Friday, September 18, 2009

Climate change

This image was produced by a student in an art competition around climate change for the conference. This was one of the prize winners presented to those of us who spoke. Sadly the student's name is not on the work. I would love to hear from anyone who knows the artist's name.

I have a poetry blog but now I need to put up political writing too. I'm beginning with a speech I gave this week at a conference on Climate Change in Chennai, India. Please let me know what you think.

Wild Weather: The Poetics and Politics of Climate Change

In Australia at events such as these we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land who have been there for many thousands of years. Here I would like to acknowledge the people who have maintained such a long history of lively culture across the vastness that is India, but in particular to Tamil culture and the Tribal cultures of Tamil Nadu about which I am learning. Also many thanks to Armstrong and the English Department for making me welcome as an Asialink Literature Resident.

I want to begin with an extract from the Harivamsa. Here I acknowledge Professor Greg Bailey of La Trobe University in Melbourne for making it possible for me to really understand these lines.

16. The sun seemed to be sinking into the belly of the new clouds where the deep waters hang, gushing and bellowing.
17. The Earth, turbid by the press of waters, whose paths are yet to be found, is garlanded with grass bursting from her.
18. And the mountains, their peaks full of trees splintered by a thunderbolt, fall, cut off by the raging streams.
19. Just as rain falling from clouds courses along a depression, so with earth’s blood, spouting from ponds, fills the forest tracks.
20. The forest elephants mimic the roaring clouds, their trunks and faces uplifted appear in the violent rain like clouds reaching for Earth.
21. Having closely watched the beginning of the rains and seen the dense clouds, Rohinī’s son spoke to Kṛṣṇa privately at the appropriate time.
22. Look, Kṛṣṇa, at the black clouds with portentous cranes emerging suddenly rising up in the sky, they have stolen the colour of your limbs.
Harivamsa 54 16-24

I read this for the first time in a Sanskrit class about two months ago. As I translated my excitement built. I recognised this description as I had written something similar following the rampages of Cyclone Larry – a Category-5 cyclone that hit north Queensland where I live on 20 March 2006.

Here are some extracts from one of those poems from my collection, Earth’s Breath:

Wind’s rasp
The wind never splinters at the edge

yesterday and the days before
were perfect
as the butterflies
zoned in on the depression

on this day
a dying bird
with no call left
shattered by the wind’s antics

How does a pelican know
when it’s safe to fly in
fly over in solitary silence
bringing hope?

Can seven frigatebirds
calculate a week, a day each?

Can infinity be eclipsed
or pain recalculated by the
Vedic mathematician?

How will the winds
tell us the future?

The dark hurlings of nature
are terror enough for our reptile brains.
When man-made horrors occur
will the albatross fly in
to watch the carnage?

I don’t recall birds
on the day the towers fell

but here on the beach
after the wind’s ripping
are ten black cockatoos
calmly eating the spilt seed
(from Earth’s Breath, 2009, pp. 64-66)

The reason I want to point out these similarities in texts written many generations apart in different parts of the world is because what we face is not unique. We are not the first generation to have to deal with “the dark hurlings of nature” although we may be the first to have brought it upon ourselves.

It is no accident that time and again earth is compared to the human body. Our planet like us is a living system – its ecosystems like our circulatory and endocrinal systems rise and fall responding to the events taking place on its surface and in its interior spaces. This is not a romantic idea of mine, it is metaphoric, but no less real for being so.
Our human experience suggests such metaphors to us as we grapple with ways of understanding our selves and our relationship to the world whether it be earth as body, wind as breath, the great flows of rivers, oceans and lava as tears and blood, grass and trees as hair and limbs. You will find all these metaphors in the Harivamsa, the Rg Veda and a host of other ancient texts in India, as well as in the stories and song cycles of the Indigenous peoples of Canada and Australia.

