As the true fury of global warming begins to kick in—forests flash to ashes, storms tear away coastal villages, cities swelter in record-breaking heat, drought singes the Southwest, the Arctic melts—we come face to face with the full meaning of the environmental emergency: if climate change continues unchecked, scientists tell us, the world’s life-support systems will be irretrievably damaged by the time our children reach middle-age. The need for action is urgent and unprecedented.
We here issue a call to writers, who have been given the gift of powerful voices that can change the world. For the sake of all the plants and animals on the planet, for the sake of intergenerational justice, for the sake of children, we call on writers to set aside their ordinary work and step up to do the work of the moment—which is to stop the reckless and profligate fossil-fuel economy that is causing climate chaos.
That work may happen outside the academy, in the streets, in the halls of politics and power, in the new street theaters of creative disruption, all aimed at stopping industry from bringing down the systems that sustain life on earth. These efforts need the voices of writers, the genius of thought-leaders, the power of words and story.
But there is essential work to be done also in our roles as academics and writers, empowered by creative imagination, moral clarity, and the strength of true witness. Write as if your reader were dying, Annie Dillard advised. “What would you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” Now we must write as if the planet were dying. What would you say to a planet in a spasm of extinction? What would you say to those who are paying the costs of climate change in the currency of death? Surely in a world dangerously slipping away, we need courageously and honestly to ask again the questions every author asks: Who is my audience—now, today, in this world? What is my purpose?
Some kinds of writing are morally impossible in a state of emergency: Anything written solely for tenure. Anything written solely for promotion. Any solipsistic project. Anything, in short, that isn’t the most significant use of a writer’s life and talents. Otherwise, how could it ever be forgiven by the ones who follow us, who will expect us finally to have escaped the narrow self-interest of our economy and our age?
Some kinds of writing will be essential. We here invite creative thought about new or renewed forms our writing can take. Perhaps some of these will include:
The drum-head pamphlet. Like Thomas Paine, writing on the head of a Revolutionary War drum, lay it out—lay out the reasons why extractive cultures must change their ways. Lay out the reasons that inspire the activists. Lay out the reasons that shame the politicians. Lay out the reasons that are a template for decision-makers.
The “broken-hearted hallelujah.” Like Leonard Cohen, singing of loss and love, make clear the beauty of what we stand to lose or what we have already destroyed. Celebrate the microscopic. Celebrate the children who live in the cold doorways and shanty camps. Celebrate the swamp at the end of the road. Leave no doubt of the magnitude of their value and the enormity of the crime, which is to let them pass away unnoticed. These are elegies, these are praise songs, these are love stories.
The witness. Like Cassandra howling at the gates of Troy, bear witness to what you know to be true. Tell the truths that have been bent by skilled advertising. Tell the truths that have been concealed by adroit regulations. Tell the truths that have been denied by fear or complacency. Go to the tar fields, go to the broken pipelines. Tell that story. Be the noisy gong and clanging cymbals, and be the love.
The narrative of the moral imagination. With stories and novels and poems, take the reader inside the minds and hearts of those who live the consequences of global warming. Who are they? How do they live? What consoles them? Powerful stories teach empathy, build the power to imagine oneself into another’s place, to feel others’ sorrow, and so take readers outside the self-absorption that allows the destruction to continue.
The radical imaginary. Re-imagine the world. Push out the boundaries of the human imagination, too long hog-tied by mass media, to create the open space where new ideas can flourish. Maybe it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism or fossil fuels or terminal selfishness. But this is the work that calls us—to imagine new life-ways into existence. Writers may not be able to save the old world, but they can help create the new one.
The indictment. Like Jefferson listing the repeated injuries and usurpations, let facts be submitted to a candid world. This is the literature of outrage. How did we come to embrace an economic system that would wreck the world? What iniquity allows it to continue?
The apologia. Finally, this: write to the future. Try to explain how we could allow the devastation of the world, how we could leave those who follow us only an impoverished, stripped, and dangerously unstable time. Ask their forgiveness. This is the literature of prayer. Is it possible to write on your knees, weeping?
