Last year, I went with a colleague to hear Barbara Kingsolver, who was reading from her new novel, Flight Behavior. The book tells the story of an encounter between Appalachian farmers and global climate change, between scientists and a group of people who have barely finished eighth grade. After the reading, Kingsolver took questions, and near the end she said something very like this: “The time is ending when people — I mean, some people seem to think they can choose whether to believe in the facts of science, but that time is ending, the time when you will think you can choose whether to believe in facts.”
This week, leading scientists have confirmed that the ice sheet in West Antarctica is undergoing an irreversible meltdown. This hits me in a strange place. By the time I was in first grade, the scientific evidence for global climate change was already so substantial that we were taught it as fact. My whole childhood, I kept waiting for the adults to act, to change our course. My friends and I would talk about melting down trash and using it to make new things long before recycling came to our neighborhoods. We waited eagerly for more efficient cars, for solar energy, for higher gas prices that would create incentives to use public transportation. We waited and we waited, and these things did not come.
It took me years to realize that there are interests who contest the science, not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of the fact that change is difficult. Re-tooling our energy sector, re-visioning how and where we live, will be painful, inconvenient, and will dislocate people from jobs, communities, and ways of life that they enjoy. It was easier to deny the facts than it was to ask for sacrificial action — even if that was the only course that offered real hope. By the time I was in my twenties, I was consumed with rage over the whole issue: how dare people destroy with callous indifference the earth that is so beautiful, so precious, so utterly and absolutely irreplaceable?
The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “To comprehend what phenomena are, it is necessary to suspend judgement and think in detachment; to comprehend what phenomena mean, it is necessary to suspend indifference and be involved.” The gap he posits, between our intellectual apprehension of an issue and a bone-deep understanding of its significance, is the one that has kept us in paralysis. Scientists speak in analytical terms — cause and effect, carbon-cycle feedbacks, average temperature, inches of ice — and journalists speak in story — six hundred thousand refugees, conflicts over desertification, drought, plans to plant Chicago with trees that currently flourish in Louisiana — but it is difficult for most people to connect those disparate languages to one another. We can grasp the facts, but until they hit home, until it is our children who seek water, our homes that are wiped away by the storm, we can hold at bay our understanding of their inevitable consequences.
Heschel writes, “the world’s reality is contingent upon compatibility with God.” It is a way of saying that there is an ineluctable order in the universe, that our human inventiveness will — at times — give us an almost infinite freedom, and will — at other times — run smack into the wall of unalterable fact. For this reason, Scripture holds that the greatest evil is not cruelty or rapacity, but indifference — for it is indifference on the part of the good that allows all manner of evil to flourish unchecked, and our communities and our world to run to ruin.
The time is coming when we will no longer have the option about whether to believe in facts. The reality is, we never had that option. Our decision to evade the truth — about our selves, our neighbors, our world — is only a decision to evade our God. God is truth, and we can only find God when we allow ourselves to meet him on that sanctified ground. And truth in the Bible is never objective, but is always bound up in the relationship of love that encompasses us, encompasses God, encompasses every person and creature on this earth, our first, last, and best home.