Oct. 3, 1:30 p.m., East Plaza: a few dozen students dressed in black are silently laying on the ground in the burning UAE sun.

We died. What Comes Next?

Watch our video on the Die-In performance that highlighted looming environmental catastrophe, and read about how it can only be considered effective if it galvanises us towards political action.

*Video by Ilona Szekeres* *and cover image by Saleh Alhalabi*
Oct. 3, 1:30 p.m., East Plaza: a few dozen students dressed in black are silently laying on the ground in the burning UAE sun.
The goal of art is often to unveil what is hidden, as well as shock the audience and make them reflect on the subject matter. Performed in the context of the climate crisis — perhaps the most catastrophic challenge humanity has ever faced — this die-in performance was nothing less than a pressing call to action. But in a world where the scale of voluntary individual action will never be enough to combat the looming threat to our planet, our efforts will be only a partial success if they do not make you rethink your political commitments.
“Die-ins” are a form of performance where participants simulate being dead. Over the years, it has been used by different groups to advocate for their causes, but recently it has been associated mainly with the environmental movement. Among the most well known die-ins are those staged by the United Kingdom-based climate activist group Extinction Rebellion in London and by their supporters around the globe.
Drawing on their actions as a source of inspiration, a group of NYU Abu Dhabi students organized an interactive artistic performance. It started inside the East Dining Hall with the recitation of a poem written by Giovanna Monteiro, Class of 2022. It addressed the urgency of the climate crisis and the actions required to save our planet. As the performance went on, diners were compelled to join the audience that formed near the entrance. At the end of the poem, the performers called on everyone to move to the plaza and lie down for 11 minutes.
These 11 minutes spent laying on the ground in silence were meant to represent the 11 years we have left before an increase in temperatures exceeds 1.5 degrees celsius, and our climate enters an unstoppable and self-reinforcing warming cycle. These numbers are alarming because they mean that in just a few decades, the rising sea level will submerge major cities and huge chunks of our planet will become inhabitable.
Often, when we see initiatives like the die-in, the first question that may pop up in some of our heads may be, “What could I and should I do about it?”. Guilt, mixed with optimism about the impact of our actions, might make us commit to going green in our everyday life. From going vegetarian, to switching to paperless meetings, to becoming zero waste, there is a lot one can do to decrease their environmental footprint. However, our commitment to fighting climate change must not end there because individual action at the scale compelled by performances such as die-ins simply isn’t enough.
In 2018, humanity emitted a staggering 33.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases. If one is thinking of action, the three most impactful ways to decrease our carbon footprint are going car-free, following a plant-based diet and avoiding flights. For an average American, these actions could help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 31 percent. Unfortunately, it is naïve to believe that the majority of people will commit to changes like these, even after performative actions, such as die-ins. For example, a recent poll shows that only eight percent of Americans follow a plant-based diet. Given the scale of the problem, this number just isn’t enough.
Given this reality, those of us who do care and those of us who are compelled to action by events such as the die-ins need to realize that the real battle we need to fight is political. The goal is to persuade and support leaders to enact laws and regulations by direct government intervention. In the case of the climate crisis, it could be calling for introducing a carbon tax or lobbying for an increase in the size of protected forests. Encouraging the kind of political action that demands these changes is of utmost importance in an institution like NYUAD, where students come from many different corners of the world and are likely to go on to take leadership positions in their respective communities and countries.
Of course, the options and need for political engagement differ from country to country. If you live in a democracy, voting for a party that has a clear environmental agenda is the least you can do. Some countries are lucky to have visionary leaders and activism should then focus on raising support for those leaders’ climate reforms. More often though, the agendas of the leaders are not so benign, and what is needed is public pressure and lobbying.
Regardless of the options available to you, it is important to make a commitment to political change in order to fight climate change. Only then will the die-in really have been successful.
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