The thing I fear most is diminishment. It is a particular horror to be alive right now, in this Sixth Great Extinction, one of the only humans in all of history to see our skies emptied; our coral bleach to bones; our forests razed. This planet becoming less. As a British adult, part of this horror also lies in my complicity. Most of the worst damage to the earth has happened within the spell of my lifetime, and yes, I have bought disposable nappies, beefburgers, wet-wipes, mobile tablets, hand-soap made with palm oil, cheese, cheap T-shirts, pesticide-sprayed mangoes, plastic-wrapped meal deals, soy sauce and air-freighted avocados. I have, in other words, participated in ordinary British life, which is to live with the impossibility of goodness, such is the society we have constructed for ourselves. Try popping into a UK supermarket on the way home from work and filling a basket without ethically compromising yourself at least a dozen times. I feel guilty about these individual choices I make and have made, but I am also increasingly angry about how hard it has been for individuals to choose differently. If we are to halt or even slow this process of diminishment, we have to restructure everything.
I want to believe that poetry can play a part in the struggle against extinction. We need to change the language of politics – just asking news channels to refer to the ‘climate crisis’ instead of ‘climate change’ has changed the tone of the debate – and poetry can help shape this language. Poetry is also a technology for paying attention. Whilst the news-cycle is caught up in bigger narratives, poetry makes us notice the specific and small: High Brown Fritillary, Ghost Orchid, Tansy Beetle. But for the last twenty years there have been plenty of well-intentioned poets in the UK writing eco-poems (I count myself among them and wrote a climate play in 2004), and it has made nothing happen. This issue’s focus comes out of my growing conviction that we don’t need to hear more eco-poetry from the privileged West, but from places where the climate crisis is already a lived reality and immediate existential threat. Such poetry confronts us with the urgency of climate justice. It bears witness to all our futures, telling us that this Sixth Great Extinction is coming for humans too: our cultures, our homes, our histories, our words, our lives. As Zoque poet and activist Mikeas Sánchez memorably puts it, in Wendy Call’s translation, the deal the ‘masters of barbarity’ have made is:
One million dollars
for your children’s smiles
as they run in the rain.
Studies now suggest that language loss and biodiversity loss can be directly related, with environmental knowledge embedded in indigenous names, taxonomies and oral literature. One of the themes of this focus is the link between endangered languages and endangered ecosystems. For this MPT would particularly like to thank Chris McCabe for putting together a roundtable discussion of poets featured in his recent anthology Poems from the Edge of Extinction, a remarkable and important book I could not recommend more highly. Many thanks also to John Fanshawe and the CCI, Anna Selby, Craig Santos Perez and Emelihter Kihleng for their support with the pages on Pacific poetry.
I will not pretend this focus is full of hope, but I hope it is full of truth.