by Olivia Lipsky
The main lesson that we should learn from this pandemic is without a doubt that it was exacerbated by human doing. Environmental degradation and the emergence of viruses are connected. It is very likely that similar pandemics will happen in the future. The path to a healthier future is as clear as it is unrealistic- we need to restore harmony with nature and stop enriching ourselves with delicate and endangered species for vanity, cultural, culinary and economic purposes. Experts propose stricter regulation of wildlife trade, the termination of meat production and the increased efforts of nature conservation as a way forward. Possibilities and ideas of how to make the world a more sustainable and healthier place are already present. In essence, all we have to do is reconnect with nature and establish more ecological food systems. Easy enough right? Let's just convince 8 billion people to fundamentally change everything; from the way we eat and utilize nature as a resource to the way we practice cultural and medical rituals.
Not that anyone needs to be reminded but we just finished 2020. A year that has had terrible implications for the economy, social and mental health, and the environment in the whole world. Instead of working towards a more resilient and sustainable future, the world has largely spent the year going backwards. Quite ironically, in 2020 there has been a dramatic surge in illegal logging, intended forest fires, poaching, trafficking of endangered species as well as budget cuts for conservation projects. The Wuhan meat markets opened almost immediately after the outbreak and governments have abandoned sustainability goals to focus on the relief of immediate economic problems. Saving Airline Companies was simply that important. If things continue to go this way, it is very likely that by the year 2050 we will be dealing with major crises related to climate change, mass extinctions, and deadly diseases. This will come on top of social issues such as poverty, inequality, and corruption.
We, as the human race, have collectively failed to provide a better future for our children, the animals, and all the other future organisms. And why exactly? Because we are not good at planning for the future? Because we lack empathy? I think that it has more to do with the lack of connection in our world. We have forgotten how to communicate what is important to us and what really matters. I, therefore, believe that we millennials and Gen Z’s, as agents of change, have to change the way we convey messages. Simply showering people with information such as “we need to conserve nature” is not going to trigger people’s conscience and induce the behaviour change that is needed. Instead, we have to find a way to reach people on a more emotional level. What if we could use an already culturally situated formula that people are familiar with to reach people? What if art can help science to implement sustainable development?
This thought reminded me of the work of German author Bertolt Brecht. He was a theatre practitioner, writer and communist that witnessed the rise of national socialism in Germany. In the year 1939, before the start of the 2nd world war, he was living in exile in Denmark. He felt overwhelmed by the rising power of the Nazis, so he wrote a poem to future generations, explaining why he could not do more to prevent the rise of the dark times. In the poem, he addresses an imagined socialist future where people have survived the Nazis and live happily and free. He assumes that this future generation will judge him and his contemporaries for not preventing the national socialist dictatorship. He, therefore, feels the need to explain why it was so hard to fight the Nazis and describe how dark and hostile the times were. By doing this, he hoped that those future people would understand and forgive him and other political activists who tried their hardest to fight it. Even though the intended audience of the poem had (and has) not yet been born, Brecht’s work impacted many people and spoke to intellectuals, his fellow communist protesters and other desperate people. At the same time, the poem was also supposed to be a wake-up call for those who let the Nazis take on power and encourage people to stand up against the injustices.
I decided that it was time to update this poem and create a new wake-up call. The new poem is supposed to reach people who are desperate for comfort as well as people who really should be less comfortable, and at the same time reach those future generations that will look back and wonder why we just let climate change, with all the deadly diseases, happen. In the poem I try to explain to the (imagined) happy future why we were not able to save the planet and why we were so cruel to our fellow living siblings, the plants and the animals. I lyrically describe the neoliberal monsters that are making it impossible to change anything and how the decay of journalism is spreading lies and fake news, which makes it even harder for environmentalists and activists to achieve anything. I also call out the corrupt and capitalistic governments that are not willing to support sustainability goals and are only focussed on their re-election.
I hope that this poem will inspire other people to create new forms of art that combine research with culture that can speak to the people more directly than academic papers. I also hope that desperate and hopeless people will identify with the poem and find comfort and hope in it.
Words written in italics were taken from the original poem
The other words are written by me
To those who follow in our wake – continued
- A homage to Bertolt Brecht
Truly, I live in dark times
Everybody speaks but nobody listens
A smooth forehead suggests insensitivity
The person who laughs has simply not yet
grasped the severity
What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime?
Because it implies silence about so many horrors
What kind of times are these, when a poor mother buying a present for her son
Is responsible for another child’s enslavement?
It’s true that I still eat my daily bread
But, believe me, that’s only an accident
Nothing I do gives me the right to eat my fill
By chance I have been spared
They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat if I pulled the food from a dying forest?
And how can I drink if my bottle of water was given to me by goliath
Who stole it from the innocent?
And yet I eat and drink
A good citizen doesn’t compromise the law
And a good human doesn’t compromise their integrity
I can never be both then
Because the laws weren’t written for me
I came to the cities in a time of pretension
Money reigned disguised as self-fulfilment
We drowned our sorrows in exotic whims
Like peacocks we showed them off
almost convinced that this was happiness
We built our homes in places that made us forget our roots
We ate our sisters’ children as a sign of how little we cared
Truly, what kind of times were these,
when to show compassion was confused with weakness?
So passed our time given to us on earth
Then revenge came
But it was too late
We had already forgotten how to listen
And the screams of mother earth were left unanswered
There was little I could do
But those in power sat safer without me: that was my hope
So passed my time
given to me on earth
We took the truth from nameless faces
It often made little sense
But what else was there to trust?
When stories were sold to the highest bidder
Our forces were slight. Our goal laid far in the distance
And with each passing day, defeat came closer
Until we accepted that greed and blindness had triumphed,
although they themselves didn’t know it yet
You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
Bring to mind when you speak of our failings
Bring to mind also the dark times that you have escaped
We went through deceit and manipulation,
Despairing when there was only injustice, no outrage
And yet we realized: Hatred, even as a blanket of fear
Contorts the features
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse
O, we who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship
Could not be friendly ourselves
But you, when the time comes at last
When humans are helpers to nature
When harmony on earth is restored
Think of us, with forbearance
You can check out the original poem and its translation here.
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