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John Green reviews an unvoiced way of speaking and the state of the atmosphere.

Thanks to Brilliant for sponsoring this episode: brilliant.org/anthro
Hello and welcome to the Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing whispering and the weather.

Let’s begin today with whispering, an unvoiced way of speaking. In a whisper, the vocal cords don’t vibrate, but air passes through the larynx with enough turbulence to be audible—at close range, anyway. People sometimes whisper due to laringytis or other disorders of the larynx. Usually, though, we whisper because we want to speak to one person, but not to everyone. To illustrate an example of a whisper, I’d like to tell you about the first time my daughter whispered to me.

I have a friend, Alex, who is one of those impossibly easygoing, imperturbable souls who can instantly recalibrate when faced with a shift in circumstance. But occasionally, when on a tight schedule, Alex will become visibly stressed and say things like, “We’ve got to get a move on.” Alex’s wife Linda calls this, “Airport Alex.”

Much to my chagrin, I am usually Airport Alex. I cannot stop worrying that the kids might be late for school, that the restaurant might cancel our reservation, that my psychiatrist will fire me for tardiness, and so on. Anyway, one morning when my wife was out of town for work, I was sitting at breakfast with my then three-year-old daughter, who is never Airport Alex. For small children, time is not kept by clocks, and so I always feel the need to be the Keeper of the Schedule, the Maintainer of Punctuality in the Realm.

It was 8:37. Twenty-three minutes from being late to daycare. My daughter was eating her toast very slowly. Long pauses between bites to consult with a picture book she’d brought down that morning. I kept urging her to finish eating. “This is your eight-minute warning,” I said to her, as if eight minutes meant anything.

I tried to line up everything for departure—the shoes, the coat, the backpack containing nothing but her lunch. Do you have your car keys? Yes. Wallet? Yes. Phone? Yes. Now only six minutes to go. For the love of God please eat your toast. I cut the crusts off. It is sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. All right that’s it we’re out of time we need to put on your shoes. And then at the pinnacle of my frenzy, Alice said to me, “Daddy, can I say a secret?”

I leaned in toward her and she cupped her hands over her mouth, and even though we were alone in the house, she whispered to me. I can’t tell you what she said, of course, because it was a secret, but I will say that the content of her message was totally unremarkable and related to the book she was looking at. What stopped me dead was the fact of her whisper. I had no idea she could whisper, or even that she knew what secrets were. And anyway, what she said wasn’t really about what she said. It was about reminding me that we were okay, that I didn’t need to be Airport Alex. Being busy is a way of being loud. And what my daughter needed needed was quiet space, for her small voice to be heard.

Whispering is of course incredibly intimate. A whisper seems to be made not of sound but of breath itself. Our species has probably been whispering since we began speaking—in fact, we aren’t even the only animal to whisper. Some gophers and bats do, as well as some monkeys, including the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin.

Humans often use whispering to tell each other things that we don’t want say aloud—secrets, yes, but also rumors and cruelties and fears. I find it interesting that speech recognition software still cannot effectively decode whispers, so if you whisper to your smart speaker or virtual assistant, it will not hear you. It’s the last kind of talking that still has to happen between humans.

So when I was a kid, I didn’t attend church often; my family wasn’t particularly religious, but someone told me when I was little that God’s voice comes to people in a whisper. In many parts of the Bible, as in life, whispers mislead and wrongly condemn. But there is some scriptural justification for the idea that God’s voice can be quiet. One of my favorite lines from the Bible is First Kings 19:12. “After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” That’s how the Bible I read translates it, anyway; the King James Version calls it “a still, small voice.”

When I was 19 years old, long before I read that line in first books of Kings, I went on a road trip through Michigan with a friend, and we happened across a sign advertising the world’s largest wooden crucifix. I’ve always been fond of roadside attractions, especially world’s largest ones—I’ve seen everything from the world’s largest ball of stamps to the world’s largest ball of paint—and so we stopped at a place called Cross in the Woods. I was tired and a little bit hungover, but it felt good to stretch my legs after hours in the car.

