Justin Ramsey

Fleeing From Our Problems

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Cosmic Justice On Accountability

Written by Justin Ramsey
Re:generation is a special series of articles responding to Generation Hot at the 2016 Vancouver Fringe Festival. This is part 2 of 5.

Cosmic Justice, Generation Hot, Vancouver Fringe
I am waiting outside a curtain of tarps, which block off a section of the Anderson Street paid parking lot at Granville Island. The lot resembles a dilapidated warehouse, or a big shed. Overhead, a gridded mesh has been installed to keep pigeons from nesting in the rafters; the thick grey plumes clumping impudently on its bars tell a different story.

Finally, we are ushered through the curtain, where I come face to face with a tall, skinny man with long red hair – and an inverted green triangle painted on his forehead. He hands me a white poker chip, and tells me not to lose it; everyone in the audience receives one. And when I take my seat, I realise the space is transformed. No longer is it the amorphous non-place that set the stage for The Lilacs, but a clean studio with neat seating: two clusters of chairs, four seats wide and six rows back. The bric-a-brac drapes fall into my peripheries; my attention is pointed straight ahead at white curtains, lit with white light, before which sit two tables.

After a number of technical difficulties – which of course, are part of the performance – we are introduced to Cosmic Justice. It’s somewhere between a game show and a legal court: a show trial of sorts. Still, it’s not exactly fair to call Cosmic Justice a show trial, since the jury – in this case, the audience – has a real say in the outcome. They get to rule whether or not to save humanity. The premise: Earth is now unlivable, and an alien population from Planet NewHope has recently synthesised a habitable satellite called NeverLand. Now, a team of surviving humans are setting out to convince Planet NewHope’s denizens to give our species a second chance.

A second chance it doesn’t deserve, I might add. The mission is a fool’s errand, hubristic and irresponsible. I remember how disgusted I was watching Christopher Nolan’s recent film Interstellar. It’s set in a future where all funding to NASA has ceased, as nobody can justify looking out into space with all the crises facing the Earth. As crops are destroyed by waves of blight, the main protagonist is told that the world needs farmers, not astronauts, and his children should aspire to that. I remember thinking to myself, in the movie theatre: “Well, it took humanity long enough to get its head on straight.”

As it turned out, Interstellar wanted us to deride this agricultural ethos as crank authoritarianism, and instead venerate the protagonist’s colonial, go-forth-and-conquer attitude. I felt icky, like I was watching a movie that portrayed Christopher Columbus sympathetically. The high-horse crap that Matthew McConaughey spewed throughout that film could’ve been ripped straight from a book written by the Catholic Monarchs with a foreword by Thomas Carlyle. Watching him scramble from one grim planet to the next in search of habitable conditions, all I could think was: “You had a perfect planet and you blew it.”

Back to Cosmic Justice: Tom, the red-haired studio assistant who greeted us earlier, walks the audience through their queues: when he holds up the sign reading ‘Applause’, we clap; when he holds up ‘Boo’, we heckle; when he holds up ‘Gasp’, we express shock and horror. It’s a fun, participatory aspect of the play, though sometimes it’s easy for me to miss Tom’s signals; he’s at the far end of the stage and not particularly well-lit.

In the spotlight, however, is President Groundwalker, the impassioned, charismatic misanthrope who governs Planet NewHope. Robert Walker is hilarious in the role, and undoubtedly the high point of Cosmic Justice. I’ve seen plays wherein actors go too far over-the-top – that old if-I-yell-it’s-funny faux pas – which sucks the energy out of a performance; but Groundwalker escalates from suave coolness to red-faced fury to blanched horror without ever losing momentum. His delivery is seamless and his intention is clear: stop the humans.

This he does with aplomb. President Groundwalker could begin with a diatribe on greenhouse gases, or a list of species that are extinct – wiped from existence – by human negligence, apathy, or cruelty. He could start with statistics or chronologies of war and genocide, imperialism and slavery. But no: Exhibit A is a simple box of cigarettes. One of the humans brought cigarettes with him. Queue an ingenious interrogation: the human defendants think nothing of them; the aliens are horrified. Groundwalker announces that the objects were tested for toxicity, which showed hazardous levels of carcinogenic substances. He even points out the disturbing images on the packaging, chosen specially to deter people from smoking.

And President Groundwalker gets the human to admit he was fully aware of the danger cigarettes posed, yet decided to use them anyway, because oh well.

There’s really no coming back from this; President Groundwalker has already cinched it. And it leaves one wondering: what the hell is wrong with us? As I write, the Canadian government is waffling over whether to approve pipeline projects that would carry crude from the tar sands in Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia. They’ll probably allow it, since China has billions of dollars invested in Canadian oil, and – in the vague, evasive terms of economists – “the product has to get to market.”

Of course, China is not only the worst emitter of greenhouse gases, but its air quality is among the worst in the world; at times the smog is so thick that you can’t see two blocks up the street. Coincidence? Meanwhile, the same country is probably manufacturing many of the wind turbines and solar panels being exported and sold elsewhere around the globe. Isn’t it time to stop, step back, and figure out what’s wrong with this picture? We know the system is broken, but nobody wants to fix it because oh well. President Groundwalker’s box of cigarettes is an incredible little analogue.

