Hope you had a pleasant, restful and bright holiday break. A happy New Year’s to all!
For my Christmas, Santa hauled down the chimney a lode of books for me, mostly poetry though a fat novel was crammed there too — Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi Anthropocene epic, The Ministry of the Future. I’m about halfway through and hooked.
The quote from Brian Eno I keep repeating, turning over and again like a skeleton key for what’s ahead:
I can’t conceive of a future where there isn’t a threat. I think we’re in for a hard ride for maybe half a century. Then it will either be the end of civilization or a reborn humanity with a different set of ideas about who we are and where we belong and how we must relate to things in order to survive.
Well, it could easily serve as a blurb for Robinson’s novel — it may indeed be its source —which looks directly into the fast-exploding crisis of our warming Earth, the failure of human agency to address it and the magnitude of work and commitment needed to effect a change—all with an astonishing degree of difficult hope.
How much work? That’s the task undertaken by the Ministry of the Future to decide, formed a couple of years after the publication of Robinson’s book by the fictional COP29 held in Bogata, Columbia. The committee is given authority to advocate for the rights of future generations, to look for and advocate actions that can be taken now to relieve future suffering due to climate change.
It’s absolutely boggling work. Robinson’s assessment of the scale at which change needs to happen fast reads like science fiction, but only in the sense of realities writ large. One needs to look ten or twenty years into the future to read our moment with greater clarity.
These are a few of the unsettling realities Robinson has the Ministry of the Future tackle:
- Wet-bulb heat events surpassing the deadly level of 35 (for example, 115 degrees F at 50% humidity, or 102F at 75%) are increasing worldwide.
- The insurance market is about to collapse, failing to cover a hockey-stick graph of rising pay-outs due to climate disasters.
- Ninety nine percent of all meat alive is made of humans and their domestic beasts. Only 20 percent of the fish now in oceans are wild.
- The number of species threatened with extinction is now at Permian levels, the worst extinction event ever. The unfolding sixth extinction event will take about 20 million years to fill back in the current abundance of species.
- Theoretically, all 8 billion of the Earth’s human inhabitants could live at a comfortable level if all of the world’s wealth were shared equally, but today some two billion live so poorly that people of the Upper Paleolithic lived more comfortably. The three richest people on earth own more in financial assets than the combined wealth of all the people in the 48 poorest countries on earth combined.
- Scientists estimate that we can burn about 500 more gigatons of fossil carbon before we push the average global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius higher than when the industrial revolution began, but there is about 3,000 gigatons of fossil carbon still in the ground worth about $1.5 trillion US dollars, all of it owned by interests intent on getting paid their share before it’s too late. They are merciless in their manipulation.
Summoning the will to even look soberly at looming dimensions of the immanent problem comes from a fictional but all-to-real future event, a massive heat-humidity wave in India that kills 20 million over two weeks. World governments agonize, wring their hands and go back to their usual slow and ineffectual paths to zero-carbon sustainable living; but the people of India are radicalized. Governing parties are voted out, industries are nationalized, foreign interests are booted. A weak attempt at geo-engineering (loosing particulate into the atmosphere causes on one degree drop over India for several years) show both the difficulties of cost and scale and the need to learn and do more.
The Ministry of the Future is earnest, talented and funded, but as an agency of the United Nations they are weak in mandate and ineffectual moving the levers of world finance and governments toward change. How radical must their work become to truly advocate for future life?
Shocking events — like the all-too-real killing heat wave in India — suggest the world is ready to change, but the roots of capitalism are deep and will not pull up easily or readily or willingly:
For a while … it looked like the great heat wave would be like mass shootings in the United States — mourned by all, deplored by all, and then immediately forgotten or superceded by the next one, until they came in a daily drumbeat and became the new normal. It looked quite possible that the same thing would happen with this event, the worst week in human history. How long would that stay true, about being the worst week? And what could anyone do about it? Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: the old saying had grown teeth and was taking on a literal, vicious accuracy. (25)
I’m not a big reader of science fiction, but Robinson’s novel reads like nonfiction plus. Observe how he imagines the pulse of the next decade:
The thirties were zombie years. Civilization had been killed but it kept walking the Earth, staggering toward some fate even worse than death.
Everyone felt it. The culture of the time was rife with fear and anger, denial and guilt, shame and regret, repression and the return of the repressed. They went through the motions, always in a state of suspended dread, always aware of their wounded status, wondering what massive stroke would next fall, and how they would manage to ignore that one too, when it was already such a huge effort to ignore the ones that had happened so far, a string of them going all the way back to 2020. Certainly the Indian heat wave stayed a big part of it. They could neither face it nor forget it, they couldn’t think about it but they couldn’t not thin about it, not without a huge subconscious effort. The images. The sheer numbers …
And yet they still burned carbon. They drove cars, ate meat, flew in jets, did all the things that had caused the heat wave and would cause the next one. Profits still were added up in a way that lead to shareholder dividends. And so on.
