Pearl Liu recently graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences. She majored in Science, Technology & Society and minored in Environmental Humanities.
I went through multiple project ideas before deciding to write this play. I initially worked on figuring out how to, without repeating the work of other students, encourage the University of Pennsylvania to take action on climate change. I eventually turned to figuring out how to use creative writing and my personal experiences to encourage readers to reflect on their relationships with the environment. I think that, especially when I focused on my experiences during college, this second aim supported, while being distinct from, the first. I ended up writing a piece that asks what it means to “care about the environment,” because the assumptions that people have about “the environment” guide how they approach both individual actions and institutional decisions.
The idea for the play started as a few anecdotes from my volunteering on various occasions as a waste bin monitor with Penn Sustainability: that time someone made sure to properly recycle their unopened packet of utensils, that time someone made a point of telling me that they’re not an environmentalist but they always recycle, and that time I was digging cups out of the wrong bin and the employee who was handing them out complimented my hat. My experiences in college — including my attempts to have a better relationship with “the environment,” conversations with those around me, and participation in various sustainability-related activities — inspired the characters and story.
Keywords: Theatre; sustainability; higher education; Pennsylvania
Environmental Impact by Pearl Liu CHARACTERS ELAINE, a sophomore in college who is unsure of who she is or how she can contribute to the world and is stressed by her uncertainty HALEY, a sophomore in college who works for a juice/smoothie restaurant and always tries to be nice to everyone MARILYN, a sophomore in college who exudes calm despite being actively involved in almost every sustainability-related activity on campus YVONNE, a sophomore in college and climate justice activist who comes across as self-confident STRANGER 1 STRANGER 2 PRODUCTION STAFFER of this play FAMILY PICNIC ATTENDEES EVENT ATTENDEES SETTING October — December 2018 Various locations on a college campus SCENE ONE (Mid-October 2018. ELAINE and HALEY are in a dining hall. They have both finished eating and their dishes are still in front of them. They are in the middle of a conversation.) HALEY Well, you still have a few months to figure it out. I just want to be happy. And hopefully helpful. ELAINE Helpful? HALEY Yeah. ELAINE To what? HALEY Oh, it depends, on a case-by-case basis, and like on a day-to-day basis. Like when I go to work I always try to bring my best and brightest “good morning” and “have a great day” to everyone who walks through, and I never know if I just turned someone’s day around. Or maybe even their life. Like if they were going through a tough time and they came in for an orange mango smoothie, but what they really needed was someone to acknowledge their presence. It’s fine with me if, when I graduate, all that I’ve accomplished was to be one of many people that added up to turn someone’s life, or year, or week, around for the better. (Silence.) I think it’s great that you care about the environment. ELAINE You think I care about the environment? HALEY I said I think it’s great that you care about the environment. ELAINE Do you not care about the environment? (Pause.) Does everyone else not care about the environment? (Beat.) What do you mean by “care about the environment”? Like why does this… “caring about the environment” that you speak of need to be labeled as such, and then singled out as a defining characteristic about me as if it’s something that deserves to be remarked upon? HALEY Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that the rest of us don’t care about the environment. I just — it’s just that you — you go out of your way to be nice to the environment. Like, most people don’t take the time to make sure to recycle properly. ELAINE Recycling’s what you associate with me? Recycling, really? HALEY I associate other things with you too. Like, I know you do theatre. (ELAINE shrugs. She is barely involved in theatre.) And you’re in three classes with me this semester. Phil, calc, writing sem. Recycling was just the first example I thought of. Don’t you also compost? You took the initiative to start composting. Not everyone does that. ELAINE I don’t go out of my way to recycle. It’s just how I go through life. It’s like taking out the trash. Recycling is so ordinary and basic and conformative. It’s just part of life in our consumerist, capitalist society. Isn’t recycling just what the petrochemical companies want us to do as we consume stuff without giving it another thought because at least it’ll get recycled? HALEY See what I mean, you actually think about things like that. ELAINE I want to actually have an impact, not go on with life as usual, when life as usual means degrading ecosystems without even noticing. I don’t need to talk you into caring about other people, Haley. But I don’t agree with you that it matters how people feel, if what they’re doing is perpetuating a way of life that is utterly destructive...to other people. (Silence.) HALEY I think