Back then, I only wanted to enjoy things ironically. Ironic enthusiasm felt safer to me than sincerity, and also more honest—the world was a joke, and a cruel one. And as we walked toward the world’s largest wooden Much too big, really. It was garish and over-the-top and totally American. Jesus was 28 feet tall. It was ridiculous.

And then, looking up at the crucifix, all at once I was overwhelmed by a feeling I could not name. I would later hear it described as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery before which we tremble and are fascinated.

I was consumed by awe—not just wonder, but also fear. It wasn't a comfortable feeling, nor an entirely pleasant one, but I didn’t want it to end. I felt as if I were very small. I don’t know if that feeling came from within or without, and I don’t really care. Whether I created it in my brain or not, it was real. I literally fell to my knees. I couldn't help myself.

I don’t think you need to be religious to know the mysterium tremendum—maybe on a dark night you glimpse the Milky Way for the first time. Maybe you hear a song so beautiful you can hardly bear it. The distance you’ve tried to create between yourself and the world falls away, and you are left exposed to the beauty and horror of mortal consciousness.

So I was kneeling, looking up at this overwrought roadside attraction, and I heard a still, small voice whisper: You’ll be okay. That was it. You’ll be okay.

Of course, I know that I won’t be okay. But I also know that I will be, and ever since I visited the world’s largest wooden crucifix, I have been seeking the reconciliation of these two contradictory facts, both of which I know to be true.

Many years later, I would take the qualified reassurance of the word okay and use it in my book The Fault in Our Stars, and then came the surreal experience of seeing it become a tagline for a Hollywood movie. That whispered okay became a shout, and along the way it took on many different meanings for many different people. But for me, it will always be about the cross in the woods, and the experience that forced me to reckon not just with the sacred but also with the sincere.  

These days when my daughter whispers to me, it is usually to share a worry that she finds embarrassing or frightening. It takes courage even to whisper those fears, and I am so grateful when she trusts me with them, even if I don’t know quite how to answer. Often, I find myself responding to her whispers with the only words I’ve ever heard God say. You’ll be okay, I tell her. You’ll be okay.

I give whispering three and a half stars.


After the break, we’ll discuss the weather, but first: In my twenties, I became friends with a mathematician. He was also many other things—kind, funny, a terrible pool player, an excellent reader of poetry—but I was especially taken with the way he talked about math, because it was so different from what I believed math to be. I thought school subjects like math and physics were essentially the opposite of creativity, and that they were above all boring—like, existentially uninteresting—but Daniel talked about math as problems and puzzles and beauty. Taking online classes at Brilliant reminds me of working through problems with Daniel to help me understand the beginnings of calculus. With Brilliant, technical subjects don’t feel cold or dead. You learn by working through and with ideas—from special relativity to computer science, brilliant makes learning active. You can learn more and sign up for free at brilliant.org/anthro; also the first 200 people to use that link can get 20% off Brilliant’s excellent annual premium service. Plus, it lets them know we sent you. That’s brilliant.org/anthro. Thanks again to Brilliant; now back to the show.

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.” That line, or a variant of it, was written by Charles Dudley Warner in 1897. Of course, the great irony of the joke is that even back then, it wasn’t true.

Warner was born in 1829 in New York. According to analysis done by Our World in Data, humans in the United States released about 1.8 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that year, mostly through the burning of wood. By the time Warner wrote his famous joke about the weather, annual carbon emissions in the U.S. had grown by a factor of 340. Today, people living in the U.S. emit more than 5,000 times as much CO2 per year as they did the year Warner was born.

Meanwhile, the average global temperature in 2018 will be over a degree Celsius hotter than it was a century ago. We are doing something about the weather.

Or more accurately, we are doing something about the climate, which in turn affects the weather—climate being how the atmosphere of Earth functions in general over long periods of time, and weather being how it functions in specific places at specific times. This is why it’s so ludicrous to cite a snowstorm as evidence that the planet is not warming.

The planet is warming—and at this point, Charles Dudley Warner’s line about the weather could be restated as, “Everybody talks about climate change, but nobody ever does much about it.” Maybe that’s too pessimistic. There are active measures in place to reduce global carbon emissions, but nothing near the scale of what will actually be needed to keep global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-Industrial levels.

