Facing facts

Climate change, dude. I find it difficult to think about it in a sustained way because I get emotionally overwhelmed. Yet it's on my mind all the time in little fleeting ways. That's the kind of bedeviling crisis it is. On a beautiful late-summer day, beneath a crisp blue sky and a canopy of leaves—sure, it's a little warmer than you'd think for this time of year; sure, the hot weather came early this year, and all the fruit crops came in weeks early too—but right here, right now, to my senses, things don't look too bad. Life looks as beautiful and orderly as ever. And yet the evidence is pouring in and mounting like a blizzard. The Northwest Passage through the Arctic is ice free this summer: two intrepid expeditions are attempting to circumnavigate an ocean that's supposed to be impassable. Beluga whales, walruses, polar bears, penguins, plankton: all may be headed toward extinction, says a new report, at a speed that is, by evolutionary standards, breathtakingly fast. And then the feedback loops, the vicious cycles, the methane in the permafrost—oy! It really is about too much to take in.

By now we know a fair amount of the truth, and the inconvenience, of the fix we're in as a species. We even know, in a sketchy way, what we need to do about it. What we don't know is whether, and how, we're going to be able to do what it takes to survive.

What is it that can change people's minds enough to change how they live, and change organized systems enough to catalyze radical reforms? The philosopher Paul Goodman addressed this question in his last public speech, weeks before he died in 1972. His answer: "facts"—that is, visceral experience.
What I mean by fact is when a thousand people, maybe more, died of the smog one day in London. [This happened in December 1952, the deadliest fog Britain ever experienced.] They cut down the smog by enormous amounts, something like 90%, but only because a lot of people died.... I'm afraid that's how it is, and that isn't because people are stupid. I'm not saying people are stupid. It's just that if you want a big change which really changes your whole way of life and your sources of income and so forth, it has really got to hit you as a fact.
Well, the facts are rolling in, from Pakistan, from Russia, from New Orleans, from Haiti, from the Arctic—and coming soon to an ecosystem near you.

Fortunately, there is a movement of people and groups rolling up their sleeves and working on the problem. One manifestation of this movement is the global organization 350.org, which is sponsoring a "global work party" on October 10. Mark your calendar for 10/10/10 and "let's get to work"!