Writing The Earth — a collaboration between writers and scientists aims to share understanding of geosciences

‘People can feel overwhelmed by the climate catastrophe but … It’s not tolerable for people to do nothing any more’

Put simply, we expect creative writers to engage us emotionally with their storytelling while we view scientists as the purveyors of hard facts derived from rational observations and calculations of multiple data sets with tried and tested formulae.

But what would happen if you brought a group of creative writers and scientists together to explore climate and sustainability issues in a more fluid process?

That’s exactly what the Irish Writers Centre (IWC) and iCRAG, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre in Applied Geosciences did in the spring and summer of 2023.

And, during National Heritage Week in August, the group shared the fruits of their labour when scientists spoke about insights they gained while writers and actors read excerpts from new essays and plays to a packed audience in Pearse Street Library, Dublin.


Like some of the best ideas, the Writing the Earth: Bridging the Gap between Science and Literature programme emerged from a chance encounter between Valerie Bistany, director at the Irish Writers Centre and Dr Fergus McAuliffe, communications and engagement manager at iCRAG.

“I met Fergus as I was a singer in the Mellow Tonics choir when it performed a piece by composer Norah Constance Walsh about how Ireland’s underground water moves. That piece was part of an iCRAG programme,” Bistany explains.

The Climate Writing Group at the IWC was another spur for the project. Formed during the Covid pandemic by Lynn Buckle, it draws 80-100 writers to regular online workshops and interviews with environmental writers such as Robert McFarlane.

So with her experience of running themed writing programmes, the idea formed for Bistany to put out a call for writers and McAuliffe to put out a call for iCRAG scientists to explore new ways to communicate scientific knowledge about the earth’s natural resources and processes.

The process was the ideal medium to bridge the gap between what we know about climate change and what we feel about climate change

—  Fergus McAuliffe

The scientists at iCRAG study raw materials required for decarbonisation approaches to protecting groundwater and marine resources and ways to respond to flooding and landslides.

“The idea was that scientists would mentor the writers but in fact, what happened was the scientists became actively involved in creative writing and embedded in the writing of the pieces,” Bistany adds. The writers were given the freedom to choose from any topic within the geosciences and use a writing form (eg essay, poetry, play) of their choice.

“There was a lot of dialogue, discussion and debate. The process was the ideal medium to bridge the gap between what we know about climate change and what we feel about climate change,” McAuliffe says.

The result is a rich mix of provocative and inspiring pieces of writing exploring everything from the emotional experience of being a scientist on an Arctic research station to the exploitation of African workers in mines for rare earth materials to how to dismantle the car as a status symbol.

In a hilarious piece entitled, A Survivor’s Guide to the End of the World (As You Know It), Dublin-based actor and writer Gill Buckle explores the relationship between two researchers on a remote research station in the Arctic Circle. Their conversation moves from jokes about their complicit sexual acts to how they will manage to give a presentation of their stark findings from their mission.

Explaining her inspiration for the piece, Buckle says, “I read an article by a climate scientist talking about her battle between the emotional reality of the terrifying statistics from her research compared to the rational conversations she had about her research at conferences. She also wrote about the infuriating inactions compared with the gravity of the situation.”

In the piece — which when completed will be a 90-minute play — Buckle cleverly uses humour as a way to deal with feelings of existential fear of the earth’s collapse whilst giving the audience a more nuanced view of scientists working on the coalface [pardon the pun] of climate science.

In another highly amusing extract from Toxic Relationships by Armagh-based writer Byddi Lee, we witness a conversation between the Moon (played by Malachi Kelly) and the Earth (played by Tim Hanna) about what the future holds for them both. In the dialogue, the Moon reprimands the Earth for the failings of its citizens, predicting that this sixth extinction of the Earth’s creatures — caused by humans, will be the worst. As the Earth justifies earlier extinction events, the Moon replies: “You’re in denial, because you’re scared.”

Many of us feel as individuals there is nothing we can do but enough of us did small incremental things to cause the problems we face

—  Byddi Lee

Lee hopes the Youth Theatre Group in Armagh city will stage a production of Toxic Relationships. She explains how the full version of the play includes a panel discussion with the audience with characters playing dinosaurs, Big Oil, a farmer and “poverty”.

“Many of us feel as individuals there is nothing we can do but enough of us did small incremental things to cause the problems we face. We have the knowledge to make informed choices of what we buy, what we eat, how we live our lives and who we vote for,” Lee adds.

Belfast-based writer Eoghan Totten wrote an essay, entitled Chasing Giants following his collaboration with geologists Dr Mark Coughlan and Guillaume Hug.

Coughlan says that he found engaging with the programme refreshing and empowering. “The writers asked provocative and challenging questions which forced introspection and gave us new fresh perspectives,” he says.

Totten’s piece explores how the rise of the car as a status symbol for humans has resulted in an “estrangement between reality and the environment. The fate of the environment is inextricably bound up with the car and premise that the car is above nature is out of step with the current climate emergency,” he writes.

In her essay entitled, After Elodie, Dún Laoghaire-based writer Dee Roycroft draws attention to the exploitation of cobalt mine workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She writes: “You wonder what it would look like if everything with a rechargeable battery [laptops, toothbrushes, air pods] carried a picture of the destruction caused by mining. Like photos of ulcers and blasted lungs on cigarette packets ... We should see the consequences, hold them in our hands, not be so detached from the damage we do.”

Malena Cazorla Martinez, a first-year PhD student in iCRAG at University College Dublin, writes that the project changed how she looked at herself as a researcher. “I am not only a geochemist researching rocks — I am actually an alchemist, a sort of witch trying to uncover the mysteries of the formation of mineral deposits that are found deep in the Earth,” she says.

Working on Writing the Earth with Roycroft brought Martinez beyond her investigations of cobalt mineral deposits in the DRC to talking about the injustices and the role each of us plays in the exploitation and child labour in the DRC where most of the world’s cobalt is mined.

The next step for the writers in Writing The Earth is to find outlets for their pieces so that they can reach wider audiences of literary magazines and arts festivals

Martinez says she was impressed by the brave and open-minded approach Roycroft took to the subjects with questions such as how would a future world look like with responsible mining? What if each of us had to resource our materials for their own technologies?

“Her story is a spark of hope ... Not with the objective of making everyone feel guilty about their choices [buying a new smartphone, a new electric vehicle] but to make them aware of them and make them understand that it is in our hands — the hands of the people who care about it — to change the world that we live in.”

The next step for the writers in Writing The Earth is to find outlets for their pieces so that they can reach wider audiences of literary magazines and arts festivals. “We want these pieces to reach as many people as possible,” says McAuliffe.

“It’s important for iCRAG scientists to communicate to society about our work and working with writers, we have presented work that we would never have dreamed of,” he adds.

Bistany says the key skill of writers to connect people emotionally to issues has been central to the project. “I heard the scientists say that we’ve been telling everybody about our research for years but nobody was listening. People can feel quite overwhelmed by the climate catastrophe but when you narrow it down, you can create understanding and hope. It’s not tolerable for people to do nothing anymore.”

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment