KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 7: Spring 2017
Essay: 991 words
[References:] [309 words]

Overwhelmed: Waking Up to the Mother of All Problems

by Jack Cooper

The other day I dreamed that one of my friends told me I had fallen into negative thinking. I woke up puzzled. Had I? I can be critical and admittedly judgmental at times, but at the core I see myself as an idealist and a romantic, naïve you could say.

I started in at once to process the message and where it came from: the most divisive, most disheartening election of our lifetimes? The never-ending war and inhumanity in the Middle East? Radiation still spewing from Fukushima? Monsanto’s lethal chemicals in our food supply? Unstoppable fires in Indonesia? Weird viruses and superbugs evolving in real time? The threat of terrorism? The eruption in new levels of prejudice and injustice? Lots to be negative about out there.

For days I circled around the one problem that seemed both to overpower and encompass all the rest: Climate change, a development which, as author Naomi Klein has noted, “changes everything.” The mother of all problems.

Yet, why couldn’t I shake the feeling that what researchers are saying about climate change is partly for shock value, grandstanding, and one-upmanship? Someone comes out with, All but one of the last ten years in a row have been hotter than the preceding one, and this year is on track to be the hottest on record, and someone else ratchets up the conversation with, Fifty percent of all wildlife on earth will go extinct in a hundred years, to which another declares, If the Greenland ice sheet melts, the global oceans will rise nine feet, which spawns, In Miami, fish are swimming in the street and banks have secretly stopped issuing 30-year mortgages. And the clincher: By the turn of the century, one in every 10 new jobs will be in sea wall construction.

I have no doubt everything they’re reporting is true, and the situation is probably more apocalyptic than they allow themselves to say. So why aren’t we climbing over ourselves to do something about it? Where is the panic and worldwide coordination of colossal projects? Where are the General Pattons and Rosie the Riveters? It’s like aliens have invaded our paradise and are hauling away our plants and animals, our soils and fresh water, but we’re kicking back with cocktails on the deck, lining up at Fatburger, and vacationing in Paris.

What if we’re not doing much because we can’t? We’re overwhelmed. It’s bigger than we are, so we go into denial. A poll found that people are more afraid of clowns than of climate change. Heating up the planet and changing its weather patterns is about what we make, what we eat, what we wear, how we get around, what we dump, where we work, where we live, how many pets we have, and what we use for paint, for lights, for furniture, for toothpaste. It’s about everything human, everywhere you can imagine, going back hundreds of years.

Take the matter of pollution, the prime contributor to climate change. What if the world agreed that all the water that goes into the ocean must be absolutely clean. Start with that rule and walk backward. Good luck. In the USA, you follow along oily roads only to end up at your own lawn, your own washing machine, your own bug sprays and paper goods, and shoes and running shorts, and make-up, and garbage. Go back further to the factories that make all these products and the means of shipping them. Take another giant step for mankind back to the extraction and delivery of all the raw materials needed by the factories.

In some countries, you wouldn’t get by the islands of trash, open sewers, and industrial rot, not to mention war in the streets, disruption of services, and disappearing food sources from massive drought and ground water depletion, all happening in a toxic stew of religious fanaticism, financial and educational disparity, foreign exploitation, weaponization, entrenched traditions, and political corruption.

It’s a horrifying narrative, and we are outraged. We blame politicians, the coal companies, the Chinese, the military, even scientists. And the hyped-up conversations keep coming: Wildlife on land is moving toward the poles at a rate of 15 feet per day. Superstorm Sandy came out of water that was nine degrees warmer than average for that time of year. Sea animals are now consuming plastic as if it were a free-floating nutrient, and we are eating them, and probably ourselves, to extinction.

Do we have time to repair or prepare, or have we reached the point of certain doom and insanity, the collapse of order, the death of civilization as we know it? What about the entrepreneurial spirit, human resilience, and the new generations of techies and computer-driven solutionism? And aren’t we wildly expanding solar energy, water condensation and desalination systems, and wind, wave, and geothermal power? What about that college kid who invented a floating platform that automatically scoops up plastic in the ocean? Or the 13-year-old who rediscovered Tesla’s free energy? Or the bacterium that eats oil?

Meanwhile, can’t we just go vegan, live closer to work, grow our own veggies, recycle, reuse, reduce, vote green, live in peace? Sure, some of us can, but what difference will that make to the people of Kolkata or Mumbai or New Guinea or Haiti or Syria or Eritrea already being displaced by sea rise, floods, droughts, famine, overpopulation, and disease?

I’m left wondering what I can personally do, and what the phrase “individual responsibility” might even mean when it refers to the whole world. One child at a time, for example, is a beautiful slogan for teaching and healing, but how could it ever work for things like rainfall and melting glaciers and disappearing wildlife? Maybe I can do this: embrace radical, selfless generosity. And maybe this: one vote, one blue planet, one positive thought at a time. I can still dream, can’t I?


Key References:

  1. Baptiste, Nathalie. “That Sinking Feeling: Why is Miami—America’s most vulnerable metropolis to sea-level rise—having yet another beachfront development boom?” The American Prospect (19 February 2016).

  2. Biello, David. “How Microbes Helped Clean BP’s Oil Spill.” Scientific American (28 April 2015).

  3. Cochrane, Joe. “Blazes in Southeast Asia May Have Led to Deaths of Over 100,000, Study Says.” The New York Times (19 September 2016).

  4. Crockett, Zachary. “Americans are more afraid of clowns than climate change, terrorism, and...death.” Vox (21 October 2016).

  5. Gore, Al. “The Case for Optimism on Climate Change.” TED Talk (February 2016).

  6. Humes, Edward. “The Hidden Price of Shipping.” TIME (13 October 2016).

  7. Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Simon & Schuster (2015).

  8. Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Greenland Is Melting: The shrinking of the country’s ice sheet is triggering feedback loops that accelerate the global crisis. The floodgates may already be open.” The New Yorker, Letter from Greenland (24 October 2016). Article appears in other versions of the 24 October 2016 issue with the headline “A Song of Ice: What happens when a country starts to melt.”

  9. Lehmann, Evan. “Sea Walls May Be Cheaper than Rising Waters.” Scientific American, ClimateWire (4 February 2014).

  10. Messinger, Leah. “How your clothes are poisoning our oceans and food supply.” The Guardian (20 June 2016). Article reports on research published in Environmental Science & Technology under the title “Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments.”

  11. Mohan, Geoffrey. “Millions of tons of trash dumped into world’s oceans.” Los Angeles Times (13 February 2015).

  12. Newton, Terence. “13-Year-Old Invents Tesla Inspired Free Energy Device for Under $15.” Waking Times (18 May 2016).

  13. Singh, Timon. “19-year-old student develops ocean-cleanup array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic from the world’s oceans.” inhabitat (26 March 2013).


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