In the Tamil tradition you have the lyrical Sangam poems: from Cittalai Cattanar’s Akananuru 134

Rains in season,
forests grow beautiful.
Black pregnant clouds
bring the monsoon, and stay.
Between flower and blue-gem
flower on the bilberry tree
the red-backed moths multiply
and fallen jasmines
cover the ground.
(Translation by AK Ramanujan from The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry, p. 11.)

One of the challenges as a poet is the struggle to be taken seriously, because poetry is regarded as soft, full of emotion and very individual. But when you look at the mythic tradition you see just how accurate are the descriptions (for example, they accord with the descriptions of different wind strengths in the Beaufort scale), how important it was for community safety for people to know this information (the Indigenous people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands apparently moved to higher ground based on their traditional sea knowledge and therefore survived the devastation better than Western observers had expected; see Further it is a record of a whole people. We individual poets also collectively contribute to that knowledge. Until the last few years there was no such thing as eco-poetry, but now there are journals and conferences and courses. As for emotion, when you are faced with life-threatening events, with eco-disaster then to deny the emotion is simply to prolong the trauma. Post-Cyclone Larry, we all talked endlessly about our particular experiences. Language, storytelling and poetry are the human response to such experiences.

The following poem resulted from a mix of dictionary trawling where I found the word yugantameghahaha and a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita: Moths rushing full tilt to their ruin / fly right into an inferno (Bhagavad Gita 11.29)

Yugantameghaha: climate change
At the end of every cosmic cycle
at the end of a generation―yuganta-
meghaha¬―clouds congregate
gathering souls for the next yuga

cloud breath, soul mist
rasping winds, rattling bones
here come the galloping horses
humans astride their flanks

here come the thundering clouds
breaking the world apart
the Hercules moth climbs every building
rising upwards through 110 floors

scaling the earth to find the moon
that light in the sky through which
he might escape earth’s pull
and melt into the inferno of light.
(from Earth’s Breath, 2009, p. 67)

In addition to my poetic escapades, I do also write essays, activist speeches and submissions to government on ecological matters. The two are important bookends in my political and poetic life.

One of my recent concerns has been the way in which the term ‘climate change’ has been co-opted, more worrying though is the way in which it has been distorted. This is a common event: the co-option and distortion of marginal language and terminology.

I must point out here that I do believe that climate change is a real phenomenon and one with which we must all grapple – but its marginal status since the 1960s followed by sudden political fervour is my concern.

Here is how it works with climate change. A theory is presented in the scientific and social literature around the mid-60s (1967 is the date in my head for when I first heard about greenhouse gases). There is initial great excitement but then the daggers are drawn and the scientists are told by big business and big politics that it’s all a figment of their imagination. Over the years the evidence grows and grows – some small changes are wrought – banning the use of chloroflurocarbons – but business and politics and war go on as usual. At some point these players realise that they may lose big money and big power if the growing theory really is true. At THAT point a reversal kicks in. Some, such as Toyota, jump onto the bandwagon of buying up plantation forests and replacing them with genetically modified fast-growing trees, therefore increasing monocultures (always bad for environments and societies) and wanting double payment because the trees grow (allegedly) at twice the rate. Another tack is for major corporations to say we won’t play ball unless you compensate us for all our losses. And that is where Emissions Trading Schemes (ETS) come in. The polluters keep polluting, governments pay them to trade their carbon – in particular to dump carbon on poor nations (this is comparable to dumping test drugs on the bodies of the world’s poor). Climate change is blamed for ecological disaster when the real culprit has been a long history of bad government policies and other political shenanigans perpetrated on people. In Australia this is best exemplified by the total disaster of water usage in the Murray-Darling River system. Instead of recognising bad political judgement, the disaster is blamed on sudden climate change. This just adds to the quilt of lies. In North Queensland developers would like to ‘contain’ the endangered southern cassowary population so that they can build bigger and completely unnecessary resorts. The outcome has been disaster for the cassowary because of high fences, impossibly narrow so-called ‘wildlife corridors’ and increased road and human traffic.

