Hope for the New Year: Four Positive Things About Crises

Hope for the New Year: Four Positive Things You Probably Don’t Know About the Current Crisis

Well, we’ve finally left 2020 behind! However, with the pandemic still raging and politicians taking lies and destructive behavior to new levels, the immediate future is looking tough. Plus, humanity in general is facing a number of civilization-threatening problems that, so far, we haven’t done a very good job of addressing. Given these realities, it’s easy to fall back into anxiety and depression despite the promise of a new year.

However, there are a number of reasons to feel quite optimistic about our future (especially after we get through the current crisis). For one thing, some of the crazy, disheartening behavior going on around us has happened many times before in history; seeing it in context makes it a little less scary. For another thing, there are good reasons to believe our larger, global problems will, in fact, be solved in the coming years.

Here are a couple of specific reasons to be hopeful as we move into 2021.

1. Progress doesn’t slow down during crises—even during worldwide depressions and pandemics. Solutions to our problems are in the works.

It’s understandable that people would worry about positive change grinding to a halt during a worldwide crisis, but that’s not what has happened in the past, and there’s good reason to believe it’s not going to happen this time, either.

For example, during the Black Plague in Europe in the mid 17th century, Isaac Newton retreated to a country villa to avoid being infected. The two years he spent there allowed him to make huge progress in developing his ideas and conducting experiments that altered our understanding of how the world works. Among other things, he began developing what would become calculus and analytical geometry, and he began developing his theory of gravity and how it tied the universe together. His ideas and experimental work made possible much of the scientific and technological progress that’s shaped our modern world.

It’s certainly true that Newton was on this path before this period of enforced isolation, and he continued to develop these ideas over the rest of his life. But having this time to focus exclusively on his work gave him the opportunity to make rapid progress that he would not otherwise have had.

Crises can also force new technological and scientific advances. World War II triggered the development of numerous technologies, including radar and alternating frequency transmission, which is the basis for much of modern communication technology (co-invented by the intellectually brilliant Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr!). The first computer was developed in the U.K. by Alan Turing to help break the German code that allowed the Nazis to communicate; Turing’s early computer is estimated to have shortened the war by two years and saved 14 million lives. It’s almost certain that modern computers wouldn’t have appeared — at least not for many years — without his work.

In fact, the continuation of scientific progress despite world crises appears to be a provable fact. You may not be familiar with Ray Kurzweil, but he’s had a profound effect on our society. He’s an inventor and futurist (among other things), who’s been honored by three presidents. He may be best known to musicians for his invention of the first synthesizers that duplicated the actual sounds of real instruments, but he’s also contributed to speech recognition software, text-to-speech synthesis and the field of artificial intelligence, and he designed many familiar technologies that we rely upon today. He’s considered one of the great American inventors, alongside others such as Thomas Edison.

He’s also done fascinating work relating to the advance of science over the course of history. I had the good fortune to hear him speak at a conference a few years back, where he described his work in this area. He’s shown quite convincingly that scientific progress is happening along a geometric curve, rather than a straight line. This means that instead of progressing a roughly equal amount every year, the amount of progress occurring is increasing exponentially every year. This is similar to Moore’s law in computing, which states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years, increasing computing speed accordingly. (This exponential increase in scientific progress has some staggering ramifications, but that’s a topic for another discussion.)

I mention Kurzweil’s work here because of one particular detail that showed up in the data he used to construct his graph of scientific progress. The detail in question was this: No matter what happened in history, the curve didn’t change; progress didn’t slow down. Depressions, wars, pandemics, societies collapsing — none of this altered the curve. Scientific progress has always continued to increase exponentially.

What this means is that despite the pain, suffering and death that may accompany a crisis, our world is on a trajectory toward greater understanding and more advanced technology that refuses to falter. That trajectory has continued, no matter what. So, no matter how dire things seem, civilization isn’t going to grind to a halt.

This should give us all reason to be hopeful right now. Almost everyone understands that we’re facing enormous problems that threaten our survival as a species. But real solutions to those problems are in the works. For example:

• It used to take years to develop a vaccine to create immunity to a disease. This time around, thanks to advances in our understanding of genetics, it took a matter of months.

