As I started planning this column the temperature outside was 35 °C, and the surrounding fields like tinder. I had been in Cambridgeshire less than a week. I’d seen one fire already and witnessed the smoky remains of another: burnt verges, scorched and sooty fields. Out walking, a fine brown dust worked itself into my skin, through the soles of my shoes and into my socks. I took photos of the sunset, an angry yet tremulous red. I shared them online. “Where are you?” A friend of mine asked, “Australia?” The news was full of dire predictions, drought and famine. I read that the river Elbe had dropped so low near the Czech town of Děčín as to reveal a centuries-old “hunger stone” – a hydrological marker commemorating and warning of previous droughts – which bore the ominous legend: Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine (when you see me, weep).
We might well weep. Europe is currently in the midst of the worst drought in five hundred years. Food prices have seen a stark increase as the result of extreme inflation, and now the harvests are shrinking due – in large part – to the ongoing effects of climate collapse. Even in Norway the reservoirs are now at 60 percent of capacity, with the knock-on effect that their hydroelectric generators have been asked to cut down on the amount of energy they export. The war in Ukraine has already resulted in a hike in food and energy prices. According to the World Bank’s own predictions, this sad state of affairs is likely to persist for at least three years.
In the UK, households have been hit with a staggering rise in both the cost of energy and daily essentials; the former is set to push 8.9 million homes into fuel poverty. I’m hearing friends and family tell me they won’t be switching the heating on this winter – yet energy suppliers are announcing mammoth profits, record dividends, and enormous share buyback schemes as the price of oil and gas climbs. Maybe we’re better off screaming than weeping.
Fiddling while England burns
In the midst of this misery, parts of England burn, and I keep thinking about when the water was privatised in 1989 and Thatcher transferred ownership of our public water utilities to the private sector, writing off their debts and gifting them “seed money” to boot. According to a recent article in the BMJ: ‘Most water companies are now owned by private equity investors who have used financial engineering to boost shareholder returns via complex corporate structures that often involve tax havens. The companies have borrowed heavily – it is reported that current debt levels are in the order of £56bn for the nine companies in England. Interest payments (£1.3bn in 2019) are passed on to consumers.
Meanwhile, £72bn in dividends have been paid to shareholders of parent companies since privatisation.’[i] To break the situation down even more starkly, not a single reservoir has been built since privatisation, and underinvestment in infrastructure led, in 2020, to more than three billion litres of water being lost to leakage every day. If that wasn’t enough, in 2021 the Environmental Agency called for prison sentences for the chief executives of England’s water and sewage companies, responsible for numerous serious incidents, raising grave concerns about public health.
I’ve not been able to get this out of my head. Returning to Kent from Cambridge I was confronted with an illustrative example of this disregard for public health when our local stretch of coast was declared unsafe due to the pumping of raw sewage into the sea. The consequences were visceral and immediate: murky, grey-brown water, an unholy stink. According to the Labour Party’s analysis of Environment Agency data released under the Freedom of Information Act, water companies have pumped raw sewage into Britain's seas and rivers for more than nine million hours since 2016.
Local protests were quickly formed, demanding both legal action and that water company bosses be stripped of their multimillion-pound bonuses (something the Tory government has refused to do). One of the surreal highlights of these demonstrations was Sally-Ann Hart, the Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, turning up “to support the people of Hastings and Rye” despite voting for an amendment to the Environment Bill that removed a requirement for water companies to not pump sewage directly into our waters. Her attempts to defend her vote to protestors and media is a masterclass in cringeworthy obfuscation that would be hilarious were the consequences of her vote not so dire.
