The Great Rivers

Rivers of all sizes have always beguiled me, captive on the shore, watching their waters flow endlessly past—waters bursting from far-distant sources upstream, rushing inexorably downstream to distant lakes and oceans.

As a boy, I sometimes wished I could float away on their currents to discover what lay beyond my sight.  And just as often, I wanted to journey against their flow, longing to view what those rivers had already seen.

Those daydreams were continually thwarted, however, by my greater desire to be home in time for supper.

The first great river I learned about was the mighty Mississippi, described so lovingly in the first two novels I ever read, written by Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  I think my first hero was Tom, although I couldn’t imagine getting into the scrapes he did.  But it was Huck—as fine a character as you’ll find in the literary canon—whose presence stayed with me as I morphed into adolescence.

It was the Mississippi, though, that I truly focused on, that immense receiver of waters from its many tributaries—including the Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, and Red Rivers, each collecting water from their own tributaries—draining more than forty percent of the continental USA into the Gulf of Mexico.  In my youthful imagination, it was a river of romance and song, a gateway to the future.

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In time, I came to know of other great rivers, and snippets of their history:

  • the Nile, for example, and the tales of derring-do by British imperial forces at Khartoum that fired my imagination;
  • the Amazon, with its claims of pygmy head-hunters, and Theodore Roosevelt’s near-fatal trek on one of its tributaries, now named for him;
  • the Danube, so blue in my boy’s mind, the inspiration for one of the greatest Strauss waltzes;
  • the Yangtze, summoning images of the mysterious east, and Marco Polo’s exotic adventures;
  • the Ganges, that sacred river emptying into the Bay of Bengal, worshipped by devout Hindus as a goddess;
  • the Zambesi, which tumbles 108m at Victoria Falls, evoking heroic stories of Livingstone and Stanley in the darkest regions of Africa; and
  • the Volga, Europe’s longest river, conjuring romantic visions of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and their czarist empire at its height.

Given this rich history and my romanticizing of the world’s great rivers, imagine my shock when I read recently about what some of them are doing now to our environment.

According to a study completed in 2017 by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, and first reported in Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed, scientific journal covering research in environmental policy, a staggering eight million metric tons of plastic pours into the world’s oceans every year.

Of that amount, several of the world’s great rivers are responsible for up to 2.75 million metric tons.  Ninety-three percent of that volume emanates from ten major rivers, all in Asia and Africa, including some of those mentioned above.  The Yangtze alone dumps as much as 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste into the Yellow Sea.

Every.  Single.  Year.

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Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea,” by Christian Schmidt et al., in Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 51, No. 21

There are clean-up attempts underway, of course, and new technologies to assist them emerging all the time.  But is it already too late?  With the flow of waste only increasing around the world, can any effort match the magnitude of the task?

The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch has an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of floating plastic, which by the end of last year had coalesced into a field of debris twice the size of Texas.  But that may be just the tip of the waste-berg, so to speak.

Micro-particles from plastics used in consumer products such as disposable bottles, packaging, and textiles have been found beneath the ocean’s surface, even in the Mariana Trench (estimated depth, 11,034 metres below sea level).  These particles are being consumed by animals on the lower end of the food-chain, which in turn are eaten by those higher up the chain—and eventually by humans, the apex predators at the very top.

According to a current World Wildlife Fund study, each of us is now inadvertently consuming about five grams of plastic a week on average, the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic.

The cause of the problem does not lie with our great rivers, of course.  They are simply doing what they have always done—draining and flushing the land surrounding them, carrying the detritus out to sea.  It is the producers, consumers, and disposers of plastics who are at fault.  In a word, us!

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But I must confess, I no longer look at rivers with the same romantic eye I did once upon a long time ago.

We have ruined them.

Just a Cliché?

Many people think of clichés as timeworn, too-oft-repeated banalities, devoid of meaning because of their ubiquitous presence.  Too self-evident to be of any use; to wit—

It is what it is.  Well, yeah…almost assuredly…duh!

