In chapter five of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Mole and Rat are returning from their adventures when the environment begins to “communicate” to Mole. Grahame describes it not just as “smell” but an “electric thrill” that somehow reminds Mole that his neglected home is nearby. Mole wants to stop and visit the home he abandoned, but Rat is too far ahead and too preoccupied with his own motives to indulge poor Mole.
Reading this delightful little novel recently has reaffirmed my belief that communication is probably the most powerful force in the universe.
In 2015 when I announced to family and friends that I had been accepted into Ryerson University’s Master of Professional Communication program, it must have raised a few eyebrows. Not only was I 44 years old, but in some social contexts I am very shy and uncommunicative. I only do get nerdy and talkative when I am really excited. But true to what I call the “paradox of communicating,” even in choosing not to communicate in a direct way, we are communicating something about ourselves—which is why it was probably hard for some people to reconcile the quiet, shy aspect of me with the person entering the world of strategic communication, which in turn prizes youth, outgoingness etc…
Now, when I say that communication is the most powerful force in the universe, I am NOT talking solely about human communication. You might object by saying that communication is a human concept, but hear me out. The natural world communicates in its own way. Studying communication at the graduate level, along with truly embracing the subject, makes me think about and see communication in ways I never have before.
I have almost come to see it all in spiritual terms. The bible says that in the beginning was the Word. That Word, I now believe, is God as the fructifying force of communication.
Think about it. A red sun is communicating something about itself to observers. So too are moons undergoing a lunar eclipse, and planets undergoing retrograde motion.
Closer to home, a sunset communicates something to us, so do storm clouds and autumn leaves. As soon as I find time, I plan to read Peter Wohlleben and Tim Flannery’s book The Secret Lives of Trees which evidently describes the ways that trees communicate.
Although they aren’t 100 percent clear how, scientists know that animals communicate amongst themselves and with their natural surroundings. As suggested above, Grahame takes an interesting stab at the issue in Willows. But look around. Butterflies with colourful markings on their wings communicate to birds that they may be poisonous to eat. And dogs, when they growl and bare their teeth, are warning us not to get too close.
Human artifacts also have the power of communication. Time pieces have always talked to us with their hands, so have our cars’ gas gauges. And human inventions are becoming better and better communicators. Thanks to the Internet of Things, everyday appliances with Internet connectivity have something to say. And I like to think of Augmented Reality as the “annotated world,” in which there is the potential for AR to, for example, tell the historical significance of a certain area of land. I could go on and on.
In some ways, it is very calming and reassuring once you realize what a beautiful and pervasive force communication is.
In some ways.
If I am not correct that the Word, as I describe it, holds together the universe I am at least convinced that it holds together our Earth.
What would happen if air traffic controllers were suddenly unable to communicate with pilots? What would happen if traffic signals could no longer communicate to motorists? What would happen if mothers and fathers didn’t communicate to their infants? What would happen if our bodies stopped using the language of symptoms to tell us that we were becoming sick?
You might scoff at the idea of a dystopian world where all communication suddenly stops. However, in many ways some of us are ignoring the Word, and consequently disaster is looming over us all. Consider all of the extreme weather events we are living through these days: unusual hurricanes, extreme heat, monster wildfires, unusually cold winters etc. All of this is nature’s way of communicating to us that something is wrong.
Earlier this summer, New York University scientists captured on video a huge iceberg in Greenland breaking apart. Such events, likely caused by global warming, contribute to rising sea levels which threaten the livelihood of folks living near the water. People like these NYU scientists—PhD’s whose job it is is to listen to the story the earth tells us—say that climate change is human-caused and humans have to find a way to fix it.
Yet there are people who insist that the Earth’s climate is just going through normal cycles. I have been stunned more than once while watching the evening news in which people, who have lost everything in freak storms, still insist that these events are not human-caused.
And in the US, strangely it is mostly Republicans who deny that humans are causing climate change. Not just your average Republican, mind you. Some of the most powerful Republicans do not head the Word carefully enough. They are caught up in their own agenda, politics and, like Rat, their own selfish motives.
Rick Scott’s environmental policies, for example, suggest that he is a climate change denier, even though his is one of the states that are more obviously impacted by it.
President Trump, apparently unaware of the difference between a weather even and climate, seized on the opportunity presented to him last winter to mock those who believe in climate change.
An article by Simon Oxenham suggests that it’s probably not the idea of human-caused climate change that many Republicans have a problem with. The real issue that Republicans object to are the ideas that are proposed to tackle climate change: pollution taxes, emission restrictions, and government intervention. It’s evident, for example, that the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement primarily because of economic concerns.
In short, many Republicans see the issue purely from an economic vantage.
Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki typically responds to this kind of thinking by arguing that what good will the economy do us if the environment is destroyed beyond repair?
Thus, in the final estimation of things, there is likely another aspect to the paradox of communicating. Communication is fundamentally about change. Receivers of messages are always changed in some way upon hearing the message—even if they try to ignore it or choose not to act on it.
Change is coming.