Can poetry produce cultural change?

Poetry in this crisis may seem like displacement but it could be an agent of change

We have been warned “for over three decades of the dangers of allowing the planet to warm. The world listened but didn’t hear…” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN environment programme. Some of us heard long ago and worried ourselves sick; disenfranchised by the times, we resorted to various forms of art: paintings, sculptures, stories, poems, and songs that we hoped would open minds both to impending disaster and to fundamentally simple solutions.

The most recent UN report, published on August 9th, confirms that the hot weather spikes, weakening Gulf Stream, melting ice sheets, floods and fires we witness and record this year are unequivocally due to human-made climate change: mainly through the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) in combustion engines (cars, planes, earthmovers) and elsewhere (generators, data-centres, fires). It is too big a task for any one individual to stop our machine-driven forward momentum into disaster, but if billions of us independently declare a state of extreme emergency, then we may yet collectively keep the warming below two degrees, preserve ecosystems and retain species in danger of being lost forever.

Writing a poem in this emergency may seem like displacement – where the mind focuses on an achievable aim, avoiding an unwinnable challenge – but perhaps poetry can be a real agent of change. Artists are not weak or soft. To dream, plan and act against intimidating odds, one must be tough as nails.

Individual thinkers who reject conformism for truth need deep strength to endure their loneliness. Independent wordsmiths use language to discover and paint a whole: unconstrained by linear logic, commercial interests or reductionist paradigms. How many saplings are the equivalent of a mature oak tree with its hundreds of years worth of accumulated biodiversity – lichens, fungi, beetles, jays? What is the economic value of bees?


If one sees the whole, what we are taught to be sharp, quantitative measures seem not only painfully limited but also dangerously misleading and intellectually empty. The independent mind must choose its own language.

Artists use the imaginative power of their emotions, their hearts and minds, challenged by their intellects. Art is one of the few places where the independent and the inconvenient are lauded: surely a platform to reveal what conformity can hide so an observer may learn, almost unknowingly, truths they have ignored.

"…the surgeon is gentle
and reconstructs the inner ear
so we can hear
even the sound
of an owl
landing on her feathered feet,
and smell
the cheap
stink of jumbo jet fuel
from two miles down, pinned to the ground
like rabbits frozen in mid-bound."

The current environmental crisis has gone beyond record keeping, investigation and warning. It is insufficient, defeatist and woefully passive to state “we are living through the sixth mass extinction”. Will the human species live through such an extinction event if we allow it to happen? Can our species live without the diversity of plants and animals that have accompanied and evolved with us for millions of years, from the metaphorical Garden of Eden that was the undisturbed Earth until we destroyed it?

Instead of the inevitability of “the sixth mass extinction” we need to fill our minds with hope, energy and clear intent. Many have found the practice and discipline of poetry and the power of still observation to be a wellspring of joy and hope.

When I landed in Los Angeles airport over 30 years ago to pursue a PhD in biology, I felt instantly and profoundly what we might call environmental culture shock, and this changed me more than any of the formal education I was so lucky to get:

"Out of the air to smog-hot streets, big cars purring
past the impossible afternoon bus-stop
waiting in refracted light, in post cards with palm trees
dungeon culture, all night talking…"

It is the environmental writer’s task, using language and images, to imagine and sculpt a path out of the concrete jungle and the overheated present. As we walk by, casting our strings of words, we might blow cooling mists over heat-hazed lands and restore the seasons to their normal course.

Jane Robinson is writer-in-residence for the Red Line Book Festival, 2021. Poems are quoted from Journey to the Sleeping Whale (Salmon Poetry, 2018). As part of her residency, Robinson will lead a course online, free and open to the public to apply, titled: Unroar – Outdoor Poetry in a Time of Ecological Crisis. Apply here.