Between Despair and Denial: Coming to Terms with the Climate Crisis and Environmental Injustice in the Ecopoetry of Craig Santos Perez

Abstract: Images of the dire consequences of anthropogenic climate change and environmental pollution are featured on the news with increasing regularity. While the coverage of those apocalyptic scenarios has become more straightforward, they can be perceived as traumatic, and are, thus, met with denial. This paper investigates how the ecopoetry of Craig Santos Perez proposes an alternative to conventional environmental discourses by highlighting the difficulty of appropriately communicating issues of social and ecological degradation, and effectively calling people to action in the fight against them. By portraying fear, frustration, and a desire for escapism in “Halloween in the Anthropocene (a necropastoral)” (2020) and “New Year’s Eve and Day in the Chthulucene” (2020), Santos Perez illustrates the emotional and psychological implications of looming ecological collapse while simultaneously adhering to an environmental justice agenda. The close reading of his ecopoetry is guided by the observation of the poems’ different evoked TimeSpaces and their relation to the portrayal of slow violence. In doing so, he practices a radical form of environmental justice writer-activism that renders the depicted circumstances, however, more easily digestible and comprehensible.

For several reasons, we live in an unprecedented age. Globalization and technological progress have changed the way we humans perceive, and live on, our planet—in an assemblage of numerous seemingly immediately accessible spaces, in which mutual trade, communication, and assistance in times of need can occur. The operative word is can because an estimated half of the world’s population lives in poverty within this vast socioeconomic network (Blunt 1-3). Simultaneously, climate change and pollution levels, which have reached an all-time high, pose a looming existential threat to a multitude of species, including humans (McNeill and Engelke 86-98). The deterioration of global ecosystems, most prominently in the form of climate change, arguably constitutes the most pressing issue humanity must face in the twenty-first century. Yet, despite the increasing frequency with which extreme weather conditions now also occur in the Global North (Bergamaschi et al. 8-10, Mann et al. 1-2), it is a phenomenon that many US citizens still “do not understand, do not take seriously or do not consider to be a major public-policy concern” (Dimento and Doughman 1). Although climate change denial as a behavior can be observed all around the world, this paper attempts to explore this coping mechanism in a US-American context. Whereas images of the consequences of climate change in the form of wildfires, floods, and storms prominently feature on the news, their coverage is often merely superficial and their effect fleeting, failing to address the causes behind the depicted events. While these pictures certainly leave an emotional impression on audiences, understanding the complex science behind them is a wholly different issue. If the causes are elaborated on, they are frequently either downplayed or exaggerated, making a reasonable engagement with them difficult, if not impossible (4-6). This may, however, also be owing to the fact that the models and terminology used by experts to communicate the impact of climate change are not easily comprehensible for large parts of the population in the first place (8-9). For several reasons, conventional news coverage, hence, seems to be an insufficient medium for raising awareness for climate change and facilitating the public’s understanding of it as part of a larger ongoing process of ecological deterioration.

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