Individual actions matter in ways we might not anticipate.
Environmental sociologists and psychologists who observe our responses to the growing awareness of environmental problems are finding that we live in isolation too often. Too often, we keep what we know private, rarely speaking to one another candidly about what concerns us. How do we live with what we know? Well, according to social scientists, what we need are more routine opportunities to convene and converse about issues like climate change, and to lay plans for a different future together.
Their findings also hint that our individual actions matter in ways we might not anticipate. Sociologist Kari Norgaard learned from her study of how people in one community spoke about climate change that neighbors and community influence how we live. They shape how we respond to what we know and our capacity to see purpose and to find hope in what we can do. Our connections, her findings suggest, matter deeply to our resolve to reconcile the tensions between what we know and how we live.
In November 2011 independent filmmaker Sophie Windsor Clive and her colleague Liberty Smith posted a stunning two minute clip titled Murmuration. Maybe you’ve seen it? Chances are you have. The video went viral.
The first time I watched it, I didn’t know that a murmuration is a flock of starlings. Nor did I know that starlings, at dusk, somewhere near the winter solstice, swarm into a stunning, swirling cloud of mystifyingly ordered chaos.
Clive and Smith’s video elicited from me pure, biological joy. My heart rate quickened, almost as if it sought synchronicity with the shifting undulations of the starling formations. I felt calm, yet breathless, weeping from the wonder of it. Sharing the experience with Clive and Smith, despite mediated through a computer screen, elicited tears from the same place in me that wept at the birth of my sons, that weeps at the feel of their breath on my neck as I carry them to bed. It is a mix of awe and gratitude for bearing witness to all that is mysterious and complex and miraculous about life.
Scott Russell Sanders, in his book Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journey (Beacon Press, 1999), writes that wonder and hope are intimately tied. Hunting for Hope is Sanders’ mediation on how he lives in hope. It is a gift he offered to his children, to their generation, and to his students, all of whom have asked him “haltingly, earnestly,” in one way or another, how he confronts despair, how he lives with what he knows, how he would advise them to live, given all they now know, too, through him, about the troubled world they will inherit.
He reminds them that reawakening our senses, often dulled by the details of our lives, enables us to experience the thrum and throb of life and seasons and cycles. And it is our keen awareness of elemental life that grounds us in hope, that delivers us moments of grace in an oft times gritty world.
That the murmuration video went viral, to me, speaks volumes about this particular moment in which we live. It speaks to what we yearn for.
The more I’ve learned about starlings since seeing that video, the more I’ve come to realize how little we truly understand the dynamics of ordered chaos, how little we understand what motivates and coordinates the birds to fly as they do. As I learned from Brendan Keim’s reporting on Wired.com, scientists understand that each bird is influenced by how the birds immediately adjacent to it moves, such that each bird seeks to mimic the motion and speed of those around it.
But the collective, interactional dynamics, it seems, remain a mystery. How is it that a flock of starlings, whether 100 or 1000, know to turn or adjust speed in unison, as if one? Their bodies somatically know something about how each individual connects to a system, how a system influences each individual. They know how a part connects to the whole, and how the whole influences the parts. They know about criticality and tipping points.
Watching the shifting cloud of starlings was, for me, much like Sanders describes: a wellspring of hope that life is, as it always has been, mysterious and extraordinary, teacher and exemplar, worth honoring and savoring.
But their movement also offered me hope in the form of metaphor, too, for we humans are only beginning to understand that life is more than a sum of its parts, that we are more than the sum of our parts. We are learning that any one part of a complex system connects to every other part, and that the interaction of multiple elements creates complex chains of influence that we may never anticipate.
When we reach beyond ourselves, maybe, just maybe, we set in motion something that will resonate through those tied to us in ways we might not foresee.
That is as hopeful a thought as I can imagine.
Happy New Year.
By Rebecca Altman
For more, see this striking series of photographs.