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’.
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.
- What does 0.4m sea level rise mean? And when might that happen?
- 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.