Category Archives: Politics & Economics

Climate Science & Climate Change Poetry

Thwaites Glacier – West Antarctica, 28th Dec. 2019 – NASA Earth Observatory

Tomorrow night – 11th February 2020 – sees the inaugural event in STEM Poets programme of workshops and readings aimed at developing a coherent and effective body of poetry and other writing which can engage with and influence the outcomes of the ongoing Climate Emergency.

STEM Poets as a group was initiated by Eveline Pye in 2019 engaging a range of poets with a background, or special interest in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics. They support STEAM, a global initiative to introduce the arts within STEM education in order to encourage creativity and break down barriers between the arts and sciences. STEM poets believe it is important that readers are presented with factually correct and truthful STEM knowledge in works of imagination, specifically poems and short fiction, and wish to promote informed writing on climate change. They want to encourage more people to write about STEM subjects and will offer support and review of STEM content.  I am very pleased to count myself as one of their number.

Tomorrow night’s event will involve a discussion between Eveline and Colin Will, exploring some of the ideas and issues around Climate Change poetry, many of which have been outlined in Eveline’s recent essay published by Glasgow Review of Books.

The issues around STEM poetry and climate are, at even a cursory exploration, complex and fascinating.  How is the complexity of biophysical processes communicated clearly and coherently in ‘verse’ – as opposed to their natural vernacular of algebra and algorithms?  How do we as poets and scientists avoid bowdlerising reality in order to get an essentially political point across?

Eveline’s essay explores guidance of ‘effective communication’ on Climate Change from a number of government and academic sources which, in summary, propose that effective climate change poetry ‘should’:

i) be clear, relevant and coherent avoiding references which are unlikely to be understood by the general public;

ii) not rely on evoking fear either for the reader or the next generation but should evoke positive emotions which support people’s internal sense of agency – the feeling that their actions are meaningful;

iii) not be overly strident as this increases the likelihood that the message will be discounted or ignored, and should avoid highlighting the difference between the reader’s attitude and actions since this is more likely to change their attitude than their actions;

iv) focus on past loss and the restoration of what has been lost, near-term benefits and opportunities to avoid future losses rather than apocalyptic scenarios;

v) help overcome negative associations and poverty attributions associated with actions we want to encourage such as buying second-hand furniture and clothes, drinking tap water and using public transport.

Talk about squaring the circle!

Having been active and interested in this area over the last decade, I find these criteria challenging in the extreme in the context of a single poem or even collection.

How to express the complexity – and often counter-intuitive nature – of processes avoiding references ‘unlikely to be understood’?

How to avoid frightening or shaming individuals into apathy or denial?

How to avoid advocacy in a literature which is, no matter your perspective – whether a denier, a mitigator or an adaptor –  partial and political?

And how to present positive inducements in a situation which, ‘scientifically’, seems to forecast few upsides for human societies or the majority of other critters currently on the planet?

In this context, this project does not need individual poets but a community of poets – with diverse (precise but necessarily limited) STEM knowledge and a range of  political and aesthetic perspectives on this process.  There are those who see rewilding as a ‘good’…others, perhaps, the preservation of a material ‘civilisation’ (for some) at great cost to other creatures and fellow-human beings.  Some, in workshops and discussions, have been sanguine and of the view that a world without people would be a ‘good thing’…bring on the next mass extinction!  Let us start again.  The planet will recover…and it will (whatever that means?). (And who are ‘we’ in that ambition?)

All of the above are essentially political perspectives – not scientific – and should be expressed and explored clearly and coherently in an accessible literature – doing what poetry and fiction do best – exploring alternative personal perspectives and trajectories – but staying close to the topic.  That the climate IS changing and will have many complex ramifications for all living things and their social connection.

One of the areas I am working on, at the moment, concerns the Thwaites Glacier, part of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf which extends ‘into’ the Amundsen Sea.  Thwaites Glacier is melting AND calving at an accelerating pace due to complex hydrological and physical processes which, though perfectly ‘logical’ confound the simple notion that ‘ice melts’. 

https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146247/thwaites-glacier-transformed

Essentially, studies suggest, warm water (well… 1.5 degC) is being hosed towards the grounding line of the ice shelf by canyons in the seabed (themselves relics of earlier glaciation).  The warm water (Circumpolar Deep Water), which ‘flows’ out of the Northern hemisphere, undercuts and destabilises the ice, which is NOT floating but grounded on the sea bed hundreds, sometimes thousands of metres down.  Melting from below and subject to bending stresses it calves, releasing fragments to the open ocean which float north (and melt).

So…make a poem out of that (working on it!)  The episode highlights the gap between school-child physics (ice melts at 0 degC in some slow dripping process – like an ice-cube in a glass – as the global temperature inches up through 1.5 degC to 3 degC above pre-industrial levels) and the complexity of geophysical processes in the ‘real world’.  In fact, local geophysical processes are directing jets of warm water at the grounding line and the thinning ice is collapsing.  Think of a high-powered water jet rather than dripping meltwater.

It is estimated that Thwaites Glacier could account for 0.4m of mean sea-level rise.

So,

  1. What does 0.4m sea level rise mean?  And when might that happen?
  2. How do I have agency in addressing this issue – reduce my GHG footprint? Throw up sea-defences? Both?

Does the poet addresses the consequences or the process – a nostalgic grieving over things I’ve never seen or experienced but are about to be ‘lost’?

I am drawn back to one of my creative touch-stones in this, advice attributed to the Chinese Song Dynasty poet and scholar, Wei T’ai.

‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling. ‘

I am very much looking forward to tomorrow night’s event at the CCA in Glasgow and an ongoing collaboration with fellow writers and artists in this vital area.  Hope to see you there.

Capital:On Growth and its Discontents

In Capital, Thomas Piketty argues, based on analysis of available historical records, that global growth rates prior to the 18th Century CE were probably in the order of 0%-0.2% GDP per annum. Between 1700 and 2012, he calculates, global growth rates were, on average, 0.8% GDP with significantly higher rates (up to 3.5%) in the middle of the 20th Century.

Picketty argues that a growth rate in the order of 1% ‘implies major social change’ since material circumstances – and therewith power and property relations – shift dramatically from generation to generation at these rates of growth.

He, moreover, argues that the spectacularly high growth rates of the 20th century are associated with two phenomena – the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed in the two world wars and the technological catch-up of formerly colonised areas previously asset stripped for resources (agricultural products, minerals, slave labour). He questions, with I think good reason,that such growth can be sustained outwith periods of regeneration and with a level technological playing field.

Given his focus on income and wealth, he is less engaged, I think, with the enormous injection of ‘low cost’ energy which fossil fuel exploitation enabled this growth, the ultimate ecological costs of which have never been incorporated into the ‘pricing model’. We have grown ‘wealthy’ by accumulating debts, not to banks or sovereign funds, but to future generations and vulnerable populations – debts which, given our mortality, cannot be foreclosed on and on which we will probably default.

Piketty fractionates growth into two components – population growth and productivity growth. The material and technological benefits of the latter enable the former. For a while, in the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more of us produced faster and faster. As a consequence, each generation lived in a different world, with different expectations, from that of their parents. Coal, oil and gas drove massive social change and the dominant market mechanism, capitalism, required constant innovation and repackaging to attract the interest and appetite of each succeeding generation. Instability and change is the essence of modernity and was fuelled almost exclusively by burning fossil hydrocarbons which cannot be renewed in ‘human’ timescales.

I was interested, reading John Berger’s essays on Durer, Caravaggio and others in Portraits, to reflect the shifts in emphasis in European art in the early modern period just preceding the take-off in growth rates. Artists like Durer and Michelangelo looked backwards to the world of their fathers or to classical ideals – were mannerist and idealist – modelling the present on the past whilst incorporating technological and craft development (including a burgeoning self-awareness) into their practice.

Later or more Northern (proto-capitalist?) artists focus on the real person and his or her material possessions – Caravaggio’s Madonna del Palafreniere really is/ is really Maddalena di Paolo Antognetti in contemporary (17th century) clothes, Mrs. Arnolfini’s green woollen dress is state-of-the-art and Willem Claesz. Heda’s ondbijtjes are straight from the kitchen the night before – it’s now stuff, it’s new stuff – and from there it picks up the pace.

Art and ideas about individual autonomy and material prosperity (and their associated political institutions) in Europe precede the invention of the steam engine, maybe inform the desire to build such a device which decouples the proprietor from the vagaries of climate, location, weather – but it is not until we start burning coal on an industrial scale that the inter-generational upheaval which we call ‘growth’ takes off.

Still – we are here today. We know what we know. We have created what we have created, discovered what we have discovered, dug up (and burned or smelted) what we have dug up. Murdered, maimed, exploited and enslaved. We are where we are. It is what it is. Unjust. Unfair. Unwise.

Sometimes we have thought it magnificent (sometimes I have) – though perhaps that is no more than youthful boastfulness after an outrageous party. “Man, I was SO drunk last night! We trashed the place!”

There are issues, for me, of climate justice, of inter-generational justice, of personal responsibility – all of which, understandably, I’d like to avoid if I could. Who wouldn’t…faced with the scale of the problem, faced with the magnitude of the debts and the ease with which some can evade our creditors?

Art and economics. Sustainability.

I make marks. I have a sense that I should be doing more to sustain us. I desperately want to type ‘we’ rather than ‘I’…’we should be doing more’…but I have no right to. And more to the point I am not sure who/what ‘us’ is in the sentence – mark-making creatures, the conversation, the human race, life on earth? The cockroaches will outlive us here no matter what. I have no desire to live on Mars (or for my grandchildren to)…so it must be something to do with the conversation here on earth, which includes, in the marks, in the notation: all of us, cockroaches, unicorns, the duck-billed platypus, the great auk. As science elucidates the probable physical but not the cultural or ecological effects of the fossil-fuel bubble, I have ceased to believe the conversation can be sustained with growth rates in excess of 1%. The ecological damage is too great, the inter-generational churn too excessive. We need to slow down, stop changing so fast, growing so fast. Just be. And the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground.

Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK Labour Party, penned an article for a recent London Review of Books (Vol. 38, No.3). He too quoted Piketty, and a number of other sources, to argue that increasing inequality – the economic dynamic, ongoing since 1980, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get progressively poorer – is not only ‘unfair’ (which he correctly says is a bad thing) but that it is also ‘bad for growth’ This is a short-sighted political argument pandering, still, to what is believed to be acceptable to the ‘electorate’. It is a junkie’s argument.

In the individualistic culture which has cascaded (rather than evolved) through the inter-generational chaos of the last 300 years, it is hard to say unfair is ‘unfair’. ‘Life isn’t fair’ – etcetera, etcetera. But, unless community, cohesion, fairness, collective and inter-generational responsibility dominates the discourse, the mechanics of growth will tear us apart, atomise us, first socially and then, perhaps, physically.

The question is – therefore – what marks will best sustain ‘us’?