The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested that the arc of the moral universe rather “bends toward chaos” in his appearance on the Daily Show in 2015.
So which is it? Does the universe bend toward justice or chaos?
I suppose it depends on how much faith you have in something beyond this physical world. As a scientist, I understand Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics: that entropy (i.e., disorder, disintegration, chaos) is always increasing in the universe. This is how the physical world works. And if this also applies to human lives and human societies, then, yes, Coates might very well be right. Certainly, you couldn’t argue against it, looking at human history.
However, take off the objective science hat, and sit with that thought as a human being, and you start to feel rather depressed, rather quickly.
On Inauguration Day, I took a 24-hour news and social media sabbatical. I needed to focus on my work, my life, my friends. I needed a break. And I needed to clarify where my battleground is in this world. What am I standing up for, and what am I standing on? Which battles do I choose?
If you think I’m just a sore loser about the election of Donald Trump, you need to look a bit more carefully at the world beyond our borders. Trump is just another straw on the camel’s back. So many corners of the world bubble with injustice and instability. Sometimes, as with what happened in Syria in the past year, it overwhelms our capacity to deal emotionally. These types of things have been happening throughout the course of human history.
But not until this past century have they had such an impact on the natural world. There is no place left on this earth that is untouched and unaffected by human need for natural resources. Our activities have set into motion a set of feedbacks in the climate system that make great changes inevitable. And the thing about that is that it doesn’t matter whether or not you deny that climate change is happening. The climate system really doesn’t care what you think.
What’s hard for me to accept is that we have such great ingenuity as a human species – and so many great opportunities to mitigate and adapt to changes in ways that support the well-being of everyone – societally, culturally, economically, ecologically. But that won’t happen if people shut their eyes and pretend that we aren’t falling off a cliff – or if people let fear, motivated by the words of a strongman, drive their decisions.
I’ve always known that issues of climate and environment are my primary battleground. I’m an educator. Words and data are my weapon. While data is not enough in this post-truth world, at the very least I can hope I can nudge a few people to wake up. That won’t save the world from chaos. But enough of us preaching the same message might lead us toward a more sustainable path for awhile – as a culture, as a species, as a world.
That’s why the right to assemble peaceably is so important. Community and solidarity help unify a vision of where we need to go. It’s a way of mobilizing people into action. A march or protest alone won’t make the change – but it plants the seed. How many young people will be inspired by the marches today? How many young women will be inspired to take a stand for themselves? Building a community and a vision is the first step against the tide of injustice, the tide of chaos.
I emerged from my 24 hour news sabbatical this morning feeling lighter, more centered, happier. Of course, that feeling was squelched after 5 minutes back online, scrolling through Facebook and the morning’s headlines. But I know, now, what I have to do when I need to gather energy. Tune out to the world for a bit, tune in to myself, and dive in to my work: learning, teaching, sharing, community building.
I certainly hope MLK was right. I may have no choice but to believe that he was, that ‘the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.’ Without that faith, it’s hard to continue my work as a scientist, as an educator, and as a citizen of this world.