Thursday, December 13, 2007
Tears For a Graph
My friend Diana told me a story once about the woman who was a teacher to both of us, Donella Meadows. Dana, as we called her, was working on a book chapter about food and hunger, and Diana, her research assistant, had just provided her with a stack of graphs about food and population growth from different regions of the world.
Dana looked through the stack one by one.... and burst into tears at the sight of the graph from Africa, where the increase in yield per acre had, in the most recent year on the graph, been overtaken by an increase in population. Africa was producing more food, but not at a rate that was keeping up with the numbers of new mouths to feed.
In the trajectory of those lines she read the story of hunger and suffering to come and wept for it. At least that is the story I have told myself. Not knowing the story until after Dana's death, I never had a chance to ask her what she felt or why she cried.
Until yesterday I had never cried myself in response to a graph.
Now I have. After skimming an AP article that you may have seen this week (Ominous Arctic Melt Worries Scientists) which explained that the already steady melting of the Arctic was increased dramatically this summer, I dug a little deeper into the recently updated data sets of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, found the graph you see at the top of the page, and burst into tears. This is the biggest one year decrease of ice cover in the entire data-set, which records a period of time nearly as long as my life.
I know all the caveats. After years working in laboratories and creating graphs of my own, I know that one data point doesn't define a trend. I know that the climate system is messy and noisy and not fully understood.
But I also know that the Arctic is a sensitive indicator of climate change, a place where changes in the Earth system show up first and more dramatically than elsewhere on our planet. As one person interviewed in the articles on this new result said, "Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary [in the coal mine] has died."
I was staring at the graph on our home computer when our ten-year old daughter walked past and asked what it was. I explained. Her eyes became wide, and tear-filled. "That's scary," she said. And then, after a pause, "Will Vermont be under water?"
What does a mother say to a question like this? Are data sets from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, like pornography, something to be kept out of sight of children? And what do you do with anger like this, the deep and rising anger, that the state of your child's world is so sad, and ugly and desperate?
Now that I know a little more about crying over graphs, I am no longer so sure that the tears in the story about Dana were as simple as tears of compassion for suffering to come. They might have been, but I think they might also have been more complex.
I think they might have been tears of rage and frustration and impotence, tears that came out of knowing that it doesn't have to be this way. The trend-line of a graph isn't the result of an act of God or a meteor from outer space. It is the result of human choices. That people make those choices not just in ignorance, but also, as the US climate negotiators are doing right now in Indonesia, while information about the trends is on the front pages of major newspapers, is enough, easily enough, to make one cry.
Tomorrow, I want to ask Diana, what happens next in the story, after the news from Africa, after Dana's tears, whatever their source. Diana will know the specifics. But I already know the general outline. She dried her tears and took out her pen, answered the phone, wrote another essay, taught another class.
What else do you do, when you heart is breaking, but keep on going, saying over and over, as beautifully as you can: this hell is of our own creation and can be ended, as it began, by the power of our choices?