“Until you have seen the Sistine Chapel, you can have no adequate conception of what man is capable of accomplishing.”
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
New Years is either the best or worst holiday of the year, depending on your frame of mind on December 31. There are years in our lives that, in retrospect, we celebrate with great cheer while other years it’s refreshing to finally put them in the rear view mirror and hang up a new calendar to welcome a fresh start. I’ll be honest, for a liberal white man in America, 2017 sucked. I have never felt so out of step with the leadership of my country or ashamed of the actions of a minority of my brethren for their hateful voices and sexist, racist behavior that fuels a divisive unproductive rhetoric and short-lived trajectory. There were many changes in America in 2017 and almost none of them were in the direction I think the majority of Americans want it to go. We face important challenges as a country and as a planet, and if compromise and reasonable discourse is not possible then real solutions seem even more out of our reach.
On a Sunday morning, December 31, 2017, I am waking up to a temperature of -16 degrees F in Minneapolis, minus -27 degrees Celsius. This is air temperature not wind chill factor. On a frigid morning like this its hard to put in perspective our impact on our climate. If you believe in the science of climate change or not, I have several questions? What is lost personally if global warming has been proven as the most likeliest of facts based on evidence that climate change is real? What personally will you sacrifice by accepting climate change as a very real and dangerous possibility? How would your life be diminished by creating the opening for the possibility that we need to change our technology and our economy? Is the cost of holding on to your beliefs that climate change is not real worth the chance that you were wrong considering the potential impacts to your children, your grand children and the world at large?
If all the ice covering Antarctica, Greenland and mountain glaciers around the world were to melt, sea level would rise about 70 meters (230 feet). It will take thousands of years for this to occur, and yet to put that in one tiny perspective, Vatican city sits at an elevation above sea level of 62 meters. St. Peter’s square is only 18 meters above sea level. The four warmest years on record globally were 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
We live at a time when too much dialogue scoffs at the credibility of science. People want to believe that vaccinations aren’t safe, that GMO food is not identical in nutrition and health benefits to “organic” food and that global warming isn’t real, only because it’s so much easier to remain firmly entrenched in our familiar beliefs, surrounded by other people who look and sound exactly as we do.
A question too few ask is what role should art play in inspiring scientific solutions to the most egregious challenges facing humanity? How does art support science and science support art? I believe the two are connected in the constant need for growth in the human experience.
The Paris Climate Accords, have been accepted as reasonable by every industrialized country in the world, except our Denier in Chief, President Donald Trump. He has set a goal to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrialized levels. Is that possible? I don’t know, if we achieve that standard, the world’s oceans rise 40 to 50 centimeters by 2100. It may not sound like much, but if the climate warms by only 2 degrees or more C we risk setting a reaction in motion that won’t stop releasing methane frozen in arctic tundra soils, releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that will create a permanent one way ticket to a future where large portions of Asia, the middle east and Africa will become uninhabitable and global ice will decline over time to swell ocean levels to unthinkable levels. It’s estimated that approximately 1/3 of the world’s population lives at an elevation of 100 meters or less above sea level. And yet we have too many people who wake up when its -16 degrees F in Minneapolis this morning and want to pretend that just because weather can still be frigid that climate change is not real.
It’s hard to know in the midst of change, whether the gestation is worth the painful birth and whether the patience required throughout a long nurturing will yield something better. A wine-maker never knows whether that year’s bottles will age into something miraculous, a teacher can’t know what their impact will be on a student’s life and must maintain the steadfast belief that change is not only possible but highly likely. So it is on the journey of creating new ideas for a better society.
In matters of education, love, art, wine and the future of the world, an article of faith must surround what is most important in our lives even more than science. Science is a way to help make more educated decisions that are, by their very nature, imperfect and will need constant correction based on better newer insight and information. It doesn’t prove science is wrong. It proves it is human.