The truth is, the Tories have never cared about our shared and vulnerable world, and this is only a logical extension of not caring about those of us who actually live in it. If further proof of this fact were needed, we might revisit David Cameron’s 2013 instruction to aides to “get rid of all the green crap”, which in practice meant cuts to onshore wind projects, solar subsidies and other energy efficiency schemes. According to a recent New Statesman article, those decisions now cost every British household £150 a year.[ii] Quite apart from the potential environmental impact, solar power is now 88 percent cheaper than the government expected it to be a decade ago.[iii]
Meanwhile our new PM is proposing to ditch green levies, which make up less than 3 percent of energy bills, and to remove solar panels from farmland. Liz Truss has further pledged to overturn the ban on fracking, deploying a nauseating piece of twisted logic whereby the results will somehow be cheaper and more beneficial to the UK electorate. This is the same distorted argument driving the sinister Net Zero Security Group’s claims that the government’s own plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050 will impoverish working people, “making them colder and poorer”, attempting to link the government’s net zero agenda to the cost-of-living crisis and calling for cuts to green taxes and a marked increase of fossil fuel production.
Climate change is class war
The Tory leadership elections meant that 0.3 percent of the electorate chose our new prime minister. Out of ten policy areas net-zero came bottom in a YouGov poll of Conservative members, while seventy-five per cent of adults in Great Britain are very or somewhat worried about the impact of climate change, according to the Office for National Statistics in October 2021.[iv] Climate change is worrying. Climate change is also class war: it is poor and working-class communities who are disproportionately affected, their livelihoods threatened, their homes destroyed by extreme weather in all its manifestations, and by its less immediate economic aftershocks. Poor infrastructure is more prevalent across poorer areas, which includes everything from the maintenance of sewages systems, roads, and public transport to reliable access to health care.
People living in these areas suffer hardest when the storms come, or the crops fail; when the reservoirs dry up, when fires break out, and when transport links go down. Social housing is often poorly insulated and badly maintained, and so the poor are colder, subject to rising damp, mildew, and mould. In urban areas those in social housing are frequently situated near the most polluted roads, so occupants suffer the worst effects of airborne pollution too. We live, in every way and every day, with the tangible traces of climate deterioration. It is the poor who go without, who bear the brunt of rising costs and spiralling inflation. It is poor and working-class people who are subject to shortages. Further, climate change creates an exploitable labour pool of displaced persons without rights or protection.
In the UK, so much of the rhetoric surrounding climate change has been directed at working-class people. Many of those I have spoken to feel alienated from environmental protest cohorts because of a perceived discourse of judgement that tends to individualise climate change responsibility and is not fully empathetic to the realities underpinning many of the “life-style choices” of the poor. While we are all caught within capitalism’s destructive vortex, we are not equally culpable for climate damage, nor are we equally effected by it. It’s worth remembering that the top one percent globally emit as much as the bottom 50 percent. Climate change is a systemic problem, enmeshed in and emerging from the fossil-burning machinery of capitalism itself. Marx and Engels recognised this, and wrote movingly of the way in which capitalism disrupts the link between human beings and the natural world to the irreparable harm of both. This passage, for example, by Marx, from his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:
Man lives on nature - means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.[v]
Here, Marx diagnoses the estrangement and alienation at the heart of our relationship to nature under capitalism. It isn’t merely that capitalists exploit, and consequently wreak havoc upon, the natural word. It is not even only that they profit and profiteer from the problems they create. It is also that capitalism destroys the relationship between human beings and nature, creating what Marx refers to in Capital. Volume 1 (1867) as a “metabolic rift”. Due to the appropriation of land through its enclosure and conversion to private property, people no longer have a direct relationship to the means of subsistence, the result of which is that we are alienated from the products of our labour, that is, they do not contribute directly to the satisfaction of our needs. We are alienated from the labour process, and since labour is one of the criteria for humanity, we are thus alienated from ourselves.
We are also alienated from each other, because rather than engaging in a communal project to satisfy our needs as human beings, we are forced into endless competition with each other to secure access to the means of production from capitalists, labouring for their profit. Because we are by nature social, we are thus once again alienated from ourselves. Finally, we are alienated from nature itself. Alienation of humans from their labour is, according to Marx, inseparable from their alienation from nature. This must be doubly true in our disembodied and digital age.
So what can poetry do?
