Pleased to be reading as part of the STEM group of poets in the great company of Eveline Pye, Colin Will, Mandy Haggith, Elizabeth Rimmer, Chris Powici, Leela Soma, Lesley Traynor, Gill Ian and Joe Murray.
The first in a programme of events exploring the beneficial links between poetry and the sciences especially in the context of the current climate emergency.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
In a previous post, A New Realism about the Anthropocene, I reflected on recent scientific and academic speculation on the inception date of the Anthropocene – the period of our planet’s history which is visibly dominated and effected by human social practices such as
• selective breeding and species elimination,
• trans-oceanic migration,
• the release of synthetic compounds and man-made (transuranic) elements.
Some might view this characterisation of what might conventionally be called agriculture, manufacturing, travel – civilisation, progress – as unduly critical and damning. We have burgeoned haven’t we? We thrive. We have created complex social structures within which most of us live longer and less stressful lives that our remote ancestors. For the majority of us more of our children live and live longer, reproduce in turn. This is what life does after all. It reproduces itself. It persists.
It could be argued that we have transcended the ‘natural’ barriers to growth – the limitations of terrain, of topographic obstacles, of seasonal patterns. Our ingenuity has enabled us to cover the earth, colonise every advantageous niche, eliminate competitors and biological threats. Why, in the debate around the Anthropocene, should there be a tone of dread and pessimism?
Perhaps it is that the limitations that we now conceive and have the scientific tools to interpret and imagine not biological but physical. Climate. Toxicity. And that the breakdown of temporal and spatial barriers our ingenuity has realised may result in a rate of change in these factors which is likely to be unprecedented in human history.
I have exchanged with sceptics who insist, of course, it’s all a con – it’s all about the sun and nothing we can do…a comforting fatalism diluted with a dash of Micawberism (something will turn up). This wilful irresponsibility, often revealing a fundamental lack of understanding of the difference between energy and heat, ignores the fact that, even if it’s not our fault, we are the only species in any position to address the issue…and if we don’t, in either case, it is we who will suffer.
Of course, the biosphere will respond – some species by dying out, others by multiplying. Productive land will become arid. Dry land will be submerged. Storms will intensify. Plants will not be pollinated. Harvests fail. Patterns will be disrupted.
I believe the human species will survive – among others.
The question which I believe is unique to us is – how? In what social form? And in what numbers? We count. It’s is one of our foibles.
Dystopias in art are comforting. More comfortable, perhaps, than Utopias to which we don’t feel quite adequate. Better a final reckoning then – apocalyptic and definitive – or the thrill of sordid and heroic ‘post-apocalyptic’ struggle – a new Dark Age of zombies, brigands, tyrants. We came through the Dark Ages didn’t we? So Dark Ages are survivable. That’s known.
Well yes….and a lot of people died.
Survivalism is romantic escapism. Individualistic. Mock-heroic. It ignores kith and kin, that which is precious to us in our social fabric. It ignores our humanity.
In contrast to the comforting wallow of fatalism and machismo, others attempt to imagine a ‘sustainable’ world beyond ‘our’ civilisation. A world in which we have come to terms with the pathological aspects of our behaviour – the uncontained appetite for meat, speed, distance, things – a world which recognises limits – boundaries – and the vital productivity of edges where cultures and ecosystems abut, overlap, intermingle.
Some, like Paul Kingsnorth in his recent book ‘Beast’ and Em Strang in her stunning poem ‘Stone’ seem to exhort us to reconnect with the animal in us – the panther, the horse – creatures which flow with and through ‘the natural world’ channelled by its barriers and limitations – hedgerows, rills, its seasons. These texts portray solitary human protagonists who have, to some extent, stepped free of kith, are finding a new way to be in straightened circumstances and closer to an animal simplicity.
I suspect most of us will find ourselves in ‘straightened circumstances’ in the decades to come and there may be a need for greater self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-discipline. But we are human. Our humanity is as natural as any pantherness or equine nature (horses themselves an artefact of human interventions). Our humanity is social. Communitarian. Linguistic.
What persists over the longue duree is not technology or social organisation but stories, music, dancing, systems of belief, cooking, painting, carvings, trade routes, pathways – things we share. In imagining the Late Anthropocene, I believe we must imagine a social world, perhaps a world defined by the re-instatement of boundaries, a mosaic of social and ecological experiments but a world in which the protagonists are human and animal – not zombies, not orcs – social not solitary – and where the challenges are to eat, to love, to reproduce, to trade, to sing, to celebrate. Life as normal in an abnormal world – for us – the world beyond the bump. I offer up that challenge.