Better Plays for Better Lives: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Better plays for better lives
And with thy daring folly burn the world

Today we publish the first of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

Given the current heat in Paris, we thought it appropriate to begin with the archetypal summer play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Much of the action takes place in a wood, close to Athens. The play unfolds in a comic series of events, for the most part caused by the fairies that rule over the wood. Yes, you read that correctly: fairies. Oberon and Titania, greatest of the fairies, have had a violent disagreement. Titania has custody over an adopted child, “a lovely boy”, and Oberon is jealous. Oberon’s acts of revenge lead to some unfortunate side effects for Hermia and Lysander, young lovers who have eloped to the woods.

But it is not just the human story that is affected by the fairy war. Encountering her jealous husband, Titania describes the cosmic effects of their disagreement:

“But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, has sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs, which falling in the land
Hath every petty river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents”

In short, their dispute has led to catastrophic flooding, with “continents” here meaning “container”. Titania goes on to describe a 16th century version of climate change, “The seasons alter”, suggesting that “The spring, the summer, / The childing autumn, angry winter, change” and the planet has become confused, “the mazèd world/ By their increase now knows not which is which.” She makes it clear that the ecological disruption is their responsibility.

“And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension:
We are their parents and original.”

Climate change probably did not have the same pressing international status in the 16th century as it does today. Rather, Shakespeare’s play uses the fantasy of the woodland to imagine alternative and frightening cosmic powers, the equivalent of today’s action-packed fantasy films. 400 years later however, his fairies’ alternative seems worryingly “real”.

The 2012 OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: Consequences of Inaction warns that by 2050, under a worst-case scenario, we could see a 10% biodiversity loss; 2.3 billion more people living in water-stressed areas; and a 50% increase in GHG emissions, primarily caused by a 70% growth in CO2 emissions from energy use. By the end of the century, this would put us on track for a 3°C to 6°C average global temperature increase from pre-industrial levels.

That’s three times over the agreed-upon 2°C limit. A 6°C degree global temperature increase really would be catastrophic, and here the OECD’s language begins to sound as worried as Titania: “A temperature increase of more than 2°C would alter precipitation patterns; increase glacier and permafrost melt; drive sea-level rise; worsen the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and hurricanes; and become the greatest driver of biodiversity loss.”

Fortunately, the international community has decided to take action! No, wait, that’s not quite it. The Environmental Outlook states that the mitigation action pledges at Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) “are not enough to be on a least-cost pathway to meet the 2°C goal.” 80% of the projected emissions from the power sector in 2020 are inevitable, as they will come from existing power plants or plants being built today.

By now, perhaps you are feeling as helpless as the lovely boy. Titania and Oberon overlook the actual desires and needs of the child, who does not utter a single line throughout the play. Symbolic of future life, he is marginalised by the present argument. But maybe there is hope for today’s boys and girls. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has set a “Sustainable Energy for All” objective by 2030. This will require a dramatic increase in annual investment in sustainable energy infrastructure. The OECD is working on a Policy guidance for investment in clean energy infrastructure, wherein you will learn that, “Clean energy technologies have displayed exceptionally favourable learning curves over the last decade.” Let’s just hope the humans show equal learning aptitude.


If you tend to be more like the play’s Duke Theseus and do not believe in climate change or its effects per se, “I never may believe these antic fables, nor these fairy toys”, then we solemnly bow out:

“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended
That you have but slumbered here
Whilst these visions did appear.”

Useful links

OECD work on climate change

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Has one comment to “Better Plays for Better Lives: A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

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  1. amita paul - 18/12/2013 Reply

    A brave attempt to marry business and politics with literature – we need more of this for the future.

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