In Search of Audacity

The following post was written at the request of COMPASS, a wonderful organization that has helped bridge the science-policy-communication divide for more than a decade.  Today, COMPASS published a commentary in PLOS Biology on the journey from science outreach to meaningful engagement. This post is part of a series of reactions, reflections, and personal experiences they hope will expand the conversation. Read the summary post here, or track the conversation by searching for #reachingoutsci

Late on Sept 7, 2001, I paced around a DC hotel room, practicing mock Congressional testimony.  Nineteen other Leopold Leadership Fellows were probably doing the same.  By lunch the next day, we’d sat in the House Rayburn room, said our piece, been gently roughed up by a Congressional staffer or two, and felt a certain electricity of hope.  Hope that we could engage policymakers on the world’s environmental challenges.  Hope that we could make a difference.

Three days later, a few of us huddled on the roof of that same hotel, watching smoke rise from the Pentagon while fighter jets encircled the nation’s capitol.  One person cried softly.  Others, casual acquaintances at best, held hands.  Two hours before, on a small and grainy TV tucked in a corner of the hotel bar, we’d watched the second plane hit, watched the towers fall.

My path through science communication, outreach and policy engagement began before 9/11, and continued after.  But the after was different.  In part, that’s because the Leopold Program has played such a central role in my own attempts at leadership and communication in environmental science.  But it’s also because of what happened three days after 9/11, on a train from Union Station.

For a day after the attacks, largely unable to leave town, we tried.  Tried to arrive at some patina of normalcy by returning to discussions of how to better engage with the public, with the media, with policymakers.   In a brief theater of the absurd, we laughed nervously and without heart as one trainer described why you should never wear complex patterns on TV.  The trainer seemed to be willing herself to be there at all, reciting words from a seemingly autonomic source, her eyes vacant, her mind elsewhere.

By the night of September 12, we collectively turned to getting home.  A group of three from the Bay Area managed to rent a car on Thursday, headed west, dropped an Arizonan in Flagstaff before continuing to California.  It took me until Friday afternoon to find passage on Amtrak #86 to Boston.

As we left Union Station, the packed train was largely silent yet palpably connected.  People helped with luggage.  They offered seats. And then slowly, they began to trade stories.  In Wilmington, a woman named Charlotte sat next to me, our introduction immediate and natural, but something we both agreed would not have happened the week before. Later, as the train made a slow turn east through the New Jersey meadowlands, Charlotte touched my arm and said “look at the city.”   And we stared, stunned and muted by a skyline on which the Empire State Building stood tragically alone.

Soon after, we pulled into Penn Station.  Where we sat.  And sat.  And sat some more, while passengers began to get conspicuously nervous.  Why weren’t we moving?  Had something else happened?

And then the reason for our delay filed onto the train.  Their faces covered in grime and dirt and godknowswhat, their eyes hollow, their every movement that of human beings who are still upright and moving because they simply have no other choice.  A group of first responders from Providence, suddenly engulfed in a round of applause from the train’s passengers, followed by those passengers standing up, shaking a hand, wrapping one soot-laden firefighter after another in bear hugs of gratitude and compassion and release.  Everywhere you looked, someone was crying.

And so, when two bombs tore apart one of America’s iconic celebrations of hope and endurance just days after the request for this blog piece arrived, I found myself back on the hotel roof, back on that train.  As I have time and again over the last twelve years.

What does any of this – beyond the juxtaposition of 9/11 with a Leopold week in DC– have to do with environmental science communication?  Or more importantly, with solutions to the environmental challenges we face?

The connection I see is in the hands held on the roof of that DC hotel.  In the response of passengers on Amtrak #86 to the Providence firefighters.  In the entire crowd at Boston’s first hockey game after the marathon bombing spontaneously belting out the national anthem.  In the countless other examples of people responding to the worst of what humans or nature can dish out with an almost ferocious unity that suddenly renders our everyday differences moot.

That is where my hope for a more sustainable planet lies.  Not in what we see in our average days, but in what we see just after our worst ones.   In the fierce devotion we have for each other, always there but only exhumed when the strata of everyday gripes and stresses and distractions are torn away by events we simply will not accept, no matter who we are, what we look like, how we vote.

Sooner or later, metastatically or all in a rush, the fate of our planet could be one of those events.   The real trick is: how do we sustainably harness humanity’s extraordinary capacity for unity and positive change before things truly hit the fan?

I don’t know the answer.  But I can’t think of a more important question.  And yet, when I look back over the last ten to fifteen years, I don’t see my work on science outreach and engagement targeting that grandest of all challenges.  I see moments of nibbling at its heels, but far more moments of largely inconsequential (and potentially counterproductive) sowing of dystopian fears.  For the most part, it’s not that I set out to scare (or bore) people.  It’s just that doing so is often the easiest and most natural extension of the scientific facts on which we all base our communication in the first place.

Going forward, I’m determined to focus more on tapping into emotions and hope, less on typically professorial (and undoubtedly maddening) attempts to tell you people how you’re ruining the planet if you would only listen dammit!  Yes, absent a more sustainable path, harder times are virtually certain.   Part of avoiding those times demands telling the truth about what we face, while another part requires seeking that truth through the power of science.  But in the end, true sustainability can only emerge from a collective desire to be something other than we are on most of our current days.

Five years ago, our president called hope audacious.  He was right.  When senators vote down a gun policy nine in ten Americans want, when fear-laden ideologies threaten our most basic forms of progress, when skies darken from coal and species disappear and fisheries collapse and the climate inexorably warms, staking our future on ideals of hope and unity seems tragically laughable at times, utterly absurd at others.  But there is no other path.  The communal will that a sustainable world requires cannot be born of fear, and it cannot be born from scientific facts seeking to override beliefs and ideologies.  It will only emerge from the fundamental human capacity for blending hope and desire and community to protect who we are and who we most want to be.


3 thoughts on “In Search of Audacity

  1. Brooke Smith

    Thanks for this post Alan. As the chief fundraiser for COMPASS, I often describe what COMPASS does and why it’s important. I believe so passionately in our mission of helping scientists share their insights and knowledge, and making sure this science gets out there (even to the right people…at the right time…). Even so, I sometimes am at a loss for words to describe the importance of what we do against the backdrop of violent attacks, catastrophes, etc. Your perspective gives me hope — and I will likely point to it when people say “so what? aren’t there bigger problems in the world?” Because as you say, your work and that of 1000s of your colleagues, could be addressing one of the bigger challenges our global society has ever addressed. I’m grateful you’re working on it – and grateful you have the courage and motivation to share beyond your peers!

  2. Andrew Martin

    Good essay. In my experience, much of the answer lies in education and providing young people with experiences that have the potential to consolidate a world view that has, at its center, the elements of sustainability. Change has to happen from the bottom up.


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