Writers on the storm

31 March 2020 Writers

From satire, poetry and fiction to protest and direct action – Caspar Henderson investigates how writers are responding to the climate crisis

So, the Oxford English Dictionary made ‘climate emergency’ their 2019 word (OK, words) of the year. And truly it was a year in which the issue has never been more prominent in public life. Greta Thunberg, the children’s climate strikes she inspired, and others including Extinction Rebellion all played a role. The increasing scale and severity of real-world impacts did too.

What comes next is hard to tell, but one of the few things we can say with reasonable certainty is that the longer powerful actors delay concerted action, the bigger the catastrophes are likely to be. On the positive side, every fraction of a degree of global average temperature rise we can avoid is likely to limit further damage.

What can authors do? What should they write about? What should they do as ordinary citizens and in public life? No one has all the answers here, and least of all me, but I’ll describe my own trajectory before turning to the thoughts and actions of others.

I began writing about climate change and the destruction of the non-human living world with a small university think tank in the early 1990s. There was nothing especially creative in our work, which was largely directed at policy makers. At that time, with the fall of the Berlin Wall recently behind us, we were, for the most part, optimistic that people and nations could work together. When, in 1992, 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued a ‘Warning to Humanity’ that the current trajectory was unsustainable it seemed basic common sense to us that most people and all governments would take what they said seriously, and act for change.

You hardly need me to tell you how things turned out. More than half of all the carbon emissions in human history have been produced since Taylor Swift was born, a little over a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall. About a quarter have been produced since she released her first album in October 2006. The satirical website The Onion captured our situation well in an article published ten years later: ‘“The Time To Act Is Now,” Says Yellowing Climate Change Report Sitting In University Archive’.

I asked some other writers what they feel, think and do in relation to climate change and the extinction of species. One of the first I turned to was Philip Pullman, who I have heard speak about the topics. I mentioned that another author had talked of experiencing almost overwhelming grief. ‘Yes, I understand that,’ he said. ‘But what I feel even more strongly is anger. I’m angry with politicians, who hear the science and ignore it; angry at the oil companies, who also know the truth and spend millions on hiding it; angry at all the powerful people who connive in this dreadful, this dread-inducing state of affairs.’

Pullman expressed his admiration for Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion while admitting that ‘part of me knows that protests about this or that have risen and then faded away throughout my lifetime with little result’. Nevertheless, he added, we should not give up hope. ‘Hope is not so much an emotion or a feeling as a virtue… It’s something we should do because it’s good to do it, like giving to charity, like being kind.’


How can you write ‘about’ extinction, when extinction is the end of
imagination, not a creative resource?


The poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie has also been vocal in public about climate change, and how writers can respond. When I asked how climate change and extinction were affecting her writing, Jamie said she hadn’t written a poem for about five years. ‘I've been unable to find images or voice “appropriate to our predicament” [to paraphrase what Seamus Heaney said in a different context]… How can you write “about” extinction, when extinction is the end of imagination, not a creative resource? Is elegy all we're left with?’

Writers are often solitary in their work, but in 2019 a number chose to organise and take action together. Liz Jensen and others set up Writers Rebel, which brought together more than thirty writers to speak in Trafalgar Square in London at the end of the first week of the October Extinction Rebellion protests. I spoke to some of those taking part shortly before the event. Many said how right it felt, and how energised and encouraged they were. ‘What thrilled us was the enthusiasm,’ Liz Jensen told me. ‘Writers said we have been waiting for this! It was like an imaginative tipping point.’ And the whole point, she says, is that nobody owns Writers Rebel; anyone can do their own version.

Jacqueline Saphra encountered comparable energy when, building on experience gained during a ‘Poem-a-thon’ to raise money for refugees during the crisis of 2016, she created Poets for the Planet. ‘It was a question of finding something manageable that people like us can do with the skills we have,’ she told me. ‘We think poetry can help people reimagine the world and … confront the unimaginable.’ Verse Aid: Poems for the Earth, an awareness-raising, fundraising, spirit-raising live poetry event, featuring a seven-hour Poem-a-thon and gala, with Imtiaz Dharker, took place at the Society of Authors on 8 February 2020.

Another initiative comes from the illustrator Emma Reynolds. She invited fellow artists to draw a character holding up a sign with the hashtag #KidLit4Climate. ‘I thought about 30 people would respond, but we got around a thousand.’ About 50 illustrators marched in solidarity with the children’s global strike in September. ‘People have sent me brilliant artwork from all over the world,’ Reynolds told me, including Indonesia, Colombia, America, Denmark, UK, Russia, France, Italy, Australia, Mexico, Taiwan and even Antarctica.


Keep writing, creating

So, where next? There is already a large and growing number of novels, plays and poems by diverse authors addressing the issues in a variety of ways. Even a brief introduction to the literature would fill many pages, but a few important examples include Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver, Clade by James Bradley, The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Wall by John Lanchester. More is surely coming. For my own part, I believe as strongly as ever in the possibility of change through political action, and that fiction, non-fiction and other written forms have vital parts to play. I will keep writing.

Kathleen Jamie has it about right. ‘I still totally believe in poetry,’ she told me. ‘It’s where we make our best engagement with the world… I'm thinking: what is our right attitude to a beloved but damaged Earth? Love of course.’ She quoted the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who has said ‘we must try to praise the mutilated world’. It certainly sounds more hopeful than the response Philip Pullman warned against: ‘A state of continuous, bitter, destructive rage, like chronic pain, against the profound and unconquerable stupidity of the human race.’

Caspar Henderson is the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings and A New Map of Wonders. He is working on a book provisionally titled A Book of Noises.