• Finding sources of energy to support a growing world population without pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has been problematic. Obviously, energy sources such as solar and wind are a step in the right direction, but they may not be sufficient. What wouldbe sufficient is nuclear fusion.

Current nuclear power is generated via nuclear fission, which is dangerous for a host of reasons, including the radioactive waste it produces. Nuclear fusion has almost none of the risks or drawbacks associated with nuclear fission, and it can produce almost limitless energy. The only reason we’re not using it already is that it’s much harder to accomplish.

But guess what? We’ll probably have nuclear fusion reactors within a few years. That will change everything.

• Ending the pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere won’t be sufficient to stop global warming, because we’ve already got a hundred year’s worth of CO2 up there. But multiple technologies have been developed to remove that excess carbon dioxide; right now it’s just a question of which one can be scaled up enough to clean the entire atmosphere.

• New techniques for growing food in almost any location with a fraction of the water currently used are being developed.

• Technologies for getting plastics (micro and macro) out of the ocean are being developed and refined.

• Even individual-level problems, such as diseases associated with aging, are on the verge of real solutions. (A huge development in reversing aging via the epigenome just took place in late 2020.)

As Ray Kurzweil has shown, the progress being made is not going to slow down because of the crises we’re facing. Just the opposite.

2. Individualism waxes and wanes in parallel with stable, prosperous periods and crisis periods (especially in America) — and people resist changing their lifestyle when circumstances shift.

One of the things that makes people anxious during times like these is the unhelpful (to use a kind word) behavior of some people who refuse to accept inconveniences that would help the greater good. Understanding the reasons for their behavior can help reduce our anxiety.

When times are good, Americans tend to strike off on their own and resent restrictions. The idea of “American individualism” surges in popularity. People feel free to do as they please, and the benefits they gain from living in a free, peaceful and prosperous society are taken for granted. In contrast, when a major crisis is happening, people are forced to work together and sacrifice some of their individual needs and desires to support the welfare and viability of the society as a whole.

This doesn’t sit well with those who are accustomed to living as they please in a stable, prosperous time period. For example, Americans were forced to sacrifice for the greater good during the depression, and especially during World War II. (Taxes on the richest Americans rose to almost 90% of their income!) After the war, once peace was secured, the up-and-coming generations (especially the Baby Boomers) didn’t want to continue the previous social conventions and power structures. They saw no reason not to “do their own thing.” But those who lived through the depression and the war were furious that the younger generation didn’t want to focus on towing the line and following the existing social dictates. The result was the so-called “generation gap” of the 1960s. (Meanwhile, as the World War II crisis faded and individuality expanded, taxes on the richest Americans slowly but surely dropped to extremely low levels, where they remain today.)

In 2021, we’re in the midst of another huge, worldwide crisis, where people are being called upon to sacrifice for the greater good. Guess what? Lots of people, who lived through the recent era of individualism, resent being asked to inconvenience themselves for the greater good — even if it threatens the health and survival of their fellow man. They’re accustomed to doing what they want. This is why some people think it’s their right to threaten to kidnap or kill lawmakers rather than wear a mask to reduce the spread of the virus. And this is why some of the very wealthy would rather tear down our democracy than pay more taxes to fix crumbling infrastructure, ensure that everyone has equal access to education and opportunity, and reduce suffering and poverty.

Of course, right now another factor is in play: A foreign enemy is manipulating our social media platforms — aided and abetted by a few mainstream media outlets and conspiracy theorists — encouraging people to resist wearing masks. This literally guarantees the spread of the virus and the creation of a healthcare catastrophe. Why send in troops or drop a bomb when you can coax people to make virus containment next to impossible? It’s what might have happened if social media and the internet had existed during World War II; the Nazis would have been doing everything in their power to convince Americans that contributing to the war effort was an abridgement of their individual rights.

This resistance to sacrifice has always happened in some form as historical periods shift back and forth between stability and crisis. It’s just worse this time around, and more consequential, because a foreign enemy is doing its best to use this trend against us. Let’s face it: Wearing a mask around other people is a mighty small imposition, compared to what people have sacrificed for the greater good during previous crises. But when psychological warfare is being used to whip people into a frenzy, anything can become a rallying point.

