The multi-talented Eric Magrane takes on the nature-culture binary right here, this Tuesday. In the meantime, here's an interview w/him re: Climate Change + Poetry, from the Poetry Center at U. of AZ. And here's more info re: his work:
Eric Magrane is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at New Mexico State University. He is editor, with Linda Russo, Sarah de Leeuw, and Craig Santos Perez, of Geopoetics in Practice (Routledge 2020). You can find more of his recent work on climate change and poetry in Carbon Copy, Literary Geographies, Dialogues in Human Geography, The End of the World Project, or Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change.
Supply chains broken; shortages; tens of millions out of work; hundreds of thousands dead and dying, the morgues overfull; hospital and health care systems and workers overwhelmed; nations shutting down borders — these things were happening before the COVID-19 pandemic. They were and are caused by the climate crisis. The pandemic is a multiplier effect.
I often wonder how writers of speculative fiction — especially science fiction — are able to come up with new material and get it into print before reality makes it obsolete. I read news of X-treme weather around the world on a weekly basis, and it’s hard not to suspect that a lot of it was written by Jerry Bruckheimer. But it’s not a dystopian future, it’s the dystopian present, and those who live in the global south (i.e., most of the human race) are the extras. And that’s a big part of why we in the global north don’t hear about it unless we go looking for it. The star of he picture is named Karbon Ekonomi, and he lives right here in the USA (in Houston, Texas). “[C]li-fi is made up mostly of disaster stories set in the future,” writes novelist Amitav Ghosh, “and that, to me, is exactly the rub. The future is but one aspect of the Anthropocene: this era also includes the recent past, and, most significantly, the present.” There’s nothing speculative about it: this is that science fiction novel that kept us up at night.
The pandemic is not the apocalypse (you heard it here first); it’s not even the last pandemic, and probably far from the worst that lies ahead. Plus drought, killer heat, flooding, killer cold, windstorms, duststorms, firestorms, hailstorms — all coming more rapidly in succession. That’s OK for the Book of Exodus, maybe, but not for the contemporary novel (which is precisely the problem, according to Ghosh). How will literature keep up? How will people’s imaginations keep up?
That’s not just a question for literature, of course; it’s a question for all of us. “What’s the worst that could happen?” Well . . . if you don’t imagine it, you can’t prepare for it. And if you don’t think the worst can happen, talk to a non-rich person in Uganda, Kenya, or Mozambique, right about now.
Ah, but it can’t happen here. We USAmericans really do think that, at least unconsciously. That’s why Sinclair Lewis wrote that damn book: there is indeed a virulent fascistic strain in the (white) American psyche. But the book was plausible to readers in 1935, because many were beginning to notice what was going on in Germany. Today, all eyes are — well, looking at different things. Other than the climate-created cloud of locusts that stretches from east Africa to central Asia and that threatens to create famine for hundreds of millions, that is.
The WHO estimates 250,000 deaths annually from climate change between 2030 and 2050 (though other studies peg the number of deaths from food shortages alone as much higher than that).
What kind of poem would you make out of that? What agent would take your novel? Even if people found it plausible, who would want to read it? Everyday reality is depressing enough as it is, no?
“one year later,”
sez the headline, meaning,
one year after the f-4
that hit our county, 6 o’clock-ish:
$22m in damage, 18 injured
width = 1 mile, &
it ploughed straight through 32,
170 mph winds scrambling trees,
wrecking houses & businesses,
barely missing a town of 100k
tornadoes in kansas:
you can’t blame that
on global heating; . . . sure,
“avg. annual kansas tornado #s
have been increasing since
roughly the late 80s,” but
“this is likely due to increased
tornado awareness & education”
& hey only 1
dinky tornado in ks in 2020!
“tornado alley” shifted east --
is now in dixie — as the dry
west expands — & the south
has gotten hammered
bertha hits s.c. (2nd named storm
before hurricane season);
miami sets daily rainfall record
(7” — in just 2 hrs); u.a.e. &
dubai (dramatic flash flood rescues);
assam (still raining);
siberia (can’t catch a break);
kenya floods death count at 285
(not as dramatic as 100k dead,
unless you’re a victim or survivor)
heatwaves & droughts:
s.e. canada / american n.e.;
records falling in nevada;
siberia (of course);
u.k. (driest may since 1896);
e. australia (sheep flock
smallest since 1905 — no fodder);
n. india (117 f in punjab, 46 forest
fires in uttarakhand)
also n. india: swarms of locusts
(storms + heatwaves + drought)
in rajasthan, madhya pradesh:
124k acres of cropland destroyed
so far, which sounds pretty bad
for anybody who
needs to eat
in this here verse-chronicle, we
don’t waste time on bloodless
aggregated statistics — we
stick to isolated anecdotes
& purely localized incidents
but either way
one cannot represent
what is happening to
Those of us who work and/or study at colleges and universities — and those who live in towns dependent economically upon same — are anxious as to the fate of those institutions, come fall. My own has already lost 26% of its general operating budget, enrollments are down 12% from the same time last year, and things will get much, much worse if in-person classes cannot resume in August. We will see program discontinuance (a.k.a. the liquidation of the humanities, social sciences, and arts departments) and possibly layoffs of tenured faculty (with or without a “Declaration of Financial Exigency,” by which the Chancellor would be tying his own hands voluntarily).
All of which raises the question of the future of the MFA industry. We are welcoming a grand total of four graduate students to our creative-writing graduate program this coming year. That’s both MFA and PhD, in all genres. Four. It’s not for lack of applications. But it is for lack of undergrads for the grad students to teach — in other words, we can’t fund them with GTA-ships (which is the only way we can). This was happening before the current Crash, which has vastly accelerated it. And my department, bless our hearts, won’t admit people unless we can fund them. That’s the right thing to do. And, as is so often the case, the right thing to do is also the most costly. No good deed will go unpunished.
We enrolled two poets last year and one, this. Meanwhile, the College is demanding that there be at least 6 students in any graduate class, in order for it to go forward and not be cancelled. How does one offer a graduate poetry workshop, under these circumstances? Probably by including “exceptional” undergraduate poets (provided we even have enough of those). Whether graduate-student poets will want to apply to a program that only offers one upper-level poetry workshop, every other year, that is composed mostly of undergrads, is an open question.
This was to be expected — eventually. The tag-team of neoliberal capitalism and global heating would have brought about a financial collapse eventually. Add political extremism and a pandemic, and you’ve got an even four horsemen, riding abreast, riding at you, right now.
I’ve harped a lot, on this blog, about what the structural changes brought about by the climate crisis will mean for the institutions of writing and literature: the means of production and distribution, in particular. But consumption, too: what happens to the literary world when those two venerable institutions, the MFA Program and the English Major, go by the boards? They account for a lot of book sales. Will virtual book clubs pick up some of the slack? It takes a lot of time to earn a living in the gig economy; it takes a lot of time to grow a food garden that actually produces food. Who’s going to have time to write or read? And what?
These were theoretical speculations, when the time frame was years or decades; now they’re urgent questions of months or weeks. The heat has been turned up suddenly. But will the frogs jump out of the pot? And into what?
The only thing that will save education, esp. public education, is a massive mobilization on the part of the citizenry. Some people around the world have taken to the streets to protest increases in gasoline prices; some, to protest inaction on climate change. But it’s not clear to me that the citizenry in the U.S. wants formal education, least of all literary education. They have other things to worry about. They're being (or have been) reduced to the level of serfs. And if you’re a serf, you expect to remain a serf, so an education is an unnecessary, even unattainable, extravagance. “Villeins you were and villeins shall you be,” as Richard II supposedly said, in reference to another (possibly pandemic-induced) rebellion, after double-crossing the rabble. What the bards thought of it, we do not know.
But we shall see: we don't know the full effect of this pandemic or of global heating (or of the coming pandemics caused by global heating). In the meantime, I can’t figure out anything better to do than to chronicle it. And read up. And maybe do a close reading of the Burpee seed catalog.
the tao treats the myriad creatures
as straw dogs
to be cast into the fire
sayeth lao tse --
and boy, was he ever right!
well, actually, it’s more like
the dow than the tao
(fine distinction, in our neoliberal
speaking of fire:
danger “extreme” in southern
prairie provinces of canada;
12k acres burned in colorado;
fires already burn inside
the arctic circle, “zombie fires”
started last year that survived
into this . . .
it’s over 85 f in the siberian arctic
(not much snow to melt &
absorb the heat): “largest jan.- apr.
anomaly ever seen in
any country’s national average”
(even in this data-driven
verse chronicle, there are some facts
& the globe really is heating,
it turns out:
israel baking under wk. of 100+;
heat records in vietnam this spring
(110 f in one spot); but even
southern ontario under heat
warnings (indices of 100+);
100-113 all over maharashtra;
go north? no: days-long heatwave,
dehli hitting 114 (43 > avg);
& remember cyclone amphan? last
week? well, it hammered
the coast of the bay of bengal;
“the leaves, can you see them?
they have wilted, turned yellow.
the storm bought so much salt water
spray from the sea that it even
killed the trees it couldn’t
knock down. the sundarbans is
finished. all our crops, even
our trees have been destroyed.
what will we do?”
(heat in oceans = more storms, btw)
600 more in kenya flooded out;
9,000 in n.e. india;
miami streets flood;
s.w. missouri floods;
virginia appalachians flood
mother nature doesn’t even care
about the u.s.a. — which proves
really is impersonal!
Well, I finally read The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (2006). I wanted to wait to read it til the flowers were in bloom, the trees were green and the weather warm again, so that it wouldn’t bring me down too much. It was comforting to see that world out the window, while reading about an earth that is a giant cinder inhabited by cannibals.
The premise is that there has been a sudden cataclysm, probably a full-scale nuclear war, maybe collision with an asteroid or six. The earth is in some kind of permanent nuclear winter, smoke and ash blotting out the sun, constant rain and snow, all the trees and vegetation dead. But McCarthy never tells us why, and we never know for sure. As a result, you can apply this particular parable to any event that threatens to thoroughly disrupt “life as we know it” for everyone everywhere — like the climate crisis, for instance. That crisis probably won’t produce a world-destroying conflagration, but it’s already produced some pretty big ones. And while people may not resort to cannibalism, climate chaos already has destroyed the food supply for tens of millions in this last year alone. The actually-occurring dystopia 100 years from now may look a lot like The Road, only with nothing blotting out the sun.
The real interest of the book, of course, is in the relationship of father and child. The world is over, and it’s only a matter of time for the people; the sixth mass extinction has happened, with a vengeance. “What are we doing?” the boy starts to ask. That is another way of asking, Why live? As the book goes on, we see that it’s the love between the two main characters that keep them going: neither can bear to see the other die, and neither will leave the other. So both keep on keeping on.
The real question is whether they can continue to be “the good guys” who are “carrying the fire,” whether they can prove that humans can continue being humans at the end of humanity, scrounging for the remnants of food that are left without turning cannibal. McCarthy keeps that question front and center, by writing the most granular descriptions of what it takes to survive in a world where both the elements and the others are hostile (want to know how to keep a shopping cart rolling for hundreds of miles? or how to keep shotgun shells from sliding out of your bandolier? or how to improvise foot-coverings when shoes are unavailable? This is the book for you). It’s the least glamorous, most detailed, most squalid post-apocalypse you can imagine. The father, whose sole “mission” is to protect the boy, is willing to kill anyone who threatens his survival. The boy, for his part, can’t bear to ignore a fellow person in distress: he’s too empathetic for this world. The man risks becoming callous and mean. The boy risks getting them both killed. It’s a great team.
