by Shane L. Larson
I was walking through my daughter’s school recently, and passed a display that had slipped by my gaze for more than a week. It was in the days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and the bulletin board displayed a large poster with the full text of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the masses assembled for the March on Washington.
Surrounding the speech were quarter sheets of paper, written in the large and wandering text of those who are just learning to express themselves to the world, capturing with open and startling honesty the dreams of a first grade class. What surprised me so deeply is how little those simple notes reflected what my parental mind and little boy memories thought of as the dreams of childhood. No dreams of being a superhero, no dreams of flying to the Moon, no dreams of visiting the pyramids of Egypt, nor dreams of swimming on the Great Barrier Reef. Most poignantly what these children called their dreams were in fact the desire to be rid of the innermost fears of their hearts, to see the world act to address those things that frightened them most about the future.
Roughly half of those fears were about children. In our media-saturated culture, these children were painfully aware that there were other kids in the world, not unlike them and their friends, who suffered violence, abuse, hunger and poverty. Such terrible weights for shoulders so small to bear.
The other half expressed fears about the future of this planet. Fear of the effects of wars ravaging our civilization. Fears that there would be no trees or no polar bears in their future. Fear that the bad air (a particular problem in northern Utah) was never going to get better. Fear our stewardship of this planet is not what they would do if handed the reins right now. Terrible worries from small minds that should be engaged in the simple pleasures of childhood –– sparkly rocks, catching bugs, stomping in puddles, and dunking cookies in milk.
The fears of our children are a painful mirror, reflecting our own deepest concerns about the future of our world and our species. Their concerns reflect the roots of the underlying issues that frame so much of the rhetoric of our politics and the incessant, thoughtless political soundbites spewed through the hosepipe of social media. Our children are not little rocks, unaware of the world around them. They are highly observant students of the world, absorbing and processing every tiny bit of information they are exposed to within the framework of their own worldview. The most remarkable gift of their young cerebral processors is the ability to cut through all the crap that dominates big-person discussion of these issues and get right to the heart of the problem. What if there are no trees in the future? What if there is no water for farming and large cities? What if the pinnacle of achievement of our civilization is to fight wars over the question of what happens to you after you are dead?
As a scientist, I know my community bears a tremendous responsibility to address these fears, particularly with regards to the complex interface between humans, our planet, and the other lifeforms we share it with. The choice of a career in science means becoming well versed with the tools to gather data, developing the ability to quantitatively answer questions about big problems, and having the skills to make predictions about the future while offering candid assessments about certainty of your results. The responsibility of a career in science is to follow the rules of science, and vigorously defend the conclusions of science even in the face of oppression. The rules are this (these are Sagan’s Rules, which I find to be the most succinct and honest to the process of science): (1) there are no sacred truths, all assumptions must be critically examined, and arguments from “authority” are worthless without evidence. (2) whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. The Universe is not bound by how we wish it to be, and we must have the courage to not shirk the truth because it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
A colleague of mine from American Association for the Advancement of Science (http://www.aaas.org/) recently noted that the resistance to change comes from two viewpoints. The first kind of resistance is that arising from issues challenging deep core beliefs: stem cell research skirts by the unknowable question of when life begins, cosmology is often diametrically opposed to beliefs about the origins of the Universe, and natural selection clashes repeatedly with creationists. The second kind of resistance is to problems of such magnitude that the path of least resistance is opposition to a viewpoint founded on established observational facts. The clear example here is the opposition to climate change. The economic and ecological ramifications of a rapidly evolving climate are enormous, insurmountable on the modern timescales of political power, possibly insurmountable across a human lifetime. Mentally it is far easier to latch onto those few uncertainties that lie on the outskirts of the enormous consensus of the scientific community. Mentally it is far easier to invest in an alternative knowledge system of selective information designed to support your viewpoint –– opinion replaces fact as the currency of importance.
There is an apparent simple truth in this observation –– the rhetoric of the modern world is driven by fear, the fear of being wrong. It is true of our politicians, it is true of our scientists, it is true of our Facebook friends, it is true of our spiritual leaders, it is true of me and you. Fear is so much easier to respond to than reason. An easy observation to make, and a difficult fact to live with. But there are enormous consequences if we ignore this simple fact. I refuse to accept that we are okay living with such fears and okay with letting the fears of our children go unanswered.
“All art requires courage.” So remarked Anne Tucker, the curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. I like to think that her axiom is broader than art. Science requires courage. The courage to ask questions which may be uncomfortable in light of societal prejudices. The courage to understand the dislike or denial of science as a human fault and find a way to make our understanding of Nature compelling. Facing the future on Earth requires courage. The courage to know that there are no certainties. The courage to accept inescapable truths. The courage to know that the necessary actions may not be popular or easy. The courage to know that inaction and denial are unacceptable paths forward.
Standing in front of that bulletin board, I know what we have to do.
Fear of the future should not be the dreams of our children.