Young Poets on Climate Change: Metaphors Against Catastrophe

On 20 August 2018, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament and kick-started a global wave of school strikes for climate. On 20 September 2019, people of all ages joined students in striking to protest inaction in the face of climate change. We’ve asked some young poets who are also climate activists to speak about their involvement, and about why poetry is at the heart of the movement.

Today we hear from SLAMbassador and Young Poets Networker Matt Sowerby, who explains how metaphor can change the way we see the crisis, and make us act.

Sign saying 'There is no Planet B'

A House on Fire – Metaphors Against Catastrophe

Within the ‘Fridays For Future’ movement, you will find poetry everywhere – spreading through Twitter, chalked on the walls, howled through megaphones and chanted by thousands. P. B. Shelley called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. In an era where studies suggest citizens are voting based not on facts, but on political narratives, we need poets to talk about climate change.

Poetry has the power to inspire, offend, entertain and heal. It can build new worlds and it can tear down old ones. The fastest way to change society is to change mind-sets, which is why words have always had such an important place in politics, activism and the shaping of culture (just think of Charles Dickens, Maya Angelou or Martin Luther King Jr!).

Having this belief led me to start performing at, and later organising climate strikes, and is also why I spent my summer judging a county-wide youth climate poetry competition in Cumbria. It is also why, in September 2019, I visited the EU Parliament in Brussels, along with a contingent of climate activists from the North West of England, to discuss the campaign with Green Party MEPs. My experiences at the EU Parliament helped me see just how powerful activism can be: the MEPs we met talked animatedly about how much impact the movement is having within international politics. But it also showed me how far there still is to go.

The ‘Fridays For Future’ movement began with one 15-year-old girl taking a stand. You may have seen Greta Thunberg’s ‘Our House is on Fire’ speech. Her choice of metaphor was powerful enough to inspire millions, including me, to begin striking school because it carried so much more urgency than terms like ‘global warming’.

This level of urgency seems entirely proportional when you consider that a report published by the UN in October 2018 states that ‘limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.’ And yet, if we don’t limit warming to 1.5°C we will face unprecedented heat waves in many regions, the loss of our coastal areas, increased malnutrition, mass migration of climate refugees, water scarcity, extreme weather and irreversible loss of biodiversity in the decades that follow.

The LGBT rights activist and filmmaker, Dustin Lance Black, has commented that there are two ways to inspire someone to do something: panic and hope. Panic is at the core of the ‘Fridays For Future’ movement. During her speech, Greta said ‘I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic.’ The word, appropriately, originates in the powerful cries of the Greek god of nature, Pan, when his dominion was under threat. Physically, panic releases adrenaline in the body, leading to action – the thing we most desperately need. If handled correctly, panic could save us.

Photo of a school strike protest - in the foreground a girl holds a sign saying 'We want you to panic'
Photo by Socialist Appeal via flickr

However, panic is not supposed to last for very long, and when it does, there are consequences.  Panic can drive you to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, but it can also make you ‘freeze’ – inhibiting further action. Activists today are aware of this paralysis (nicknamed ‘burnout’), and are careful to look after their bodies and minds to keep panic in check. As panic around the environment increasingly prevents people from both taking part in activism and living normally, psychologists have even developed a term for the phenomenon: ‘eco-anxiety’.

While the world warms, we freeze. It’s in our biology, which may partially explain why our society has done so little to respond to its own destruction. This is another reason why we need poetry: to reframe the facts of climate change so that we don’t freeze, but act. Metaphors can turn what the media tells us is impossible into something we can tackle; a house on fire is still a problem, but there are solutions. Metaphors can also bring us together, and remind us of our shared humanity: Greta Thunberg says that ‘our’ house is on fire, not ‘my’ or ‘your’ house – our shared house.

For me personally, panic and hope are both vital within climate poetry. They’re really two sides of the same coin – just think of the slogans of two very successful recent political campaigns: ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. 

Poetry has the power to destroy worlds and to build them. Today young climate activists are rewriting the rules of society and deciding their own futures. I believe that climate change is solvable, if we all choose to face it.

For more climate change writing prompts, check out our previous challenges: I am the Universe by Helen Mort explores writing climate change, Turn Up The Volume with Oxfam offers ways into writing climate protest poems, and Melting Ice suggests prompts for writing about our disappearing polar regions. You might also like to read the other features in this series:

Matt Sowerby is an 18 year old protest poet and SLAMbassador from Cumbria. He is the writer of ‘Kidz Theez Dayz’, a spoken word/theatre piece which explores the place of Generation Z in the current political landscape, which premiered recently at Greenbelt Festival. In 2018 End Hunger UK offered him the opportunity to perform his poem ‘Breadlines’ in Parliament, which was a winner in the Young Poets Network challenge.

Published September, 2019

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