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At a Crossroads

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The Score

At the dawn of the 21st century science is delivering a clear message: little of our society as currently imagined is sustainable. Not our food. Not our energy. Not our economy. And not the Great Economy -- what Wendell Berry has termed those pieces of the Earth system that envelope the whole of human civilization. The collection of life and environment that makes our lives possible -- Earth's human ecosystem -- is collapsing beneath us.

This message is not political, or cynical. It is not anecdote, speculation, or hyperbole. It arises from one of the greatest enterprises of the Human Endeavor: science. It is physics and chemistry, biology and ecology. It is observation and measurement -- quantifiable, falsifiable, and reproducible. It is knowledge. Through science, we know these things.

We know.

Meaningful response to this knowledge is the defining challenge of our age; it is the defining task of our generation; it is unparalleled in magnitude; and it will not go away.

Fortunately, through science, we know something more.

We know how to begin to fix it.

We know.

And from this knowledge, forward motion has begun. But truly meaningful response -- of the unprecedented scale and pace required -- eludes us. This, too, is not cynicism, but science. The same science that informs us of our peril, opens windows for escape. But the hour is late, and the windows quickly closing. For all our good intentions, we are badly losing this game.

This... through science... we know.

We know that no window is closing faster than that for preserving a stable, livable climate. Dwarfing all other chasms, as deep as they are, our runaway overconsumption has set in motion a transformation -- what physicists term a fundamental change of state -- of Earth's climate system. (If this sounds like something you don't want for your life support system, then you have understood properly.) Our very best science warns that if allowed to progress, this transformation may well prove both irreversible and catastrophic. This century.

Our century.

Arctic ice, a bellwether for the scale and pace of climate disruption, is rapidly disintegrating -- plummeting last summer to one-fifth its level of only 30 years ago. The term "arctic death spiral" is now part of the scientific lexicon. At least one distinguished researcher in the field believes we may see ice-free arctic summers in less than a decade.

This decade.

And so, at the dawn of the 21st century (our century) we find ourselves at a crossroads; a time and place where scientific ability to identify unprecedented risk intersects a societal inability to respond. But if we could respond -- if we could -- what lies before us is the opportunity to utterly re-imagine the human story on this planet. It is the opportunity to transform our great and difficult task, into a magnum opus of human achievement.

The Unleashing

It is ironic. And vexing. All that we need, we possess -- knowledge, technology, economy, ability (this, too, science tells us). But a logjam of societal detritus dams the flow. Behind this dam, though, the rising waters of a warming climate are joined by a rising tide of human energy -- potential and kinetic -- fed by the very best within us. A reservoir of strength awaits release. All we need do is breach the dam.

But for all our science has done for us, in this task, our science can take us no further. Two points are pivotal:

1. It is not for lack of knowledge -- or for lack of communication of that knowledge -- that we fail. We know what is wrong, and we know how to fix it. And contrary to stereotype, communication of this science is not only not bad, it is extraordinary. Remarkably talented communicators -- some of them scientists, others not -- have been crafting a compelling message for 20 years. Blogs like RealClimate.org convey the measured and expert voices of climate scientists like Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, and dozens more; John Cook's SkepticalScience.com crafts an even more comprehensible lay message; Joe Romm's ClimateProgress and Grist's David Roberts (and others) aggressively and clearly connect the intellectual dots from science to society; sustainability gurus like Lester Brown, David Orr, and Paul Gilding -- and yes, even Al Gore -- synthesize a complex weave of sustainability science into digestable bites. Together, these people and hundreds more have crafted a body of science communication that is accessible, compelling, and ubiquitous.

But still the dam holds.

2. The agents of ignorance and malice are not holding us back. It is tempting to believe our progress is thwarted by the regressive forces among us -- by the Inhofes and the Limbaughs, the ignorant and the malicious. But in truth, we are more than enough -- we who know what we need to know. As I write, 45 percent of us -- 90 million Americans -- are either alarmed or concerned at the prospect of anthropogenic climate change; only 8 percent are dismissive. There is no need to co-opt those who yet dissemble and deny; we need only step around them. It's damned easy: they're small and they're standing still. Far from a force to be reckoned with, they are noise to be ignored. It's not about them, it's about us... those of us who already know.

But still, the dam holds.

It holds because not enough of us who know, are behaving as though we know -- are behaving, as Yann Arthus-Bertrand has put it, as though webelieve what we know. We no longer need to be merely informed, we need to be moved. Fortunately, science is not alone among humankind's Great Endeavors. Where science informs us, the arts can move us.

Two years ago I teamed with the award-winning Fry Street Quartet in an experiment: to create a performance that would move an audience from intellectual understanding, to deep, visceral belief -- powerful enough to compel meaningful response. The effort quickly took on a life of its own, in which a stunning collection of artistic voices virtually self-assembled. Composer Laura Kaminsky, photographer Garth Lenz, painter Rebecca Allan, sculptor Lyman Whitaker, and dance and movement artist Camille Litalien joined us to craft a unique and powerful work.

Our endeavor, The Crossroads Project, is performance science and performance art. Both gentle and relentless, it is bare naked and visceral. And it is affecting our audiences, moving them to levels of deep-seated comprehension I've not witnessed in six years of efforts as a science communicator. It has touched a chord. Our performance last fall at the AASHE conference of sustainability educators generated intense response and a dozen invitations for additional performances.

In addition to audience reaction, what has struck me about this experience is the degree to which the artistic community is anxious to participate in this work. It's as though a vast and growing reservoir of energy and angst lies untapped, and when a channel for expression opens, power and intensity are unleashed -- focused, determined... and fierce.

Perhaps this is why The Crossroads Project is not alone in this landscape. A growing collection of efforts is bringing the arts to bear on bursting the dam -- including projects like Cape Farewell, Chasing Ice, scores of film projects, and a host of others.

In his book The Great Disruption Paul Gilding makes the convincing case that there will be no serious response until large crises jolt us into action. In his words, "... this crisis is now inevitable." He may well be right -- it is certainly one path leading out from this crossroads. But it needn't be the only one.

I believe the full, fiery, inspiring, even savage voice of the arts -- of artists of every flavor -- is the force majeure that can take us from intellectual understanding to deep, visceral, contextual belief, ultimately breaking the dam of our inaction and freeing the vast and creative reservoir that is building.

To believe what we know, we must feel what we know. And once we feel what we know, we will be fierce with what we know.