The little things make a difference in the bigger picture.

Global warming and climate change are not new concerns, but why do some of us continue to treat it as if they are topics not worth being proactive about? In Chris Van Allsburg’s Just A Dream (1990), Van Allsburg places the readers in the position of the protagonist, Walter, who does not grasp the problem about climate change. Instead of continuously telling Walter he needs to be a responsible individual on this planet, Van Allsburg shows Walter the devastating and unappealing outcomes of humans neglecting to care for the environment. 

Van Allsburg addresses our doubts and the dominant stigma about climate change from Walter’s point of view. Walter is oblivious about climate concerns. We see his irresponsible attitude towards helping the environment when he condescends to the idea of receiving a “tree for a [birthday] present” because it is “some dumb plant” (8). We also see Walter’s laziness in sorting his family’s waste between bottles, cans, and “everything else” when he tosses “everything into one [bin]” (9). Van Allsburg further highlights Walter’s priorities and negligence when the narrator mentions that Walter “[i]s too busy to sort through [the] garbage [because] there was something good on television” to watch instead (9). 

Seeing that Walter is narrow-minded to the importance of being responsible for one’s waste, Van Allsburg takes the readers and Walter to see a hypothetical future in his “dream.” Walter represents the lazy version of people who “[cannot] wait to have […] a robot to take out the trash” in the future (11). To his surprise, he observes “distant mountains of trash and saw half-buried houses” (15) in the hypothetical future he sees in his dream. This future is populated by piles of trash (13-14), deforestation, air pollution, global warming, damage to marine life, and sound pollution instead of robots helping him with his chores (13-14, 17-18, 21-22, 25-26, 29-34). 

Walter gains consciousness in his “dream” and finds himself sitting on his bed that sits on a tree branch. The sound of an electric saw and two woodcutters mumbling to one another about how to cut the tree wakes him. Walter sees an example of significant deforestation when he looks beyond his bed to a forest of trees cut down for a “very important” single-use item, “quality toothpicks” (19). 

Van Allsburg continues to help Walter experience this hypothetical future through a series of different environments affected by climate change. When he breathes in the polluted air into his lungs, Walter notes that “the air [… is] filled with smoke that burn[s] his throat and ma[kes] his eyes itch” (23). He feels overwhelmed when he sees and hears cars, trucks, planes, and other vehicles congesting all paths of traffic as the drivers angrily push their “shrieking horns” (32). Walter’s attention to these details stresses the negative impact of air and sound pollution from vehicles and large businesses. 

In the next part of his journey, Walter notes the extreme temperatures when he visits Hotel Everest and feels his skin freeze (25-26). He sees the effects of the changes in temperature on marine life when he overhears two fishermen acknowledging to one another that the fish they have in their hand is the “second [fish caught that] week” (31). Walter approaches the fishermen and asks why they would “throw the little ones back” (31). This conversation indicates the decline of life in the ocean as the conversation with the fishermen hints there is a scarcity of healthy marine life to consume. The shortage of other-than-human beings is evident in the other environments Walter visits as there is an absence of land animals across barren and perished lands. 

At the end of his journey, Walter awakens in the real world and feels the urge to begin changing his habits to avoid experiencing the “hypothetical” future from his “dream” (44-45). Walter’s first decision to help the environment is to plant a tree for his birthday (46). At the end of the story, we see Walter mowing a vibrant green lawn beside two healthy and fully grown trees with his bed next to them. 

Throughout Walter’s dream, we travel with Walter to each fear for the environment. The narrator repeatedly notes Walter’s choice to continue sleeping and to return to his sleep after each visit to each location. Walter’s repetitive choice to sleep reflects his negligence as a representation of our abandonment to be responsible for our consumption that negatively affects our environment. When Walter begins to take charge, we see him act on his hope for a clean and healthy future. Walter’s choice to give back to the planet is reflected in the last scene when we see his bed next to the trees as he mows a healthy green lawn. This parallels the first scene of his “dream” and suggests that this optimistic version of the future could be a dream, but it could also be Walter’s real future. 

Van Allsburg’s intent with this story, presented in the form of a children’s book, is to show the readers of all ages that there is hope for a brighter future no matter how devastating our current situation may appear to be. In a way, we take a seat next to Walter as Van Allsburg, our Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, shows us what will happen to our planet and our future lifestyles if each of us neglects to be proactive about giving back to the environment. Van Allsburg’s use of simple drawings and minimal text further elaborates on the simplicity of the solution to help the environment recover from our consumption is straightforward but requires each of us to dig up our courage and will to try our best to clean up after ourselves. 

If we invest our efforts, just like Walter, to try our best to make small improvements along the way from separating trash for recycling and planting a tree to support other-than-human beings, we can try our best to create a habitable and healthy future for generations to truly live in. 

What will you do next?

Works Cited:

Van Allsburg, Chris. Just A Dream. Boston, Massachursetts, Houghton Mifflin Harcurt (HMH) Books for Young Readers, (1990).

Images: 

1. Front Cover of Just A Dream by Chris Van Allsburg via https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/just-a-dream-25th-anniversary-edition

2. “Green Trees Near Gray Wall” by open_photos_js via Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/7fQ6UXXFgfM

3. “Green Grass” by sorinpopa via Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/revlI-e170U.

4. “Brown Statue on Ground” by invisibledragon via Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/rbszNQ-4QQo.