A Failure of Words: Climate Anxiety, Poetry, and the Internet // Farah Ghafoor

“Climate anxiety comes from personal inactivity,” argues Farah Ghafoor, in her contribution to our guest edited month exploring ecopoetics.

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I am not a long-term planner. Until recently, I tended to spitball answers to questions about my five-year or ten-year plan. I had only a few vague career goals, and no timeline in mind. You might assume, then, that I wouldn’t be too thrown off by a drastically changing future. I wish that was the case: planning makes me feel safe, focused, and grounded. So, being completely unable to create a game plan for a world that’s ruined in a way we’ve never seen before, I was extremely lost and anxious for an entire month last year.

I could barely sleep. I was searching for the point of attending university and working an entry-level job when the earth might barely be habitable in ten years. Uncontainable natural disasters are increasing in frequency and level of devastation. Climate change is already a driving force for environmental migration—it’s predicted up to one billion people will be forced out of their homes by 2050. If bees and other necessary species become extinct, we will not only be guilty of eliminating them, we’ll also have little to eat. Banks and large investors are buying up freshwater right under our noses. It felt like the end of the world was quickly approaching.

When I spoke to my friends and family about my climate anxiety, they told me not to think about it. On one hand, they had a point: how was I going to have a life worth living if I always thought about a desperate—albeit increasingly realistic—future? If I didn’t think about it, though, how was I going to help create a life worth living for everyone?

To get this impending sense of doom off my chest, I turned to poetry. I wrote with a sense of urgency to warn readers that everything might get worse. I wrote to calm myself, to understand my anxiety, and to overcome it. I was surprised to find that, after writing, my climate anxiety was still as strong and steady as an approaching tide.

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It’s easy to dismiss using paper straws as a less impactful way to combat climate change when cigarettes, plastic wrappers and containers, and bottles are the most common ocean pollutants. Plastic bags come in fourth, while straws and stirrers are seventh. In fact, the biggest source of overall ocean pollution—a whopping 80 percent—comes from runoff, including industrial agribusiness. A third of greenhouse gases are produced by only 20 fossil fuel-burning companies, many of which are state-owned, for oil, coal, and gas reserves. It seems there’s only so much you can do, when people continue to buy single-use plastics and fast fashion, and the corporations mostly responsible refuse to change their business models to create a sustainable future. This loss of hope inspires climate defeatism, and climate defeatism is a dead end.

Feelings of helplessness and fear, however, are not—and neither is climate anxiety. It’s urgent that people accept and process these emotions, especially because they’re a rational response to what’s happening. Some have argued for the term “climate awareness” instead of “climate anxiety” to help accept the crisis mentally. It’s necessary for people to reach a stage of concern so they can wake up, navigate this environmental crisis, and play their part for future generations.

Many people have difficulty writing—and justifying writing—in times of stress and uncertainty, as we are seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic. But our climate crisis, at least for most, feels distant enough to write about. It’s why I was able to write about it, despite Greta Thunberg’s words, “our house is on fire,” echoing in the back of my head. Not yet are most people worried about losing their source of income or their loved ones to this barely controllable disaster.

Ecological dialogue occurs through disrupting the system, and poetry has always been a form of protest—of amplifying voices that are traditionally pushed to the margins.

It’s clear that some of the poetry community has climate awareness, given the number of special environment-themed journal issues, but there is always another important and more immediate focus gripping the community. This is partly because much of the community is a relatively safe distance from current climate disaster, but also because of the prevalence of so many other systemic injustices—generally, we have a lot to talk about.

It’s a privilege to not be on the frontlines of climate action among Indigenous folks, farmers, and low-income people of colour—to not experience increasingly heavy rains, droughts, and pollution. It’s a privilege, then, to have climate anxiety instead of real-time climate awareness. It is therefore the community’s responsibility to spotlight more climate-related work by people facing the realities of climate change. I want to see more themed readings, open mics, anthologies, panels and workshops that will support and amplify these voices. I want to be reminded again and again of the current and future state of the earth through poetry, and I want to see new ideas, approaches, and attitudes toward climate actions and activism.

For poetry to have a far-reaching impact, the literary community must be flooded with climate-related work.

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Poetry is a means of documentation, a reminder, a tool, and a symbol. It is a beginning, and not a means to an end. Poetry has the ability to carry people through life, or become their life—but writing a poem will not make the future more sustainable unless it can change people’s minds and habits. I believe the same applies to other forms of art.

Poetry has always had a role in social justice movements by bringing attention to the cause. How much and whose attention can a poem bring to make it impactful to the movement? With every person who reads a poem and is inspired to act, the poem has a greater role.

Since the Internet became a medium for virtue signalling through a carefully constructed image of oneself, activism has appeared more and more online. In Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, she explains that before we cared so much about our online image, our online personas would simply reflect our offline image. She gives the example of going to protest at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would cut through Indigenous lands and potentially cause enormous environmental damage. Posting a picture of her protesting on social media would seem like an act of protest, an act of activism in and of itself.

But unless you live in a country with government-enforced censorship, expressing your views through an image or post without outside, meaningful action is not activism. Increased awareness is a cop-out for many celebrities: it allows them to be seen as supporting a cause, by posting about it to their millions of followers, but without actually donating. Poets who post about an issue often genuinely support it, yet their audiences may be limited.

Writing a poem about climate change or climate anxiety is by no means useless—but if you want to truly support a cause, you have to consider the audience and the impact. Often, you can’t control this. But you can control your own actions. If you have a larger platform, fundraise. Pressure your representatives on climate justice, voice your support for stronger environmental laws. Organize and attend protests, and relevant activities like tree-planting.

Climate anxiety comes from personal inactivity—and although impactful activism begins with empathy and awareness, it relies on power and reach.

Farah Ghafoor’s poems are forthcoming or published in Room, Ninth Letter, Big Lucks, Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019), and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for Best New Poets and Best of the Net. She is the editor-in-chief of Sugar Rascals Magazine and attends the University of Toronto.

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