mixed greens

Infinite pools

Posted 4/7/21

This week marks a little over a year since I left work one evening and received a call the next day letting me know I’d be working from home for the foreseeable future. COVID-19, viewed in …

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mixed greens

Infinite pools


This week marks a little over a year since I left work one evening and received a call the next day letting me know I’d be working from home for the foreseeable future. COVID-19, viewed in alarm and from afar in the previous weeks, was standing in my doorway. Time stood still, the world contracted and mortality drew very close. People are calling it a “lost year,” but for me, it’s been more like a year of mourning, experiencing the seasons and the cycle of celebrations and commemorations through the lens of the pandemic. I progressed through horror, grief, anger, guilt; gratitude for the everyday heroism of essential workers; and solace in the miraculous good fortune of living in a place of natural beauty.  And a year later, almost to the day, I received my first dose of vaccine—another miracle!

If a metaphor for the past year could leap off the screen, it would be the vision of a gigantic container ship wedged sideways in the Suez Canal for a week, paralyzing a critical trade route. Stuck in a single-lane portion of the canal, the ultimate “wrong place at the wrong time,” the struggling 220,000-ton vessel sounded multiple chords of recognition—a ship so ridiculously out of scale, so unmanageable, so dependent on everything going right and so emblematic of our dysfunctional relationship with the forces of nature. High winds helped ground the behemoth, but Mother Nature also provided the solution. It was high tides, higher than usual this spring and controlled by the gravitational pull of the full Moon, that enabled a fleet of tugboats to free it.

Experts say the cascading effects of shipping delays will ripple through the economy for some time, sparking a renewed debate about whether such giant ships are truly cost effective. There is also a call to reexamine the “just-in-time” supply-chain model that cuts costs but leaves us so disproportionately vulnerable to disruption. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same problem wreaked havoc with our ability to respond to COVID-19 last spring as the pandemic shut down production of masks, medications and protective gear. We need to look at systems, not just symptoms.

It’s also roughly a year since the wonderful Yale program on climate change communication conducted its bi-annual survey, “Climate Change in the American Mind: April 2020.” The researchers wondered whether COVID-19 would crowd out the public’s climate change concerns—a phenomenon that sociologists have dubbed “finite pools of worry.” But the survey revealed that public understanding and concern about climate change was holding steady, and that Americans were increasingly aware that climate change is also a threat to public health.

Over the past year, my personal pool of worry has stretched to fit the times, seemingly to infinity. While some were questioning the future of the American experiment, I found myself wondering whether we would survive the human experiment, recalling the words of Buckminster Fuller: “Nature is trying very hard to make us succeed, but nature does not depend on us.”

This year, the arrival of spring feels like a delayed New Year’s, bringing fresh beginnings and resolve even though we still have a tough road ahead. I like to think Nature wants us to succeed. We need to build a healthier relationship with the planet that sustains us. It’s not very reassuring to discover that Plan B is to collectively cross our fingers and hope we never need a Plan B. 

shipping, supply chain, COVID-19, systems, infrastructure


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