For me there is no division in my writing life between political analysis and poetry. I have written about the co-option of ecology in poetry as well.

They gather us two by two
these men and women in polished green
who pray to Saint Larry
the razer, the clearer
the saviour who needs pay
no tithe to the people.
(from Earth’s Breath, 2009, p. 59)

I cannot say it more clearly in prose, Emissions Trading Schemes will not fix the problem of climate change. So what will? My proposal is for a complete overhaul of our economic systems so that we move from a society inspired by money and profit-for-profit’s sake to a world inspired by biodiversity (Hawthorne 2002). The inspiration of biodiversity is a key element in changing social and ecological structures. Multiversity works analogously between human cultures and groups. By putting biodiversity at the centre, a number of behaviours become anomalous. War and biodiversity do not mix: bombing of any kind destroys human and natural communities. Industrial and digital farming don’t work: industrial farming relies on a factory model of monocultures; digital farming attempts to remake nature in genetically engineered organisms, GM crops, terminator seeds and boundary crossing practices in animal husbandry. Biotechnology, including experimental drugs used on women, the poor, the chronically ill would be unimaginable in this society. Furthermore, the theft of intellectual property from Indigenous peoples would be unthinkable. In terms of multiversity, educational, social, health, political and economic systems would be respected. How should we do this? The Quit smoking campaigns in Australia are a successful model because they are based on shifting attitudes. It is slow; such changes do not happen overnight or in a single decade, but every person who attempts to move in this direction brings along others.

It is time that we take up acts of earth kindness to the planet on which we live. We should also give more space to poetic knowledge because poetic knowledge is memorable – we only have to consider the long traditions of oral literature to see that. Perhaps more time could be spent in schools and universities on relearning what we all once knew as part of our cultural heritage.

she dreams of making armour for the earth
a helmet to prevent the drillers from beginning
a breastplate so they cannot cut open her heart
greaves to stop the underground lines
breaking through to the watertable

it confounds her that anyone would want
to mine Liverpool Plains
to make the earth a corpse to strip
back the muscle layer by layer
to let light in under all that rich deep earth
to groom her for profit burn coal embers
in the asthmatic air the heat increasing
to burn away everything for the emptiness
of waterdrained lungdrained flatlands

Let them eat coal not food.

I’ve been keeping up with the news in Australia during the conference and this week on On Line Opinion were two articles about climate change. The first arguing that we should privatise climate change policy, institute property rights and litigation through torts (Dawson 2009); the second, more hopefully argued that we need community responses to climate change in order to counter the Greenhouse Mafia whose donations fuel both sides of politics (Diesendorf 2009).
Many speakers this week have made reference to Ghandi’s statement that the world is big enough for man’s (sic) need, but not for his greed. Biodiversity is our need. Profit is our greed. Let us be inspired and driven by biodiversity.

Bhagavad Gita. Sanskrit text. Translated by Susan Hawthorne.
Dawson, Graham. 2009.”Privatising climate policy.” On Line Opinion 17 Sep.
Diesendorf, Mark. 2009. “A call for citizen climate action.” On Line Opinion 18 Sep.
Harivamsa, Sanskrit text. Translated by Greg Bailey with poetic licence from Susan Hawthorne.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2002. Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity. Melbourne: Spinifex Press; 2008. New Delhi: Aakar Books.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2009. Earth’s Breath. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Holmström, Lakshmi, Subashree Krishnaswamy and K. Srilata (Eds.) 2009. The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry. New Delhi: Penguin/Viking.
Indigenous Knowledge of the Sea Protects Andaman Island Tribes from Tsunami. Zunia Knowledge Exchange. Accessed 14 Sep 2009.

Paper presented on 17 September 2009 at the International Conference on Climate Change and Environmental Sustainability in India and Canada: Approaches and Strategies. 16-18 September, 2009, University of Madras, Chennai