Against Climate as Metaphor: Make Climate Propaganda (The Good Kind)

“Too much propaganda masquerading as art.” This was the first comment that appeared on Instagram when HowlRound Theatre Commons shared my recent essay on the necessity of creating plays that tell local climate stories. At first I was a little miffed – it’s hard not to be when someone summarily dismisses your work or accuses you of propagandizing. “Was I really promoting propaganda?” I worried, as thoughts of Goebbels, Riefenstahl, D.W. Griffith, and other horrifying propagandists swirled in my head.

The word propaganda comes from the Latin propago, both a verb signifying increase and a noun signifying a new layer or shoot produced by a plant. This latter usage of propago continues in English, meaning a layer or branch laid down to root – propaganda has always been green.

Moreover, for all its negative connotations, propaganda is often defined as a value-neutral term, referring simply to communication that seeks primarily to influence its audience or further an agenda. The Enclopædia Britannica entry on the subject commences by defining propaganda as “dissemination of information – facts, arguments, rumours, half-truths, or lies – to influence public opinion.” While I would certainly be embarrassed to promote manipulation based on rumors and lies, I realized that deliberately influencing public opinion by disseminating facts and arguments was precisely the goal of the kind of climate storytelling I aimed to encourage.

I had also recently seen some stunningly beautiful works of propaganda, thanks to the Criterion Channel’s streaming archive. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove seemed like all the evidence I needed that art and propaganda were not mutually exclusive categories –that great works of art could also be designed to influence public opinion. In a world badly in need of many new carbon dioxide-absorbing shoots, or propago, making climate propaganda seemed particularly apt.

Still from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, 1925.

Nevertheless, I thought about this Instagram comment for days. “Too much propaganda masquerading as art.” The term “masquerading” stung, as it implied a binary between art and propaganda and invoked the deceitful manipulation associated with the worst kinds of the latter, but my main gripe was with the words “too much.” We don’t have too much climate propaganda masquerading as art. In fact, we have far too little climate propaganda, whether framed as art or not.

We are in a climate crisis; fewer and fewer people dispute this consensus. This is the most consequential crisis, the most complex challenge, the highest impact threat ever faced by humans, not just directly but also because of the threat to the ecosystems that sustain us as well as countless other species. Effective responses to global crises have historically required mass mobilization, and the mobilization required to transition to a zero carbon economy will be greater than any yet achieved. Previous crises, such as the Great Depression and World War II, only instigated such mass mobilizations through the organized development and dissemination of propaganda.

In the past several years, it has become commonplace to describe the shift needed to respond to the climate crisis as akin to the American mobilization for the Second World War. Whole organizations and movements, such as The Climate Mobilization, are founded on this premise, and the idea of a World War II-scale response has been echoed by voices ranging from Bill McKibben to the Democratic Party Platform Committee. The American mobilization for World War II was supported by a massive, largely government-funded propaganda campaign, eventually coordinated by the United States Office of War Information, which used every available artistic medium – from Hollywood films to posters – to build support for war production and encourage popular animosity towards the Axis powers.

The Green New Deal and its variants – the most prominent and comprehensive plans to mitigate the climate crisis – also harken back to a mass mobilization. While the propaganda that accompanied the New Deal was not coordinated by a single office like the efforts that would later accompany the Second World War, Franklin Delano Roosevelt rallied the country through “a hodgepodge of media efforts carried out by an alphabet soup of agencies,” as Stephen Duncombe put it in a piece on “FDR’s Democratic Propaganda” in The Nation in 2008. Duncombe acknowledges that “many progressives today have an adverse reaction to propaganda,” but insists that this aversion is naïve: it was only through such mass persuasion that Roosevelt was able to mobilize the country for the greatest expansion of the welfare state and equalization of the economic playing field in American history.

One-Third of a Nation, a Living Newspaper play produced by the Federal Theatre Project, 1938.

The New Deal also provides the best historical precedent for government-supported art-making on a mass scale. Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writers’ Project employed over forty thousand artists in the late 1930s. While these projects did not exclusively produce propaganda, many of the more prominent works created by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) were explicitly anti-capitalist, or advocated for labor rights or racial equality. Notable examples include One-Third of a Nation, a Living Newspaper play about housing inequality; FTP director Hallie Flanagan’s communist play Can You Hear Their Voices?; and Sinclair Lewis’s theatrical adaptation of his anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here. Is it too much to hope that a Green New Deal might include a New Green Federal Theatre Project?

To be sure, the climate crisis is not a war and it is not an economic depression, though it will likely precipitate both. Nevertheless, it will fundamentally alter our societies in ways that resemble changes wrought during wartime and after economic collapse.

