The Practice Apocalypse

I suppose the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic is as good a time as any to start a blog, particularly if that blog is about what’s to come, well after the current mess has settled down.

I ran across this brilliant cartoon1:

If it isn’t obvious, the scientists in the cartoon are looking at the COVID “flattening” curves that have been published everywhere lately. That more pinkish waist-high bump is the worst-case COVID outcome.

One of the reasons this is brilliant wasn’t clear to me until I started trying to say the same thing in words. Those little bumps on the left represent millions afflicted by a horrible disease, and over 80,000 deaths as of a few days ago (we haven’t peaked yet). Who would belittle all that suffering? In a cartoon, you can get away with that.

It’s all about your personal experience. Like many–a majority, perhaps–in the U.S., I’m lucky. I haven’t lost anyone to the virus so far. I haven’t gotten sick, and nobody I know is in the hospital, hoping the meds don’t run out. I have a place to practice my social distancing (I was already pretty great at that).

And for me, this pandemic is somewhat…eerie. Why? Well, for one thing, I have running water. I have tap water that’s always working, and always safe to drink. The last real vacation I took was to a nice little coastal village where the tap water was sketchy, microbially speaking. It had been a while since I left the country and it took some getting used to. The taps were shiny, chrome–newer and nicer than the ones in my house. Yet they dispensed poison! It seemed very wrong. I wanted them to be painted with red and black stripes, maybe, with biohazard and “Mr. Yuk” decals on them. Brushing my teeth was the hardest, because it’s such a brainless ritual. I had to train myself to remember to go to the kitchen and get water from the 5-gallon bottle to rinse my mouth. But here at home, during the pandemic, the tap water is perfectly safe.

The electricity hasn’t flickered once yet, either. So the fridge is working, and I don’t have to do triage on what frozen foods to hurry up and eat before they thaw. The natural gas has been heating the house and the hot water with 100% reliability. The car’s fine, and all the gas stations are open and supplied.

Growing up in the Midwest, when tornado weather was coming, the sky would look strange. It would turn a bruised-looking shade that you didn’t see any other time. In this crisis, we aren’t even getting that. And yet, it’s out there. Something we can’t see that wants to kill us. Something that makes a trip to the grocery store the most dangerous thing I’ll do all year. We’re all practicing the rituals, which the authorities revise every week–crossing ourselves to ward off the evil spirits.

This pandemic will definitely end. The effects on “the economy” will last longer, but people will get back to work, the vital, life-sustaining flow of flatscreen TVs from China will resume, and we’ll return to something that will feel normal-ish.

Then what? Like the lab-coated boffins in the cartoon (it’s true, data scientists always wear lab coats as they sit at their keyboards), we might want to look over our shoulders, because it’s out there. Something we can’t see.

In spite of the invisibility of CO2, I believe science is at least half-right about the climate crisis2, and that’s all it will take to (most likely) put us into a real, proper apocalypse with bells on, a few years down the road. And that one will stick around.

That prospect moves me, by some murky psychological process, to start a blog. But my intention is not to blogviate on and on about politics, culture, or how human nature led us here (though I’m off to a bad start in that regard). I’m an engineer by training, though diverted years ago into the swamps of software development. So I want to talk about practical things that I think we could do before that non-flattenable wave of climate crisis takes away all of our options. In the spirit of that Vonnegut quote above, might as well.

  2. Caveat: I’m not going to justify this statement now. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it deserves critical examination; hopefully I’ll get to that.

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