Trusting our senses

Our senses, yours and mine, are well-tuned to the things that matter to us. Well, some of them at least. That rustle that suddenly startles in a nearby bush could be a sabre-toothed tiger hunting for supper. The minute departure from a natural smile betrayed in the fine musculature of someone’s face may mean they are no longer telling the truth.

But our developed culture reveals other things that ought to matter that we may not notice. That’s partly because we’re swamped with messages about things that matter less. But separate signal from noise, and it’s still hard to pay the right kind of attention to things that are outside our normal perception.

In 2012 we added over 39 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This   pile of one metric ton spheres represents just one day’s emissions.  It   is 3.7 km high (2.3 miles) and 7.4 km across (4.6 miles).

In 2012 we added over 39 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This pile of one metric ton spheres represents just one day’s emissions.  It is 3.7 km high (2.3 miles) and 7.4 km across (4.6 miles).

That’s always been a problem with greenhouse gases, but it’s been bothering me more lately. Climate change has gripped me with new urgency – in a ways both good and bad. Bad because the news about global warming over the last year has been impressively bleak, with CO2 and temperature rises breaking records almost every week and the longer-term trend looking seriously worrying. Good because, as better-informed folks than me are arguing, we finally seem to have reached a point where the great 21st-century project of decarbonising energy production is feasible – technologically, financially, maybe even politically.

What bothers me is how I can contribute to moving that good possibility on faster, and helping reduce the chances of the really bad (we’re going to see some bad now whatever we do). I’ve been a science writer, among other things, for 35 years or so, and my first impulse is to write more things. And it’s true language is what we use to wrap our thoughts round things we can’t perceive directly. 

But this issue has been around half my life. What am I actually going to do? I’m thinking anyone who is going to be prodded into action by words has probably already got the message. Writing more stuff speaks to my ingrained habits, but maybe not to the issue at hand.

Really, I need to set aside the fact that I love words, and that turning them into more or less coherent sentences is pretty much the only thing I know how to do well. I reckon what we need now to get people’s attention here are pictures. And that’s why I’ve backed the team from Carbon Visuals in their new company Real World Visuals.

And I believe not just any pictures will do. They need to be the right kind of images. I’m still a science writer, so for me that means images that convey data creatively, in ways that people engage with readily, and that are built with an effort at scientific rigour. Polar bears on ice floes, baked mud in drought-wracked reservoirs, and forest fires blazing all get my attention, too, for a bit. But they mobilise feeling without giving you a clue what to do next. 

The images from Adam Nieman’s team aren’t about evoking protest, or even raising concern (though some of the work could lend itself to that…). It’s credo, as I understand, is to help people grasp what underlies the things they are concerned about. More, the company always works with the scales that our senses are tuned in to – with a world of things the size of our bodies, or a little larger or smaller, things that we can see with the unaided eye, relate to other everyday objects, maybe pick up and feel their heft.  That helps us all get a real sense of how something abstract and global relates to things individual humans do.

Becoming collectively conscious of that in a way we can use means showing people, lots of people, how the facts of global change connect to billions of daily decisions. One way to do that, as Carbon Visuals demonstrated so well, is to show each of those decisions trailing its little string of bubbles of carbon dioxide. Yes, it is humanity in the mass, and our cars, cattle coal plants and cement works, that is changing the composition of the atmosphere. But the global effect is the sum of how each person deals with the world, and the choices they make.

It’s not always a comfortable thing to contemplate, but it is absolutely necessary. I think Carbon Visuals was all about creative, effective and well-grounded ways of getting people to realise this, and involve them in doing something about it.  I can’t wait to see what the team do next

Jon Turney is a science writer based in Bristol. His Rough Guide to the Future was short-listed for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2011. twitter @jonWturney