But where is poetry in all of this? What should – what can it do – to address this estrangement and alienation? We are, after all, far beyond the stage of mere “awareness raising”. The fact of climate change is no longer a complex enormity unobservable within the precincts of an individual life. It is, rather, local and daily. And capitalism’s predation and despoilment of the plant has practically become a trope: a T-shirt slogan, a commonplace, a meme. Yet, if this is all so painfully obvious, why should we need a poem to tell us about it; to mediate and frame the grim reality of it, and to discharge its horror in self-contained parcels of individual catharsis? Poetry has, perhaps, greater immediacy and empathetic reach than does simple reportage, but I think it is more than that. I think language freed from the constraints of linear narrative has the capacity to shock us into retuned attention, to sensitise us a fresh to ideas and experiences we have come to accept as normal.
It has been said that while people – and ruling elites in particular – can imagine an end to the world, they cannot imagine an end to capitalism. Poetry might just leap this imaginative void, where all our solutions and escapes must fall within the same market system that exists in such a painful and inherent antagonism to the preservation of nature and to the dignity of human life. Poetry, thriving on leaps of logic, associative connections, and visceral imagery, offers us a way to vividly conceptualise our entanglement in capitalism’s awful and seemingly inescapable machinery. In doing so it does not simply diagnose a problem, but extends the possibility of radical change.
In Martin Hayes’ poem ‘Hunger Games’ human bodies are connected to the body of the state: in ‘the binding tendons of a shopping mall/ the pumping womb of a maternity hospital’. Hayes literalises and distorts the connection between organic and inorganic worlds to signal the all-consuming nature of capitalism. The poem brilliantly frames workers as both the lifeblood of our society – the best of its animating energy – and its food, cannibalised and ruthlessly consumed. One of culture’s most potent metaphors is the body, and this device has often been used to conceptualise human relations in merciless, social-Darwinist terms, furthering the ends of laissez-faire capitalist ideology. One of the ironies of capitalism is that while society itself is often figured as a living and frequently besieged organism, individual human bodies are more and more frequently treated as blunt instruments or faceless economic units. The human beings in Hayes’ poem are identified with inanimate objects, ‘with wooden brains and marbles for eyes’ and a cold, congealing spaghetti central nervous system.
Such images are redolent of the way working-class human life is conceptualised under capitalism. They are also a window into the numb, immobilised nature of late capitalist consciousness itself. Desensitised, Hayes’ figures ‘flop into their tissue-paper armchairs/ to sit in front of the news’ watching atrocities unfold before them, without either the agency or the energy to do anything about it. Instead, they are captured at the end of the poem ‘shedding before bed/ the next tear of their ascendancy’, capturing the despair at the heart of human supremacy, a supremacy not experienced by all humans equally. ‘Hunger Games’ functions as a mirror held up to our own moments of miserable and abandoned fatalism. Hayes’ human figures are ‘kind people’ but they have allowed themselves to become puppets. The poem is a call to reawakened consciousness.
In ‘Lines by Kenneth Patchen #5’ Katy Evans-Bush brings together the material wate of our disposable culture with other, less tangible forms of waste, from wasted time to the under-nourishing junk of shallow social media relationships: ‘We built this disembodied world, this loneliness,/ we made the weather angry, we dug these holes in the ground,/ we pulled the dinosaur ether into pipes & turned it into/ the fusspot flame under last night’s so-so supper.’ In these lines the poem acts as connective tissue between a mundane and impoverished experience of alienation, and the large-scale destruction of the planet. The loneliness that divides us from each other is also that which divides us from the world. In places the poem is almost shockingly tender, shocking because this tenderness arrives though a fog of frustration and despair, exploding in Goddamns. ‘Goddamn us’, because the speaker is neither aloof nor immune; use of the collective pronoun ‘us’ signals the inescapable complicity by which capitalism binds us.
It is also significant that the poem uses lines from Patchen, an American poet of the 40s and 50s who wrote his own laments to an unjust and destructive society. While ‘us’ signals the ongoing and recursive nature of this destruction over time, it is also an act of imaginative solidarity across generations and cultures. While there is heartbreak and fury in the lines, ‘What we use is already rubbish’, the propulsive urgency of this poem and its escalating litany of accumulated crap and moral failures creates the momentum needed to make it to the other side of this all-encompassing wrongness. A wrongness that bears upon the poetic subject and upon the tenuously enfolded political citizen alike. What we feel subjectively is part and parcel of what we experience – what is enacted against us – systemically. As with Hayes’ poem, this work is an accounting and a holding to account: ‘No one will save us’ is both the anguished cry of a species that has doomed itself, and dispatches from the class war in which we could – still might – rise and save ourselves.
