Ted Hughes reflects on the Rio Earth Summit, 1972

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To mark the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the poet laureate Ted Hughes wrote about an associated photography exhibition to ‘show the threatened planet in all its glory’ – 210 winning shots from 32,000 entries (‘Your world’, 29 November 1992).

‘If Earth is a casualty of modern civilisation, that is not her only problem,’ Hughes began. ‘According to Wittgenstein: “If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand it.” Unluckily for the Earth, mankind has difficulty finding a language that will not only interpret the Earth’s needs exactly, but will also realign mankind to these needs, like an irresistible magnetic field.’

Hughes argued that although governments have in effect ‘agreed on a language for the job’ – science – the problem is that ‘one science trumps another science’ in court. He’d been involved with some local environmental protection issues and referred to this ‘Babel of sciences’.

Much of what Hughes wrote about global threats then are depressingly familiar now: ‘In the recent US presidential election, one of the bitter issues was the Bush administration’s old-school disregard for the environment.’

The published pictures are beautiful but stark. There’s a shot of a cemetery of grounded nuclear bombers in the Russian countryside by Alexey Zhigailov and one of stacked piles of crushed cars by Yuji Hachiro. There’s a revealingly jarring clash between a colourful C&A ad for ski jackets with mother and daughter dreaming of the Alps and one of the winning pictures of a dry riverbed entitled ‘The last water’.

‘Verbal argument simply provokes more verbal argument,’ said Hughes. ‘What is needed is a new kind of language that goes straight to the heart and soul… Photography, maybe, is the most immediate of these languages.’

As with Wilfred Owen and the calamity of the trenches in the First World War, this was a poet saying that words had failed.

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