What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate

What we talk about when we talk about climate is pretty much Everything.  Which is what makes it so hard to talk about – and in particular to write about.  But rather than deter us, we could let that encourage us to be curious and inspire us to be creative, allowing our imaginations to wander, on and off the page.  

That’s what naturally happens, if you’re lucky, when you’re able to start writing freely and follow the thread of your intuitions.  In my experience it seems to require you to be as present as possible, rooted in your own body and its sensations and suggestions.  ‘Thinking about climate’ is just that – thinking, with the tendency to spin around in ever-widening circles of doom, catapulting you further and further away from where you are.  Come back…Don’t get lost!

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.

Arthur Ashe

Last week the excellent Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry published this year’s anthology and I’m happy to have a couple included.  One of them – ‘Stone Curlew’ – speaks to that impulse to lose touch with yourself and loop off anywhere but here.

Stone Curlew

I watch the way you want to reach the end

before you’ve begun. Here there is only this

egg and our sitting in shifts to keep it warm,
at the mercy of weather, another bird’s hunger.

Trust me, you must go to unknown places
and stay inside your body while you try. Look at me

being bird. Why is being human so hard?
I see you – fragile and fierce. What if every single day

were your only chance of incubating what wants
to be born and that was all you had to do – be there 

what you were made for, enough to make a stone sing? 

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You can read all the wonderful Gingko poems here.

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Having some sort of focus or structure is helpful as we face up to the challenges of living with climate collapse, ecological extinctions and an uncertain future so I very much welcome a new essay that’s starting to circulate, written by two medical ethicists calling for a new system of bioethics, taking the planet and all its species into account, and proposing six ‘Ethical Maxims for a Marginally Inhabitable Planet’.

According to Pierre Hadot (1995), who they quote:

when the time comes, they [maxims] can help us accept such [catastrophic] events, which are, after all, part of the course of nature; we will thus have these maxims and sentences ‘at hand’. What we need are persuasive formulae . . . which we can repeat to ourselves in difficult circumstances, so as to check movements of fear, anger, or sadness. The exercise of meditation [on maxims] is an attempt to control inner discourse, in an effort to render it coherent.

Aren’t poems a little like maxims, ‘persuasive formulae’, distilled experience, concentrated insight into what it is to be human that someone might carry around to help them see in the dark?

In essence, David Schenck and Larry Churchill’s Six Maxims are:

1. Work hard to grasp the immensity of the situation.

2. Cultivate radical hope.

3. Have a line in the sand.

4. Appreciate the astonishing opportunity of life at this time.

5. Train your body and mind.

6. Act for the future generations of all species.

This is important and immensely useful guidance, chiming beautifully with Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope Training. I’d definitely recommend you read the whole article here. If you find it at all helpful, please pass it around among your family, friends and colleagues.

As the authors say, from their long-time experience working in hospitals with patients in extremis, responding to unexpected transitions is a difficult ongoing process, involving the emotions and the body, as well as the mind – all of our selves that the climate and ecological emergencies (i.e. everything right now) is asking us to bring.  And the great thing is we don’t need to do it alone – we’re all in this together and can help each other simply by admitting how we feel, sharing our fears as well as our dreams, and listening – really listening – to each other.  That’s where radical hope lives – uncomfortable, urgent and open to action.

Which brings us back to the fundamental questions addressed by the maxims: what kind of person will you be, and what will you teach and model for your colleagues, your students, your families?

We ourselves find this list of maxims daunting. But this is how maxims work. Maxims have to do with how we do everything we do – a tone and style of living – as well as with the implementation of certain practices. Maxims are, in significant part, about keeping morality itself alive in a catastrophe. They demand of us that which we have difficulty demanding from ourselves.

Schenck & Churchill

What else to do but be there – like a bird on an egg

and start where you are.  

Begin now.  

And keep beginning over and over again.

Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.

D.H. Lawrence

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