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Poetry’s Beautiful Answer To Climate Change

Let’s be real. With climate change, we keep hitting one emergency tripwire after another. An all-time high-temperature record here, a melting ice shelf there, followed by new dire warnings that are increasingly hard to ignore. It’s exhausting and scary.

It is beginning to feel like that thought experiment where we’re told to imagine how many bolts we could remove from the wing of an airplane before disaster occurs. So we start taking the bolts out of the wing, one by one. The wing is strong and has been built with much redundancy, however, in the end physics will be physics. Which brings us to the three overarching votes that will ultimately be cast, determining the fate of humans and climate change alike.

The first vote is ours as human beings. We’ve earned our vote with our incredible success on planet earth, at least so far. The second vote goes to nature, which, of course, makes perfect sense. But now we get to the challenge of the third and final vote, which is reality. It turns out that reality definitely has the tie-breaking say in this matter.

And here is the problem. Reality is now being swayed heavily by nature. And nature is not doing so well these days. This is because nature responds to both truth and beauty. Now more than ever, we humans must reset our own deep response and engagement to and with nature, by changing the way we see and experience the natural world. And one of the most powerful and effective ways to do this is by turning to the unique beauty and truth of poetry.

More specifically, by serving up fresh new meaningful metaphors and stunningly beautiful visionary images, great poems can change (and maybe even save) the world from the devastating climate disruption that is barreling down upon us all.

Also, let me set down a marker with a bold assertion. We are past the time when anything but beauty can work to address climate change. More on my swaggering claims about poetry and beauty in just a moment.

First, let me back paddle into a little more context starting with a statement that makes me shudder just saying it. All transformation begins in language and poetry is language at its most condensed, beautiful and powerful.

And while I’m making bold statements, let me sprawl out by adding that it is poetry that embraces, embodies, and digests almost anything, including grief, joy, loss, hard truths, beauty, old tires, plastic bottles and even oil spills. And especially don’t forget that paradoxes, ambiguities and all manner of human contradictions are also warmly welcomed and integrated inside great poems.

Wasn’t it the poet, Walt Whitman who famously said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes…”

For years, my life’s work has been helping unleash the power of poetry in our work and home lives, in service to amplifying the joys and triumphs, while also helping to alleviate the challenges and losses we all face as human beings. For example, regarding our interior lives, poetry helps us remember and connect with what is most genuine and precious in ourselves, helping us understand the world better.

The right poems can grow our hearts and minds, re-balance our lives, inspire us, invite us to feel greater levels of gratitude and hope, and finally help us grieve and heal from just about any loss life may send our way.

While some poems specialize in addressing a single deep human need, certain poems go after all or many of them at once. Miracle poems, I call them. Remember what that famous scientists of our interior selves, Sigmund Freud, once said, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”

Now, back to climate disruption and saving the world…

The good news for our profoundly hurting planet is that once we have tapped into the power of poetry to help us more fully connect to what is true and precious in ourselves, we are more naturally inclined to also feel a deeper connection to others and in particular, the great other (i.e., the environment) all around us.

And it is this reorientation toward, and deeper connection with, the great other that gives us a glimmer of hope concerning climate change. But only if we get the metaphors, and therefore our deep cultural understandings right. Again, don’t forget that all transformation begins in language.

Therefore, as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “Every word is a prejudice.” Of course, he was right. Words are loaded with assumptions and meanings that largely fly below the radar screen of our consciousness. To put it plainly, we create language and then language creates us.

And if this is true about words, then metaphors wildly multiply the effect, acting as virtual railroad tracks delivering us to whole (often unquestioned) realities and perspectives about the world.

For example, the business world where I worked for years is filled with military metaphors. Let’s rally the troops, train the front-line employees, so we can win the great battle with our competition. “Yes,” you say, “But what’s the problem here?” Just this. Such metaphors can set up all manner of combative perspectives and attitudinal stances that are simply not helpful. Who is the enemy anyway? Our customers? Our team members? Who indeed?

Another example is the metaphor used after the NY City attacks on 9/11. We called it an act of war as opposed to a crime. With acts of war, what follows, of course, are large military actions, mass deaths, and vast resources spent. With crimes, on the other hand, come detectives, police and/or small numbers of special troops, and ultimately legal action. All this at a fraction of the cost of war, in both treasure and lives. Metaphors matter. They are deeply foundational. They largely control what we see and do in the world. We must choose them carefully.

Now, when it comes to the natural world, notice one of the most popular metaphors we use. Of course, it is natural resources, where we see an entire worldview wrapped up in a single phrase. It’s a perspective that perceives the earth as a dead, objective thing to be technically poked, prodded and dominated.

Other non-human species are shoved into a similar category. Yes, eagles, cows and elephants are alive but they are still considered “its” to be bred, controlled, sometimes eaten, and always counted as commodities.

For clarity, let’s call what we’ve been describing as the “natural resources” view of the world. And, let’s be clear that it will not work, at least not in any sustainable way. Meeting the challenges of climate disruption will require far too much sacrifice, energy and yes, full-hearted effort to ever be resolved with a traditional “natural resources” frame. That is to say, with a set of beliefs and assumptions that define the environment as a dead, soulless commodity and we human beings as disconnected masters of a grand, manipulated universe.

