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‘Behind the Headlines’ panel discussion examines the role of the creative imagination in depicting climate disaster

November 14, 2022 - Responding to the devastation of the First World War, T.S. Eliot wrote of showing ‘fear in a handful of dust’ in his monumental 1922 poem, The Waste Land.

On the centenary of the poem’s first full publication, and against the backdrop of COP27, the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference, the Trinity Long Room Hub’s ‘Behind the Headlines’ series returned on November 10th to discuss how the Arts & Humanities can respond, creatively, to ecological devastation, and whether such responses amount to effective climate protest.

“What we want to do this evening is to engage T.S. Eliot’s imagery, 100 years on, as a springboard to thinking about waste lands, both actual and potential, in the context of climate crisis”, said Professor Eve Patten, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, in opening the event.

Supported by the John Pollard Foundation, the Behind the Headlines series offers background analyses on current issues from experts drawing on the long-term perspectives of Arts & Humanities research. The panel for this discussion, titled ‘,Waste Lands: Imagining Climate Catastrophe’, featured award-winning Irish filmmaker Neasa Hardiman; Conor Brennan, an Early Career Researcher in Germanic Studies; Dr Cathriona Russell, Professor in Trinity’s School of Religion; and Dr Yairen Jerez Columbié, an eco-poet and Assistant Professor in Trinity’s School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies.

To open the panel, Neasa Hardiman discussed her 2019 feature Sea Fever, and described how the film depicted a sense of dread in the natural world. Making its debut at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Sea Fever is a grounded sci-fi thriller that tells the story of a young scientific researcher who struggles to protect the crew of a small fishing trawler when they encounter an unidentified animal from the deep. “The story probes questions about ethics, and about ‘protecting me and mine’ versus protecting a broader community and the broader environment”, Neasa said. “Small fishing communities don’t have to imagine the climate crisis – they’re living it.”

Conor Brennan compared Eliot’s work to contemporary 'waste land' texts, such as Marina Carr's play iGirl (2021). “Public coverage of the climate crisis often emphasizes its radical newness – we’ve all become accustomed to hearing things described as ‘unprecedented’, or seeing temperature records broken every single year”, he said. “But in much of the same way that we as a society keep hearing this news and keep failing to be shocked into action, the contemporary fiction that I read about climate change seems to be lacking that shock of the ‘new’ that’s often ascribed to modernism in the 20th century, and to poems like The Waste Land”.

Dr Cathriona Russell approached the topic from her background in environmental ethics. She considered how dramatic interpretations can help us understand the environment and how to act in relation to it, before also examining how narrative and literary approaches to addressing climate change contrasted with conceptual and actual science approaches.

“The insidious, technocratic meaning of the term ‘waste land’ sees waste lands everywhere, suggesting that some landscapes have no obvious human use or function”, Cathriona said. “Colonists and productionists interpreted dry savannah and flooded marshes as land either to be forested or drained for cultivation or extraction. So, the idea that arid lands are ruined, human-induced waste lands led in some cases to dubious policies that damaged these ecosystems further, many of which were inhabited sustainably by Indigenous peoples who lived there for thousands of years.”

Dr Yairen Jerez Columbié, who grew up in Havana, Cuba, explored the relationship between The Waste Land and Caribbean poetry.

“In Eliot’s poem, as in the Caribbean today, we have destruction and regeneration — death and life —co-existing. In The Waste Land, this contrast is emphasised by the arrival of spring. In the Caribbean, it’s emphasised every day by the still healthy and colourful ecosystems that thrive in conditions of extreme vulnerability,” Yairen said.

To conclude her talk, Yairen read from her own book of eco-poetry, Fósiles de lluvia (Fossilised Rain), which was published earlier this year.

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