NWEI is honored to have Rod MacDow, author of the below guest blog post, as a current member of our team. Rod came to us this year from Intel’s Encore Fellows Program, which places active Intel employees who are retiring and wish to transition to a new stage of work with a local non-profit. To read another of Rod’s guest blog posts, click here. Thanks to Rod for today’s reflections!
I’ve been thinking about a particular word: Consilience. Until recently, I didn’t even know it existed. But it’s actually a word that has some importance in our concerns over the state of our environment. And it sounds nice too, rolling off the tongue.
Merriam-Webster’s definition is fairly straightforward – “The linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory.” But some of its subtlety can be found in its roots. Com + resilience. What it really implies is that, when putting together evidence from different, even unrelated sources, the results can be stronger – more resilient – than each of the contributing parts. Isn’t that a cool word?
From that basic concept, there are several shades of meaning. At its broadest level, consilience refers to the idea that all the branches of knowledge are related. Described one way, the discipline of physics defines the fundamental laws of the physical world, chemistry is derived from physical laws, biology is derived from chemistry, the behavior of living things is derived from our collective biology, human behavior is derived from our biology and our culture and civilization are derived from all that.
This is emphatically not to say that all this is a closed box, constraining our humanity to boring and predetermined algorithms and formulas. At each level, there are emergent properties that open our planet to a vast number of new possibilities. But there is a fundamental relationship that flows all the way from the most basic to the most complex. It’s all tied together.
When we think about climate and climate change, there are choices in how we think: If we begin with the assumption that climate equals the accumulation of weather data over time, then it’s easy to argue – or deny – the possibility of global warming. That data has numerous holes, tenuous assumptions, inconsistencies and uncertainties. Anyone can point out these weaknesses and say “See? See? All this means nothing!” Taken individually, each argument for concern about climate change is not strong enough to stand alone.
But the concept of consilience gives us a different choice in how to think. Climate is not just about weather over time. It is equally about what plants will grow on each part of our planet, what animals will be there to eat it, and how humans will be forced to adapt, in order to live within that system. The evidence of climate change is not just in the air temperature data, it is also in the way daffodils are blooming earlier each decade, the way many animal and plant species are migrating northward in our hemisphere. It isn’t an accident that most farmers are not climate deniers.
Consilient linkages go deeper. Ecologies are changing their characters. Organisms are changing through natural selection. The chemistry of soils and water is changing. And the planetary balance of heat transfer – the very physics of our planet – is changing as well. It is only when we look at the world that way that the argument becomes strong. The evidence is there at every level and, when combined, becomes truly resistant to denial.
And, when we look at what we must accomplish to mitigate the cumulative effects of global warming at all these levels, we can begin to see ways to become more “com + resilient” as well. Consilience. Nice word.