Camille T. Dungy on our Climate in Crisis
An interview for the #ClimateVisionaries Artists' Project for Greenpeace
by Camille T. Dungy
Rather than projecting into some future moment of potential peril, I’m thinking about how I can play a direct role in helping other living beings survive this changed reality we’re dealing with now
Camille T. Dungy is an award-winning author, professor, and editor. For the past few months, she and Greenpeace USA media director Travis Nichols have discussed poetry, climate change, and activism over email. This is an edited version of that conversation
Travis Nichols: In your book Guidebook to Relative Strangers you say, “I worry about the end days more now than I did before you were born.” That was a few years ago. Do you worry more about them now?
Camille T. Dungy: I began to really worry about environmental catastrophe when the earth temperature charts still resembled a hockey stick. There was a kind of slowly rising set of years and then a spike that looked like the handle of a hockey stick. That’s the image I was working with when I wrote the sentence you’ve quoted. But nowadays the chart doesn’t really look like a hockey stick. The stick part is way out of proportion. It’s hard to put the conditions of this catastrophe into terms that are easy to explain or easy to swallow. So now I don’t tend to worry about the end days as if they were something that could be avoided or averted. Now I’m thinking in an even more focused manner about how this time of crisis that we are living inside right now might be managed. Rather than projecting into some future moment of potential peril, I’m thinking about how I can play a direct role in helping other living beings survive this changed reality we’re dealing with now.
TN: Do you think imaginative writing, or even more reflective writing like your essays, can play a kind of direct role?
CTD: Yes I do. As the great writer Audre Lorde makes clear in the essay “Poetry is not a Luxury”, poetry “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, made first into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” In this case, Lorde is speaking to the ways that poetry and literature can work as an instrument for necessary and revolutionary change. She is speaking of the power of poetic language to beneficially improve the lives of women, particularly women of color. When I am thinking about the need to use literature as an instrument of change and survival in the context of our environmental catastrophe I am also always thinking about this in terms of people of color, women, children—those who are, in this world, more likely to be socially, culturally, economically, and environmentally disadvantaged. What this marginalization looks like in terms of the canon of environmental literature is erasure and silence when it comes to telling the stories of the very populations I’ve just described. It’s imperative that a truly diverse representation of people speak to the current situation on the planet so that a truly diverse set of ideas towards action can be put forward to do work in the world.
What would it mean that in 2020, 98% of an anthology claiming to speak to the world’s environmental catastrophe would be penned by white people from the Global North when much evidence suggests that people of color, indigenous peoples the world over, and populations in the Global South are the people who are most immediately and directly suffering the consequences of our environmental catastrophe?
I was recently invited, as an afterthought, to participate in an international anthology of environmentally-conscious writers. I’d been suggested to the editor by the only other writer of color included in the anthology. What would it mean that in 2020, 98% of an anthology claiming to speak to the world’s environmental catastrophe would be penned by white people from the Global North when much evidence suggests that people of color, indigenous peoples the world over, and populations in the Global South are the people who are most immediately and directly suffering the consequences of our environmental catastrophe? In short, a collection of literature that failed to represent such populations would rob readers of the opportunity to think more broadly about the various experiences of humans in the face of environmental catastrophe. More narrow thinking means not only more limited compassion but also more limited engagement of our capacity for problem solving.
TN: Environmental literature seems like it’s in a curious moment where there is real potential to de-center the “traditional” white-man-on-a-hike work in favor of a range of various experiences, but the powers-that-be continue to be awfully powerful. I heard a poet ask about some of this new eco-poetry — isn’t it really just, once again, the pastoral? Your work isn’t. How do you re-make it into something that can help us get out of the crisis?