Because it’s Cormac McCarthy, the narrative prose gets purplish at times. And the ending is a bit maudlin. But the dialogue is terse and compelling, and the world-building very, very believable. It made me appreciate the greenery and blooms while we have them.
i would prefer not to
write about the 100 people killed
by cyclone amphan, but
glad it wasn’t 100k; still,
"i have never seen such a disaster
before,” the state chief minister sez:
roofs blown off
waves whipped up
embankments, bridges swallowed,
villages w/o water, electricity,
contact w/the “outside world”;
kolkata streets rendered riverine,
or crissrossed w fallen trees &
power lines, airport inundated;
“many initially decided to stay home
assuming the storm would dissipate.
as rain and wind gathered strength,
thousands rushed for help, over-
whelming the refugee facilities”;
“it becomes almost impossible to
maintain social distancing, personal
hygiene, wearing mask and even
quarantine centers are converted
into cyclone shelters.”
i would prefer not to
report that lake victoira’s shoreline
has grown 10 km, that 100k
people are displaced in kenya,
their numbers swelling daily;
or that another 8 people
have died in w. uganda after
another riverbank burst;
floods, boulders, locusts . . .
i would prefer not to write about
the 12.4k acres burnt in n. cyprus,
80% of olive trees destroyed;
i would prefer not to
write about the tittabawassee r.
in michigan, a record
10’ above flood stage (tho
it is fun to say “tittabawassee,”
you don’t live near it today);
or the 100-yr-old dams, cited
as illegally dangerous, that
broke (“our infrastructure
was built for a different climate”
sez the engineer);
i would prefer not to
write about the 7” of rain
that fell in the mid-atlantic states,
rivers cresting & dams in doubt;
i would prefer not to
write about temp records broke
(like the 108˚ f in san
angelo, texas yesterday);
i would prefer not to
even know about the 400 sq km
burning in saskatchewan;
and if i don’t, maybe we won’t
which is just as good as
its never having happened;
but i sometimes do that
which i don’t prefer,
sometimes have to,
more and more
Well, it’s refreshing to read cli-fi that is not sci-fi (or “spec-fic”): that’s precisely what Weather, by Jenny Offill is (Knopf 2020). It is set in 2016, both before and after the election — the event that’s always in the background, bringing the characters’ fears to the foreground. For you see, the characters live in Brooklyn. They do not like Donald J. Trump (though that name is never mentioned). They are afraid of him. The main character, Lizzie, is kind of afraid of everything: she’s a person who thinks too much about the future, lives in a big city, and is raising a small boy. “My # 1 fear is the acceleration of days,” she remarks.
Her fears are not assuaged by her new side-gig: serving as personal assistant to her former mentor, Sylvia, who is now a climate activist. Soon she is awash in emails from the paranoid, depressed, and fundamentalist. She is taking in data at a rapid rate: “I had that thought again. The one with numbers in it. It bent the light” (hint: it has to do w/the number 2047). She is learning prepper acronyms and envisioning a “doomstead” for her family. She’s getting a little freaked. Not to mention that she’s caring for an unstable brother, Henry, who is (technically) in recovery; all of which is putting strains on her marriage, and . . . well, it’s a lot like life nowadays.
But the topic is always pretty clear: the future. The person in suicidal crisis can’t imagine one; the preppers can’t not. One can’t forestall the future, transcend it, or be delivered from it (despite a lot of examples of people who try) — but can you even protect others from what’s ahead? Even your own family? In the midst of upheaval, acceleration, and dread? Are you up to it? These are the questions Lizzie asks herself (and, by extension, us). What’s the relation of everyday personal disasters to planetary ones? Along with the corollary: Can you be a good person while you’re dealing with both of them at the same time? Can you be a good person without dealing with them? (“First, they came for the coral, but I did not say anything because I was not a coral . . .”)
The novel is in Lizzie’s voice and is written in a discreet series of vignettes, more or less in chronological order, but without much connective tissue between them; it has the feel of a commonplace book (If you enjoy reading David Markson -- or even know who that is -- you’ll probably like this book, too.) This structure, along with the various themes and story-lines, do indeed have a meteorological feel to them: the clouds change shape; a front comes through, chilling everything; then a high pressure system warms things up; scattered showers one day, heavy storms the next (this is all a metaphor, you understand). Surprisingly, the overall tone is not drear, but rather quizzical and droll, with at least a couple of LOLs.