Given the magnitude of the crisis we are facing, the necessity of a mass mobilization to mitigate its impacts, and the success of artistic propaganda campaigns in moving public opinion in the past, I argue that artists have an ethical responsibility to create propaganda for climate justice, for a Green New Deal, for an end to the burning of fossil fuels. This work will also challenge the denialist propaganda that the fossil fuel industry has funded and produced for decades.

We must, of course, be wary of the potentially alienating effects of the term, as it can imply an intent to mislead or dupe. Why use the term “propaganda” at all when it carries such alarming baggage, particularly in a twentieth century context, when the propaganda agencies of repressive regimes come immediately to mind?

I embrace the term because it helps me to throw away my learned squeamishness about art that is politically instrumental, about art that wears its politics on its sleeve. The dominant critical framework in Western art tends to condemn didacticism, favoring a politics that is couched in metaphor over a politics that is unambiguous.

“A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” – an effective piece of climate propaganda.

Creating overtly political work on climate may in fact be preferable to the alternative: the climate crisis as metaphor. After reading Paul Elie’s recent essay in the New Yorker, “(Against) Virus as Metaphor,” I returned to Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” and “AIDS and its Metaphors.” Sontag argues, as Elie elegantly paraphrases, that illness metaphors “hinder the rational and scientific apprehension that is needed to contain disease and provide care for people. To treat illness as a metaphor is to avoid or delay or even thwart the treatment of literal illness.” Perhaps to treat climate as metaphor – to insist that to be made legible, climate change must be layered atop a plot or subject at the human scale, as metaphor for interpersonal violence or other suffering – is both to hinder the “rational and scientific apprehension” of the rapidly worsening conditions for human life on this planet, and to “delay or even thwart” our response to this almost unimaginable crisis.

The climate crisis leaves no time for subtlety, and little room for metaphor. We have firm climatological deadlines: ten years, quickly slipping towards nine, an atmospheric carbon dioxide level of 418 parts per million – for the first time in at least three million years – and climbing ever higher.

I use the term propaganda because we artists have an ethical obligation to communicate this urgency, and to say it clearly. Your climate art should be so explicit in its politics that a fossil fuel executive or a banker funding extraction projects or a reactionary politician pushing climate denial would never choose to buy it or attend your performance. And if he did (for they are mostly men) he would understand that he was being called to account.

If using the term propaganda liberates you to create work like this and frees you from the fear of scolding critics or Instagram commenters who tell you that art should not be didactic, that art should not impose its views, then I think propaganda is a useful term, and one I proudly claim. Make climate propaganda (the good kind). Lay down new roots, propago.

(Top image: Still from “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” illustrated by Molly Crabapple, directed by Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt.)

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Thomas Peterson is a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, co-organizing Climate Change Theatre Action. He recently returned from a Harvard Williams-Lodge Scholarship in Paris, where he wrote a thesis on the aesthetic of the sublime in the theatrical representation of the Anthropocene. He created Roy Loves America, a multi-form performance piece about Roy Cohn, and is developing an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, set on a dying planetHis engagement in climate activism stretches back to high school, when he led a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign.

8 thoughts on “Against Climate as Metaphor: Make Climate Propaganda (The Good Kind)

  1. Thank you, Thomas, for working through these tough issues! It’s sad to be living in an era when truth is held hostage to ideology, when fossil fuel interests and their monied supporters get to determine what passes for reality. I fully support the Arctic Cycle; we put on a climate theatre event here in rural PA last fall and I think it had a positive impact on our community. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks Thomas, I also appreciate your thoughtful response as well as your clear-sightedness. I have little time for the semantic games that can be played in times of such profound urgency. I keep thinking of novelist Amitav Ghosh when he wrote so powerful of the ‘Great Derangement; climate change and the unthinkable’. It is this notion that climate change is still ‘unthinkable’ in very real ways that makes your comments so important. We do need new ways of thinking and critiquing. Kia kaha!

    • Thank you, Simon! I thought a lot about Ghosh’s ‘Great Derangement’ when writing this (it’s a truly remarkable book), and had in fact cited it in an earlier draft. I think Ghosh’s arguments on the failure of literature to engage politically with climate, even as literature has become increasingly politicized in other ways, are essential insights. Thank you again for reading and for sharing these kind words.

  3. Excellent article, thank you. ‘Art’ is notoriously difficult to define, at least since Duchamp, but in its broadest sense, art does not serve a utilitarian purpose. This doesn’t preclude me from making art with a message, although it could very well be considered design at that point. If a piece is made which furthers the understanding of climate change or inspires action, it doesn’t matter what category it falls under. Generally, artists are capable of good design/writing so they can use these skills to make positive ‘propoganda’ on climate change.

    • Thank you, Stephen. I sincerely hope that an increasing number of artists will make work like this — I agree that the framing or categorization of the work matters little if it creates the intended effect.

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