Can poetry help us understand climate change?

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Image: Andrea Schoeberlein/Flickr

Is it possible to employ poetry, short stories, brief essays and memoirs, to create more space in popular culture for a more robust response to climate chaos? To shift the popular imaginary towards "equitable responses for all Canadians, moving beyond denial and apocalypse and toward shared meaning and action"? 

That's the task that Catriona Sandilands and the 45 other contributors to her edited volume Rising Tides: Reflections for Climate Changing Times have set for themselves.  And it's no small challenge.   

Sandilands is an environmental studies professor at York University in Toronto and a fellow of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, which funded the workshop that is (in her words) the "beating heart" of this volume. Part of the "Storying Climate Change" project, the workshop was held on Galiano Island off British Columbia's southwest coast in March 2018. Indeed, 12 of the contributors are based on that island jewel, and 14 others elsewhere in British Columbia. Most of the rest are from Ontario.

The book's chapters are divided into four sections: "What We Have Lost," "What Worries Us," "What We May Understand," and "What We Imagine." But they are united in their attempt to expand the range of climate-related literary forms and genres beyond speculative dystopian fiction, as well as the research reports, NGO email blasts and climate journalism that constitute most of my own reading on the topic.

Climate change isn't addressed directly in most of the selections, but laterally, from the side, as the white noise of personal lives and emotions. The subtitle of the book is "Reflections for Climate Changing Times," not climate change as such. Does that preview an erasure of climate change as a distinctly observable topic, one so pervasive in our lives as to be unmentioned and unnamed -- like global capitalism? And would that erasure presage resignation and acceptance, or rather a recognition of the need to transform entire social and economic systems, far beyond policy tinkering and technological fixes? Does this book contribute to that broader project?

The contributors are painstaking and skilled wordsmiths. Throughout, they draw connections between personal lived experience and memory, and broader and structural issues. Some of the contributions are metaphorical, allegorical and evocative; others more directly name the social constructs that are jeopardizing our existence, reminiscent of the clarion call of a political manifesto. In that latter vein, one of my favourites is a poem by two of my fellow mountain and coast protectors, Rita Wong and Emily McGiffin:

Beyond the moneyed noise, arrests, the frenzied corporate media and the restless profit margins, stands Kwekwecnewtxw, the Coast Salish Watch House, guarding land and water.

Constructed from a single cedar tree, the Watch House was ceremonially erected by the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, who deserve a place of honour in the ongoing struggle to halt the TransMountain pipeline expansion. Appropriately, the link between climate crisis and Canada's internal colonialism towards Indigenous peoples -- and the urgent need for settlers to recognize and valorize Indigenous rights and knowledge -- are leitmotifs throughout the volume, from both settler and Indigenous contributors. The Watch House stands next to the Burnaby Terminal, a storage facility for toxic diluted bitumen that will double in density if the Trans Mountain expansion project is ever completed. The project's environmental risks to the west coast include a potentially deadly toxic tank farm fire in the midst of metro Vancouver, oil tanker spills, pipeline ruptures (which already occurred in 2007), and the extinction of the iconic southern orca pod.

Not surprisingly, Rising Tides reflects West Coast angst and parallels the alliance between First Nations, environmentalists and local residents that have powered regional resistance to fossil fuel expansion. According to a survey conducted while Rising Tides was being written in 2018, 61 per cent of British Columbians feel that their views are different from the rest of Canada, and a remarkable 20 per cent think B.C. would be better off without Canada, a level not much below Alberta's far shriller separatist sentiment.  

That regional basis raises two questions about the book. On the one hand, where is the anger? The book's emotional register includes anxiety, nostalgia, loss, hope, curiosity, sadness, guilt, a deep sense of place and its link with identity, and love -- of children, of ancestors and of the land. But I didn't get a sense of the justifiable rage about the coast's irreplaceable beauty being turned into another sacrifice zone for a seemingly ruthless and insatiable petro-industry. 

Rising Tide's emphasis on emotional life and family relationships contrasts with the mood of another climate politics book that I recently read -- This Is Not a Drill, a smoking-from-the-ears collection of essays by supporters of Extinction Rebellion. It celebrates the joys of resistance and transformation through collective action, and conveys a sense of urgency for a better, less dysfunctional kind of politics. 

On the other hand, if Rising Tides mutes the depth of B.C. alienation, does it instead offer narratives that would resonate in eastern Canada (which, in my own personal geography, starts at Banff)? Writing whilst overlooking the shifting moods of the Salish Sea, it's easy for me to acknowledge the increased threat of oil-soaked shores as a criminal obscenity. 

But is a place-based sense of loss and hope exportable to the blasted landscapes of extractivism's sacrifice zones -- in northern Alberta, central Ontario or elsewhere?  Does a sense of place appeal to workers in temporary "man camps," created by extractive capital's treatment of the land as a resource to be pillaged and then ignored once its riches are exhausted?  Would the book resonate with communities struggling to find employment and economic sustainability on the roller-coaster of global commodities' boom-bust cycles?  

Descriptions of unnaturally numerous jellyfish and shrivelled salal leaves are signals of climate crisis, but do they strike chords with Alberta taxpayers stuck in an insufficiently diversified economy, a dismally paltry heritage fund compared to Norway's, and a potential oil and gas well cleanup bill in the hundreds of billions? Or do they reinforce the prejudice that only lotus-eating West Coasters care about climate crisis and energy alternatives to extreme carbon?

Rising Tides will appeal to many readers with a literary sensibility who are already concerned about climate crisis. Does it work on its own terms as a broader political/cultural intervention, opening doors to a trans-regional narrative that acknowledges our colonial and carbon-dumping past, while opening doors for an alternative definition of Canada? I hope it does. But that's a tall order, and an open question. 

Robert Hackett is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, and co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives. He is also a member of the NDP and of the non-partisan Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion (BROKE).

Image: Andrea Schoeberlein/Flickr

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