In this guest post Zoë Brigley, co-editor of landmark anthology 100 Poems to Save the Earth, looks at ecojustice – what it is, why it’s important – and talks about its place within the anthology and in poetry more widely.
Our climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. 100 Poems to Save the Earth invites us to fine-tune our senses, to listen to the world around us, pay attention to what we have been missing. The defining crisis of our time is revealed to be fundamentally a crisis of perception. For too long, the earth has been exploited. With its incisive Foreword from editors Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans, this landmark anthology is a call to action to fight the threat facing the only planet we have.
What is Ecojustice?
After recently publishing 100 Poems to Save the Earth with Kristian Evans, I received many questions about ecojustice. With resolutions for the new year being made, this felt like a good time to talk about why ecojustice is important, and to spotlight some of the poets from the anthology.
In basic terms, ecojustice links ecological movements to global social justice movements, a move which is necessary because sometimes environmental movements have been coopted by groups with racist or bigoted agendas. (See this article in The Guardian by Jeff Sparrow on eco-fascism). Ecojustice refuses environmental narratives based on restricting or blaming people with fewer privileges, but instead listens to the voices of social justice activists. Very often, groups with fewer privileges experience most acutely the deprivations and hardships caused by climate crisis. Environmental changes are already horribly real for populations in the Global South. There are also, however, more direct connections between the active oppression of groups with fewer privileges and environmental exploitation.
Earlier this year, I spoke to scientist Kerry Ard about economic inequality and pollution, and how certain neighborhoods in American cities (often inhabited by low-income people, often of the global majority) are sidelined when it comes to their needs for clean air and unpolluted water. The obvious example is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan – I strongly recommend the documentary Flint: Voices from a Poisoned City by Elise Conklin. Or you could take for example the oil pipelines in the US that damage Native communities environmentally but also in terms of rising sexual violence against Native women. Here’s an interesting article too that explains the links between #BLM, racial justice and climate justice.
So social justice and climate justice are not two separate projects, and according to Raisa Foster and Rebecca A. Martusewicz, ‘Environmental and social impoverishment can be traced to the same deeply embedded cultural ways of thinking and being that our industrialized systems use and are created from’. Foster and Martusewicz hint at something that many writers have emphasized – see Wendy Wheeler in A New Modernity (1999). The Baconian, empirical worldview dominating Western thinking has also caused deep, intractable problems.
Foster and Martusewicz describe how dualism in ‘Western industrial society’ has dictated ‘where we locate value’ and ‘what we learn to identify as inherently inferior or superior’. They conclude: ‘Social and ecological violence is born in and maintained by this fundamentally violent hierarchical structure: culture–nature, mind–body, reason–emotion, man–woman, and civilized–savage’. Thinking in the context of Latin America – a contested site of some of the most biodiverse areas in the world, Verónica Schild suggests that dualistic thinking is inherent in a capitalist society, as capitalism seeks to extract value from sites of nature as well as poor women, both of which exist on the other side of a constructed binary. She also notes that many indigenous activists have already made the connection between the capitalist shaping of nature and the shaping of women’s lives. Although our anthology was mainly focused on writers from the UK and Ireland, we did give a flavour of writing from around the Anglophone world, including indigenous poets like Carter Revard, Gwen Nell Westerman, Craig Santos Perez, and Ellen van Neerven.
van Neerven is an award-winning writer and editor of Mununjali Yugambeh (Southeast Queensland) and Dutch heritage. van Neerven indicated in interview that her work has parallel themes that are ‘environmental’ and ‘anti-government.’ This comes together in van Neerven’s poems as, in Jeanine Leane’s words, ‘In this built-up and built-over environment the poet asserts the continuation of Aboriginal culture’ and ‘Australia is a nation imagined and constructed over many Aboriginal nations.’ Leane sees in van Neerven’s work the importance of ‘the role of women as gatherers of often small but essential items of food that sustain the clan – lizards, insects, bugs, berries, fruits, frogs, seeds, tubers’ but also ‘as gatherers and keepers of family histories, knowledge and secrets from Country that are handed down to nurture and sustain future generations.’
In 100 Poems to Save the Earth, we included ‘Love and Tradition,’ dedicated to van Neerven’s Aunty Nancy Bamaga. The poem is a prayer registering the danger of rising sea levels. Sparsely written, ‘Love and Tradition’ carefully maps out the problem while also calling on the wider community to recognise the effects on the indigenous community. van Neerven poses what Leane calls ‘the everyday activism that occurs in the Aboriginal home, differing from the more public or “loud” expressions of activism’ but posing ‘the home front as a sovereign space of nurture, growth and actualisation.’
