We need poets as much as physicists and artists as much as actuaries


David P. Barash is Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington and most recently author of Threats: bullying and its discontent (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Street art depicts naturalist David Attenborough and climate activist Greta Thunberg

If you love this planet and its many life forms, you might agree that it is time: the time of singers, songwriters, musicians, magicians, filmmakers, mimes, painters, poets, playwrights, sculptors, satirists, comedians, composers, clowns, dancers, novelists, tattoo artists and anyone else with talent and a desire to connect with the emotional side of our human brain to step up and get down to business.

Because it doesn’t take a meteorologist to see that global climate change is happening and that this is a permanent crisis. And it doesn’t take an environmentalist to know that we are dangerously close to destroying the organic infrastructure upon which all life, including our own, is built. Likewise, it doesn’t take a physicist or “defense intellectual” to recognize that nuclear war would be an unthinkable (but not unlikely) disaster. Neither do we need epidemiologists to tell us that pandemics are very bad news but can be ameliorated by vaccines, nor political scientists to point out the growing risks to democracy in the United States and the United States. abroad. Ditto for economists and sociologists to educate us on inequalities and unleashed racial disparities.

This is not to denigrate the importance of expertise. We need it too, and we have it. Sure, we could use even more, but that’s not all we need. The problem is that empirical facts and technical knowledge are simply not enough. Cognition is wonderful and, after all, we are meant to be Homo sapiens (“The wise man”). But the pure wisdom, the technical data, and the appeal to the best angels in our nature, even to the extent that those angels are rational and scientifically flawless – and maybe above all to the extent that this is the case – have consistently failed.

Enter, hopefully, these artists, myth makers and storytellers. We need a full court press, and that, in turn, requires touching that other part of human nature, the part that walks towards an emotional drummer.

“If you want to build a ship,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “don’t mobilize the men to collect wood, then divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. It is this desire, based on hope, fear, love, hate, lust, imagination, despair (anything that falls within the domain of the other than rational) that we have. urgently needed. It’s already happened with some success, so there is reason to expect it to happen again, and perhaps, again, with even more success.

In the early 1960s, Physicians for Social Responsibility focused on the medical effects of radioactive fallout from surface nuclear tests. The data was indisputable and many people, including politicians, were convinced of the need for a ban. It was, however, when people like Dr. Benjamin Spock (at the time America’s most revered pediatrician) pointed out that human breast milk was contaminated with radioactive iodine that the public woke up, which resulted in the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.

The data on the effects of nuclear war have been clear for a long time, but what finally started to move public opinion were films such as On the beach, Dr Strangelove, Seven days in May, and television dramas, including The next day. After the end of the Cold War, anti-nuclear activism declined, and despite the admirable work of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (both Nobel Laureates of peace), it still hangs around, waiting for calls to our guts and not just our brains.

Wildlife advocates have been criticized for paying disproportionate attention to “charismatic megafauna” like lions, tigers, polar bears, elephants, koalas, not to mention these adorable giant pandas. But it is these remarkable species that are most effective in tugging our heartstrings and, consequently, our wallets and our politics. And don’t forget the whales. Indeed, the haunting songs of humpback whales not only gave birth to the Save the Whales movement, but – with evocative bestsellers such as Silent spring – gave impetus to the environmental movement more generally. The key, again, is evocative: able to generate a response, especially emotional.

Today’s most desperate environmental crisis concerns global climate change, including global warming, a better term than global warming, since “warming” implies something comfortable. Again, the data is clear, but again, the numbers can be numbing. If I was in a rush, I would trade a year of detailed, stat-filled climate committee reports for a few other compelling young activists like teenage Greta Thunberg.

The power of emotional tugs has long been recognized by, for example, religious institutions, which focus on impressive structures, compelling music, shared repetitive chants, engagement with proclaimed mysteries, and often, threats of eternal punishment for fisherman. Likewise, calls for patriotism almost always revolve around the country’s assimilation into family, wrapped in a flag, marching to national anthems and a host of comparable techniques aimed at emotion rather than cognition. To top it off, there is usually a charismatic, demagogic, usually autocratic leader who orchestrates exciting mass rallies, manifested via Nuremberg in the 1930s or MAGA in recent times.

I am a scientist and a “man of numbers”, ignorant of how to reach the other side of the public mind. So I will continue to sound the alarm bells by doing what I can with non-fiction research and writing. But what I need – more precisely, what the world needs – is action where it really matters, from those who are skilled at providing the magnetic push and pull of art, which ‘it either heartbreaking or inspiring the imagination. So go ahead, guys. You have a world to save.


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