The anxiety of the worker under capitalism and climate change
‘You may not realise you are thirsty, so please remember to drink during this horrifying, terrifying heatwave’ by Jane Burn also acknowledges complicity, but does so by addressing both the guilt and the anxiety of the working-class consumer subject, in a moving act of poetic witness to the local effects of climate change. The poem begins with the speaker putting on a new pair of clean, cool socks – a small act of pleasure and reassurance in an otherwise difficult life – which she describes with relish and in detail: ‘I snapped the plastic tag that held// their flat leaves together, rolled them into gaudy roses. Gorged/ the factory-fresh aroma. Their tightness made my feet feel loved, contained, protected’. There is so much going on in this short passage, most compelling perhaps is the image of the socks as something living, growing, both a substitute and salve for the pain of disappearing nature. The idea of ‘protection’ is also significant: the flimsiness of the socks serving to underscore just how vulnerable and defenceless the speaker actually is, and how illusory this offer of comfort. From the description of tactile pleasure the poem swerves into self-recrimination: ‘I shouldn’t have bought them. I shouldn’t shop in cheap places,// should go without even more than I already am […] I’m sorry. I offer/ the Earth this guilty consumer’s prayer.’
This prayer captures perfectly the position of the working-class subject under capitalism and climate change, condemned to guilt for the small comforts they can afford, and the dissonance between desperate caring and forced inaction, forced enmeshment. Throughout the poem Burn oscillates between the embodied effects of the heatwave on the speaker, and the environmental impacts the speaker observes. In doing so, Burn situates her speaker not merely as a poetic witness, but part of nature, subject as much as the birds ‘dried up like tears’ to the ecological collapse unfolding around her. The poem ends with an act of withdrawal that is both symbolic and literal: drawing the curtains, sitting in the dark, and imagining the end of the world. This is such a familiar part of the alienated human condition in our present moment that this image resonates hauntingly. Yet I am drawn back to the title of the poem, to the expression of care it offers, the tenderness is extends. Burn’s speaker may be cut off but she is still concerned with life, and because of that concern, that connection, there is hope.
Poetry may offer hope, then. But not of an easy, succouring sort. Rather, it can diagnose and challenge. It can both signal and – if only briefly – bridge the multiple and interconnected alienations of capitalism.
[v]https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm#:~:text=Man%20lives%20on%20nature%20%E2%80%93%20means,is%20a%20part%20of%20nature. Also see Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production · Volume 1 (1867): https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/
By Martin Hayes
over the kind earth the kind people walk
dumb as a thumb
without the rest of it attached
with strings connected to their arms
with wooden brains and marbles for eyes
with a moral compass like that of a chameleon-shaped windsock
a plate of last night’s spaghetti
congealed through them as like a nervous system
from one experiment to another
from one orgasm to another orgasm
from one history lesson to another history lesson
they return to their boxes
flop into their tissue-paper armchairs
to sit in front of the news
watching the skill and wizardry of scientists
drop their dreams from the sky
exploding apart the atomic construction of a grandmother’s heart
the binding tendons of a shopping mall
the pumping womb of a maternity hospital
the surprised face of a child
holding everything left it has
in a pink hippopotamus rucksack
shedding before bed
the next tear of their ascendancy
from the swamps and the seas
From Lines by Kenneth Patchen #5
By Katy Evans-Bush
I pick up the evening as dusk falls, pick up fidgets
as the storm hits. Here’s a letter about the weather
to all you so-called liberals. Goddamn us all & our
carefully sorted recycling, & the freezer’s friendly hum,
our ice-makers & our accounts at H&M.
We hate the frackers & we run our mouths off
on their hot old gas. It should be sufficient, what’s
in front of us, food in the cupboard and garden,
the friends we live (if we’re lucky enough) among.
But here I am, peering over thousands of miles
to a webcam, again, watching another hurricane.
