April 17, 2003

Finding Meaning in an Age of Distraction

by Bill Mckibben

I want to begin by describing a strange book that I once wrote called The Age of Missing Information (Penguin Books, 1992). It was a very bizarre experiment. I wanted to understand why we behaved and didn't behave in the ways that we did. What kept us from taking action on political issues and environmental problems that seemed so urgent and paramount? I wanted to understand how we perceived the world. In 1990 I went to Fairfax, Virginia which, at that time, had the largest cable television system on earth. It had one hundred channels. And I got people in Fairfax to tape everything that came across these hundred channels for a twenty-four hour period. So I had about twenty-four hundred hours worth of videotape and took it home with me to the Adirondacks and spent a year watching it. Which may explain why I'm not such a compelling speaker.

I came to realize that in an age of such complete and utter distraction, such aggravated chatter, it's extremely difficult to get our minds to focus on any particular topic for very long. And that insight struck me most forcefully after the book was published and I was going around the country promoting it. I was getting ready to go on The Today Show one morning, sitting in the green room waiting for my turn, being nervous as I thought, "Well, there'll be twenty million people watching." But I found comfort, in an odd way, by reflecting on the fact that it made very little difference what I said or didn't say. That no matter what I said there were three other people in this room waiting to appear on the show. One of them was Tom Hanks who had a new movie, one was a man who knew how to keep gypsy moths from defoliating your shrubberies and one had a series of stock tips. It was abundantly clear that five minutes after I'd said what I said, even Bryant Gumbel would have no recall of what it was that had gone on. In fact, had Moses emerged on The Today Show that morning, given an audience ten times the population of the Middle East at the time that Moses was around, they would have happily let him get through at least eight commandments before a commercial break. It wouldn't have made any difference at all. By 11:00 a.m. the memory of that odd guy in the beard with the commandments would have washed away in the gentle flow of distraction and chatter that now permeates our culture.

My real work is as an environmental journalist and I'm going to pull us out of the contemplative into stark physical reality just for a few moments. In 1995 the world scientific community, including climatologists from around the world, were gathered together by the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They were ready to delcare that indeed human beings were warming the planet. We've had one extremely warm year after another--1998 was the record and 2002 placed second as the warmest years since 1860. These warm years have yielded dramatic physical results already. We know now that every glacial system in the world is in rapid retreat, that Arctic ice is about 40% thinner than it was 40 years ago, that winter at this latitude is about three weeks shorter than it was in the period before 1970. These are very dramatic changes and that's with only a degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures so far. The scientific community, gathered again by the UN in 2001, gave their next forecast and predicted that in the course of this century, unless we do very dramatic things to staunch the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the temperature would go up an additional five degrees Fahrenheit. The planet will no longer be around 60 degrees but closer to 65 degrees--far warmer than it's ever been in human history, far warmer than it's been for many millions of years. We have no way of really predicting what the outcome of that scenario will be.

According to computer projections, at this latitude [Vermont] by the middle of the century, there will be no winter, no period of time when precipitation falls as snow instead of rain or when liquid water turns to ice on streams and ponds. Lake Champlain has not frozen solid stem to stern the past six years, the only period like that in its 250 year record. They'll be no birch/beach maple forest to turn color in the fall--those trees can't survive that kind of temperature. Instead perhaps we'll have oak and hickory. So there'll be no maple syrup season in the spring.

Our experience will be gentle compared with many places on earth. One quarter of the world's population lives on the ocean. As the temperature of the planet warms--because warm water takes up more space than cold--we'll see a 2-3 foot rise in sea level in the course of this century. That's enough to swamp many of the places where people live and grow their food. The number of environmental refugees will far outpace the number of political refugees in the bloody century we've just come through. This is a picture of great enormity. And yet, we've done virtually nothing about it. It hasn't emerged as a serious political issue, isn't something that animates many people much of the time, hasn't become a kind of touchstone of our lives. The 4% of us who live in the US create about 25% of the world's carbone dioxide and so in essence it's our way of life that drives this problem, and yet it's not at the center of our attention.

