Published 2019-04-15

This post is also available in Swedish

Poetry for the climate

The role of art and literature in environmental research is behind the scenes but, for us to meet the challenges we face, they are essential. So says the poet Jonas Gren. During his time as a guest artist in The Seed Box research programme, he examined the importance of poetry for climate work.

‘Things aren’t going to be fine… The Earth will get warmer and the situation will get worse. However, one profound insight from the humanities throughout the ages is that life is complex. It’s messy. It won’t always turn out well. However, we must have the strength to endure.’

The debate about climate change and measures to mitigate it often goes to extremes, either technological optimism or dystopian future images of the Earth’s destruction, states the poet and author Jonas Gren. Poetry, he argues, can offer an opportunity to stay in the realm of uncertainty and approach the issue of climate change in another way.

‘We’ll never be able to solve the complex interactions between people and the rest of the planet. But we can get help from poetry, one of the art forms that affirm the insoluble.’

Last year, Gren spent a month at Linköping University in The Seed Box research programme. Thanks to financial support (‘seed funding’) from the programme, he and Erika Sigvardsdotter, migration researcher at the Swedish Red Cross University College, were able to delve into a common book idea. They were given their own room and participated in lectures and seminars.

‘We were also given the opportunity to present our ideas to the programme’s researchers, who provided their input. That was the highlight of our cooperation.’

The aim of the project is to write a collection of essays about popular science, also using poetry as a tool. In their work, Gren and Sigvardsdotter started with complexity research, and have investigated differences between complicated and complex thinking. Computers, for example, can be extremely complicated, but are limited and predictable. Ecosystems and the climate, on the other hand, are governed by complex interactions that cannot easily be reduced to small parts and understood.

‘That complicated thinking would like to find a solution to the climate change crisis. In our book, we argue that such thinking constantly leads us astray, and results in disappointments.’

Our view of the climate is still too characterised by complicated thinking, Gren believes. He argues that we need a different approach.

‘These ways of thinking aren’t new, basically. This is part of the discussion on reductionism versus the holistic idea tradition. In our book, we try to look for new ways forward, without getting stuck in any camp.

‘Werner Aspenström’s poem Det som blev över (‘What remained’) has also been a source of inspiration. The poem is a kind of paean to the uncertain. It’s about the remnant, the bit of fabric that’s left over when the roll is finished. If we humans disregard our inner remnant too much, we become potentially dangerous individuals who long for either-or answers.

‘We must affirm that remnant and have the strength to keep it inside us. So our project is a kind of academic “remnant project”, where we try to write about the uncertain.’’

Poetry, literature and art have not traditionally been associated with environmental research. But for The Seed Box programme, co-funded by Mistra and Formas, regular visits by writers and artists are an important feature of the work. Since the start in 2016, artists and researchers working at the intersection between art, humanities and environmental research have spent periods staying at Linköping University.

‘The purpose is to investigate new ways to let academic and artistic practices and methods fertilise one another,’ explains Programme Director Jesper Olsson.

In the ‘Visitors Programme’, prominent international people are invited to Linköping University. In addition, the programme issues its own calls for research proposals and applications for seed funding, which allows guest visits or residencies. This has been highly positive for the research in The Seed Box, Olsson says.

‘These stays have been extremely important for intellectual exchange in the programme. They’ve led to many more contacts with the other field in environmental humanities and supported our younger researchers, but also made The Seed Box visible both nationally and internationally.’

Gren has published several poetry collections in which he weaves together nature, environmental threats and research findings. One is Antropocen: dikt för en ny epok (‘Anthropocene: Poetry for a new Epoch’). But he has also has studied for a master’s degree at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

‘I’ve been back there and read my poems to 150 environmental researchers, who stood still and listened. It’s exciting to hear thoughts about topics in a language other than the usual research jargon.’

For Gren, poetry, art and the humanities are a counterweight to rational thinking and an opportunity for self-reflection. For the planet, it is simply a matter of survival.

‘All major human disasters had in common that people didn’t reflect and stop and think about what they were doing. The only way we can do that is through humanities and art — the other way.’

Text: Henrik Lundström