We don’t always know about them, of course—not right when they occur, and sometimes not ever.
Trees topple loudly in the forest all the time when no one is present, waves smash spectacularly on solitary shorelines, birds plummet exhausted from the sky to die on uninhabited barrens. And nobody is there to bear witness.
It has ever been that way, from the first appearance of our human species until the present day. Things happen, even when we do not know.
But that truth has become increasingly hard for many folk to accept. In this age in which we live—one of marvellous, instantly-accessible, graphic, digital reality—it has become easy instead to believe that, unless we are told something happened, or see it on our screens, or experience it first-hand, it did not occur.
If it’s not up and viral on the web, if we aren’t personally in the loop, it cannot have happened.
How foolish we have become!
And there is another problem. Much of the information we avidly soak up from our handheld devices is misleading—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately so. Too many users, alas, are ill-equipped to assimilate the plethora of information assailing us, to differentiate, to assess, to form coherent conclusions about it all.
Today, many of us assume if it is up and viral on the web, bringing us personally into the loop, it must certainly have happened.
So, what is real and what is fake? Hemingway wrote, …there is no one thing that’s true. It’s all true. And, in many ways, his observation has proven accurate—at least in the sense that it’s all there in front of us, waiting for us to choose from it.
There is a problem with that, though—one associated with our all-too-human tendency to embrace those opinions we are already in agreement with, and to reject those to which we have a preconceived aversion.
Don’t bother me with facts! we seem to say.
Unfortunately, even so-called facts can be fabricated by malevolent purveyors of misinformation, leaving us even more confused and more susceptible to manipulation. That may not be overly-problematic if we’re being influenced to buy one brand of toilet tissue over another, for example; as an aside, a friend once told me, “On the (w)hole, they’re all pretty good!”
But it might be calamitous if we are being callously misled about the relative merits of one political leader over another.
Which of these two imaginary politicos would be more palatable to the average voters, do you suppose? The one who tells them exactly what they want to hear, who panders to their fears and prejudices, even if (s)he has no intention of fulfilling the empty promises? Or the one who dares speak about the looming climate crisis, for instance, despite knowing the warnings might fall on deaf ears among the electorate?
Which of the two would be more favoured to win, the one who croons the siren-song of making things better—the way they used to be—or the one who tells of the hard slog ahead to deal with climate change, the existential crisis of our time?
The answer, I suspect, is the person who most-closely approximates the baked-in attitudes and ideas of us who are the voters. Or the majority of us, anyway. The relative merits of the candidates’ positions come secondary to that.
Facts no longer seem to matter because, while they used to be considered unassailable, almost sacrosanct, they are today viewed as permeable and malleable. Where they used to be built on a rock foundation, they stand today on shifting sand.
But in a way, none of this matters for the planet. Not really. For, in spite of what we are told about this critical issue of our time—whether it’s the truth or a lie, whether we heed or ignore it—there is one fundamental reality that does not change.
Things happen. Whether we choose to know about them or not.
Glaciers shrink and shed meltwater all the time when no one is present, permafrost thaws in the isolated, wind-swept tundra, animals disappear from our planetary menagerie, never to be seen again. And too many of us choose to look away, refuse to listen to those who are compelled to bear witness.
The planet will go on, regardless. But what of us, wrapped in our imperious cloak of superiority? Will humankind survive?