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Global overload: How the world became overwhelmed

Residents check on one another in a flooded neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

We all feel it. News is always about the unexpected, but this cycle of news is uncommonly grim, and we are all exhausted by it. Look around at the world, starting with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed treaties to annex parts of Ukraine following a manipulated referendum carried out at gunpoint. In defiance of international law, Putin says Moscow will protect these newly incorporated regions by “all available means,” code words for putting them under his nuclear control.

The last time the word “annexation” was used was in the lead-up to World War II, when Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and then held a plebiscite that was manipulated to show 99 percent approval among Austrians. Sound familiar?

We are entering the eighth month of this ghastly war. We have become numb to the daily losses, destruction, death and dangers that plague the citizens of a nation being torn apart by an unhinged dictator across the border.

What about Iran?

In another part of this fragile globe, Iranian women are protesting the unfair treatment of a heinous theocracy that demands that they remain veiled — stripping them of their human rights, dignity and self-determination. For four decades, since the fall of the shah in 1979, citizens of Iran have had to endure crackdowns on freedom, economic dislocation and isolation from sanctions, restrictions on the free flow of information and a ruthless morality police and security service that makes daily life like a hostage situation. Now citizens – women, girls, men and boys in multiple parts of the vast country of Iran – are demanding their rights, and a brutal regime is determined to stop them.

Here at home, as if mother nature were furious at how Earth’s citizens are behaving, a historic mega-storm has been bearing down on parts of Florida and now the entire northeast coast, bringing death, destruction and damage unseen in centuries. The angry waters of lakes and rivers are overflowing into homes and businesses, thrashing against infrastructure and leaving loss and misery in its wake.

So how do we make sense of this global despair, not to mention the domestic upheavals at home in the United States with a polarized society grappling with inflation, and economic pain?

Overload seems to be part of the world’s problem today: We are still reeling from COVID-19, which took 1 million American lives and could still kill at least 100,000 a year. Despite fast work on vaccines, Americans proved stubborn about taking them, and social divisions ripped apart any hope of a national consensus on how to deal with COVID.

In the other parts of the world, COVID swept like wildfire, and countries like China cracked down hard to bring its population under control with zero-tolerance policies that further stressed the global economy, which was feeling the weight of supply change shortages and disruptions to trade and the movement of goods. From chip shortages to staff shortages, the global economy ground to a halt. 

Human beings, when overtaxed and overstressed, get worn down.

Truckers went on strike in Canada. Railroad workers almost stopped working in America. Teachers quit. Hospital staff walked off their jobs. Americans engaged in a “Great Resignation.” People just wanted to quit or rebel.

People have their limits. We get anxious when too many balls are in the air. Emotional problems become overwhelming and, in some societies, like the United States, we recognize it, label it and try to address it. But there aren’t even enough trained psychologists and psychiatrists, let alone facilities, to treat mental illness. The result is often random violence. We act out because we are mad and overwhelmed.

Then there’s the resource scarcity problem. Populations are growing in some parts of the world and shrinking in others. We have gone from 4 billion to almost 8 billion in just 48 years

That means that in places where populations have exploded, resources are constrained. The United Nations projects that 85 percent of the world’s population may live in the grip of stringent austerity measures by next year. That means fewer social programs, economic gains and resources for natural disasters.

Add to that climate change and you can see where, in a state like Florida, which has seen a massive influx of new residents in 2022, a hurricane could take an enormous toll on human life and overload power grids and the capacity of emergency responders.

So, what can we do to address human overload?

First, conserve. Conserve our own energy, and the world’s energy. Pause. We need time to reflect, time to think, time to stop moving.  

Second, we need support. For some, that is emotional support, for others it is better health care infrastructure to provide physical support. And for some, it is support from neighbors, friends, faith communities and family.

Third, we need patience. 2023 is going to be a year of recovery, and we will need the fortitude to face it with resilience on a human and societal level. 

Thankfully, we have holidays at the end of the year — designed to force us to settle down, give generously and take a deep breath.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags China COVID-19 pandemic Hurricane Ian Iran Iran protests Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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