Psychological impacts of climate change: poetry to the rescue


Image: Earth Hour 2016

Was it any coincidence that Human Rights Day in South Africa fell on the same day as World Poetry Day – 21st March? Not if you consider how a number of South African poets shone a light on the injustices of the apartheid era – think of Ingrid Jonker’s ‘Die Kind’ / ‘The Child’, written after the 1960 Sharpeville massacres that followed anti-pass demonstrations, and read by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural presidential speech in 1994. Or the numerous contributions of Breyten Breytenbach, distinguished poet and human rights activist, and many others: Mongane Wally Serote, Antjie Krog, Lesego Rampolokeng, and on and on.

While still musing on this, the 22nd March was upon us, and that, of course was World Water Day. Just as I was trying to factor this into the picture, I realised that a few days earlier, we had turned out the lights for Earth Hour on Saturday 19th March, between 8.30 and 9.30 pm. So, apart from bemoaning too many commemorative days, was there anything to be made out of the sandwiching of Human Rights Day between Earth Hour and World Water Day, in my psyche at least?

The obvious connection is the well-documented link between climate change and human rights violations, often mediated through increasing water scarcity as well as unprecedented flooding. But a less obvious connection arises from something that has been simmering up onto the radar recently: the increasing despair experienced by climate scientists, as eloquently expressed by Camille Parmesan in a recent article on Grist.

More and more studies now reveal the unfolding psychological impacts of climate change. Lise van Susteren, an American forensic psychiatrist, has coined the term “pre-traumatic stress disorder” to describe the proliferating anxiety of playing over and over again in our minds the forecast effects. Nightmarish scenarios abound to play with – cracking and crashing ice sheets leading to rapid sea level rise, catastrophic releases of methane from the permafrost and the oceans, and superstorms that dwarf our ability to respond. Not to mention the ongoing chronic effects from more and more hot days and fewer and fewer cool nights on people and ecosystems.

All of this, it is safe to say, leads to existential despair. Should lead to existential despair, for any sane person. As we scramble, literally and figuratively, for higher ground, we will need our philosophers to help us make some meaning out of it all. But most of all, we will need our poets. We need them to help us bear witness to the catastrophic changes we are wreaking on the biosphere, and to express emotions like hope and despair, defiance and, ultimately, perhaps, acceptance. In the end, this may be what it comes to, after we have fought the good fights and maintained the hope that believes in a way forward I talked about in a previous blog. Together with the spiritually wise, our poets can help us to have a more heart-centred approach to these big challenges. They may also ease the right of passage into what often feels like a not-so-brave new world.

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