Duncan Macmillan's, Lungs, invites the audience into the life of a young couple debating the, often unspoken, environmental impacts of conceiving a child.

Lungs: Plot Summary

This is an image that is often shown when advertising a performance of Macmillan's Lungs.

Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs follows the relationship between a man and a woman attempting to get pregnant while considering the environmental impacts of birth. The two characters in this play are referred to as W and M. They speak in short, choppy sentences and are often interrupting each other. The biggest disconnect in their relationship is their unwillingness to share how they are actually feeling. While they claim to be in love, their communication skills are weak which ultimately causes them to break up, before an unlikely reunion.

            The play opens with M and W in an Ikea, and M unexpectedly suggests they have a baby. This proposition scares W, and the couple leaves without purchasing anything they intended which is the first hint at the couple’s inability to commit.

M and W spend time talking about the carbon footprint that accompanies having a child. It is said that the carbon emission from one child weighs as much as the Eiffel tower.

They go back and forth arguing about the logistics of having a child and whether or not it is environmentally responsible due to the worlds overpopulation.

            The main ecological issue within this narrative is the ethics behind the decision to conceive a child. While many people ignore this aspect of parenting, M and W stress the carbon footprint and overpopulation that coincides with creating a family. M and W discuss these downfalls throughout the play, which outlines an ecological theme of the consequence’s raising a child has on our planet. 

            After conceiving and miscarrying a child, it is inferred by the text that the couple broke up for a period of time. While W had not so much as even kissed another man during this time, M has had more than two sexual partners and has found himself a fiancée who he loves very much. M’s love for his fiancée was not strong enough to keep M and W from having an affair. This one-time affair ultimately ends in W’s pregnancy. M tells his fiancée the news and his fiancée backs out of the engagement. M then goes straight to W and tells her he loves her, wants to marry her, and wants to have the child. This contradicts the beginning of the play when W wanted to get married and M did not. While W is initially hesitant, she agrees to trying the relationship again. The play culminates in W giving birth to a boy with M by her side in the hospital room.

This is an example of how this play is performed live: on a blank stage, with no props and no costumes.

Unrecognized Consequences

Macmillan’s Lungs illuminates ways in which our society can become more environmentally conscious and reduce our carbon footprint. The constant conversation between M and W sheds light on consequences many people do not consider when deciding to conceive a child. While the theme of this play revolves around over population and depleting resources, the production itself promotes environmental awareness through the minimal resources the set requires.  

I want to analyze Lungs through several lenses. Ian Garrett’s “Theatrical Production’s Carbon Footprint” sheds light on the environmental impacts theatrical productions cause. For example, with the rising epidemic of climate change, carbon footprints, and pollution, Garret writes,

“Theatre artists, like all other members of contemporary society, have an opportunity to reconsider how we do what we do. This opportunity is not merely a question of reducing our carbon footprint, but is necessary for theatre to be a contemporary and relevant form of art” (Garrett, 201).

Throughout Lungs, M and W are grappling with the idea of having a child, while considering the effects conception would have on our planet. Since this play revolves so heavily around carbon footprints, it is important to consider the carbon footprint of the production itself. The message of this production is to be conscious and responsible. I want to point out the stage directions mentioned in the introduction because they correlate with the theme of the play. Macmillan clarifies that when Lungs is performed it is “to be performed on a bare stage. There is no scenery, no furniture, no props, and no mime” (Macmillan, location 58/1078). Garrett illuminates the ecological strains costume and set designers must endure when creating a production. Macmillan avoids these specific environmental impacts by entirely removing sets, costumes, and props. While it should be acknowledged that ticket sales and programs will contribute to waste, this aspect is minor compared to the environmental cost of other productions. I wanted to explain these specificities so the audience understands that not only is the play advocating for environmental responsibility but they are exemplifying it through the minimalistic production style.

As I previously mentioned, M and W are constantly bickering while weighing the downfalls of having a child. A specific instance that should be focused on occurs in the beginning of the play which sets up the rest of their conversations regarding conception. When M initially suggest they have a child, W has a dramatic reaction and is unable to respond. This reaction causes confusion for the audience because at this point in the play, we do not know the reasons the couple is hesitant. Then W mentions,

“they say, don’t they, that if you really care about the planet, if you really care about the future of mankind then don’t have children…because there’s, what, there’s seven billion people or so, there’s too many people and there’s not enough of everything so really the right thing to do, the ethical thing to do is to not contribute to that” (Macmillan, location 187/1078).