It is through faith in trying to do the right thing, using the best information we have, that we will nurture hope through conflict, protect the fragility of human confidence during uncertainty and foster from belief a better reality. 2017 was a difficult year to be a male white liberal scientist poet in America. The daily bombardment of insanity to depravity that played out in the media became exhausting and depressing. I can only hope all the trash we aired in 2017 will be a turning point to creating something better. Maybe 2017 will mobilize the silent majority that hopes for a better future. A majority who believe that through acceptance of diversity, social justice will create a better community in which to live. Those that want a democratic system based on rule of law that doesn’t solely worship at the feet of the almighty dollar but also values sustainability, protects the environment and fosters the arts. People who are willing to hold government accountable and pursue change of an economic system that enriched the 500 hundred wealthiest people on the planet with another trillion dollars in one year at the expense of impoverishing a generation of young people under the burden of soaring housing costs, under employment, un-affordable health care and student debt. The “haves” partied hardy in 2017 on the backs of the have-nots. And if you’re wearing your gold 2018 hat and tooting your own horn, you best look around at those who aren’t celebrating with you and ask why?
It’s difficult to admit privilege without it feeling like you are negating your own hard work and accomplishments. Privilege is largely invisible to those that have it. I won the lottery at birth. I was born white, male in the early 1960’s in the United States of America, into a middle class family, with college educations, in the suburbs of Minnesota where public education was a pillar of the community. I graduated from high school at a rare time of no active war that the United States was participating. There was still a draft like prior generations of men in America, but no active conflict to cause conscription into a military conflict, like the generation of men just a few years ahead of me, that saw their lives forever changed during the Vietnam war. I graduated from high school at time when you could still work and pay for a college education at the University of Minnesota with wages earned from summer employment, something impossible today. I entered the work force at a time as computer technology was just starting to unlock the power of productivity, information sharing and communication, guaranteeing an economy that would grow over time. In the history of the world, there are few other games of chance that have rewarded so richly. So when my fellow white, male Americans persist through their hateful to foolish behavior in reinforcing the stereo type of white men as ugly Americans, with vain language, vulgar sexist behavior and a much more dangerous pandering to extremist right-wing ideologies in an attempt to hold on to their power that came not solely as the result of their own hard work alone, but as their birth right from a complete lottery of chance rigged in their favor, it can feel like we have lost ground as a society in creating a more enriching, sustainable world for our children. A generation of children that is much more diverse, complex and disadvantaged than the one I grew up in suburban America.
All is not lost. I was reminded of the importance of living in the moment yesterday when during a restorative justice circle in preparation for 2018, the circle keeper started with a simple request: “Don’t count your days, make this day count.” I choose to use art as inspiration in my life to help me preserve through challenging times. I feel that art instills wonder, wonder instills kindness, kindness instills understanding. I believe it is with understanding that we will shape our future. I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, and yet I am open to new ideas. I have faith that the current generation of young people will shape a better world than the one we are bequeathing to them. I don’t think they have on the same blinders as their parents and will steer their own course. They no longer believe the American dream, that they will have a future of greater prosperity only through hard work. I believe they see that their accomplishments are only impactful when working cooperatively in their community to foster real change at a local level that can grow to something greater. It is the current squandering of America’s opportunity for leadership that is most disheartening at the present. This too shall pass. And the political will shall shift to something more sustainable as more and more people watch what is happening on a global scale and ask what can I do to make a difference in my community?
Michelangelo was a poet as well as a genius sculptor and painter. He wrote a sonnet four long years into the painting of the Sistine chapel. Though this sonnet loses some of its humor and rhyme in its translation into English, it shows how faith and hard work power our greatest achievements. For even a man who claims he is not a painter, created one of the greatest paintings of all time. The Sistine chapel was Michelangelo’s first fresco, proving you can get it right the first time, even on achievements that may seem impossible at first if you believe in yourself and those around you. Can we change our world? I believe we can, if we look for wonder in all that surrounds us. Wonder will open the door to understanding that the impossible is possible.
Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia
“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”
Translated by Gail Mazuur
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.