If one were to drive a nail through this decade, planetary history would swing in the balance. – Kathleen Dean Moore, ISLE, Winter 2014
FIVE YEARS AGO, in the headnote to a special section on international eco-lit (“Words from a Dying Planet?”), I wrote: “When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its ‘Climate Change 2014’ report last month, with its dire warnings about the ‘vulnerability and exposure of human and natural systems,’ it reminded us of a question posed on our blog last year: ‘Now we must write as if the planet were dying. What would you say to a planet in a spasm of extinction?’” (May 2014). That question—asked by Kathleen Dean Moore and Scott Slovic and partially answered in their brilliant Winter 2014 issue of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment—remains as urgent as ever. The issue of ISLE included the creative work of more than thirty writers in response to the editors’ “Call to Writers,” which we had posted on the WLT blog in September 2013. Moore and Slovic urged writers to use their gifts to compose narratives of “moral imagination”: “Some kinds of writing are morally impossible in a state of emergency,” they wrote. “Writers may not be able to save the old world, but they can help create the new one.”
Five years on, what has changed? For one thing, the trickle of media coverage about climate change in 2014 has become a flood in spring 2019. As I write this in mid-May, we’re still reeling from a report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that more than a million species are threatened with extinction. Just this week, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded CO2 levels exceeding 415ppm, the highest in more than 800,000 years. Microplastics and radioactive carbon-14 from atomic weapons testing have been found both in glaciers and the ocean depths. Such words as Anthropocene and anthropogenic, pointing to the human causes of the colossal changes we’re witnessing in our lifetime, have become part of the common policy vocabulary around the topic. In response, a wave of teenage #climatestrike activists led by Greta Thunberg has swept the globe.
The sense of urgency on the part of writers has likewise accelerated, especially from those areas around the world most susceptible to the worst effects of climate change. The May 2014 issue of WLT included work from Bolivia, India, Nigeria, and Taiwan—all on the front lines, from sea level to the heights of the Andes and Himalayas. The current issue gathers words of witness from Australia, Brazil, South Africa, and beyond. In “The Grand Experiment,” the lead story by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, those responsible for running the “experiment” set out to colonize the polar regions in order to retain their power and control over “the best of all possible worlds” even as the rest of the globe becomes uninhabitable. In one hundred numbered entries that mimic the language of a scientific report, Chimal’s narrator satirizes the magical thinkers who deny the validity of climate science. Elsewhere in the section, a five-line poem by Jane Hirshfield ranges from the Svalbard ice cap, to last year’s fires in California, to a snail impossibly climbing Mount Fuji. And translator Tiffany Higgins, in a note accompanying Márcia Wayna Kambeba’s poem “The Time of Climate,” cautions readers that “Brazilian indigenous writings don’t fit neatly into US/European formulations of climate and environment. I believe for this reason,” she writes, “that they’re essential for broadening conceptions of possible solutions.”
Undoubtedly, policymakers will continue to posit increasingly urgent, perhaps desperate, “possible solutions” in the years ahead. To be sure, the climate debate is now front and center on the global stage. Kathleen Dean Moore writes that “the great ship is turning into the wind and changing course” (ISLE). With great moral imagination, writers, scientists, and artists have shown us the catastrophic consequences that loom if we don’t turn the ship in time. If not, the nail in this decade may turn out to be a stake in the century’s heart. If we do turn in time, posterity might still forgive us.