Mom? It’s just a street. You can’t see anything really.
A webcam won’t show you your mother, your friend,
or Dorothy. You have no magic powers. Goddamn us
with our throwaway utensils, joke presents, foil balloons,
goddamn our future. What we use is already rubbish.
Goddamn our frets, our ennui, our dissatisfaction.
Going on trips & calling it a ‘staycation’. Marvels!
We live scattered. Friends are everywhere:
under water, breathing smoke. We sit alone in our rooms.
We built this disembodied world, this loneliness,
we made the weather angry, we dug these holes in the ground,
we pulled the dinosaur ether into pipes & turned it into
the fusspot flame under last night’s so-so supper.
Life itself should be the miracle! We house the spirits
of a thousand sermonising Lutherans in the bodies of the
Genghises, the Carnegies — the Gates of Hell. Goddamn our
empty words, our plastic applicators. No one will save us.
You may not realise you are thirsty, so please remember to drink during this horrifying, terrifying heatwave
By Jane Burn
I got up this morning and it was adorably cool. How wonderful,
after the swelter, to put on a pair of socks again. 80’s neon-style
ankle ones, brand new—a pack of 5 bought in hope against
this blazing weather. I snapped the plastic tag that held
their flat leaves together, rolled them into gaudy roses. Gorged
the factory-fresh aroma. Their tightness made my feet feel loved,
contained, protected—they veiled each heel’s rough globe.
I shouldn’t have bought them. I shouldn’t shop in cheap places,
should go without even more than I already am but I hardly
ever see socks sold on second-hand. I have walked my last ones
into holes. My toes pop out like potatoes. I’m sorry. I offer
the Earth this guilty consumer’s prayer.
A November baby, I wasn’t born for this heat. My feet have
prickled with livid welts. I have cried at least twice during all
of these burning days and I guarantee that I will cry again.
It’s this enforced sloth, this claustrophobia, clinging flesh—
the hot, insufficient breath. But this morning, 6 a.m., fog lowered
its damp, delicious mist. I lifted my face and opened my mouth.
It’s over, it’s over, I said—at least until the sun boils everything
away again and I can be something useful, stop melting down
because I am sluggish, sweaty, overwhelmed. Give me cardigans,
mild spring days, snow and lakes, draughts and gales. Bergs
and glaciers, waterfalls, zephyrs and rain, rain, rain—for the flowers,
the leaves, the creatures I cannot feed. Did you notice how birds
just disappeared, dried up like tears? Did you notice they didn’t
come to your table of seeds? Didn’t sing? Yet, in the promise
of this morning’s early cool, sparrows, tits, robins and a thrush
all came to drink. There was even the ghost of a gull, high up
in the pale air. Then the fire came back and burned them away.
I miss the comfort of clothes that do not cling to hypersensitive skin.
There is no way to bear my bed. The curtains are closed—I must sit
in the dark and believe that the end of the world has come
Martin Hayes has lived in the Edgware Road area of London all of his life. He played schoolboy football for Arsenal and Orient, and cricket for Middlesex Colts. Asked to leave school when he was 15, he has worked as a leaflet distributor, accounts clerk, courier, telephonist, recruitment manager and a control room supervisor. His other books include When We Were Almost Like Men (Smokestack, 2015), The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (Culture Matters, 2018) and Ox (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2021).
Katy Evans-Bush’s latest poetry publication is Broken Cities, from Smith|Doorstop, and her essay collection, Forgive the Language, is published by Penned in the Margins. A polemical memoir on hidden homelessness is forthcoming from CB Editions. She lives in Kent where she is a freelance poetry tutor and editor.
Jane Burn is an award-winning poet and illustrator based in the North East of England. She is working-class bisexual with a late diagnosis of autism. Her work has been nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prizes. In 2019, she co-edited Witches, Warriors, Workers, a volume of contemporary women’s poetry and essays with Fran Lock for Culture Matters. Her most recent collection is Be Feared (Nine Arches Press, 2021). She lives with her family for eight months of the year in an off-grid wooden cottage, as she cares deeply for nature and the environment.