There are many other poets in the anthology writing about ecojustice. For example, Ross Gay’s poem, ‘A Small Needful Fact,’ emphasizes the nurturing work of Eric Garner at the Parks and Rec, before he was killed in a racist murder by police. Kazim Ali in ‘Checkpoint’ emphasizes the pettiness of customs officials juxtaposed with portentous events in nature which seem to accuse humanity. The Cyborg Jillian Weise explores the body and nature in the context of disability, commenting on the hierarchies and judgements imposed on both. Sean Bonney’s ‘Our Death / What If the Summer Never Ends,’ Erin Robinsong’s ‘Late Prayer’ and many other poems in the anthology call out capitalism and its detrimental effects on nature and people.
Many poems speak of ecojustice in global terms. In interview with Nicholas Wroe, Welsh/Indian poet Tishani Doshi has commented on how transnationally, women often ‘have to navigate economic and environmental hostilities’. In Doshi’s work, concerns for women and for the environment mingle and jostle, and she also challenges the centrality of human beings over nature or the greater-than-human. In ‘Self’, the poem included in the anthology, there is an acknowledgement that the world does not necessarily need people. Also thinking on a global scale, Vidyan Ravinthiran’s ‘More Context Required’ seems to grapple with global circulation of information about climate crisis and social justice, which can’t be fathomed from ‘beautiful computer-generated maps.’ Other poems register how war creates disconnectedness from land and people, as populations are killed by remote control. Mir Mahfuz Ali comments on the violence of war in ‘MIG-21 at Shegontola,’ where a boy riding a bicycle seems to be the only survivor of an idyllic rural community destroyed by missiles.
Some poets speak from a spirit of hope in the face of climate and social injustice. Roger Robinson’s ‘A Portable Paradise’ turns to wisdom from his grandmother about rewilding ourselves – carrying a paradise within us in spite of injustices we may face. Registering awe of the greater-than-human, Carter Revard describes a happy afternoon as two Native boys explore nature in ‘Over by Fairfax, Leaving Tracks.’ The poem extends into networks of global capitalism, across time and space towards a profound thought about how nature might be preserved in our memory – if we survive.
What you won’t find in the anthology are moralizing or didactic poems for the simple reason that we don’t think they are very effective. As we suggest in the anthology introduction, poems that work through clichéd or even moralizing trains of thought can be easily dismissed. Poems that seek to make people – already feeling immense guilt about climate crisis – to feel even more guilty don’t help. People are moved to act far more out of inspiration, hope and – yes! – sometimes fear than out of guilt. What tends to happen more often with didactic writing is that people turn away and put their heads in the sand.
That doesn’t mean that these poems aren’t moving, inspiring, brilliant, or that they don’t work on the reader in significant and subtle ways to make those connections between damage to people and the environment. According to Foster and Martusewicz, ecojustice proceeds ‘from the fundamental acknowledgment that humans are utterly dependent upon a complex and diverse ecological system,’ and ‘damages to the ecological system are damages to ourselves’.
Books and Articles to Read
Leane, Jeanine (2020) ‘On the Power to Be Still’: rev. Throat by Ellen van Neerven. The Sydney Review of Books, August 3rd. https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/van-neerven-throat/
Foster, Raisa and Rebecca A. Martusewicz (2018) ‘Introduction.’ Art, EcoJustice, and Education: Intersecting Theories and Practices, ed. Raisa Foster, Jussi Mäkelä, and Rebecca A. Martusewicz. London: Routledge: pp 1-9 (p. 1, 3).
Schild, V. (2019) ‘Feminisms, the Environment and Capitalism: On the Necessary Ecological Dimension of a Critical Latin American Feminism’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 20(6), pp. 23–43 (p. 25). Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=qth&AN=137364832&site=eds-live&scope=site (Accessed: 15 October 2021).
Wroe, Nicholas. ‘Tishani Doshi: “I can go out alone at night but the dangers don’t go away.’ The Guardian, 27 July. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/27/tishani-doshi-interview
This article is based on a paper, ‘Justice, Ecologies, and Transnational Feminist Poetics: What Poetry Has to Say About Ecojustice’ given at the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Convention this past October 2021. Thanks to the NWSA for including this paper.
Zoë Brigley is a poet and academic who has three PBS recommended poetry collections: The Secret (2007), Conquest (2012), and Hand & Skull (2019) (all from Bloodaxe). She has also published a collection of nonfiction essays Notes from a Swing State (Parthian 2019) and several chapbooks. She is Assistant Professor in English at the Ohio State University where she produces an anti-violence podcast: Sinister Myth. She won an Eric Gregory Award for the best British poets under 30, was Forward Prize commended, and listed in the Dylan Thomas Prize. She is the current editor of Poetry Wales Magazine.
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