it’s great that you think about how everything is connected. (Pause.) But I’ve been worried about you, Elaine. You’ve been so stressed out and so...unhappy. ELAINE Like I said, I don’t think it matters how people feel as much as what people do. How can I be happy, when every day, I’m dependent upon materials and energy that I shouldn’t be using, that I shouldn’t be needing? And I’ve been changing my consumption habits, but it’s not — I’m still not getting anywhere. HALEY I have to go study. (HALEY gets up and starts gathering her dishes.) SCENE TWO (Late October 2018. ELAINE and MARILYN are outside in a park, volunteering as waste bin monitors for the Family Picnic. They are next to waste bins clearly labeled TRASH, RECYCLING, and COMPOST and with signs depicting what and what not to throw in each bin. They wear matching green t-shirts and green hats with their university’s logo, along with disposable plastic gloves. They hold trash grabbers. A group of FAMILY PICNIC ATTENDEES is tossing out their cups, labeled with the logo of the company that HALEY works at, into the recycling without reading the signage.) MARILYN The cups go in the trash. (The rest of the FAMILY PICNIC ATTENDEES toss their cups into the recycling bin. The group leaves.) MARILYN And the cups went into the recycling. (ELAINE and MARILYN use their trash grabbers to correctly sort the compost, recycling, and trash. STRANGER 1 approaches with trash after a meal. She dumps the entire plate into the trash, and then holds an unopened plastic packet containing utensils, a napkin, and salt and pepper packets.) STRANGER 1 Can this be recycled? ELAINE Yes, the utensils can be recycled, but the napkin and the plastic bag cannot. STRANGER 1 Okay. MARILYN Yeah it can be confusing ‘cause different vendors have different rules about recycling. (STRANGER 1 is about to open the bag, take out the utensils and recycle them, and then throw away the plastic bag still containing the napkin and salt and pepper.) PRODUCTION STAFFER (From the audience.) Freeze! (Everyone on stage freezes. The PRODUCTION STAFFER goes onstage, and taps out STRANGER 1, as if playing the improv game Freeze. STRANGER 1 gives PRODUCTION STAFFER the packet and exits. PRODUCTION STAFFER takes the position of STRANGER 1 and then puts the packet in their pocket.) PRODUCTION STAFFER (Addressing the audience.) They opened the bag, took out the fork and knife and recycled it, and then threw away the plastic bag. (Referring to MARILYN and ELAINE.) They just had to watch it happen. But you don’t have to. (If you must, you may replace “we” in the following sentence with “the playwright.”) We decided that it’s not worth reenacting. (PRODUCTION STAFFER exits. MARILYN and ELAINE unfreeze.) ELAINE (To STRANGER 1, who has already walked away.) Thanks. MARILYN Such a shame, it was all unopened and unused stuff. If I had known they were gonna do that, I would have asked if I could have it...before they got their hands all over the part of the fork that you eat with... (MARILYN and ELAINE return to sorting the waste bins with their trash grabbers. HALEY enters and starts drifting past MARILYN and ELAINE. She is working at the picnic, wearing a matching hat and apron with a juice/smoothie company’s logo, and holding a tray of paper cups (the same cups that the FAMILY PICNIC ATTENDEES have been throwing away) of juice. She has been making her way through the park, handing out the free samples. She stops near MARILYN and ELAINE.) HALEY Nice hats. MARILYN Thanks, you’ve got a nice hat too. (HALEY starts walking away.) ELAINE Thanks. (HALEY exits.) MARILYN Hey, do you think you can cover this for the next few minutes? I gotta run to the bathroom. ELAINE Yeah sure. (MARILYN carefully removes her gloves and sets them down so that she can put them back on later. She exits as STRANGER 2 enters with a bunch of stuff to throw away.) STRANGER 2 Excuse me, can you show me where to put everything? ELAINE Yes, you put the food in the compost… STRANGER 2 Okay… (STRANGER 2 puts the food in the compost.) ELAINE The wrappers and napkins in the trash… STRANGER 2 Okay… (STRANGER 2 puts the wrappers and napkins in the trash.) ELAINE And it looks like everything else you have there can be recycled. Just make sure there’s no food on it. STRANGER 2 (Tapping the plate on the compost bin to knock off the remaining food before throwing it all into the recycling bin.) There we go. At home I always make sure to recycle the recyclables. ELAINE That’s great. STRANGER 2 I always recycle. (STRANGER 2 walks back towards ELAINE and looks her in the eyes.) I’m no tree hugger. I love nature as much as anyone else. I like to take care of my home planet, but I don’t like to get political about it. I’m not an environmentalist. But I do my part and make sure to sort my recyclables. ELAINE (Struggling to figure out how to respond.) Uh. STRANGER 2 I try to do my recycling right. That is the one thing I will do. ELAINE Thanks, that’s great to hear. STRANGER 2 (Turning and walking away, before turning back to ELAINE.) Have a good day. ELAINE Good day. (STRANGER 2 turns and leaves. ELAINE stands there waiting for someone else to come throw things away. We wait with her for a minute. MARILYN returns.) MARILYN (While putting on her gloves.) I’m back. What’d I miss? ELAINE Not much. There was just this one guy who made a point of saying that he always makes sure to recycle