Everyone knew that not enough was being done, and everyone kept doing too little. Repression of course followed it, it was all too Freudian, but Freud’s model for the mind was the steam engine, meaning containment, pressure, and release. Repression thus built up internal pressure, then the return of the repressed was a release of that pressure. It could be vented or it could simply blow up the engine. How then people in the thirties? A hiss or a bang? The whistle of vented pressure doing useful work, as in some functioning engine? No one could say, and so they staggered on day to day, and the pressure kept building. (227-8)
Who doesn’t sense this pressure building today? Robinson keeps the kettle heating close and closer to full boil while at the same time exploring greater and more forceful attempts to let off steam before it’s too late. Speed and scale are of the essence; resistance becomes all the more dogged and insane. There are those who are willing to push harder than the law allows to get people to change. Ideals are questioned, values are radicalized. Other communities and states begin their own path to change. A town runs out of water and learns how to work collectively to put every drop to use. The commons is established once again but at the cost of personal (neoliberal) freedom. The state of California networks its environmental efforts into a unified calibrated response. Scientists experiment with pipelines that lift seawater from melting glaciers back onto the ice, slowing down sea-level rise.
The book is terrifying and exhilarating at once. If Wendell Berry’s words about challenge —in poetry or life — is true —“its difficulty is its possibility” — then our frightening future is the most fertile field of all.
Whatever we have we can bring to the task – even our ruin and despair. In one town in India devastated by the heat wave, there is only one survivor, and life after become a struggle for psychic survival which means “crushing your hopes into the proper channel”:
Thus, in his case, no more hoping that he would become normal again. That he would live a normal life. That what had happened would not have happened. Forget all that. Therapy taught him to give up those hopes. Hope would have to reside in something like this: hope to do some good, no matter how fucked up you are. (64)
Our earth hope may need to find similar roots — alternatives are scarce and probably illusory.
For this week’s challenge, turn a radical edge or corner in a poem. What does it take to uproot an entrenched problem and responde a wholly new way? Your subject doesn’t have to be political or even environmental in theme; just find the contours of something ill-rooted whose only healthy way forward will take more than well-turned phrase. Alternately, you could create your own Ministry of the Future and speak to the present from what’s to come; or conceive of something implemented today which would have vastly improved results for the future, like planting seedlings in clearcut forests or coming up with a means for redistributing massively stolen wealth. And how to harrow the bones of neoliberalism?
What poetic can describe the sort of being necessary for seeing humanity through the change? What rules would have to be broken, how violent must be the change? And what definition of hope is sufficient for drastic times?
Maybe it’s a new poem, or one that turned a big corner for you in the past.
‘Cause we’re in now for it for sure, and our future is watching carefully …
We desperately await your response!
PS 2023 is ripe with possibility for future challenges if you are willing to participate. My well is limited and earthweal needs your help. Message me at email@example.com to sign on for future challenges.
ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO
Ranier Maria Rilke
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
— from New Poems (1907), transl. Stephen Mitchell
AMERICAN SONNET FOR MY PAST AND FUTURE ASSASSIN
Rilke ends his sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo” saying
“You must change your life.” James Wright ends “Lying
In a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island,
Minnesota” saying “I have wasted my life.” Ruth Stone ends
“A Moment” saying “You do not want to repeat my life.”
A minute seed with a giant soul kicking inside it at the end
And beginning of life. After the opening scene where
A car bomb destroys the black detective’s family, there are
Several scenes of our hero at the edge of life. A shootout
In the middle of an interstate rest stop parking lot,
A barn shootout endangering the farm life. I live a life
that burns a hole through life, that leaves a scar for life
That makes me weep for another life. Define life.
THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING
Phuong T. Vuong
Who decides where a river starts? When there are enough
sources, current strong and water wide enough for its name?
In Colorado, the Chama begins in smaller creeks and streams,
flows into New Mexico to form the Rio Grande, splitting Texas
and Mexico (who decided?) and moves deeper south. I think
these thoughts by a creek on a beating hot day,
as water rips by in rapids propelled, formed in mountains far above.
The water icy even in this summer heat. People grin
some false bravery, scared to sit in tubes and dip into the tide
to be carried away. I think of drowning. Of who sees water
as fun. Who gets to play in a heatwave. Who trusts
the flow. Migrants flowing in the Rio Grande haunt me, so
I think of families tired of waiting, of mercy that never comes,
of taking back Destiny. The rivers must have claimed more
this year. Know no metering but the rush of their mountain
source’s melt. A toddling child follows her father into water’s
pull. Think of gang’s demands, of where those come from. Trickles
of needs meeting form a flow of migrants. Think of where
it begins. Think of the current of history — long, windy, but
traceable and forceful in its early shapes.
— from The Best American Poetry 2021
BONES AT THE RIVER
When the river changed course
and washed the land away,
each bend grew sharper.
Water takes what it wants.
This time, it says, I will take
earth from where your people
The river was once far from our graveyard
but this Washita changed course,
stole earth and carried it
on the snaking back of its current.
Now it passes through
the place where my people are buried.
We are those
who came from the ones
who survived, buried in that place
after the walking death trail
from Mississippi. Missa Sipokna.
We walked into this lost foreign place
having no home,
no body of peace,
just the papers
of those who made promises not held.
Now our bones are revealed like truth.
We’ve taken up tow
from once invisible lives,
lost names, lost horses,
our lost relations
who would have loved us.
From some other place they do.
And I think what they feel in that force of water.
We lived and traveled by water.
It was our life. So I say to our bones, Yes, go!
— from A History of Kindness (2020)
If I had never walked the snow fields, heard the iced birch,
leant against the wind hard toward distant houses, ever distant,
wind in the coat, snow over the boot tops, supper fires
in windows far across the stubbly farms, none of them
my house until the end, the last, and late, always late, despite how early
I’d set off wearing gloves of glass, a coat standing up by itself.
If I had never reached the house, but instead lain down in the drifts
to finish a dream, if I had finished, would I have
reached the rest of my life, her, now, with you whispering:
must not sleep, not rest, must not take flight, must wake.
What does it mean to live a moral life
It is nearly impossible to think about this
We went down to the creek
The sides were filled
with tiny watery activities
The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more
& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought
Had lobbied the Congress but it was dead
Had written to the Committee on Understanding
Had written to the middle
middle of the middle
class but it was drinking
Had voted in cafes with shoplifters &
beekeepers stirring tea made of water
hitched to the green arc
An ethics occurs at the edge
of what we know
The creek goes underground about here
The spirits offer us a world of origins
Owl takes its call from the drawer of the sky
Unusually warm global warming day out
A tiny droplet shines
on a leaf & there your creek is found
It has borrowed something to
link itself to others
We carry ourselves through the days in code
DNA like Raskolnikov’s staircase neither
good nor bad in itself
Lower frequencies are the mind
What happened to the creek
is what happened
to the sentence in the twentieth century
It got social underground
You should make yourself uncomfortable
If not you who
Thrush comes out from the cottony
coyote bush glink-a-glink
turns a golden eyebrow to the ground
We run past the plant that smells like taco sauce
Recite words for water
weeter wader weetar vatn
[insert all languages here]
Poor Rimbaud didn’t know how to live
but he knew how to act
Red-legged frog in the pond sounds like him
Uncomfortable & say a spell:
blossom knit & heel affix
fiddle fern in the neck of the sun
It’s hard to be water
to fall from faucets with fangs
to lie under trawlers as horizons
but you must
Your species can’t say it
You have to do spells & tag them
Uncomfortable & act like you mean it
Go to the world
Where is it
— title poem of Hillman’s 2010 collection
The earth said
The earth said
don’t let go,
said it one day
when I was
heard it, I felt it
all said in a
morrow, make right be-
fall, you are not
free, other scenes
are not taking
place, time is not filled,
time is not late, there is
a thing the emptiness
needs as you need
shrinks from light again &
again, although all things
are present, a
fact a day a
bird that warps the
arithmetic of per-
fection with its
arc, passing again &
again in the evening
air, in the pre-
vailing wind, making no
difference is yr
the mind says all the
time—I hear it—I
hear it every-
where. The earth
I am the
earth it said. Re-
— Poetry, Jan. 2020
The water poems really
Moved me. Here’s another one: https://erbiage.wordpress.com/2023/01/02/the-sun-sets-in-the-ocean/
Gah. I might have to read that book, if I can bear to. I love “Poem” – “the earth said remember me.” Heartbreaking. This morning a poet friend in Africa said the drought and famine there is so bad, whole herds of camels are experiencing terrible agonizing deaths. People too, I imagine. And world leaders gabble on. Talktalktalk. I just made the rounds of the open link. Have been too tired to keep up, but so glad I didnt miss those wonderful poems. Thanks, Brendan, for all you do. I hope some extra hands turn up to help.
Hi Rob, looks like your poem “Looking For America” didn’t link properly. Can you try again? Brendan