Post #2 in the series, from the preface to Upcycling Ecopoetry

“Change the story” doesn’t guarantee success.  There’s plenty of contemporary skepticism about what Parul Sehgal, Amit Chaudhuri, Christian Salmon, and others have called the contemporary “narrative turn” in many fields, including medicine, religion, and law, not to mention cultural studies like literary and art criticism, or ecopoetics.  Stories seeming to bring climate apocalypse into focus can easily paralyze us with despair or numb us into indifference.  And—just as dangerous—stories promoting “good” outcomes can tempt us to buy their cheap therapy, feel-good exercises to make us feel better and avoid facing the problems.  Doubts about stories and the ethical value of the imagination go back a long way—to Plato at least.[i]

Still, it’s clear we humans need to be able to carry on a conversation about how, as a species, we are living in a way that is poisoning the Earth and other species on it, not just causing a lot of misery to our fellow humans.  Those of us who live in “developed” countries are the ones chiefly at fault—though many, perhaps the majority, refuse to accept that inconvenient truth.  Rishika Pardikar reminds us that the nations of the Global North (Europe, North America, Asia, and the Gulf states) are currently responsible for 92 percent of all carbon emissions.[ii]  

Why can’t we also talk about how some people have worked out ways to live that aren’t so damaging to the planet?  Those who have done so seem to have a pretty good understanding about why inequality in past and present human societies is linked to peoples’ views about “nature” and how they treat it.  Extraction economies that view nature as simply full of dangers to control and resources to plunder also—no surprise—tend to treat “foreign” other people in the same way.  Story-worlds like DuneAvatar, or The Last of Us; the many iterations of the Star Wars universe, including The Mandalorian; or the fictions of Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin—they all explore on cosmic scales the connections between empire, resource exploitation, climate disasters, slavery, genocide, and hybridized new species.  They also imagine how small bands of rebels or exiles might survive, and what factors would make rebellions successful against top-down imperial systems.

We like to think there’s a tech fix for the climate problem, even though tech innovations in the past generated unintended consequences—including some of the causes for why we’re in a new fix now.  Some like to believe in engineering climate miracles so we can go on living the way we are; we’ll just need to scale up “cleaner” sources of energy and invent clever ways to decrease pollution and “capture” carbon.  But tech climate-change solutions are easily gamed; corporations, including banks, have an incentive to profit off the new even as they continue to support fossil-fuel production.  We need to engineer changes, no question—but we need also to be sure real improvements in global climate futures are being accomplished.

The planet needs fixes like carbon capture and other pollution abatements, plus expanding forests, marshes, and grasslands—which, by the way, are more efficient carbon sinks than anything humans can invent.  But what is really needed is a human lifestyle and consciousness fix, especially for the richest 25% of humanity world-wide most responsible for Anthropocene climate instability.  But how do you incentivize a change in consciousness and, with it, behavior?

[i] Solnit’s essay—as well as Chaudhury’s and others’ arguments from Plato to the present for and against imaginative narrative’s powers—are expertly summarized by Parul Sehgal, “The Tyranny of the Tale,” The New Yorker, July 3, 2023,, accessed July 9, 2023.  

[ii] Rishika Pardikar, “Global North Is Responsible for 92% of Excess Carbon Emissions,” Eos, October 28, 2020, Accessed February 8, 2024. 

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