correctly. MARILYN (Grabbing a trash grabber and looking into the bins.) Sounds like more than what most of the people here do. ELAINE He made it sound like it was the only thing he did though, like that was it to doing his part to protect the planet or whatever... MARILYN You gotta start somewhere, right? ELAINE I suppose. It seemed like that was where he was ending though. MARILYN I had to start somewhere. I only started really thinking about environmental issues the summer before freshman year, when I got this job on a farm. And now I live and breathe sustainability. One could say I’m overinvolved. ELAINE How do you manage it all? MARILYN I don’t feel overinvolved. ‘Cause it’s all fun. I get to hang out with my friends and meet new people, like you, while making a difference on campus. I feel like it’s all worth it and like it’s part of who I am. (Pause.) You should come to our weekly meetings. ELAINE That might be nice. I’ve just been so stressed out lately — from feeling like the people around me don’t understand why I’m so stressed out about my impact on the environment — that I'm ready to pass out by 7 pm. MARILYN Which is when our meetings start. Well, it’s great that you signed up to volunteer for this at least. I hope you can make it to a meeting sometime. It’s a super chill group and everyone there’s interested in environmental issues. We get work done but we have fun too. You might even find it relaxing. (YVONNE enters and correctly sorts her trash, then exits.) Thanks Yvonne. ELAINE Have a great day! (Silence.) MARILYN Did you see that table where we were giving out succulents yesterday? We’re thinking about bringing it back for Earth Day, or maybe we’ll let people plant their own seeds. You know how busy people can get, so it’s nice to have fun and relaxing stuff like that to encourage people to take time to reflect on what their relationship with nature is. Let me know if you have any other ideas, I’m probably gonna be on the planning committee. (Looking around.) Do you think they’re gonna let us get our free lunch soon? SCENE THREE (Early November 2018. EVENT ATTENDEES are leaving a classroom. Some lingered around to chat so they aren’t all leaving at once. ELAINE leaves the room and starts walking down the hall of the academic building. A few seconds later, YVONNE leaves the room and catches up with ELAINE. They keep walking together, finding their way out of the building, as they talk.) YVONNE Elaine, right? ELAINE Yeah. YVONNE I’m Yvonne. I’m also a sophomore. Nice to meet you. Weren’t you at the Fall Fest Family Picnic? You were picking out the trash with Marilyn, right? ELAINE Yeah. You know Marilyn? YVONNE Yup, she’s involved in, like, everything. (Pause.) I’m just in the fossil fuel divestment group. Not just — it’s a pretty big commitment if you really want to get into it like I did. But I’m not in everything like Marilyn. I don’t think I know anyone else who signed up for everything, and then actually kept showing up for everything. ELAINE And here you are talking to someone who signed up for everything and showed up for nothing. YVONNE Well, you showed up for this talk we were just at. What did you think of it? ELAINE It was really...surprising to me to hear everyone talk. And how they were talking like how they felt was so ordinary and obvious. I didn’t exactly relate, like, I don’t stay awake at night thinking about the future of climate change, because I feel like what’s already going wrong is already enough to think about, but this...surprise support session was still really cathartic. YVONNE Surprise support session sounds right. I didn’t know we would be sitting in a circle talking about how we feel. ELAINE I thought it was going to be a lecture. YVONNE Same. It was a pleasant surprise though. I’ve never been to anything like it before. ELAINE I do sometimes feel like I’m trapped because I know things are happening, but I feel like I’m not doing enough, but I don’t know what there is to do. YVONNE Yeah that’s understandable. (Pause.) ELAINE I already turn off the lights and have a reusable bottle, I don’t eat meat. All of that makes my friends call me an environmentalist, even though it’s just how I live and anyway it’s barely doing anything. YVONNE Yup. I can relate. ELAINE I’ve been feeling alone in this — despair. And that aloneness, that feeling that something is deeply wrong but the people around me aren’t noticing it, just sends me into deeper despair. (Pause.) I feel like all my friends are sick and tired of me because I only ever rant about people’s ignorance about their impact on the environment anymore. So it was nice to hear other people vent for once. YVONNE Yeah it was cathartic. (YVONNE and ELAINE exit the building. YVONNE stops walking as soon as she can avoid blocking the doorway. ELAINE starts drifting one way.) YVONNE Which way are you going? ELAINE (Still drifting in that direction.) This way. YVONNE I’m going that way too. I’ll walk with you. (YVONNE and ELAINE walk together.) ELAINE Do you think that thinking and talking can really make a difference? I feel like it hasn’t been getting me anywhere. YVONNE Do you think that not thinking and not talking about our relationships with the environment can make a difference? ELAINE I feel like there’s not much of a difference between the results of thinking versus not thinking. But I also feel like that’s the wrong way to feel. YVONNE