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Actors and real-life couple Miriam Fernandes and Sturla Alvsvaag navigate a poetic and playful dialogue with Tara Cullis and David Suzuki.Why Not Theatre Company

Environmental activists David Suzuki and Tara Cullis will try anything to stave off the Earth’s climate emergency. (Married since 1973, they’ve run the David Suzuki Foundation together since 1990.) So when Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes, artistic directors of Toronto’s Why Not Theatre company, approached the couple about creating a stage performance about the crisis – which might reach a different audience, in a different way, than they were used to – they dived in.

Fernandes and Jain shaped a series of interviews with Suzuki and Cullis into a scripted conversation. Everyone thought the piece would be about science, but found instead that it was about love: What if people could love the planet the way we love each other? A live performance in Vancouver in February, 2020, went well enough that plans were made to tour the production. But then a different emergency struck – the COVID-19 pandemic.

So Jain and his co-director, Kevin Matthew Wong, filmed the piece instead, and the result, What You Won’t Do For Love, is now available to stream online. Suzuki and Cullis spoke to The Globe and Mail about the film – which examines their relationship to each other and the planet – and their sleepless nights agonizing over how to get those in power to listen.

Johanna Schneller: One of the central themes in this piece – that the world is out of balance because humans have lost the connection between the rational and emotional sides of our brains – was part of Tara’s thesis for her PhD in literature. How did you hit on that?

Tara Cullis: We know that humans work best when our brains are in balance – when we use both the practical left brain, which focuses on the individual, and the imaginative right brain, which can conceive of community. The scientific half that breaks things down into pieces, and the holistic half that knows everything is linked together. Because of the power of technology, Western society has become more convinced that the left brain is the better way of thinking. Our environmental problems are a result of that imbalance. So everything we try to do is to bring that balance back.

David Suzuki: We have to reframe the crisis. We’re at an opportune moment. We’re in trouble. We’re in deep trouble. The heat dome and the atmospheric rivers have made British Columbia the poster child for what’s coming. We’re getting e-mails and calls from people across Canada saying, “This is scary.” And we know from COVID that the public is willing to make big changes to save their lives. So we’re trying to co-ordinate every environmental group to spread the same message: We have to reduce our energy use in the next year by 25 per cent. I know that can happen, because after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, the Japanese public, without any legislation, reduced their energy use by 25 per cent – and has maintained that reduction all these years since.

Suzuki and Cullis spoke to The Globe about the film and their sleepless nights agonizing over how to get those in power to listen.Why Not Theatre

Schneller: None of this is new. Why is it so difficult to get people to act?

Cullis: I think that people do get it. It’s the people in positions of power, who profit from the status quo, who don’t want things to change. Industries spend time and money fighting change and putting out misinformation. Politicians promise goals, then water them down and don’t meet them – which makes people despair. Despair is an ally of the status quo, and an enemy to our making the changes we need to make. Individuals alone can’t make a dent. People feel like chumps when they give up this and that, and nothing changes. With the David Suzuki Foundation, we try to pull together individuals so their voices are heard.

Schneller: Bottom line, what do you want Canadian politicians to do?

Suzuki: Now, damn it all, do the hard things we elected you to do. Cancel all subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry, stop any new fossil-fuel infrastructure building like pipelines, and get on with making the transformation [to cleaner energy].

Schneller: In the film, when you talk about how dire things are, Miriam Fernandes chokes up. Then everyone scrambles to make a joke – make things seem not so bad. But isn’t this the time for tears and anger?

Suzuki: Anger is important. When Justin Trudeau won, then went to Paris in 2015, we were celebrating. Two-and-a-half years later, he bought a pipeline. Up until then, he’d always responded to my e-mails. He doesn’t respond to me any more.

Schneller: In your dark nights of the soul, what images do you see?

Cullis: In B.C., we’re seeing the effects of a 1.1-C rise in temperature. On Dec. 1, the temperature in Penticton was 22.5 C. The previous record high was 11. In the Arctic, the rise is already 3.1 C. The result of that is a torrential outflow of ice, just pouring out into melt. When you let your brain follow that, it’s not acceptable. David and I try to get depressed at different times so we can keep each other going.

Schneller: David, in the film you yourself cry at the thought of your six grandchildren not being able to complete their lives on Earth. Do you continually push that thought away, or do you keep it front and centre?

Suzuki: I don’t know what the end will be, other than extinction. My fear is the breakdown of systems. You can see it happening now. We’ve got a food chain that is 5,000 to 7,000 miles long. All of that is made possible by fossil fuels, and it cannot go on. We think it’s okay in Canada to be eating fresh strawberries in the middle of winter. I simply can’t imagine how our grandchildren will eke out an existence. I don’t let my brain go further than that.

Schneller: What is one thing anyone can do tomorrow, to make the tiniest change?

Suzuki: I always tell parents, I know you love your children – so stop driving them to and from school. That’s a simple thing. Another: Give up meat once a week. There are lots of things we can do incrementally.

Cullis: And one thing leads to another. You have to keep climate change at the forefront of just about everything you do – because everything you do impacts it.

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