Science and policy dominate the arenas of decision-making on climate change. From multilateral negotiations to pivotal assessment reports and international conferences, science and policy are essential to understanding the scale of the crisis and the pathways that can bring humanity back to safer shores. They are essential but also insufficient, especially if we aim to restore a sense of collective public agency – something so sorely lacking in negotiations for our common future.
More than ever, we need storytelling, arts and the humanities to generate new ways of responding to the challenge we face, which science has already sketched out for policymakers. Art touches our deepest emotions. Often we are compelled to act and move by our feelings more than by reason or logic. Artists and writers can make the invisible visible, revealing surprising connections we may have never considered before. They can change the way we perceive things and the way we act. We need their work – we need the humanities – far more than we think. Even science and policy rely on stories.
Today, language wielded in climate discourse is riddled with jargon, clichés and hot keywords. The words feel tired and worse, alienating, in the way they describe the state of our world: carbon footprint, mitigation, adaptation, slow onset events, fossil fuel, mainstreaming and sustainable development.
When technical expertise is privileged as the penultimate solution to climate-related issues, we tend to lose sight of the personal loss and grief accompanying the changes taking place in our very homes. Worse, we also lose the buoyancy of hope we will need as many confront deadly tides of despair and accelerated dispossession.
The impacts of climate change go beyond numbers defining degrees of temperature increase, billions of pesos in damage, thousands of families displaced, kilowatt hours of energy wasted or the cold economics behind reducing emissions. Yet we forget, and this forgetting leads many to believe the crisis is a far off reality or someone else’s concern. But it isn’t.
Consider this instead:
“Maybe forsaking my village and living in the city makes me a coward like everybody else. But I have to be a man and do what is necessary to get on with life. And am I not better off now? Here I am. I am back and I am ready to take my parents with me to a life of comfort in the city. But when Ibu hears my invitation, she retreats into the house. Bapak turns away from me as I plead with him to leave Limboto Lake.”
This is from the short story Legacy, written in Bahasa Indonesia by Darmawati Majid and translated into English by Nabiha Shahab. The story alludes to the complex histories and painful decisions that lead many young people to leave their homes, not just in Indonesia but also in the Philippines, Botswana, Colombia and other places hammered by droughts, floods, super typhoons and the violence of mining and logging. Reading this story is so different from studying policy papers on climate-related migration. We do not call ourselves climate refugees. Not yet.
Of the moot but persistent question on whether climate change is anthropogenic, the Congolese writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila counters in the poem, Prayer of a Child of the World:
“but is Bende to blame?
has anyone actually seen Bende putting his nose to the grindstone of this nonsense?
is it Bende who butchers the forests?
… have you seen Bende manufacturing trains, boats, planes and other things of that sort?”
For the Luba people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bende connotes God.
What if the urgent calls to end coal and fossil fuels were also a loving mother’s words of advice?
“One sniff would be too much… Released from Earth, it becomes a Monster. Kept in Earth, all is at peace.”
So speaks a woman widowed by a coal mining accident in the story Full Moon by Xiaojun Wang. As the woman’s daughter prepares for marriage, she hopes to protect her child from the pain and loss she went through.
In Nice Voice, the Marshallese poet and climate envoy Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner writes of the way stories are tempered or erased in climate negotiations.
“Don’t focus so much on the ‘doom and gloom’ they keep saying. We don’t want to depress. Everyone. This is only our survival.”
These excerpts are from the anthology Harvest Moon: Poems and Stories From the Edge of the Climate Crisis. Contributors to the anthology were given a list of 32 words and phrases that they were not allowed to use. The list included mainstays such as “global warming,” “natural disaster,” “adaptation finance,” “paradigm shift,” “neoliberal” and “climate change” itself.
Contributors were asked to respond to black and white photographs that captured people and their environments. The result of this creative process is a collection of over 30 literary pieces reshaping how climate change is conveyed and given meaning.
We do not need to lean on jargon. On the contrary, the very institutions that produce jargon need stories to get their messages across.
We still have time to do what’s necessary in order to prevent the more cruel and devastating impacts of climate change from worsening. In challenging assumptions and reimagining how we can survive and thrive together, art and the humanities can and will move and guide us through this period of planetary crisis.
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The authors are strategists for creative collaboration and communication of the Agam Agenda, a special project of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC). Harvest Moon is available in selected bookstores and on Shopee and Lazada.