Elaine, don’t tell yourself that your emotions are wrong. You’ll only waste your energy feeling bad about how you feel. The question is, what are you going to do about it? ELAINE Do you feel like anything you do ever makes a difference? YVONNE And I don’t think it’s just about what you’re going to do. What you’re going to aim for is also important. Does anything I do ever make a difference? It’s complicated. Like I try to reduce my consumption, but that’s just a start. Some of the people with power in this university want us to stay there, thinking that the future of this planet is in the paper towels in our hands. ELAINE Sometimes I feel like the future of the planet is in the paper towels in our hands...Like it bothers me when I see people just, like, crank away at the dispenser and then throw the entire thing in the trash without even touching most of it... YVONNE Yeah that is annoying. But individual actions by themselves are nowhere near enough to confront the massive scale of climate change... ELAINE I know, right? YVONNE Back to your question. Most of the time I’m too deep into strategizing things like how to get the university to stop hiding behind its greenwashing to worry that I’m not doing enough. But it’s a good question, is spending so much time on the divestment movement worth it? The trustees just rejected a proposal that my friends and I spent a lot of time working on, and the way they rejected it would make you think they didn’t even read it. If you have ideas for what we’re to do now, send them our way. We’ve been educating the student body about divestment and raising public awareness. But we’ve got a lot of work to do if we want the university to take some climate action. They’re going to divest from fossil fuels sooner or later. It’s not guaranteed that it’ll happen sooner. But considering everything that’s on the line — all the people who are already getting sick or dying from the fossil fuel industry, and, like, the future of humanity — if I have to choose between sticking to tasks with measurable but measly outcomes or collaboratively and creatively disrupting the status quo to get the institutional changes we need, (YVONNE stops walking at an intersection, and so does ELAINE.) even after we’ve already tried everything and the university isn’t even listening by their own rules...I think it’s clear what I’m going to do. (Pause.) I gotta go this way. Food for thought, huh? ELAINE See you around. (YVONNE exits.) SCENE FOUR (Early December 2018. ELAINE is outside in a park walking along a tree-lined trail along a river. It is sunny and there is a breeze which rustles the trees. Silence (except for the sound of the trees in the wind) for a minute before ELAINE starts talking, at first to herself.) ELAINE All my friends and my premajor advisor tell me that I should study environmental studies, because I’m interested in “environmental” issues. “Then what about environmental science?” I say. They’re like, “oh, that’s a great major too.” Sometimes I think they’re just trying to kill two birds with one stone with that suggestion, more than actually help me discern my academic path. Like it’ll get me to stop ranting about being undecided and about how we’re all destroying the planet. The thing is, sometimes it seems like they know better than I do what it means to “care about the environment” or to have an “environmental impact.” They seem to know what they mean. But am I interested in environmental issues, or have I merely cultivated a reputation that stuck? We should be able to come to college and shed our hometown identities, right? Just because I organized a few litter cleanups and petitioned the school for water fountains that actually work made me the “environmentally conscious” girl. And I just had to mention something about it when I got to college, and — I still don’t get why the reusable bottle that I got for free during orientation is so conspicuous to some people. “Environmentally conscious” sounds like a greenwashing slogan to me. The recycling guy said that he loves this planet as much as everyone else does, but he wouldn’t get called an environmental guy. One of my friends, Haley, goes out of her way to love everyone around her. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that what I’ve been trying to do all this time? Even if we’re coming from different places as to what we mean by “caring about the environment.” It’s debatable whether our school cares about the environment. Or its students, or its neighbors, let alone everyone else on this planet. Of course that’s what they claim in their emails. But something about it makes me feel like I’m not in the right place. So does that make me a not-“environmental” person? (Silence.) ELAINE If I haven’t found my place in college yet, where can I go? (Silence.) ELAINE Maybe I don’t have to know where I’m going. Maybe I don’t have to know what I’m doing. (Silence.) ELAINE When was the last time I wandered around aimlessly outside? (Silence.) ELAINE With the trees and sunlight lulling me, reminding me that — I don’t always need to know what to do or who I am or where I’m going to be. I can just take this time and spend it and find out what I find out along the way. (Silence.) ELAINE Wherever I’m going, I can’t get there alone. All this time I thought that that was terrifying, but here and now I see that it’s beautiful. Thanks, trees. END OF PLAY