#GreenFests: Antigone and Climate Change

30th August 2015

Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone is the gem in the crown of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Directed by Ivan van …

Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone is the gem in the crown of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Directed by Ivan van Hove, this production features a stellar cast, with Juliette Binoche an unusual but effective choice in the titular role. I’m not here to give it a review though. Rather, I wish to discuss those aspects of the play that seem pertinent to modern issues, especially climate change.

Now, you may well ask, what does Antigone have to do with climate change? In a literal sense, not much. Antigone is a Theban noblewoman, daughter of the doomed Oedipus and his wife/mother Jocasta, niece to the new king Creon. Her brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have both just died at each other’s hands in a bloody civil war. Eteocles, who fought on the side of Creon, is buried with full military honours, while Polynices is left to rot in the open as a warning to traitors.

Spoiler alert! Antigone decides that her moral obligation to honour and bury Polynices outweighs her obligation to the state. As punishment, Creon sentences her to death by walling her up in a tomb. His son Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé, pleads with his father to be reasonable, as does a trusted seer. Creon eventually concedes but is too late: Antigone has hanged herself and Haemon is dead by his own sword. To top it all off, Creon’s wife Eurydice, distraught at the loss of her son, then also kills herself and Creon is left to wonder where it all went wrong.

In what ways is this tale relevant for the climate change debate? The first is that what is required from law and what is required morally can be distinct – the dictates of the state are not necessarily right. Often the distinction is not as sharp as it is in the play: we are not normally required by law to act in an immoral fashion. However, we can be encouraged into certain behaviours.

This is especially true if we take into account government structures such as subsidies or tax reductions. Antigone’s lesson here is that what is encouraged needn’t be right either. For example, the UK government has just reduced renewable energy subsidies while continuing to heavily subsidise fossil fuels. Indeed, the IMF estimates that the fossil fuel industry is subsidised by governments to a tune of £3.4 trillion a year. This encourages investment in and the perpetuation of a damaging industry – arguably an immoral act.

Antigone’s second lesson is about the qualities required of good leadership. Ironically, this comes directly from Creon who truly believes that he is doing what is required of good leadership. He says:

 “As I see it, whoever assumes … the awesome task of setting the city’s course, and refuses to adopt the soundest policies but fearing someone, keeps his lips locked tight, he’s utterly worthless … whoever places a friend above the good of his own country, he is nothing.”

Unfortunately Creon couldn’t follow his own advice. He refuses to yield for fear of appearing weak, placing himself above the good of Thebes. However, it remains good counsel, though  many governments ignore it. For example, it is hardly surprising how heavily fossil fuels are subsidised given the many government officials who are themselves financially invested in the fossil fuel industry. To give but one example, the UK’s Conservative government introduced tax breaks for the fracking industry following advice from their chief election strategist Lynton Crosby. Crosby it transpires also works closely with the Australian Petroleum Exploration Association, who have a UK branch exploring shale gas in the North East. Facilitating the development of the fossil fuel industry in the face of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change does not seem to be “the soundest policy”.

The third analogy is that Antigone addresses the issue of younger generations paying for the crimes of those that went before. In the play it is understood that the misfortune befalling Antigone and her kin is a curse resulting from Oedipus’ crimes of patricide and incest. Whilst Antigone seems to accept this as fate and punishment from the gods, making people suffer in response to crimes they did not commit is abhorrent to modern minds. Yet climate change is resulting in just this injustice, with the global poor and future generations paying the price for damaging activities in which they were not involved.

Finally, Antigone demonstrates the dangers of pride. Creon is so convinced of his position that he refuses to listen to those who question him, often accusing them of holding their positions out of self-interest and bribes. His pride blinds him to the possibility that he is wrong and prevents him from backing down. It is only when faced with the terrible predictions of an infallible seer that he reluctantly yields. Though, of course, this is too little too late.

The analogy between this and climate change sceptics seems clear. No matter how much evidence is gathered there is a small but vocal minority who protest and refuse to accept the dangers we face. Those gathering the evidence are accused of being part of a socialist conspiracy or of twisting the data to suit the interests of their sponsors. And disaster will strike if mitigating action is not taken in a timely fashion. Creon eventually realised the error of his ways, but he was too late to save his family.

We too seem to have realised the error of our ways. Most governments agree that anthropogenic climate change is real (Tony Abbot, prime minister of Australia, is a notable exception – conveniently, given his country’s massive coal reserves) but will they act in time to prevent tragedy? This December nations will gather in Paris for COP21, hugely important climate talks that will determine the answer to this question. We have received the scientists’ warning, terrible dangers head our way if we do not act. Hopefully there is still time for our tale to have a happier ending than that which met Antigone.

[Top image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Festival]

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