Which leads me to the other enormous difficulty with this age of distraction. It's not just that there's so much chatter and clutter constantly coming at us. There's a very deep message coming at us through that chatter--a signal through all that noise. When I thought about all that TV that I watched, the residual idea, the central theme, is that each of us is the center of the universe--the most important thing on earth. We're being told we're the heaviest object around and that everything needs to orbit around our ideas of convenience and comfort--this Bud's for you. You would think that being told all the time that you are the center of the universe would be a very nice thing. Superficially, I guess, it is. But such a message appeals only to a relatively small part of our nature. It's a real part of our nature, but it's not the entirity of who we are. We didn't, as far as I can tell, evolve these limbs and minds and emotions and muscles and senses in order to lie on the couch flicking the remote control or to hunker behind the wheel of some enormous vehicle, cruising, effortlessly, through the streets of suburbia. We evolved for much more than that. And that's why some of things that Gregg and others were saying this morning seem to me so important. In my mind, it's clear that we evolved to be in more contact with the natural world than we now are. To move our muscles and our senses, to interact with all of the life that evolved alongside us. And we evolved to be in contact with each other, not just by email, but flesh to flesh, face to face, in community.

Those purposes, taken seriously, would put us somewhat outside the web of consumption. What should be the central organizing principal of our lives? For most of human history, most people, as far as anthropologists can tell, have thought of the tribe, their community, God, nature, or some amalgam of these things as the central organizing principal of their lives--not themselves as individuals. And that's been important because if you have something else at the center of your life, then there is some basis from which to place limits on your behavior, to keep you from doing things that are obviously and directly harmful to the community, harmful to the natural world, harmful to your relationship with the greater spiritual dimension of existence. Having gotten away from that as thouroughly as we have seems likely to be the trigger not only for the set of enormous practical problems that we face--of which global warming is merely the most spectacular--but also for an aweful lot of the psychological problems that we encounter. It's enormously hard work having yourself as the single most important project at all times. It's probably more pressure than most of us can bear.

Perhaps occasionally we should consider what it will be like to lie on one's death bed and look back over one's life and reflect on what things mattered most. Very few people will die wishing that they watched a few more episodes of Matlock or visitied the mall more often or spent more hours in the office. The things that stick in one's mind as the deep and wonderful expressions of one's life, are counterintuitively usually those things that go against this notion of convenience, of comfort, of this centrality of our own importance. For me, they have to do with experiences in the larger natural world. Often they involve some risk or extreme exertion, the tops of very high mountains or moments deep in the woods, or encounters with very big animals. And contact, close communion, with other people--times when I had been deeply involved in some collaborative effort that required going outside of myself somehow--working together for some greater purpose.

For me, this concept of thirty thousand days is a good, practical organizing principal for deciding how one is going to allocate time. And that, in a sense, though we need to be less selfish than we've been, incredibly less self-involved, we also need to be more selfish then we've been--more closely examining those things that really matter to us and constitute real experience. Go and search those things out. And as you go down that path, you may want to spread some of those ideas. Some of that spreading happens in settings like this. And some of it requires deep involvement in the political world around us. Politics is one of our truest expressions of greater-than-self interest.

I feel ineloquent in trying to knit togehter this series of scattered thoughts, which go from the very political and global to the very, very personal--questions of what we want our own lives to mean. But to me they must be knit together very clearly, day in and day out. Thank you very much for bearing with this odd little sermon and including me in your conference.

Bill Mckibben is the author of more than 8 books including Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth and an internationally known speaker and authority on the environment. This essay is an edited version of the speech he gave at the ToDo Institute's Ten Year Anniversary Conference, Thirty Thousand Days: How Shall We Live, which took place in Burlington, Vermont from September 28-30, 2002. For a videotaped copy of Bill Mckibben and other keynote speakers, please contact the ToDo Institute at (800) 950-6034.

Posted on April 17, 2003 3:50 PM

I admit I feel more alive just reading these thoughts. How wonderful to hear someone expressing what I know to be true, that much of what is offered for consumption and that we choose to consume is pure distraction and has no substance whatsoever. It troubles me that young people are exposed to so much of this senseless chatter by the time they're only half-grown. Then, during the teen years when they could start to become more and more unique individuals with talents to share, they are stunted by a lack of nurturing of their most precious selves, their authentic, connected selves. The very young observe the older as role models and superficiality and posturing are most of what they see. And, it's standardized by pop culture. Pop culture spreads the word that being superficial and self-centered pays, as in high paychecks for those who demonstrate these values on TV and in the media. An "in your face", not connected, culture is what greets our precious children and young people. I find this dismaying and would like to make a difference in this and other issues I feel strongly about.

Posted by: Jean Swaim on January 13, 2010 4:56 AM
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