Art and the apocalypse: do artists and writers have a duty to raise the alarm?

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Posted Apr 22 2015 by Paul Jennings of Criafolen
dead fish

Sometime last year I took my youngest son for a walk along the beach. I’d been reading an article about climate change and the acidification of the oceans. Bad timing you might call it.

So there we were, by the seaside in the sunshine, a middle-aged man seeing through his eyes an unfolding catastrophe, and his little boy experiencing instead, just as his father had done decades earlier, the sheer joy and excitement of that environment, a wide open place, with a view to conjure distant adventure, and where the elements bring every sense to life; where every rockpool promises discovery.

When we got home I stood at the kitchen window, and I cried. Maudlin eh?

Anyway, out of that came a short story; out of that and a whole host of other things. Then I wrote a novella. It needs editing. It’s hanging around my neck like an albatross at the moment.

Which nautical note brings me back to the theme of the work itself. It’s an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story, its recurring theme is the dead ocean which provides the backdrop to the plot. It might not be great literature, but it is art; it’s art inspired by ecological crisis.

The fragility of the oceans has been clear for some time. A deadly combination of climate change and nutrient-rich pollution is rapidly creating the conditions for a mass extinction, one that would leave the oceans devastated with knock-on effects for all of Earth’s ecosystems.

I wanted to write something relevant; speculative fiction that would engage with real world problems, but I admit that I didn’t expect such a flurry of bad news in the months after I completed the first draft. I find the combination of my satisfaction with having written something pertinent to Our Common Future, and fear at what that future holds, a little sickening. I want to have my novella published; I like the story. I don’t want to live in the world that it describes.

Just last week you could have read about the crises facing marine ecosystems in The Ecologist and in The Guardian to name but two sources. For more science of course, and also from last week, you might have seen this in Nature.

Leaving aside for now the question of whether we should be adapting our exploitation of the seas to take account of changing conditions, or stopping the destructive harvesting of the oceans altogether, what interests me is the extent to which people may or may not have even taken notice up to now of how the seas are dying.

I have argued with other writers that the most important subject by far for artists these days is the ecological crisis. Often my rants have been met with blank looks, sometimes with a little mild hostility, or dismay that I could suggest that writers and artists should engage above all else with what’s happening to the Earth. Of course there are lots of artists who are doing just that (like The Dark Mountain Project), just as there are many activists who know precisely and in greater detail than I do what is happening to the Earth’s marine environments. In a way though, the engaged folk are less interesting to me than the ones who read my novella or my short stories and ask me why I’m writing this dark stuff; whether I’m seriously worried about something that couldn’t possibly happen in my lifetime. These are the people, the educated and the urbane people who interest me the most.

They have no idea what time it is. How late it has grown.