. So, I’m appealing to scientists and artists everywhere to connect. Scientists must invite artists to their next convening, and vice versa. Philanthropists and non-governmental organizations must increase their funding for cross-disciplinary projects. We have to find creative ways to combine facts with feelings. Only by working together can we give voice to the truly voiceless: the plants and animals, the bugs and birds, and the precious places that our imperiled wildlife calls home.