Iceberg sunset in Antarctica.

Two centuries of immense change

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the end of the 18th century, the world was a very different place. Fast forward more than 200 years and humankind – through population booms and a myriad of industrial and technological revolutions – has had a marked impact on almost every aspect of our planet.

If Coleridge could to time-travel and pay us a visit, the world he would see would bear little resemblance to that which he experienced directly. Despite that, his Rime is oddly and aptly prophetic. Human kind out of kilter with the natural world. A crisis in biodiversity. Resultant loneliness and isolation – biophilia denied or suppressed. A world in transition. Climate grief.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Washington Allston

A deepening climate crisis

As a biologist who loves The Rime, the message of wilful biodiversity destruction, living with and suffering its consequences, dawning realisation and the finding of (if not always the search for) redemption is all in the Rime. It’s where, I suggest, we are now. I was in the audience at a research seminar when Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester, announced that human impacts on our planet were so great, so extensive and so rapid, that an epoch-scale boundary had been crossed – and crossed sometime in the last two centuries.

I was perched on the edge of my seat when Jan suggested that a new geological epoch was needed, the Anthropocene. An epoch delineated by our actions. I squirmed into my seat as it dawned on me – the Rubicon had been passed, the albatross had been shot, and my world was now physically different. Life really was under threat. I was… we were… living a new geological epoch. Was there any ‘going back’?

In The Rime, killing the albatross sets in motion a series of events that changed the Mariner’s world. Through our mining activities we have moved more sediment than all the world’s rivers. Through burning fossil fuels we have raised the temperature of the planet and begun to acidify our ocean. Through producing plastics and nuclear explosions we have laid down physical markers marking our presence.

Ocean acidification in our seas

Through our consumption and modification of biodiversity we have set in motion perhaps the greatest extinction of life seen in its history. An international and intergovernmental report, published a year ago by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), clearly shows our knowledge of what is being destroyed or degraded has not changed over the past 20 years. What has changed is the rate of change. Our crisis has deepened, and still there is little action.

Beautiful tropical coral reef with sea anemones, clownfish and colorful coral fish – polluted with plastic bag.
Oil refinery at dawn - image courtesy of Getty images
Power lines coming from the nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk, UK

Are we suffering from Climate Grief?

It is also not beyond the realms of possibility to argue that the grief which inhabits much of The Rime parallels what has been termed Ecological or Climate Grief. This is a psychological response to biodiversity destruction and the negative effects of global climate change and the response may be common among, but not restricted to, scientists.

In his perceptive and hard-hitting book A World of Wounds, the renowned ecologist Paul Ehrlich pointed out as early as 1997 that many ecologists were drawn to the subject because being children of this ‘world of wounds’, they wanted to be part of the healing. However, many found themselves discouraged or even depressed in their work so Ehrlich’s suggestion was “let’s cooperate more, change some of our priorities, and have fun while we’re trying to save the world”.

A personal perspective of change

Global climate change is driving what could become one of the largest rapid mass migrations in the history of our planet. The Rime, for a large part of its narrative, follows a strange and disturbing sea journey from the frozen Antarctic to the tropics.

Through my own research, I have seen at first-hand how the warming of our ocean is forcing marine life that can relocate in go in the reverse direction, from tropical and temperate to the polar regions. Life ‘tries’ to find colder waters, thermal refugia from seemingly inescapable rapid change. But where are the refugia for the vast majority of unique life forms inhabiting polar waters? This question has sparked interest in the notion of evolutionary rescue, the ability of organisms to rapidly adapt to environmental change.

Professor John Spicer collecting intertidal amphipods from South Cove (photo credit: Simon Morley)
Professor John Spicer collecting intertidal amphipods from South Cove (photo credit: Simon Morley)

Can The Rime be a source for good?

While such an ability has heuristic interest to the biologist we need more hopeful and effective ways of losing the dead albatross from around our neck. Perhaps we can look to The Rime for inspiration in that regard as the poem does end with some degree of redemption. It is a redemption strange and awe-filled, unlooked for and arguably unexpected.

Fuelled by a change of heart and inspired by renewed contact with the sea creatures he once showed disdain for, the Mariner displays a fusion of science, art and spirituality, impossible to dissect. If we are to save our planet, save ourselves, a similar change of heart will be needed as we find ways to reconnect with a world which – for generations – we have plundered and, without question, shown complete disdain for. Poets and artists have always believed their work can speak across the centuries. If that is true, it may well be that The Rime is the tale of the Anthropocene.

Underwater view of a coral reef
Atlantic Ocean wide
Dolphins underwater

A Scientist’s Confession

Once I believed that the greatest threats to our existence were
the exploitation and fracture of biodiversity,
the collapse of essential ecosystems and their life giving services,
ever more rapid global climate change.

Once I believed our science and technology, while still growing,
were good, complete enough to understand and to tackle all these threats.
They are. But I was wrong.

Now? I believe the greatest threats to our existence are
And, encompassing, nursing and feeding all of these
there is Fear.

No amount of cardiovascular surgery can heal a broken heart.
The Mariner has much to teach.

Exploring the effects of climate change on marine organisms

Over the last 50 years, the oxygen in our oceans has decreased by around 2–5% and this is already having an effect on species’ ability to function. This is obviously a major cause for concern

Read more about Professor John Spicer's work
John Spicer

More about the University’s involvement in the Ancient Mariner Big Read

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