The problems of our time act slowly

Climate change. Obesity. Stress. Misinformation. What do they have in common?

The classic metaphor of a frog sitting in slowly-heating water is unfortunate in that we can’t really relate. “What a dumb frog! He can’t even tell the water is getting hot! Fortunately, I would notice.”

We’ve made a lot of progress with faster-acting problems. Hunger. War. You notice those pretty quick.

The problems we can’t seem to get a grip on are caused by factors that act so slowly, we don’t feel them. It’s very hard to prove that any of the thousands of chemicals widely used in consumer products are the root cause of anyone’s particular disease. Sure, many of these chemicals were shown to kill laboratory rabbits in high enough doses. But those are rabbits. And high doses. It doesn’t prove anything!

How long did it take to definitively prove that smoking causes cancer? Smoking literally involves filling the lungs with visible, foul smelling smoke! So how are we supposed to make any headway with rose-scented soap additives?

One sugary snack doesn’t give you diabetes. You can’t see the ocean rising as you drive your gasoline car or your coal-sourced electric car. You can’t feel yourself becoming radicalized as you read one more eye-catching social media post.

The best hope for progress on climate change seems to be the fires, floods, and hurricanes that we can see. Finally, some symptom that acts on a timescale we can process!

Even the Covid pandemic — which was very fast moving — can be seen as a win for science. Innovative vaccines developed and distributed in record time despite political morass. And notice — all those people with underlying medical conditions (caused by who knows what? a million bags of chips? a million applications of body lotion? a million hours sitting in traffic? just genetics?) — the cause of death is still: Covid-19. That’s the part we can see. It’s the part we can measure.

If all of this is true, then the challenge of our times is finding ways to see the slow. Juxtaposing the past and the present. Compressing big data into something comprehensible. Making statistics trustworthy. Connecting the low doses and the small moments to something larger. Seeing the big picture. Feeling the big picture.

Finding ways to make the gradual, visible.

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