Guest Post: COP26 – Kristian Evans on poetry & the climate crisis

Today’s guest post is by Kristian Evans, co-editor of the landmark anthology 100 Poems to Save the Earth – vital reading as world leaders meet in Glasgow for COP26.

100 Poems to Save the Earth edited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans

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. 

Leaders from the world’s governments and businesses are currently meeting in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Delegates are attempting to create a roadmap towards a zero-carbon future, to find ways to prevent the earth from warming by more than 1.5C, and to explore other technological and financial options to help us mitigate climate change.

Considering the results of previous conferences, we can be forgiven for feeling less than optimistic about this one. Surely here are the same old people, using the same old tools, trying to make the problem conform to the same old solutions they have found for it.

Einstein famously said “no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it. We need to see the world anew.”

So how does our culture see the world today? What does ‘nature’ mean to those of us in the West? What does our way of life tell us about our unconscious beliefs and attitudes to it? What might ‘seeing the world anew’ mean?

empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

From ‘A Portable Paradise’ by Roger Robinson – 100 Poems to Save the Earth

Since the Enlightenment, it has become the custom to see nature as a machine, something inert, a predictable resource, perfectly intelligible to reason. Animals are considered to be little more than complicated robots – it’s ok to test cosmetics, drugs and ammunition on them. Nature can be dominated, controlled and tamed. There is nothing truly strange or mysterious out there, certainly no ghost haunting the moving the parts.

We find these beliefs reflected in our perception of human life: consciousness is only a brain process, life has no intrinsic meaning and ends completely in death. We don’t have souls and should find fulfilment in material things, tools and toys that will, we are promised, get bigger and better year after year. Get it while you can and drink it dry, because time is running out and soon you will be gone.

At least, that’s how it used to be. That was the dream. Poets were never quite convinced by it and climate change and the ecological crisis are now ringing a very loud alarm. Blake railed against the oppression of a rationalising utilitarian mind he saw embodied in ‘the dark Satanic mills’. The Romantics, foreshadowing Freud, found plenty of evidence that the Enlightenment had a concealed dark side, that it was haunted and shaped by the superstitions it thought it had banished.

Illustration of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ by artist David Jones

Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is now often read as an ecological fable, a warning of the consequences of adopting a violent, domineering attitude to nature. Most of us will have seen images of dead Albatross chicks, their stomachs stuffed full of the bits of plastic they’ve been fed by the parent bird, the shiny junk plucked from the waves, fragments of the rubbish with which we fill our own lives. We’re all the Mariner now, it seems; every one of us has killed the Albatross.

Yet at the end of his terrifying hallucinatory voyage to the edges of the world, to the edges of himself, the Mariner does “see the world anew.” He is reconciled to a vision of nature as a complex web of relationships, beautiful and strange, everything intertwined with everything else.

Albatros chick

What if we were no longer separated and isolated, disconnected from nature and each other? We too might see a world transformed. What was once viewed as a collection of dead, inert or robotic objects, might now be experienced as a community of vibrantly alive subjects, multi-faceted aspects of a cosmos full of meaning, intelligence and imagination not confined to humans, but distributed throughout everything.

When we were editing 100 Poems to Save the Earth thoughts such as these were never far from our minds. Poets have always kept an ear open to communication from the earth, imagining what the birds and fish and fungi, the oceans and forests might say. It’s not hard to hear them. They are only saying what our own souls are saying after all. Stop. Change. Please listen.

It is as if there were some irresistible force
blowing us over into a strange new century
that billows beyond us, between our thin heart-beats.

From ‘Climate’ by George Szirtes – 100 Poems to Save the Earth

It’s time also to listen to those of us beyond the West, especially indigenous peoples, who are often on the front line of climate change and habitat and biodiversity loss, and who still hold a vision of the possibility of a meaningful existence with an intelligent world. As Ozawa Bineshi Albert of Climate Justice Alliance says, “Solutions to the climate crisis must come from those communities most directly impacted. At COP26, the orientation of the international community must come from them, not economists, corporations and politicians who created the problems in the first place. Solutions can’t be about us without us.”

The ecological crisis is transforming us, forcing us to reassess the relationship between mind and nature, forcing us to revise our cultural assumptions and beliefs about who we are, where we are going and what we want to become. COP26 might attempt technological solutions and new finance initiatives. It might be an exercise in perception management that enables business as usual. A new dark age might be closer than we realise.

Whatever happens, if we don’t jettison the old mechanistic worldview and learn to see the world anew as alive and intelligent, we will remain stuck in the old ways of thinking that got us into this crisis in the first place.

Kristian Evans

100 Poems to Save the Earth is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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David Baker reads ‘Pastoral’ from 100 Poems to Save the Earth