A New York Times opinion piece titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” caught my eye the other day. My first job out of college was teaching algebra to teenagers. I can still factor a quadratic equation, and I actually find it kind of fun. However, many students, at the high school and college levels, fail the required course in algebra and drop out. The eloquent author of the piece – an emeritus professor of Mathematics – argues that quantitative reasoning is essential, but mastery of algebra is an unnecessarily narrow measure of quantitative skill, and our society is poorer for excluding students who are befuddled by algebra.
In other words: a too-rigid insistence on a particular analytical technique (algebra) is tripping up people who “get it” (have a sufficient general grasp of quantitative issues), and we are worse off as a result.
In a recent edition of Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben beautifully demonstrates the importance of not getting tripped up on details, but firmly understanding the big quantitative picture. In “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” (which I highly recommend), McKibben avoids the trees and tells the lesson of the forest, in its blindingly obvious and powerful simplicity: We have to change dramatically, and quickly, to preserve the planet as we know it.
McKibben’s message stirs you deeply. It evokes an existential, even spiritual response. And it does so by appealing to our hearts and our guts. There’s enough math to convince our heads, but his message is not aimed at our heads. We know what’s going on in the world. We can feel it. McKibben knows that, and aims to connect with us where we feel things, not in the left side of our brains.
Which leads me to the question: does the environmental movement have the equivalent of an algebra requirement? Do we tacitly insist that everyone master the complex facts before they get involved? If so, should we? Does everyone need to be a left-brained, deep diver into the complexity of the debates, or is it sufficient that they feel strongly that it’s time to act, and are compelled to do so by their heart, their gut or their spirit?
This is somewhat uncomfortable terrain for us. Let’s acknowledge that. We have seen examples in the public realm of policy being based solely on faith, without regard to evidence from the real world. Sometimes this can be disastrous. And it is a rock-solid principle of our movement that policy must be based on sound science and evidence. All of that is entirely true and I would never veer from it.
But there are many people who could be our allies who are not, even though they know the same truth: we need to change in order to save the planet as we know it. And to avoid massive human suffering in the near future. And to protect species faced with extinction. And to deliver a more equitable world. And even to help promote a world better aligned with spiritual forces much larger than us.
Does our preoccupation with matters of the head prevent us from reaching those for whom matters of the heart and soul are more motivating? Is that our “algebra”?
My hunch is that as a movement we expect too much “head” and not enough “heart,” in general. We look for people who can “figure out” what to do next, and trust that if we can win people’s minds either their hearts will follow or we don’t even need their hearts.
What if we attracted to our movement people who appeal to the hearts of others, to begin with? Who see water pollution in the lower Mystic River in Boston, for example, not as an issue of discharge pipes and toxicity but as an issue of hunger and hope, exclusion and unity? What if we talked about climate change not as sea level rise and drought, but as a threat to our spiritual wellbeing? Would we reach different audiences, and could they help us achieve our mission, having become part of us?
Recently I read two books, one new and one old, on the subject of environmentalism and spirituality, or at least environmentalism and much bigger, existential themes.
Wilkinson tells a vitally important, even subversive, story at the heart of this carefully researched book. Over the past 30 years or more, even as the culture wars raged, an honest-to-God “evangelical Center” came to life in the political no-man’s land between the old-guard religious right and the secular liberal establishment. And as Wilkinson shows, one of the most significant expressions of that increasingly assertive center — as it seeks to broaden the “evangelical agenda” beyond abortion and sexuality to include global poverty, health, and social-justice issues — is a far-reaching environmental movement, based on the theology of “creation care,” and the effort by a new generation of moderate leaders to put climate change on the evangelical map.
I was struck by this more general observation by the author (p.8), about how messages grounded in spiritual terms can be more powerful than those aimed at the head, which we normally rely upon: “The guilt-based, fear-inducing messages that have often dominated can lead to paralysis rather than action, but religion is in the business of communicating a future worth fighting for. It can generate new meanings for climate change that drive engagement.”
The second book was Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. It is a true New England original – written in a snowy winter in the Berkshires (looking out at Mt. Greylock, in fact), also describing New Bedford and Nantucket in some detail, and expressing (it seems to me) the New England Transcendentalists’ view of the natural world and humans’ place in it. My colleague at CLF, Robin Just, like me, also just re-read this great fish tale and pronounced it “a strange and wonderful book.” I concur. It’s worth the time and investment, yielding sentences you stop and re-read several times, just for the joy of it. But I was arrested by this famous passage, from ch. 35, the Mast-Head, where Ishmael explores his spiritual connection to nature, high aloft in a crow’s nest on the mast, scanning the sea for whales:
. . . lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reveries is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space . . . forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.
There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. . . .
If we as an organization – and a movement – began appealing more to the heart, where would this take us? What would we do differently? What would it cost, and what returns can we expect?
These are tricky questions for us, but we have to pursue them. Otherwise, we will continue to fail to include large parts of our population in our movement, just like algebra may be excluding many who should be thriving in our society, and helping it thrive. The environmental movement needs a change of “heart.” We must not steer away from evidence-based, quantitative reasoning, but we must also reach out to people’s hearts. That’s where they feel their deep connection to nature and the planet.
At this unsettled and noisy time, it may be much easier to reach people’s hearts than their minds.