Saturday, May 29, 2010


I put this post up last night before I had read Andrew Revkin's Complexity and Its Discontents at Dot Earth. I urge you to read the post which discusses the dilemmas of citizens facing complex problems like off-shore drilling or climate change. It asserts that perhaps we need to go to "risk school." I immediately saw Chris Jordan's work as part of the remedy to the problem and wrote about it as follows:


I don't think that we need risk school as much as we need feeling school. Part of the problem is that our information system is so driven by calculating detached specialists -- industrialists, journalists, scientists, whatever-ists -- that we end up only with a bunch of competing agendas rather than the needed deep sense of reality.

Look at the article in today's Times about the oil plumes. They are brand new phenomena. No one knows what they will bring. How are we supposed to assess the risks of something no one has ever thought about? Must we wait months until the tentative speculations of scientists start to trickle in? Will we have to wait for a cumulative body of peer-reviewed literature? Or might we just watch the live stream of gushing gunk to somehow know that the result ain't gonna be good? This direct way of feeling the facts seems more important to me than a stack of risk analysis.

As a philosophical aside it might be time to revisit the Descartes - Spinoza argument. Descartes was abstract. He said, "I think, therefore I am." Spinoza went more with the senses and, in effect, said, "I feel, therefore I am." OK, there's the test -- one that can be performed personally. Just say the two maxims to yourself about your own life and gauge the results personally. Andy, the science and complexity and risk analysis that is being discussed in the posed links are Cartesian. But translating knowledge into action depends on the urgency of feeling.

A few days ago I blogged that I hoped that Obama would be forced to take charge of the gusher not because the government could do anything technically that was not being done by BP but because I wanted the President to have to feel the consequences of off-shore drilling. So far Obama is again evidencing command of the facts and a short-fall of feelings which is precisely the op-ed conclusion of Charles Blow, again in today's times. This is the dilemma of TS Eliot's Prufrock, the Victorian gentleman who didn't know how to act on his feelings. This is Obama's challenge.

Our educational systems separate the arts and science and hold science as higher. But the traditional view was that science addressed the "why" and art addressed the "how" and that both were equally necessary. To see the power of putting art back into the communication equation, please look at the extraordinary artwork of Chris Jordan:

I know Andy that you have blogged about the need for art in communication but the examples are sorta of the graphics of metrics. That's not what Chris Jordan is doing. He is trying to put the feelings of anger and outrage back into the equation. Just watch what happens when he employs a pause of pregnant silence. Feel the impact on the audience. The feelings are palpable but hardly expressible.

I am not advocating some touchie-feelie rejection of science. I am saying that action results only when thought and feeling or mind and body or metrics and meanings become aligned. One of the greatest problems facing an increasingly urban world population is its separation from nature -- from feeling it. The "art" of a live-stream gusher a mile below the surface of the Gulf is more valuable in bridging the gap than risk school might ever be.

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