A spent year expires, and so does its four-digit quip. Those who mumbled “2020” as their exasperated commentary on the year’s parade of horribles, oddities and bad breaks now must find a new wisecrack.
Yes, 2020 brought terrible frustrations, some of them lethal. We’ve written about them at great length, often to share compassion and condolence with those who’ve suffered incalculable losses. More than 325,000 deaths in the United States were COVID-19-related this year. Loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes struggled with illnesses often alone. Business owners and hospitality workers suffered many sleepless nights, worried about their livelihoods, their families, their responsibilities.
But a new year is upon us. Let us allow a sliver of optimism to carry us into 2021, a year that deserves its own chance — and perspective. Because whatever challenges it has in store, this moment in history can still be embraced as a best time to be alive.
Believe in solutions. They exist.
Consider the elemental variable in our lives: the length of time each of us gets to spend on the green side of the grass. Our forebears would be astonished to learn that average human life spans have grown from 30 years to 80, give or take, in dozens of countries — with most of that extension coming just since 1900. Every reason we live longer today, from cleaner food and the invention of antibiotics to sewage treatment and cleaner air, grew from relentless human determination to extend an already long arc of improvements. And the greater that determination in the future, the greater the gains.
If you’re expecting us to cite the astonishingly rapid development of vaccines to inoculate billions of people against a potentially deadly virus, wait no longer. But put that singular achievement into the broader context of medical research. Newspapers just in recent years have reported many other advances — against Ebola, against cystic fibrosis, against hepatitis C and more — that lengthen lives and ease human suffering.
And that is why criticism aimed at the pharmaceutical industry, for example, must be weighed against the advancements toward a healthier world. Because for every safe and effective new vaccine, treatment or cure, costly research on other possible drugs brings zero return on investment. None of us should wish for an economic system that never rewards expensive risk.
The case for opportunity — and growth
Humanity’s triumphs, be they near-instantaneous like the creation of the coronavirus vaccine or slow like the declining number of people who die in wars, have their own biographer. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, a prolific chronicler of advances in many measurable realms, caught our eye with a provocative 2018 essay in The Wall Street Journal. Biblical assurance to the contrary, Pinker wrote that:
“The poor may not always be with us. The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.”
Closer to home, Pinker wrote, Americans over the last century have become 96 percent less likely to be killed in an auto accident, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 59 percent less likely to fall to their deaths, 92 percent less likely to die by fire, and 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job. He might have added to his list the remarkable reductions in infant mortality, in illiteracy, in cancer deaths and in chronic joblessness. “Life in other rich countries is even safer,” he reported, “and life in poorer countries will get safer as they get richer.”
That is an unimpeachable case for advocating economic opportunity — and growth. In consort with making life safer, rising prosperity has raised billions of the world’s people from poverty.
Note that in not one of those categories has the threat of death, harm or agony been eliminated. But in each category, humans have found ways to balance costs and benefits in order to deliver improvements.
Don’t let bleakness win
One upside of living in 2021 is that so many among us refuse to accept the unrelievedly bleak outlooks that give pessimists a reason to get out of bed. The best explanation we’ve found for the temptation to declare woe-is-us comes from another Harvard prof, social scientist Arthur C. Brooks, writing a year ago in The Washington Post:
“There is a natural human bias toward bad news. The title of a 1998 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sums it up: ‘Negative Information Weighs More Heavily on the Brain.’ Negative stimuli get our attention much more than positive stimuli — which makes evolutionary sense for survival. Nice things are enjoyable; bad things can be deadly, so focus on them. And given that, in the news media, attention equals money, we can see the commercial reason for a lack of headlines such as ‘Millions not going to bed hungry tonight.’ ”
Focusing only on life’s negatrons robs people of hope. It misleads us to think that we cannot continue to find solutions to the challenges of our planet, our nation, our state, our communities.
The year 2020 fostered that sort of fatalism. But it’s inaccurate. Brooks again: “The world is not getting worse; it is getting indisputably better for most countries and most people. Billions of our brothers and sisters are freer, healthier and more prosperous than they would ever have been in human history.”
That ought to give all of us tremendous encouragement to conquer similarly tremendous challenges. Among them: While fossil fuels have vastly improved living standards worldwide, we require some combination of restraint, conservation and new technology to confront a warming climate.
Here at the Tribune Editorial Board we’ll spend 2021 suggesting tomorrow’s solutions to this and many other problems. We hope you’ll join in those constructive conversations. All of us can proceed with confidence in our collective potential. For all of our failings and problems, this is the best time ever to be alive.
— CHICAGO TRIBUNE