It’s worth keeping two things in mind: First, the resistance to adjusting priorities during a crisis eventually dies out. At some point the danger simply becomes too obvious for even the most diehard individualist to continue complaining and refusing to sacrifice for the greater good. Second, this attack by a foreign power is novel; it’s taking advantage of new technology and current weaknesses in our government and society. But every attempt to take down America throughout our country’s history has ultimately failed. It’s unlikely that the outcome this time will be different.

3. A big crisis levels the playing field.

The problems and challenges experienced by most people during stable times don’t necessarily impact the lives of the very wealthy. That creates the opposite of a “level playing field,” because it’s easy for the wealthy to ignore everyone else’s suffering — a position that’s easy to rationalize and thus justify (for example, “If you’re poor, it’s your own fault”).

But a huge crisis breaks down the artificial barriers that extreme wealth allows people to create. A World War puts everyone, rich and poor, at risk. So does a pandemic. So does an ecological collapse. Even an economic collapse eventually impacts the very rich, although it may take a while for them to realize that a true collapse has pulled the rug out from under them. Suddenly, the problems besetting everyone else also become the problems of the very wealthy.

This aspect of a huge crisis is a good thing (whether the rich like it or not) because history clearly shows that when a society develops a huge gap between rich and poor, that society eventually collapses (for example, the Roman Empire). When a huge crisis levels the playing field, the rich eventually realize that they have to share the wealth to some extent, or they will perish. This can result in inequities being resolved before a deeper and more dangerous collapse becomes inevitable. For example, The Great Depression made it obvious that vulnerable populations such as the elderly and the poor needed support and protection from predatory financial practices — or the entire society might collapse. So huge reforms were enacted. The result was the creation of an American middle class and America becoming the most prosperous nation on Earth. Without the crisis, these changes might never have been made.

Our current crisis is doing the same thing. We’ve been through a long period in which things have been relatively stable, and the gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else has grown enormous once again. Not surprisingly, many of the reforms enacted during the Great Depression have slowly been reversed. (The attempt to gut social security is just the latest example.) But the pandemic is once again leveling the playing field. The rich may be able to avoid virus infection (for a while), but if our healthcare system falls apart, then our society as a whole will be in danger. Those who have wealth and privilege will be reminded—as they have been periodically throughout history — that if you don’t look out for everyone else, you’re life will go down the tubes, too.

 4. Things don’t “go back to normal” after a really big crisis.

When the Great Depression began, I’m sure Americans wondered how long it would take to recover and “get back to normal.” But 15 years and a World War later, America—and the world—were completely different. When the Great Recession happened in 2008, people assumed that eventually things would return to the way they were before. (They didn’t, despite efforts by some folks to make it seem as if they did.) When the Trump administration began shattering historical norms, many people waited for his tenure to end, hoping that things could resume being the way they were before, with America an economic powerhouse, pre-eminent in the world. And this year, when the pandemic began, the first thing many people asked was, “When will things return to normal?”

The reality is, huge crises are not random; they happen for specific reasons. The Great Depression was caused by numerous factors, chief among them the ever-widening gap between rich and poor Americans. Pandemics appear because of humans destroying and encroaching on animal habitats, causing diseases to jump from animals to people; they spread because of conditions created by people, such as poor people living in crowded situations with limited sanitation.

Global crises reveal systemic problems and can force changes that become permanent, often improving the lives of millions. But they don’t end with a return to the conditions that existed before the crisis. So, waiting for things to “return to normal” is unrealistic and a waste of time. A crisis is the time to find ways to make a “new normal” that has fewer shortcomings than the previous situation.

Is this a reason to be hopeful? Indeed it is. When people want a “return to normal,” what they’re really longing for is a stable situation and the resolving of the challenges we face during a crisis. Our current challenges will be resolved, and things will become stable once again. But we won’t be returning to “the way things were.” Things will be better. We just have to hang on and “keep the faith” during the rough ride that’s taking us there.

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Of course, as I write this at the dawn of 2021, the current crisis is still unfolding. It’s likely we’ll have to make it through some dark times before things start to get better. But there’s plenty of reason for hope. So, hang in there, and welcome to 2021!