Climate change is probably the biggest challenge facing humans, and I fear people of the future will judge us harshly for our failure to do something about it. They will likely learn in their history books—correctly—that as a species we knew that carbon emissions were affecting the planet’s climate back in the 1970s, and they will learn—correctly—about the efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to limit carbon emissions, efforts that ultimately failed for complicated and multifaceted reasons that I assume the history books of the future will have boiled down into a single narrative. And I suspect that our choices will seem unforgiveable and even unfathomable to the people reading those history books. Charles Dudley Warner is known for one other quote. “It is fortunate,” he wrote, “that each generation does not comprehend its own ignorance. We are thus enabled to call our ancestors barbarous.”

But today, even as we are beginning to experience the consequences of climate change, we are struggling to mount a global human response to this global problem caused by humans. Some of that is down to public misinformation and the widespread distrust of expertise. Some of it is because climate change feels like an important problem but not an urgent one—the wildfires that have become more common must be put out today. It is much harder for us to make big changes that would over generations decrease the probability of those fires.

But I think it is also hard for us to confront human-caused climate change because in the rich world at least, we feel separate from the weather. I am insulated from the weather by my house and the conditioned air inside of it. I can eat strawberries in January. When it is raining, I can go inside. When it is dark, I can turn on lights. Although we are still deeply dependent upon the weather, I feel like I can separate myself from it.

One of the great paradoxes of life in the Anthropocene is that we are both bigger than the world—we have literally left its orbit—and smaller—we do not decide whether it rains or not. We have conquered nature—we are the only animal that poses a real threat to us. But we are also still regularly conquered by nature—earthquakes and floods and fires can still destroy all that we have and all that we are.

When I was in middle school, I was taught that fictional stories need conflict, and that conflict came in three varieties: man vs. man; man vs. self; and man vs. nature. All stories supposedly fit into one of those three categories: Hamlet was a man vs. self story; Julius Caesar was a man vs. man story; and The Old Man and the Sea was a man versus nature story. But looking back, that all seems to me the kind of oversimplification that deceives via distilling. When we imagine that humans are trying to conquer nature, or that nature is trying to conquer humans, when we try to judge our size relative to the world, we forget that we do not live on Earth, but as part of it. As the historian David Baker has pointed out, when I look up at the stars, I feel like I am looking at the universe. But in fact, of course, I am the universe looking at itself.

There’s another joke about the weather I often think about. It goes like this: “You know what they say about Indiana. If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” I’ve heard this joke all around the world—from Amsterdam to New York to Addis Ababa—and it is amazing to me how many places believe themselves to be uniquely prone to changing weather. But even in an age of satellites and forecasting software, weather retains the ability to surprise, and I think, at least for those of us who don’t live in Southern California, weather is the most visible daily reminder that everything is unpredictable. You know what they say about your day. If you don’t like it, wait ten minutes.

The weather reminds us of both our power and our powerlessness. We may not want the responsibility of shaping our planet’s climate, or the restrictions of being shaped by that climate. But there is no way out from the obligations and limitations of nature, because we are nature. The weather is like history. Humans make history, but we are also subjected to it. I give the weather four stars.

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was brought to you by the letter W. This podcast was written by me, and edited and produced by Stan Muller, Jenny Lawton, and Rosianna Halse Rojas. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com, or find us on twitter or facebook. One last thing: If you’d like to help our podcast, please tell your friends about it, or write a review on iTunes. We really appreciate your feedback, and we’ll be back on the last Thursday of next month with new reviews.

My favorite fact that didn’t make it in to today’s reviews: Although he was well-known for his short stories and travelogues, Mark Twain never wrote a novel until he was 37 years old. Twain and his wife were at dinner with their friends the Warners when Olivia Twain and Susan Warner challenged their husbands to collaborate on a novel. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote the novel The Gilded Age in response to that challenge. When we say that today is a second gilded age, we are quoting Warner and Twain. Thanks again for listening; we leave you today with the sound of the current weather in my neck of the woods.