What will be, will be.  You think?

As I approach the three-quarter century mark, however (in fluctuating moods of disbelief and resignation), I find I have begun to pay closer attention to many of them, discerning nuggets of truth that, heretofore, I paid scant attention to.  Whether this is on account of acquired wisdom or wishful thinking, I cannot tell.

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Either way, I am becoming increasingly aware of the boundaries of life—that there is, not just a beginning that was, but an ending to come—a fact I tried to ignore in those halcyon days of my youth.  And many of the so-called clichés are resonating clearly now for me, rather than ringing hollow.

The times, they are a-changin’, right in front of my eyes, falling by the wayside as we continue to poison our planet, wage war on our fellow humans, and trample on the rights of others in a mad scramble to make our selfish way.  I’m beginning to understand more fully now that time and tide wait for no one, and it will soon be too late to reverse the flow.

Actions speak louder than words, undoubtedly; yet increasingly, we scoff at the science of climate change, and the inevitable—and irreversible—consequences of global warming.  The planet is home to all of us, the only home we have, and I fear we will not defend it, so focused are we on wealth-acquisition and a penchant to wield power.  We need to remember that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

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We shall reap what we sow.  Or, if not us, those who come after us—those for whom we have tainted the future they will inherit.

It has been said it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.  Nevertheless, if we do not speak out while yet we have the chance, our children and grandchildren may experience a fate worse than death—living on a planet that will be hell.

Too many of those to whom we look for leadership and vision, alas, fail us with their short-term thinking.  And as I enter this last quarter of my life, it occurs to me that neither they nor I will be around to reap the whirlwind that is being seeded by our collective short-sightedness.  Too many of them are yesterday’s men, when what we need are tomorrow’s dreamers—men and women who think beyond the constraints of the present.

Hindsight is better than foresight, by a damn sight, it is true.  But foresight is what will save us from ourselves.  If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything, and we’ll fall very hard.

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So, these clichés—are they just empty aphorisms, bereft of significance?  Or do they, perhaps, constitute a wake-up call, wisdom from those who have gone before us, that might help preserve our bounty for those who will follow?

And, if they are true, will we pay heed?  Will we listen to the ones that caution us, each a voice of one crying in the wilderness?

Or will we ignore their message as nothing more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

When I hear false promises from so many of our leaders, I am reminded that every man has stupid thoughts, but wise men keep them quiet.  I am reminded that when you talk sense to a fool…he calls you foolish.  I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.

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Worst of all, I am in fear of those who believe everything they think. 

If we are to change the current course of human folly, we must refute the notion that everyone is entitled to an opinion, and substitute instead: everyone is entitled to [an] informed opinion.  No one is entitled to be ignorant.

Napoleon famously said (in French, I imagine), In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.  Woe that he was right!  So many of our leaders persist in pissing on our legs, while telling us it’s raining, and have the gall to pretend not to notice that we notice!

And that is our fault.  Far too many of us demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which [we] seldom use.

My mortal coil is unwinding, more quickly now, it seems, than ever before; and too soon for my liking, I will shuffle off to who knows where.  In the meantime, I try to heed the old advice—Don’t look back; something may be gaining.

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But looking forward is difficult, too, given the problems we seem not to be facing up to.  I yearn for a generation of leaders who will step to the tiller, place firm hands on the wheel, and chart a steady course, one we all might confidently follow.  We need captains who are principled, intelligent, unwavering, and above reproach—like the north star, [so we can] set our compass by them.

Will we find them?  Will they find us?  Or is such conjecture nothing more than a fanciful wish on my part?  The world ends when you die, or so some believe.  But for those left behind, it goes on, whether for better or worse.  Will that world flourish—a renewal, a blossoming?  Or will entropy prevail—a gradual decline into chaos and disorder?

Will the future confirm what Robert Browning once wrote—the best is yet to be…?  Or will it be what Porky Pig proclaimed—Th-th-that’s all, folks!?

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Just a cliché?  Maybe.  But it matters to me.