When Climate Anxiety Makes for Great Art

In “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing,” climate change is never mentioned, but it’s all anyone can think about.


Actors Quincy Tyler Bernstine (left) and Ken Leung in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing

Courtesy of Monique Carboni

Artists are accustomed to exploring contradiction and complexity. Over the centuries, humanity has produced important, lasting art about some of the most complex issues we face: war and violence, the formation of racial and sexual identity, the mysteries of human desire. To this list of “big” themes worthy of serious artistic treatment, we must surely add climate change, a global, existential threat of recent vintage and human origin.

So why is it so difficult to make great art about it?

In a 2019 article, ArtNet executive editor Julia Halperin succinctly summed up why so much climate-themed art doesn’t work. All too often, she wrote, it’s “preachy, literal, unimaginative, and hung up on aerial shots of floods or topographical maps.” Most artworks about climate change “attempt to scare you into action but often simply paralyze you with the vastness of the problem.” Journalist and 350.org cofounder Bill McKibben believes that climate change’s ubiquity makes it that much harder to render imaginatively. “When something is happening everywhere all at once,” he writes, “it threatens constantly to become backdrop, context, instead of event.”

Playwright Will Arbery has done some reflecting of his own on the question. Like McKibben, he thinks that climate change’s omnipresence makes it “almost impossible to wrap one's head around.” And like Halperin, he acknowledges that “it's very easy for art about climate change to become preachy, political, didactic.” But there’s another reason, Arbery says, why we seem to have so much trouble making great and lasting climate-themed art: ambivalence. We want the problem fixed, yet we don’t necessarily want to be the ones to have to fix it. Furthermore, he believes, we’re torn between thinking that we still have the ability to turn the tide and thinking that our destiny is set in stone.

“We, the living, aren't fully responsible, and yet we are also deeply complicit,” says Arbery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for 2019’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning), whose newest play, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, recently opened off Broadway in New York City. “There's something about it that feels almost religious. The fact is, we don't know exactly what's going to happen: The years keep going by, the endgame keeps shifting, the dread keeps building and receding, building and receding. We toggle between feeling guilty, angry, hopeless, confused, ambivalent, depressed, hopeful, activated, strong. Sometimes in a single day. There's a painful absurdity to it.”

Absurdity, of course, has made for some of the most compelling and original theater of the past century, from the knotty existential puzzles posed by Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) and Eugène Ionesco (The Bald Soprano) to the black comedies of Christopher Durang (The Actor’s Nightmare). Deftly blending humor, pathos, naturalism, and surrealism, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, directed by the Obie Award–winning Danya Taymor, examines what it’s like to grapple day in, day out with the absurd tangle of overwhelming and contradictory emotions that characterize life in the Anthropocene. Its four characters are acutely aware that things are changing—not just the climate, but our minds and spirits in relation to it—and that trying to make sense of all these changes, as they happen, can lead to a sort of madness.


Actors Leung (left) and Jeb Kraeger in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing

Courtesy of Monique Carboni

Basil and Peter are municipal employees whose main job during the winter months is salting the roads in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois. Their manager, Maiworm, is a civil servant not only by profession but by temperament: She’s the kind of person who gifts people copies of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and grows giddy at the prospect of bringing permeable, heated road surfaces to Evanston, where the winters are getting snowier—and more expensive to deal with—with each passing year. Heated roadways would be a sustainable means of de-icing city streets, but they would also leave Basil and Peter without a job to do.

Basil and Peter dance around their shared dread with macho posturing and exclamatory profanity. Maiworm’s sleep is troubled by nightmares of the permeable road pavers she champions turning on their creators like possessed, geoengineered serpents. “[O]ne day, acting upon the orders of the dead, they’ll rise up from the ground and wrap around us until we burn up,” she relays to her daughter, Jane Jr., who has done just enough late-night doomscrolling on the possibilities of coastal flooding to envision the imminent obliteration of both the eastern and western seaboards, and who bemoans the lack of preparations in Evanston and elsewhere to accommodate waves of mass climate migration. Like the others, Jane Jr. is haunted by something she cannot name: the sense that an unseeable, unstoppable force is rising up and closing in.

Call that force dark energy, as Jane Jr. does. Call it thanatos, as a Freudian psychoanalyst probably would in describing Basil’s and Peter’s shared preoccupation with death. You might even call it climate change—although Arbery doesn’t: the term never actually appears in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing. “Honestly, I didn't think too much about climate change while I was writing the play,” he says. “I was more interested in what climate anxiety does to a person's body, to their language, to the way they love, to their psyche.”

Arbery is also clearly interested in how our practical and moral responses to the climate crisis differ, depending on how it affects us individually. One of his aims, he says, was to examine ”the relationship between bigness and tininess, the people who feel powerless in the face of it all versus the people who feel compelled to try to make a difference. And the people caught in between, whose livelihood and sense of self is caught up in a larger pattern they didn’t create.”

Playwright Will Arbery (left) with voice, text, and dialect coach Gigi Buffington
Credit: Courtesy of Natalie Powers

In a single 100-minute play, Arbery manages to touch on many climate issues beyond the inevitable death and destruction that climate change brings. Among them are the economic impacts on workers that accompany the emergence of newer and cleaner technologies, concerns about the wisdom and ethics of geoengineering, frustrations over the slow pace of climate action, and tensions between incrementalist and more sweeping, maximalist approaches to addressing the problem. But all of these are expressed through plot and character: At no point does anyone ever preach or lecture (with one notable exception near the play’s end, when a cynical, doomsaying specter materializes to mock Maiworm’s earnestness). There are no recitations of climate data, no discussions of the effects of carbon pollution on the earth’s natural systems, and certainly no aerial shots of floods or topographical maps.

In the end, there are just four human beings who care about their responsibilities to their families, to their community, and to each other. Yes, Evanston Salt Costs Climbing is a play about climate change. But also yes: It’s great, deeply affecting art. It accepts that the world doesn’t always make sense, and that the people who inhabit it don’t always make sense either. It allows for confusion and inconsistency in our response to a reality marked by contradictions. And it asks us to consider that while we’re busy fighting so doggedly for climate action, sympathy and compassion remain two of the most important weapons that we can wield.

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