We are all blind men describing an elephant


I had an exchange on social media after the Paris climate talks, a back and forth of articles and videos with an acquaintance who challenged the veracity and conclusions of what’s known as “accepted” climate science. I let myself be annoyed by his posts, dismissing them as straw men. (The book and film, “Merchants of Doubt,” shows that many of them are). Among the challenges to climate science, the one I find most absurd is that scientists are after big government grants, so they’ll say anything. It’s just not persuasive when you consider that it’s usually leveled by those who DO have a financial stake—like the Koch brothers and others in the fossil fuel biz.

Then I had to laugh. Here I was defending science, when I’m more inclined to question its assumption of human exceptionalism and elevation of reason to exalted status over intuition. Rupert Sheldrake’s book, Science Set Free, shows that modern science, for all its value and rigor, has gotten so dogmatic as to be almost fundamentalist in its stridency. Anything that doesn’t fit the accepted paradigm of materialism is ignored, dismissed, and labeled “anti-science.” Data that doesn’t fit the expected outcome is shoved into a file drawer and not published.

Unfortunately, this dogmatism probably affects climate science, which, like every other human activity, has its flaws. So, when I share a certain video by a friend at NASA that shows how we know the elevated carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is from human activities—because “old” carbon and “new” carbon have different chemical signatures—and I say that the science on this is “cut and dried,” my acquaintance responds that even that is a matter of perspective.

This exchange brings me back to the thought: Climate change as accepted science isn’t even the point. It’s one small part of the point. It’s like the ancient story of the blind men arguing over each of their understandings of elephant. Our view of anything is always only partial, no matter what we are studying. A system as complex and ever-changing as the earth’s climate is perhaps the biggest elephant we’ve ever argued about.

It also causes me to look at my own reaction to the challengers. I have seen climate change as THE crisis issue of our era for so long, I tend to dismiss challengers out of hand as naïve and duped, or misinformed and uncritical thinkers. Or evil people who know better but are defending their position out of utter venality. (Here I won’t resist the temptation to invoke Ted Cruz.) Worse, I think, in their willful ignorance, these deniers are endangering not only future generations of people, but also the very existence of thousands of other species besides roaches and rats and some bacteria.

Storyteller Annette Simmons jokes that when someone says, “You want the truth? I’ll tell you the truth,” they are about to give you their opinion. Psychological studies show that the more educated you are, the more quickly you become entrenched in a viewpoint when it is challenged. For my part, when I do this, it’s accompanied by thoughts like I’ve read up on this, I’ve interviewed climate scientists for years, I know better. This joker is reading the wrong stuff, listening to the wrong people.

This feels personal to me. It was on our generation’s watch that the science became robust enough to model a system as complex as the earth’s climate. The tools and computing horsepower have given those blind men a modicum of sight, finally allowing meteorologists, paleoclimatologists, geophysicists, biologists and others not only to see historical trends but also to extrapolate possible future scenarios. None of those futures are attractive.

Fear entrenches us. Some of us fear for the health and future of other species, as well as our own. Some people fear for their way of life, which they worked very hard to attain and see as a God-given right. Others fear for autonomy and freedom from oppressive government. When I harden behind a position on climate science, I act to a large degree out of fear. This is isolating, and keeps me in a state of separation, the very state that drives the engine of domination and exploitation and disregard for life that is, as activists like Bill McKibben say, giving the earth a fever.

The very mindset of control that’s gotten us to this point of climate crisis is alive and well even now. The debate at the Paris talks on whether to hold global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.0 degrees strikes me as folly. If it weren’t so deadly serious, I’d laugh. Do people actually believe we have that kind of control over a system as mysterious and multi-dimensional as a planet’s climate? Our models are only as good as the data we’ve feed into them, and in modern science, there’s no accounting for non-material data that may have a profound effect on climate.

Maybe a useful way to think of climate science is as an excellent and informative diagnostic tool, like an MRI or a PET scan. Climate scientists have observed the symptoms, gathered and interpreted data to make their diagnosis, and the specialists are now conferring on recommending treatments. From here, though, maybe the best course is to bring in the wise elders—those systems of healing far more ancient and efficacious than our adolescent western programs.

Healing modalities like Ayurveda and Chinese medicine evolved from a sophisticated and multivariate understanding of the body’s material physiology and subtle energy systems. They are especially effective for chronic conditions which western medicine, with its command-and-control war mentality, tends to hit with a hammer. These ancient healing practices see the body as a series of interrelated parts and wholes, intricately linked with the parts and wholes of the world around us.

I’m not sure what acupuncture would look like as a therapy for climate change. Common sense tells me that, when I’m sick, I should stop polluting myself with sugar or salt or alcohol. I should refrain from strenuous activity. Surely, that applies on a planetary scale as well. Is there a Chicken Soup for the Earth book? Not by that title, perhaps, but plenty has been written about our profound and deep interconnectedness with the living world.

I’m intensely interested in finding ways to get past the back-and-forth arguing about whether climate change is real or not, whether it’s man-made or not, whether we should have government programs to fund clean, renewable energy (while withdrawing massive subsidies of fossil fuels) or not. It’s high time to get to a place of common vision.

Don’t we all want to leave a healthy, vibrant, just, abundant world for our children and grandchildren? And can’t we agree that many of our current practices endanger such a future (let alone present)? For my part, I’m happy to admit that, I’ve been feeling the elephant’s tail and know in my bones that it’s a rope. And I’m willing to listen to my neighbor who says it’s a wall and the one next to him who says it’s a pillar. And the ones at the other end saying it’s a spear or a magic carpet. We are all right.

4 thoughts on “We are all blind men describing an elephant

  1. Brilliant analogies Julie! Smart, to the point and best of all, o-p-e-n! (not closed, not shut off, not shut out… not separate). Yes, let’s bring in the dare say, ‘unscientific’ viewpoints. At the expense of being called unscientific, I’m certainly ok with that. As a Chinese medicine practitioner, using acupuncture and herbs and simple life-style coaching to support someone on their path to balance is my work. I hear what would be labeled “unscientific” positive results from my clients every day. People report, more ease in their day, more clarity, feeling heard, increased focus, improved quality of sleep, less digestive upset, less pain, improved mood and more energy. If I where to provide acupuncture for Mother Earth for her symptom of climate change, I may ask her many questions to start. Are you getting enough sleep (or are you working round the clock)? Are you eating enough fruits and veggies (or lots of meats and grains causing an acidic environment)? What’s your water intake(your body needs pure liquids not fluids with added chemicals, phosphoric acid and sugars)? Is there anything bothering you on an emotional/mental level that you haven’t been able to express and that you are suppressing? If not, why? The diagnosis of Mother Earth’s Climate symptoms: Liver Fire Rising w/ pathogenic wind and Severe Yin Deficiency. Perhaps if we can slow down a bit, we would need a bit less resources and our Mother Earth would be able to rest instead spending all of her stored energy. The Yin Deficient heat (or Earth’s hot flashes if you will, can come from expending all of her resources and having little left to support even a grounded and restful sleep) would cool and calm. Emotionally? There are many traditions that understand that animals and plants and ecosystems are alive and sensory beings. What are they feeling from us? A disregard? Unheard? Ignored? At worst, abused? I wonder what would happen if we entered into a dialogue with these beings and approached the relationship like a healthy partnership that values giving and receiving equally. Thank you Julie for the opportunity to share here! Many blessings for Mother Earth’s continued healing through love and awareness!

    • Brilliant, Erin! Many thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience here. This gives me so much more to think about. . .

  2. Tao Te Ching Chapter 81

    J H McDonald

    True words do not sound beautiful;
    beautiful sounding words are not true.
    Wise men don’t need to debate;
    men who need to debate are not wise.
    Wise men are not scholars,
    and scholars are not wise.
    The Master desires no possessions.
    Since the things she does are for the people,
    she has more than she needs.
    The more she gives to others,
    the more she has for herself.

    The Tao of Heaven nourishes by not forcing.
    The Tao of the Wise person acts by not competing.

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