This is the first instance that W explains her hesitation regarding having a child with M. This singular quote sets up the themes and ideas of the rest of the production for the audience. At this point as readers, we know what to expect, what we will learn, and why we should care.

Examples of Lung Productions

I will be focusing on the production of Lungs that was directed by Aaron Posner at Studio Theatre during 2011-2012. In order to emphasize my previous point about Macmillan stating that this play should be performed on a blank stage, I wanted to provide examples in which these stage directions were followed. Eliminating props, costumes, and sets from a production inevitably reduces the carbon footprint of the show. Energy, shipping, and materials generally used during production results in a lot of waste once the production has ended, a consequence Macmillan avoids. Below are photos of the production performed at Studio Theatre proving that directors follow Macmillan's directions by eliminating excess stage clutter.

Explanations and Solutions Not Explained in Lungs

As previously mentioned, Lungs revolves around ecological concerns such as over population and the depletion of our planet’s resources due to each person’s carbon footprint. I want to offer background information that the audience should be aware of before watching this production. The understanding of overpopulation and climate change is central to the understanding of Macmillan’s play as a whole.

             An article on NPR outlines a speech made at James Madison University by Travis Rieder. This talk projects the harms of reproduction, harms that M and W cannot ignore. Rieder states that by the end of the century, the climate will rise four degrees Celsius making our planet largely uninhabitable.

“The climate crisis is a reproductive crisis” (Ludden).

Our society celebrates pregnancy and large families by throwing baby showers and encouraging kids to produce grandkids. The mindset that we are so used to teaches us that large families are ok and that all the benefits of pregnancy and children outweigh the negatives. Rieder spoke out to a group of college students to explain how this assumption is dangerously mistaken. Jennifer Ludden states, “the world is expected to add several billion people in the next few decades, each one producing more emissions” (Ludden). This consequence often slips by unacknowledged, but M and W are constantly weighing the downsides. Philosophers and scientists who study climate change agree that the best way to protect our children is to stop having them. Future generations will grow up in a world that is drastically different and more dangerous than the current one we inhabit. Regardless of how much parents conserve or plan to conserve with each additional child, the effect is still much greater than having fewer children or no children at all, and that is simple.              

             Overpopulation does not have an easy solution. However, it does have extremely harmful effects on our planet. To name a few, overpopulation causes degradation of resources, wars, high cost of living, and a rise in unemployment rates. There are several things we can work towards in attempt to minimize the gap between birth and death rates. For example, better education would lead to better family planning. Better education would also teach people about safe sex and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies, which would dramatically lower the birth rate. Lastly, governments could offer tax cuts or concessions to families with zero, one, or two children which would reward families for responsible planning and environmental awareness.

            While it does not seem plausible for overpopulation to drastically diminish in the near future, Lungs is merely taking a small step towards educating its audience on the harmful effects of overpopulation. M and W spend their time on stage debating the environmental impacts of a child, which brings new ideas and concerns to the production’s audience. While many people do not consider the ecological concerns of conception, it is an issue that is on the rise and one that needs to be noticed and talked about.

Work Cited: Media

Blau, Christine. “How To Clean The Eiffel Tower.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 5 May 2017, www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/europe/france/behind-the….
“Lungs.” Ticket Flap, Ticketflap, 12AD, www.ticketflap.com/lungs.
Barrington Stage. “Lungs.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 May 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2hAmvhX42M.
Robson, Montana. “Logos for Overpopulation.” Pinterest, Pinterest, www.pinterest.com/pin/515802963553335971/?autologin=true.
Motoramo, Lynly. “Causes, Effects, and Possible Solutions for Overpopulation.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 July 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkdCklBc0gE.
Kruse, Michael. “Global Birth and Death Rates.” KruseKronicle, July 2008, www.krusekronicle.com/kruse_kronicle/2008/07/wsi-demographic-transition….

Work Cited: Information

Garrett, Ian. “Theatrical Production's Carbon Footprint.” Readings in Performance and Ecology, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 201–209.
Ludden, Jennifer. “Should We Be Having Kids In The Age Of Climate Change?” NPR, NPR, 18 Aug. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/08/18/479349760/should-we-be-having-kids-in-the-age-of….
Macmillan, Duncan. Lungs. Oberon Books, 2015.
Studio Theatre. “Lungs.” Studio Theatre - Play Detail, Studio Theatre, 2011, www.studiotheatre.org/plays/play-detail/lungs.