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From Hastings to Jonestown and back again: Drinking the climate Kool-Aid amidst the chaos

March 19, 2019

 By Mitchell Lierman

    The state drink of Nebraska, invented by Edwin Perkins of Hastings in 1927, is a major part of many people’s childhood. Even I, a notoriously picky eater and beverage purist (I’ll take a Pepsi, please. No, Coke is not okay) have fond memories of drinking Kool-Aid on those hot summer days when the world seemed to be too saturated to go on moving without a little lubrication. My sister, as I imagine many other girls do as well, can reminisce about dying her hair in the colored water for spirit days. And who could forget the timeless entrance of that jolly pitcher of red-colored liquid diabetes, the Kool-Aid man himself. OH YEAH.

     But there’s a darker side to Kool-Aid (man, that sounded way more ominous in my head) that many consumers my age may not know about- but I’m sure that for many cultural veterans of the past century that the name Jim Jones of the People’s Temple might ring a bell. The Jonestown Massacre of 1978 wasn’t a gorey spectacle of blood and bullets like the horrifying Mosque shooting in New Zealand this past weekend. Rather, the 907 victims of this haunting mass-dying were poisoned by drinking cyanide that was infused with their Kool-Aid after U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan was shot and killed on the premises.

     The People’s Temple is one of the most infamous cults of all time, characterized by its controlling nature that restricted its members from thinking critically or questioning authority. As a result, the people in Jonestown who had been promised a utopian communal experience in the People’s Temple Agriculture Project were duped into the ultimately self-destructive behaviors that they are remembered for today.

     Following the historic flooding that hit the Northeastern Nebraska area last week, Twitter became an engine for mass production of bad “hot takes” that cause more harm than good. As Twitter often does following a notable happening, both sides of the political spectrum began laying blame and taking pot shots at one another. Many voices spoke out against this tragedy being politicized, while others spoke out against the mainstream news’s complete lack of coverage. Then both sides tore into each other over these arguments as well, and the ensuing firestorm accomplished nothing.

     Many people in the camp against the politicization of these floods also expressed their amazement at communities across the state coming together to “tough it out” as one user put it, and characterized people who clamored for mainstream news outlets to pick up the story as whiny attention-seeking opportunists. As someone who staunchly supports a strong media presence across the country, I find this characterization to be completely false.

     I will admit that I was not on the front-lines in my community. I wasn’t on the ground filling sand bags and strengthening dikes (as I recall I was recovering from a case of severe Calculus procrastination that had kept me up into the wee hours of the morning the night before.) But many of my friends and family did help in communities across the state, and what they described- families evacuated, livelihoods destroyed, and decimated infrastructure- made my heart go out to those affected and made me seek ways to draw attention to the crisis we faced. I took to social media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as other news aggregates like Reddit, to drive traffic to the many crowdfunding campaigns that have sprung up in response to this disaster.

     This problem disproportionately affects lower-income households in the flood zones. These people will be financially devastated by the events of last week. I have heard horror stories of savings accounts that had been built over several years completely whiped out by the upcoming costs of repairs. These people will absolutely need the generosity of people to support their efforts in the days to come to reclaim normalcy. Anyone who thinks that the news promoting this story will somehow tarnish it (as if you could tarnish a natural disaster!) is either ignorant to the reality of the situation or arguing in bad faith.

     Disturbingly, it seems many Nebraskans (nowhere near all, but many nonetheless) have turned a blind eye to the complete climate destabilization that threatens to the destroy our very way of life. This flood will not be the last extreme weather event that impacts our farmers, nor can we do much as individuals to curb the trend towards environmental doom. The question is not one of individual choices- 100 companies are responsible for roughly 71% of emissions according to the latest reports. This tropish, overused phrase seems like a vindication of those companies, and on some level it is perhaps. But at another level it reveals what needs to change. While he attitudes and practices of individual consumers and small companies might not matter, the overall market culture does.

     Following these floods, Nebraska must position itself as an innovator by promoting development in the free-markets. By growing this sector of our economy and diversifying away from the current agricultural backbone, we will be able to strengthen our markets and bring new jobs to our state’s economy. To have a source of job growth in this state will be crucial in a time when outside threats- whether automation or climate disasters- threaten so many.

In 1927, Edwin Perkins invented Kool-Aid to help people deal with the summer heat. The resulting marketing demand created a need for people working in plants to produce the powdery substance en masse. In 1941, Russell Ohl invented the solar electric cell. The resulting market demand is still felt to this day, with solar energy being one of the fastest growing tech fields to enter, whether in engineering, installation, or maintenance. Recently, large carbon-scrubbing towers that clean the air have began popping up in cities around the world. While they remain prohibitively expensive for the time being, soon there will be a global manufacturing initiative to push for heavy investment in this technology that will drive costs down and make them more economically viable. Nebraska’s economy could stand to benefit from investing in this technology perhaps more than any other rural state. But for us to begin taking this opportunity to mobilize our economy against a global challenge, we must first put down the climate Kool-Aid and acknowledge that yes, there is a problem, and whether or not it’s caused by humans (quite likely), it’s only going to get worse unless we take action soon.

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