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Poetry explores how air pollution harms mental health

An under-appreciated harm arising from burning fossil fuels is the mental health effects of pollution. This is one of the issues explored by the international science-poetry collaboration Earthsong, presented at COP26.

At COP26, scientists, politicians, and activists from around the world came together to negotiate action to avoid exacerbating climate change and reduce the harms of our fossil-fuelled economy.

As part of this, Poets for the Planet and Imperial College worked together to set up online workshops where poets and researchers from across the world gathered for conversations about the scientists’ research and the poets’ cultural experience. This provoked a huge variety of amazing poems in many languages, resulting in a mix of live and videoed performances.

Mental health was a major theme in several of the poems, both from a scientific and cultural perspective. One of the researchers involved in our project was Professor Carmine Pariante, Professor of Biological Psychiatry at King’s College London, who researches (among many other things) the impact of pollution on the mind. While there is growing awareness of how inflammation from air pollution is harmful to lung and heart health, it’s less widely known that it is also associated with lower temporary cognitive abilities, lower cognitive development, depression, anxiety, ADHD and dementia. You can find out more about this research in a previous article on this site.

Coming across this research directly inspired two poets, Sindiswa Zulu of South Africa (writing in isiZulu and accompanied with a musical bow instrument called a umakhweyana) and me (writing in English). You can watch our poems below.

Sindiswa said of her experience:

“As artists, writers and documenters to be specific, we have a huge responsibility to take so that we create and inspire a positive change in our communities, countries and the world. Being involved in this program has advanced my understanding of a role a poet can play in the betterment of our lives and those of the generations to follow. This is not just based on wanting to sustain the beauty of trees, rivers etc.. It is actually going deeper on what benefits us if the ecosystem is balanced and the environment has less toxins.

The project has taught me a lot about how industries should care to make a thorough research not just comply for documentation sake but make sure that the balance in the economy is aligned with environment being protected because after all, we are ones to suffer.

The workshop I attended with scientists and poets had so many subtopics but my main interest was on environmental racism and effects of air pollution. I feel that these topics are not well unpacked to the society at large.”

Several of the other poets discussed mental health issues provoked by climate change and the burdens this imposes, particularly in the global south. Pieta Poeta of Brazil writes about the racially-concentrated impact of climate change on farmers in the Brazilian semi-arid region, and how this, combined with structural racism, harms the mental health of the land’s inhabitants. There is evidence, for instance, that heat waves can affect mental health, and climate change is making these more frequent.

Since these poems were written, the London authorities have brought about legislation to limit air pollution. We know that similar attempts have worked in the past, so hopefully we will soon find this is too! If so, it can provide a template for how other cities may solve their local problems and contribute to the global solution.

While the mental health effects of air pollution and climate change may be harder to see than dramatic heatwaves and droughts, they are no less important. Also, the impact of air pollution is more localised, since smog travels less than carbon dioxide. This means there’s more pressure on politicians tackling air pollution at home rather than blaming climate change on other people.

While we hope that poetry and international community-building exercises like this will promote cooperation on global heating, with air pollution it’s in all our direct interests to take action now!


Header image by Jaroslav Devia on unsplash


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