Ironically, the humans are quick to tout our supposed brilliance. One of the witnesses, a politician from Earth whose resemblance to Sarah Palin can’t be accidental, offers a funny and very apt parody of humanism: she suggests if Edison hadn’t invented light and Newton hadn’t discovered gravity, we’d all be floating around in pitch darkness. And far-fetched though her claims are, she alludes to a sweeping folly that is all too common in anthropocentrism: that nothing is real until somebody has ‘discovered’ it. As the aliens are quick to observe, gravity wasn’t discovered nor light invented; and, as an addendum to that, human civilisation had thrived long before Newton and Edison – and smartphones, for that matter.

Cosmic Justice is hugely entertaining, and a much-needed guilt trip for anyone still under delusions of human grandeur. My main criticism is that the humans don’t put up a real fight. Given the facts, they could have called Elon Musk, Pope Francis, and any philosopher of their choosing – from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant – to the stand and still have lost the debate miserably. Instead, they depend on a loopy airhead, a bumbling hypocrite and a politician who would’ve been quite at home in Stephen Harper’s sham parliament. Their only real effort to win over the audience comes from a less-than-rousing monologue about how nobody’s perfect. It’s a pretty lame excuse for destroying the planet.

Humanism is rooted in the belief that through scientific and technological development, humanity continually strides closer to peace, equality, and stability. It’s sort of like the invisible hand of the self-regulating market, and “trickle-down” economics; we all know it empirically isn’t true, but we keep pretending that it is. Because while our society plays with a plethora of new gadgets, women are still economically disadvantaged, politically underrepresented, humiliated in court by male judges and lawyers for being victims of assault; racism is violent and vitriolic; housing is still unaffordable, and jobs unavailable, to many in my generation; and crucial ecosystems are collapsing by the day.

All the while, programming is increasingly included in North American elementary school curricula. The number of children who read for pleasure is plummeting, as are academic achievement in math, sciences, and literacy. School trustees fret, questioning why this is happening, ignoring the correlations dancing garishly before their eyes. At the very least, I hope that schools are teaching environmentalism, though it’s hard to fathom society prioritising stewardship and sustainability over managing a WordPress site – at eight years old, no less.

What will these children become when they grow up? Many of the bright inventors and innovators of my generation – the entrepreneurs, the engineers, the media gurus – are being channelled into make-work industries where pointless products are generated en masse to fill false needs. For years, relationships thrived and businesses prospered without social media; but now, we “need” software to streamline content and manage feeds; we “need” to trend, and to boost followers; we “need” to hashtag. What we really need to do is drop everything and curb the environmental crisis. But maybe that’s not sexy enough for the self-styled “creatives” of Generation Hot. Mark Hertsgaard chose the term to refer to unprecedented global temperatures; but I think it refers just as aptly to unprecedented global narcissism.

When the time comes – the smoker has just finished his lacklustre appeal – we are asked to vote whether or not to save humanity. This is where the white poker chips come into play: we are to place our chips in the smoker’s jar if we want humanity welcomed to Planet NewHope, or President Groundwalker’s if we want them banished back to the destroyed earth. The opponents start making the rounds. Immediately, the human defendant rushes up to me.

“Okay, let’s go!” he exclaims jubilantly, shoving the glass jar toward me.

My hand tightens on my poker chip. “Aren’t we supposed to give our chip to the person we’re voting for?” I ask.

“Yeah, so, come on!” He jostles the jar at me again; I scowl at it, like it’s full of formaldehyde, and tense up. It’s quite honestly repulsive to me. Finally, he gets the clue and shuffles off.

The votes are tallied, and though it’s closer than it ought to have been, President Groundwalker wins. When Alice Drabeck, the host of Cosmic Justice declares the results, she seems genuinely gobsmacked; she herself is an alien, yet she seems subdued as she stammers the results.

Apparently, despite presenting a failsafe case against humanity, the actors are stunned that we weren’t swayed by the hammy speech. It makes me wonder, in turn, what their perspective is – if they really think it’s fine to simply shirk responsibility, gore our planet, and flee to a different one. I hope not. I really enjoyed this performance, and I’d like to think its cast and crew were as insightful as I’m giving them credit for.

Recently, NASA concluded a year-long simulation of what it would be like living on Mars: the participants had no view save for barren, rocky dunes; they suffered stultifying boredom; they were unable to leave their shelter without donning heavy, stuffy suits with limited oxygen. I can’t for the life of me see why this is appealing. Earth is our home. Nothing would depress me more than waking up to a planet that wasn’t the world we innately belong to.

And even if a race of aliens offered to feature us on Cosmic Justice, and gave us an opportunity to plead our case – to convince them to welcome us on their home planet – I’m confident they’d turn us down.

So can’t we just be grateful for what we’ve got?

Generation Hot, Vancouver Fringe
This is Re:generation – A special series of articles responding to Generation Hot at the 2016 Vancouver Fringe Festival.
Read part 3, A Case for Hugging Trees: Empathy in Living On The Grid.

One Response to Fleeing From Our Problems

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