Kathleen Dean Moore is the co-editor of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril; Scott Slovic is the editor of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment.
Thank you, yes, we need writers to write as much as we need climate activists to act.
Beautiful. Very well said. You two comfort & inspire me.
Fantastic! Thanks for this – I may re-blog it on my site, Writing with Spirit. I often feel alone and as if I’m annoying my readers by constantly whining about climate change. Your post makes me feel hopeful that my gifts can be used to make a difference.
After 27 years banging my head against the marble walls of congress as a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, I’m working on my thesis in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins – you give me a road map for next steps in my life as an instrument of peace on earth. Thanks!
Orion has its longstanding policy of refusing to read over-the-transom poetry submissions. With the population explosion of poets these days, I can empathize with how a magazine staff would fear opening the floodgates to receive overwhelming oceans of poetry submissions. Nonetheless, as an eco poet who has proven myself through having been published in very competitive magazines, who volunteered a year of my life to anti-coal activism, who carries out ecological restoration on my farm, and who has been answering this article’s call-to-action for many years, I feel some cognitive disconnect that Orion is publishing this article passionately calling for a type of poetry that Orion won’t read unless one of its staff or their circle knows the poet. I use myself as an example to make a larger point: can Orion truly support and represent eco poetry with this policy? In any event, I’ll continue to subscribe to Orion because it’s indispensible. But I pose this question which I think the editorial staff should seriously consider. Thanks.
Ok, here is a bit of writing on the current state of affairs.
Capitalism has failed to provide a fair and equitable society but it has done a splendid job of encouraging the worst in human nature in order to sell itself. Yes, feel free to feed your vanity and greed there is a sucker born every minute and ripe for the picking. â€œEat um up and spit them outâ€ is our true national motto.
The predatory form of capitalism that we practice is basically the old law of the jungle where might makes right and the strong prey on the weak. Themâ€™s with the capital call the tunes and the rest of us dance to it if we know what is good for us.
In our modern jungle the most aggressive and unethical of our species rise to the top and control the show in board rooms and war rooms just as they have for thousands of years. The biggest bullies, those who are willing to be the most violent and unprincipled will always have the advantage thatâ€™s how it works on planet earth and capitalism has proven to be a gold mine for them.
Despite any other lesson being brought up in this culture means being taught that money is first and foremost the bottom line and that it doesnâ€™t matter how you get it fair or foul itâ€™s all the same in the end. Money has no morality and when it is elevated to the top of a cultures system of values it naturally pulls the culture in that direction.
And now that we have become the living embodiment of our values we are beginning to see the results of our choices and it is not a pretty picture. Who could have guessed that when you make wealth and power the prime consideration of your culture it would pull everything down around it?
To be blunt when you chose to worship money you are dabbling with the root of evil and evil will seep in and corrupt every sphere of the culture it comes in contact with. Look what money has done to politics, look what money has done to the arts and sports, look what money has done with health care, look what money has done for the MIC, everywhere you look the love of money has defiled justice and common decency, its stench is pervasive.
This is a beautiful, inspiring, and uncompromising post. I struggle with this question, as a writer–what should I be writing? What is the most useful thing I can research/try to understand/bring to light? (Sometimes, what I want to write is not so useful, but I promise I’m not writing for tenure.) Maybe the key is, no matter what we are working on, to connect it always to something larger. (Janisse Ray, nice to see you here! I will be reading your work with a group of high school seniors from Eastern NC for a special project next week.)
I love this post! Thank you so much. I just discovered Orion this summer while I was at Bread Loaf working on my own writing… WE must speak out as writers, I totally agree, and speak the truth, like Cassandra. Please visit us at Green Writers Pressâ€”we should collaborate! Our new book, “So Little Time,” is coming out November 1st!
Thanks, Dede, yes, let’s be in touch. Reach me at email@example.com