CTD: I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that sometimes my own writing does in fact fit into the pastoral tradition. It is important to acknowledge the beauty of this planet. Sometimes I wish I could wander out to a quiet space and be simply refreshed by so-called Nature. I enjoy that feeling of simultaneous solitude and connection, and I sometimes write about seeking that feeling. But, very quickly, my thinking gets complicated. As I think it should. Very quickly I remember that in the American West, which is my home, the land we like to call Wilderness was occupied by humans for at least 10 thousand years before the first white man came upon it. (And with these white men were very often black men, like the enslaved man named York who toiled with Lewis and Clark in part for a promise of freedom that was never fulfilled.) This is no wilderness, but rather a landscape that has been inhabited and tended by human beings and many other cohabitant species whose presence and alternative sentience has also shaped the land I might, at my own peril and at the peril of all of us who live here, want to pretend is simply open space. And so then I begin to think of the danger of this kind of make believe.
We need to fundamentally understand that there is no “away” when we throw away trash. When we pollute a river, there is no downstream that is not actually our own stream. There is no eradicated species that is not also, somehow, our own.
To pretend there ever is or ever was some open space that’s solely for my pleasure and leisure, how far is that from thinking there is some open space that is purely for me to use as a testing ground, a dumping ground, a site for the removal of some natural resource. It is dangerous to separate my own needs and pleasure from the needs of any other living being, either through erasure, as is the case when we remove indigenous people from our stories of particular landscapes, or omission, as is the case when we fail to consider the histories and realities of people who work the land—e.i. when we imagine the pasture part of the pastoral without adequately imagining the sharecropper, the conscripted prisoner, the migrant farmer, the enslaved. This is probably why so much of my writing ends up addressing history as often as it considers the present. And it is part of why I think the best environmental writing also takes into account lines of inquiry we might consider to be the provenance of economics, gender studies, cultural criticism, or even law. Once I refuse to accept that nature, or what I called so-called Nature earlier, can ever be separate from me I can no longer believe that the experiences of cohabitant humans and non-human species are not determined by the same forces that determine the course of my own life. To understand this is both terrifying and empowering. I believe that a true understanding of this kind of connected reality is part of the key to addressing this crisis. We need to fundamentally understand that there is no “away” when we throw away trash. When we pollute a river, there is no downstream that is not actually our own stream. There is no eradicated species that is not also, somehow, our own.
TN: If you were running an international environmental non-profit, what would you focus on?
CTD: I’ve been stumped by your final question. Even though I am consistently troubled by our planetary crisis, I don’t really think about running a global organization. I think about how to act locally. How to talk to people who live in a particular place about how we might live in a more sustainable and cooperative manner in relationship with the land on which we live and our cohabitants. This sort of local thinking has global impact, but I’m not sure it scales globally since the answers in one place might not meet the needs of another place. We need to listen to the people who have been listening closely and working hard all along. We’re not always particularly good at doing that, we often want to swoop in with outside experts and save the day. Often, these top down “solutions” create bigger problems because they don’t take into account local needs and local knowledge. This is true for writing as much as it for activism.
My writing is centered on the world that I know through experience, research, and a cultivated imagination. Perhaps you have heard that writing teacher advice that says that you don’t achieve universal appeal through general, broad stroke writing but, rather, you approach the universal through the specific. I want to write in vivid and care-full detail about the small, wild lives I have touched and loved and lost in my own beloved patch of high desert clay and sage and hyssop. I hope that doing so will better describe how this one American is working to diversify and restore the ecosystem of her own backyard. The solutions I come to here may not apply directly where you live, but the impulse I describe will hopefully be contagious.
Maybe I do have your answer after all. Maybe my answer is that if I were to run a global organization I would make it a point to empower local leaders and thinkers in order to promote global change through local action.
As we begin this critical new year in the fight against climate change, Greenpeace is giving over space on our channels to authors and artists working within the climate crisis. Acclaimed author Lauren Groff prompted artists and thinkers to write essays and art about climate change for us, and so every day this month we’ll have a new piece from that project that addresses, in some form, what it means to create in the midst of this crisis. The forces fueling climate change have the most powerful networks in history pumping out their devastating propaganda at unimaginable scale. It’s going to take everything we have from all of us – imagination equal to the task – to create the climate we’ll need to stop the crisis.
We need these voices and these visions, but they won’t be enough. We need you, too. We encourage you to check back on the Climate Visionaries Artists’ Project every day to see what’s new, and to join the conversation by sharing your work on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and tagging it #ClimateVisionaries.