Americans don’t come off too well, in this book. As Lizzie travels with Sylvia to events, one thing is becoming clear: “people are really sick of being lectured to about the glaciers."
“Listen, I’ve heard all about that,” says this red-faced man. “But what’s going to happen to the American weather?”
What, indeed? Especially after 2016. “Your people have finally fallen into history,” says an Iranian man. “The rest of us are already here.” And indeed, everybody (including the narrator, oftentimes) does seem caught up in their own peculiarly American obsessions, absorbed with the fears and desires of their respective demographic groups. Sylvia has advice for Lizzie, as far as protecting her family from climate catastrophe in New York City: “become rich, very, very rich.” Eventually, Sylvia concludes that “there’s no hope anymore, only witness.”
There is, at the end, what Sylvia would call an “obligatory note of hope,” having to do with love, etc. It’s not a very definite or convincing one — which is to say, the novel is in the tradition of realism. But there is this intriguing idea:
What if we went for a walk, if we walked out into the streets?
It’s barely possible.
As obligatory notes of hope go, that’s about as good as it gets, nowadays.
flooding in the upper midwest --
who could’ve predicted??
well . . . anybody, that’s who,
seeing as how it never dried out
from last year’s floods, up there
& now, it’s raining again (& again)
& 2 dams bust in middle michigan
(just like in tajikistan t’other day),
“downtown midland under 9’ of water
in 12-15 hrs,” sez the gov. “go
to higher ground,” sez the gov.
10k people evac’d — but ideally
not to shelters, w/the virus thing
& all (tho they have masks there
if you need ‘em!)
"to go through this
in the midst of a global pandemic is
almost unthinkable,” sez the gov.,
“but we are here.” well, actually,
she’s in lansing. but the people
in midland are here — that is, there.
& what’s almost unthinkable =
thinkable & thunk by them already.
you want unthinkable? hows about
three million people evac’d? well,
they are, in india + bangladesh:
another big-ass cyclone w/a name;
in the coastal mangrove forests
where 4m people live, houses
have that “run over by a bulldozer”
look; “everything is destroyed”
(119 mph winds; storm surge
≤ 16 ft waves up to 15 km inland),
telephone poles broken like
the proverbial matchsticks;
quarantine facilities now
storm shelters: social distance,
please (good luck w/that one --
30 m living on bangladeshi coast) . . .
eastern europe’s worst econ crisis
since fall of commies (virus) — plus
a “100-yr.-drought” searing the crops,
a punch to europe’s breadbasket;
& chicago already had its wettest
may on record (3rd wettest may
in 3 yrs): 8.37” rain as of yesterday
(most of it last week);
heatwave in israel = power outages
& people stranded in elevators
& so it goes.
but the bible sez
leave tomorrow for tomorrow, you
got enough problems today, you
know, so why worry about
the future til it gets here?
you knoweth not
the day or the hour
is the entire house of cards
such a “house of cards”? one good
gust can scatter it, &
the winds are picking up
(literal, metaphorical, & both):
a small town lacks food or water,
a major city’s major river overflows
4x the # of calls re: wildfires v. norm
the 100 acre wood burns (pooh!
“worst drought in 500 yrs”
beaches already hit 104˚ - 105 f
may records fall (& they do)
water taps in city of 1m people
only work 1 day/wk
4 rivers burst their banks at once:
homes, schools, bridges
washed away or pummeled
by tumbling boulders;
protestors defy authoritarian govt
for not providing flood aid
april wildfires dwarfed the ones
last year (7 x the size of maryland)
we (we) have our own problems:
cities “open for business,”
w/o testing, tracing, masks,
management or plans
& it’s this last that puts the crisis
right up in yr grill - the
swab that broke the camel’s ass
that other stuff looks vaguer,
vaster, like all the plagues
that have ever been or are
geographical key (in order of appearance):
east sussex, england
greece, turkey, cyprus, & israel
kasese district, uganda
khuroson district, tajikistan
all of the global north
all of the global world
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.