Climate chaos: Edinburgh Fringe's most urgent challenge

We speak to Matt Winning, Jon Long and Isla Cowan about the pressing challenge that is our climate emergency

Feature by Eve Livingston | 18 Jul 2019
  • Matt Winning

Matt Winning has been worrying about climate change “since before it was cool.” This year the Scottish comedian and environmental economist will bring his fifth solo show to the Fringe – focusing for the third year running on the urgency of climate change amidst a resurgence in protests, strikes, political action and, well, general panic. 

“At the end of last year I wasn’t expecting to be doing a show like this again,” he tells me. “It felt like there wasn’t a huge amount of new stuff to talk about after [2018 show] Climate Strange so I was thinking about how I might do it differently. And then from about November it was just constantly in the news again. Suddenly it felt like it wouldn’t be that difficult to have a very topical show.”

If, as escalating school strikes and the likes of Extinction Rebellion lead us to believe, the current mood is one of urgency and finality, Winning has read it well with It’s the End of the World as We Know It

“People think climate change is the end of the world whereas actually it’s just that the world we currently know is going to radically change,” he explains. “Either we can live in a world where the state of the environment is radically altered and it’s slightly more dystopian, with sea level rises and warmer temperatures and poles melting, or we live in a completely different world where we produce and consume everything differently. 

“It’s going to have to be one of these two; one is going to occur regardless of what we do,” he continues. “We have to start making choices, not because I’m going to force you to but because you’re going to be forced to due to science and the way existence works. That’s the message I’m trying to get across.”

And if choices about our own behaviour and consumption are key to facing down the challenge head on, participants at this year’s Fringe may be able to make slightly better ones than before. Spurred on by a commitment to reduce the festival’s carbon footprint and champion initiatives that limit its impact on the environment – part of the Fringe Blueprint which sets out the festival’s ambitions in the lead up to its 75th anniversary in 2022 – the Fringe has introduced a raft of measures to tackle paper, food and material waste as well as sustainable travel. 

In the past two years, print runs of the Fringe programme have been dramatically reduced and print advertising has been moved to digital formats. Initiatives such as the #QuickFlyer campaign have encouraged acts to pitch their shows digitally, reducing flyer waste. A swap shop and food bank have also been introduced, encouraging participants to recycle and repurpose unwanted props, materials and leftover food. Fringe participants are also able to claim a discount on the city’s bike hire scheme, in an attempt to encourage green transport use. 

“This last year I’ve been thinking about that a lot,” says Jon Long, who will make his Fringe debut with an hour of musical comedy about the environment entitled Planet-Killing Machine. “I was thinking about the show and the subject and looking around at Edinburgh realising I’d be handing out lots of flyers – and the sheer amount of air miles to sustain the Fringe as a tourist event is probably the biggest thing.”

Like Winning, Long’s day job – in the educational function of a London recycling centre – gives him a unique insight into the eye of the storm. Does he think comedy could play an important role in solving the problem? 

“Nobody wants to be talked down to so a preachy route doesn’t always work,” Long explains. “Comedy is perfect because we can joke and laugh about why I’m terrible and you’re terrible and we’re all in it together, but it’s societal and it’s structural – so let’s talk instead about what we can do. Some people are quite responsive to that method as opposed to people saying to them ‘you’ve killed the planet, you monster’.”

Of course, the Fringe is comprised of thousands of performers, spectators, staff and venues, all of whom have some level of personal responsibility for ensuring their own contributions are sustainable. One venue taking this responsibility seriously is The Greenhouse, new this year and the Fringe’s very first zero-waste venue. Built entirely of found and recycled materials, it will host 8 shows a day in its Holyrood Road location – all of which will use recycled props, sets and costumes, and commit to a zero-waste marketing strategy. 

Isla Cowan is one of the acts performing in The Greenhouse with her ecofeminist play Daphne, or Hellfire, a modern reimagining of Ovid’s myth of Daphne and Apollo. While her work has focused on environmental themes before, a lack of opportunities to perform in eco-friendly venues mean she’s often been frustrated by the hypocrisy between the work’s meaning and its means: “I was really excited about the opportunity to make a piece of theatre that was environmentally conscious in both content and form – where the means of production would be as eco-friendly as the subject of the play,” she tells me.

As well as its overtly green policies and initiatives, The Greenhouse also puts an emphasis on accessibility through affordable ticket prices – something Cowan says is crucial if the arts are to play a key role in tackling climate change and related social issues. 

“The theatre is a social space where people come together for a shared experience, making it apt for exploring social and global issues,” she tells me. “I think there’s something about this time and place specificity, about watching live theatre as it unfolds in the moment, that gives it an unparalleled urgency and impact when tackling issues like climate change in a way that scrolling through news articles on your phone will never do.”

For acts like Winning, Long and Cowan, exploring such issues through their work provides a unique opportunity to consider their own place within them. “I’ve been thinking more about the intergenerational inequalities of climate change,” reflects Winning. “I’m at the very upper end of ‘millennial’ – it feels like there’s a generation younger than me taking all this action and a lot of the blame is on people slightly older than me. I’m somewhere in the middle and I’m taking stock of where I fit into the picture.” 

Whether enough can be done in time is an existential question for the world at large as much as it is for the Edinburgh Fringe. But if the past year has seen a tipping point in the climate conversation, it’s one that has been reflected within the ecosystem of the festival itself. Long recalls trying to secure PR for his upcoming show and being told that it would be a difficult sell and that journalists wouldn’t find the issue of climate change “sexy enough.” 

“The papers now are full of it, every single journalist is getting editors saying they need more content covering it,” he points out. 

“They kept just saying ‘No, no, I don’t think so’. But I think that this time next year they’ll be going around saying ‘Has anyone got something on the environment?’”

Matt Winning: It's the End of the World as we Know ItPleasance Courtyard (Below), until 25 Aug (not 14), 4.25pm, £7-£10

Jon Long: Planet-Killing Machine, Underbelly Bristo Sq (Clover), until 26 Aug, 9.30pm, £9-£11 

Daphne, or Hellfire, Pleasance Pop-Up: Dynamic Earth (The Greenhouse), until 26 Aug (not 6, 13, 20), 5.15pm, £5