The Climate Change + Poetry series begins this Thursday with a reading from Robert Hass & Brenda Hillman and continues through the spring. As part of our effort to pose questions about poetry, language, and our role in combatting climate change, we will also feature blog posts where we pose some of those questions to climate scientists. Today's post features geographer and poet Eric Magrane.
Poetry Center: What do you want people to know about climate change right now?
Eric Magrane: Climate change is not something that will happen in the future. It is here right now and it is primarily human-caused. We know this. It is not a debate in the scientific community. We know, as well, that different regions are already seeing—and will continue to see—different effects of climate change. For example, here in the Southwest we can expect continued increases in wildfire and drought. We can expect to see more volatile weather patterns in many places. Accordingly, it’s useful to think about climate change in the plural, as climate changes.
Thinking about climate changes in the plural is also helpful in examining the different narratives, or frames, of climate change. One that people tend to gravitate towards is thinking about climate change as an existential and apocalyptic threat to life on earth. There is, of course, some truth to this. Another way to think about climate change, however, is to imagine it as an opportunity for radical change in the way we do business here on Earth: a way to reset, reimagine, and resituate how we organize ourselves in relation to the various materialities of the world, and particularly our relationship with the materialities of fossil fuels. It is a social justice issue. It is a wake-up call and a moral issue.
PC: Many may not immediately associate the study of geography with climate change, which is so often talked about in terms of the weather. Can you speak to these intersections and why they’re important?
EM: Geography bridges the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Broadly, it is the study of interactions between humans and the environment. Current changes in climate are largely about feedback loops in human and natural systems, so geography gives us many ways to think about climate changes, and to think about the intertwining of socio-ecological systems. There are also many geographers who work on connecting climate science with policy and decision-making.
One of the terms associated with climate change is the Anthropocene, a term that references the idea that we’re in a new geologic epoch in which humans have literally written ourselves into the strata and atmosphere of the earth. While the geologists haven’t yet officially declared that we’re out of the Holocene and into the Anthropocene, geographers have thought about this idea of the Anthropocene for a long time, well before the geologic epoch was proposed through this term.
Physical science helps us to understand the current and projected effects of climate change. But it doesn’t, ultimately, get at the heart of the issue of climate change, which is a social issue. And when we say that climate change is human-caused, the term “human” itself is a kind of glossing over. It might be more accurate to say that climate change is a symptom of our current economic system or of rampant consumerism. Or it might be more accurate to say that it is a symptom of continual colonial and patriarchal systems that are built on profit and growth at all cost, a system that preserves power of a few but that does extreme violence to many bodies, both human and nonhuman. What if instead of building our systems based on this kind of ideology, we built our systems based on cooperative principles—with each other, and with the materialities of the earth. What would that look like? All this is to say that geography, in its bridging of both physical science and social science, including social theory, gives us many ways to think about these questions.
PC: What role do you think poetry (or more generally, language) has in the education about and fight against climate change?
Another way to think about climate change is as a crisis of the imagination, and this is particularly where poetry can play a role. Poetry can speak to peoples’ hearts as well as their minds. Have you heard this word, solastalgia? It’s a new term that describes something of the grief and distress associated with environmental change. Poetry can be an act of grieving—for disappearing species and landscapes, for the impoverished world that we will leave our children and grandchildren if we continue on the current path – but poetry can also can be a way to imagine other ways forward.
How can we imagine and enact alternative futures? I think about poetry as a form of renewable energy. Lately, I find myself going back to Shelley’s famous claim in “A Defense of Poetry” that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The current moment definitely has some legislative poetic work needed! As a great inspiration for this kind of work, I think about Marshall Islander poet and climate activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. Look up the video of her performing a poem to the UN General Assembly.
At the beginning of the Climate Change & Poetry class that I taught at the Poetry Center last fall, one of the questions I asked students in a short survey was “In your own words, what is climate change?” One of the responses was: “a humanly caused change in the climate’s temperature—overall a rise of several degrees caused primarily by an increasing amount of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, which has consequences for all life’s creatures.” This response reflected a strong knowledge of the physical aspects of climate change. After the class, that same student answered: “Something that is coming, that is both complicated and simple, that is overwhelmingly moral, that is disastrous yet not without hope in that it challenges us to be imaginative in its wake.” To me, I think that that second response really gets at the role of poetry and language and imagination in regards to climate change.
PC: What can people do/what do you do to combat climate change?
EM: This fall I’m teaching “Introduction to Sustainable Development” at the UA and this is a question that I continually go back to in the class. And really, there are so many things that we can do. Pay attention to where your food comes from. Pay attention to where your water comes from. Get involved with local environmental organizations; for example, here in Tucson, sign up for a Watershed Management Group (WMG) workshop. Vote for candidates who take climate change seriously. Advocate for climate-friendly policies that prioritize public transportation, conservation, and renewable energy. In Arizona, the public overwhelmingly supports action on climate change: A survey jointly conducted by UA’s Institute of the Environment and Stanford a couple of years ago found that ¾ of Arizonans believe that the state and the national governments should do something about climate change. If you’re inclined toward activism, there’s a lot of work to be done on climate justice. If you haven’t heard of the protectors at Standing Rock and their struggle against an oil pipeline, look them up. If you’re a poet or artist, use your creative work to get involved with environmental issues. Here on campus, the Institute of the Environment’s Art & Environment Network is a great resource for that. Think at both the macro and the micro level. Here in Tucson, plant a fruit tree, water it with greywater from your washing machine, and share the fruit with your neighbors.
Eric Magrane is a geographer and poet. He is the coeditor of The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide (University of Arizona Press, 2016). Other academic and creative works have recently appeared in GeoHumanities, Ecotone, ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, AAG Review of Books, and elsewhere.
Magrane is a PhD candidate in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona, where he researches the geographies of art-science and art-environment, and the role that environmental narratives play in shaping how environmental issues are understood and approached. He is particularly interested in arts and humanities approaches to climate change. He currently teaches environmental studies and sustainable development at the University of Arizona.
In the fall of 2015, Magrane designed and taught a community course on Climate Change & Poetry—among the first of its kind anywhere—for the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
Image credit: Thomas McDonald