Back in 1998 Robert Redford produced, directed, and starred in a remarkable film entitled The Horse Whisperer. [With those three roles, he must have been busy!] The combination of Montana scenery and Robert Redford proved too powerful for moviegoers to resist. Despite mixed reviews, the show was a box office hit.
The movie played a little fast and loose with the concept of natural horsemanship, but the idea goes something like this: horses are herd animals. They do a lot of their communicating through body language. All too often, if and when we misread what they’re trying to say, we bring a heap of trouble on ourselves. But guess what! We humans, if we make the effort, can “learn” this language. When we do, and when we use this good two-way communication to develop a relationship with a horse, instead of trying to rule through pain and fear, the results are remarkable and positive for both horse and rider/trainer.
Boy. So much to learn here. Where to start?
First of all, this sounds as if it should carry over to other kinds of animals. People are doing/have done this. Canines come to mind. Cesar Millan has made quite a career with his television show Dog Whisperer and related businesses. [Note to the reader; I started to check out cat whisperer. There’s a whole body of stuff there as well but for me it’s a bridge too far. Why not wellness? Why not the streptococcus whisperer? Maybe starring Woody Allen.]
[Okay, Bill. Feet back on the ground.]
Second, this sounds a lot like the message from communication scholars. Want to communicate risk? Uncertainty? Frame climate change messages? Follow the example of the horse whisperers. Take the trouble to study how people actually communicate individually and in large groups, rather than just think you know, or try to get your point across by brute force.
There are signs that those of us in the Earth sciences and science-related services are doing the opposite. We forecasters and emergency managers put out hurricane warnings, and only fifty percent of the people we order to evacuate follow our instructions, and when fifty percent of the people on the road turn out to be those who were specifically told they were safe. We scientists warn of a suite of environmental challenges, including climate change, and suddenly arguments about climate change become a bigger focus than climate change itself.
What do we do in response? At both these ends of the spectrum, we become hollerers, not whisperers. We tend to simply turn up the gain on our dysfunctional messages, with the expected result.
Were you at the Seattle AMS Annual Meeting? You got a big dose of this. Maybe if you were there you heard Dr. Jane Lubchenco say much the same thing, when she advised a packed room on Sunday afternoon: Know thy audience. Know thyself. Know thy stuff.
So, when it comes to teaching Earth science to K-12 school kids, putting out weather watches and warnings, getting road weather information into the car, writing newspaper articles on El Nino, we can and should do a lot better.
But, continuing the thread of recent posts on peer review, here’s a third arena where we can apply this philosophy. We can become more sensitive to the way the Earth works, and in particular, to planetary signs that indicate resource opportunities, or environmental degradation, or building threat of weather or climate extremes. [The horse whisperer analogy? Focusing our attention on the horse, rather than the peers – the other cowboys perched on the corral fence, watching the action.] We can become Earth whisperers.
Everyone an Earth whisperer. [Been reading this blog? You should have seen this coming.] It does no good on a planet of seven billion if only a tiny minority are Earth whisperers. There’s too much action. Cycles of flood and drought? One moment the focus is Russia and Pakistan, and in the next moment the arena comprises China and Australia. Habitat loss? That is occurring acre by acre – from the Louisiana coastal wetlands to the Brazilian savannah to the African Sahel. Ice melt? Across the world’s mountaintops and at the poles. Agriculture? Forestry? Mining? Water resource management? We’re everywhere, impacting the Earth and feeling its response. If only a few of us see and understand the signs, we’ll be able to do no better than document massive human failure. It’s okay if only a few are scientists, and service providers, but most of the rest of us need to use the best available knowledge and understanding in our everyday lives – at work, at home, at play. All seven billion of us are on the front lines.
Sounds complicated, but the fact is we can master this. Why be encouraged? Because we came from ancestors who had a great sensitivity to nature and natural processes. That’s still in our DNA. It’s just buried a bit – hidden, latent. It can be tapped. Actually, it’s not even buried. We use it every day – only in our current, largely urban, and artificial environments. Look around. You see Manhattan whisperers. London whisperers. Shanghai whisperers, Lagos whisperers. Wind energy whisperers. Water utility whisperers. Government ministry whisperers. IT whisperers. You are a [fill in the blank] whisperer. Go ahead. Say it. The majority of us know how to smoothly, graciously, efficiently get through our days in the environment of our making. The environment is artificial, to be sure. But it is complex, subtle. And for the most part, with the exception of the occasional riot [think of that horse, throwing its non-whispering rider — in Cairo today, coming to a city near you tomorrow, should you decide to stop whispering and start hollering] we pretty much succeed.
So, pay attention to more than your peers, and their peer review. Pay attention to your planet. In fact, do more. Be good to your planet…and your planet will be good to you.
Be an Earth whisperer.