Think of the last few lines in David Wagoner’s wonderful poem, Lost.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

Consider this radically beautiful view that Wagoner provides. These are trees and bushes as fellow creatures in an infinitely valuable and spiritual realm.

Are we lost? Yes, but not in the way our smartphones with their GPS can remedy.

And can you imagine destroying the land by fracking oil in such a wondrous place as Wagoner describes? No! We don’t destroy what we regard as beautiful. Also, just as there are human rights, there must now be earth and creature rights.

Or consider how Wallace Stevens put it in a few lines from, The Snow Man.

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun;

Having a mind of winter, we no longer see or experience ourselves as separate from the world. It means we have fully entered the web of life and will conduct ourselves in radically different, more skillful ways.

Also, another Wallace, the great writer Wallace Stegner said something quite poetic in his famous Wilderness Letter that feels right to repeat here.

“What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded–but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them. I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.”

Of course, Stegner is turning the word and meaning of “resource” on its head. Consider how wonderfully radical these poetic words were when first written. They still are. More! We need more beautifully radical words now.

As poet, William Stafford warned in his poem, A Ritual To Read To Each Other, we currently have ample proof we are following the wrong god home.

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

Now, more than ever we must fully re-mem-ber and connect with ourselves, others, and for sure the great other. And the order of that remembering and connecting does not matter. Each of us will have our own path where the inward and outward mysteriously meet. It’s a wonderful side effect that connecting in any of these domains leads to connecting in all these domains.

A recently made friend, Ken Brower who is an environmentalist, a talented writer, and who grew up doing work with The Sierra Club during the period his dad was its director, made a very interesting comment in a recent note to me. Ken observed that his strongest sense of self, and the space and silence and solitude needed to feel it, always comes in wilderness. So the order of occurrence (i.e., connection to self, others and other) may vary from person to person, as Ken wisely observed. However it happens, of course, it is deeply needed and ultimately helpful.

Also, in addition to providing the saving metaphors and perspectives, poetry can reveal certain damaging and unrecognized cultural myths that must also be addressed if we are to avoid the climate-induced dystopia we seem hell-bent on creating. They are our twin cultural myths of progress and innovation.

These myths tell us that we’re always on the cusp of achieving the kind of progress that is so perfect, magical, and transformative, that no changes or sacrifices need be made by us. It is the same for the innovations that are going to come marching in, hero-like, to right all our past carbon burning sins.

Of course, we love, need and should make progress and create innovations to help with our climate challenges. However, they alone will not save us! The danger is that these myths may capture our imaginations just long enough to delay the urgent actions needed.

One last myth to be exposed and addressed concerns the marginalization of poetry itself in our culture. So many of us forget that poems are simply stories with the boring parts removed. My late friend and mentor, James March, famed Stanford professor taught for many years one of the most popular leadership courses ever.

Jim was fond of describing leadership as one part plumbing and one part poetry. In other words, let’s say yes to innovation and technology, but let’s also say yes to the heart-fully and soulfully poetic and beautiful as well. Jim taught his popular leadership course with literature and poetry books only.

I believe Jim would agree that we need both poetic language, and those great stretches of silence famously captured within poetry to successfully end our current epoch of environmental disregard and destruction, so that we can begin a new epoch of respect, connection and gratitude for the great other that is our world and environment.

So what do we need to be and do now? We’ll need to realize we have never actually been separate from nature, we’ve only felt separated. We have only imagined we were separate. And yet, in these imaginings, we’ve done great damage. And this damage will continue until we realize what is already so and that we must now clearly see each moment differently going forward.

Also, let’s not forget our theme of beauty. Fifteen years of practice on the Aikido martial arts mat taught me some no-nonsense, down-to-earth facts about the practical effectiveness of beauty. Of course, we all love what is beautiful for its intrinsic value. However, what years of practice taught me, is that when an Aikido technique is beautiful, it’s also delightfully powerful and effective.

And yes, of course, certain young new Aikido students were able to get by on sheer will and muscle at first. But very quickly in Aikido, other martial arts, and life in general, pure muscle soon plays itself out and is quickly rendered ineffective.

Similarly, it is too late for us to “will” or try to “muscle” a solution to climate change. We must now create, tell and live more beautiful stories that inform right actions that work with (not against) our natural world. As has been said several times here, all change and transformation “begins” with language. What is equally true, is that if we wish to change the future regarding climate or any of the other great challenges we face, then we must change the story that our language tells.

For until we create and live a more beautiful and poetic new story, our technology no matter how powerful, will fail us. Until we reweave humans humbly back into the web of life, until we speak our new story in a thousand stunning ways, reinforce our new poetic perspectives, and passionately take on new gratitude for all there is, we will have little chance to bend the curve of our common fate.

Remember, we cannot forget or insult reality. Reality will always vote last. It’s like the wise advice that says never forget to place the dragon squarely in your plans, especially if you live right next to the dragon’s cave. Well, that is exactly where we live. The smell of dragon smoke is all around us now. But it is not too late. A field of stories got us here and a field of new stories (especially in the form of great poems) will get us where we want and need to go.

Does what I’ve said here make sense? Are you ready?

OK, good, let’s go now and together. Together, meaning the only way that has ever worked before.

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