The principal preoccupation of writers the world over

How do you defend the honour of the planet? It’s not a question that lends itself to the idea as Homer conceived of it in The Illiad, but it is nevertheless a question of honour. No one has stolen poor Helen away, but we are fast approaching a world where New York City will have to live with the prospect of permanent flooding; where (as one speaker reminded the audience at a conference at Columbia’s SIPA in the fall of last year) global coal use is planning to increase through 2040; where cracks appear in the Antarctic, China’s pollution is back on the rise (creating smog refugees) and large swathes of The Great Barrier Reef are bleached; where caribou could very well disappear from Canada, the ‘fish’ from ‘fish and chips’, and more; where there is a seeming contrast in imagining the world slowly ending, a world of The Island Will Sink – and then deciding to fight off the death by banning plastic bags from the supermarket.

The rhetoric of honour suggests an urgency that stands at odds with the necessary nature of the everyday, especially when faced with a seemingly apocalyptic situation. There is a further danger that this frame and its resulting reactions end up being too tiring and self-serious for too many to be concerned.

What sort of context is this honour operating in? It’s a world where chickens have Machiavellian personalities. It’s a world where, per The New York Times, an octopus once led someone by the hand to their den. Whales will tell other whales who they are and where they come from. Bats argue with each other. Cows seem to have an interesting relationship with music. Elephants grieve for their dead. Vahni Capildeo even went so far as to inform the Scottish Poetry Library that dog tails ‘conduct happiness’.

In citing these examples, I’m not asking for a Peter Singer-like world. I’m not asking for a Greenpeace-like world or one of ‘multispecies ethnography’. I’m not asking for a Tumblr politics, a Facebook politics, or a Snapchat politics (Twitter has defined itself well enough in that regard already), nor do I want to see a sell-off of federal land in the United States and a gutting of the EPA. I’m asking for the world.

And is the tipping point for that world coming? ‘I [take] enough leisurely walks of my own,’ Blair Braverman tells us in Against Nature Writing. ‘I [don’t] need to read about them, too … I prefer statistics, analysis, calls to action.’ The Los Angeles Review of Books takes note of the work of Amitav Ghosh, who mulls that ‘[I]f the urgency of a subject were indeed a criterion of its seriousness, then, considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over.’

And it’s encouraging to read, but a collection of trend pieces or a collection of opinions doesn’t make an actual trend or produce a set of measurable results. Just as the Brexit vote and the election of Trump reminded those of us with an engaged interest in the global political landscape that the firewall exists at the level of an actively engaged citizenry, so, too, does the future fate of the planet rest with us, so look to the practicalities, reach out to as many people as you can, and get to work. For instance, if the airport nearest you doesn’t allow you to choose how to offset your emissions for two dollars, as is about to be done at the airport in Austin, then you should start a campaign to pressure your local airport to do so (or, indeed, link up with an already existing campaign).

Macbeth never thought that Birnam Wood was capable of conquering a castle. That was his fatal mistake. If we organise, if we work, if we have a sense of the honour of the planet, it won’t be ours.


Image: ‘Climate change denial’ / Banksy

Evan Fleischer

Evan Fleischer is a writer at large. In addition to Overland, his work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, Lifted Brow, Guardian, Washington Post, and numerous other publications.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *