Alex Trachsell, Staff Writer

Photo source: The Economist

Many people have been eager to leave 2020 behind and have celebrated the new year as a fresh start. In accordance, brazen declarations such as “Here’s to 2021 being better than 2020!” or “The new year couldn’t have come quickly enough!” have flooded social and even news media. People are clearly eager to distance themselves from 2020’s most unpleasant events, including COVID-19, environmental disasters such as bushfires and locust swarms, and social unrest from India to the United States. This is an understandable, but flawed, response.

Firstly, none of 2020’s tragedies were caused by our calendars reading “2020” instead of “2019” or “2021” (with the possible exception of Adobe Flash Player’s death, depending on when exactly it’s considered to have died). Thus, the hope that 2021 will be an improvement just because it isn’t 2020 will only let us down. 

The more insidious side of this mentality is its implication that nothing can be done to make 2021 better than 2020, since all we have is “hope”. This is a disastrous thought process since, not only do we have the ability to make 2021 better, but most of 2020’s worst moments were man made. For example, Scientific American reports that “more than half of the acres burned [in natural fires] each year in the western United States can be attributed to climate change” (Miller, et al). 

By speaking of nothing but hope, we convince ourselves that the unpleasant ramifications of our actions are actually out of our control—a rather comfy way of wiggling out of the internal conflict of wanting to buy environmentally-unfriendly cheap clothes shipped from the other side of the planet while also claiming that we have no hand in the California forest fires. Along these lines, environmentalist Derrick Jensen argues that we must give up hope because doing so frees us from complacency. Without hope of things getting better on their own, we incentivize ourselves to take action to improve our situation.

Even “unlucky” events such as COVID-19 were exacerbated by manmade failures. For example, it was our fault that the long-term care (LTC) system, specifically in Ontario, became critically underfunded (Liu, et al). Much of this funding would have gone to paying the wages of LTC workers. In its absence, workers have had to take multiple jobs to compensate for their decreasing wages. Therefore, when the pandemic began, it was our policy decisions which caused LTC workers to travel from LTC facility to facility, spreading the virus to the most susceptible demographic. These decisions resulted in a tremendous loss of life with 12% of all Canadian COVID-19 cases and 75% of deaths coming from LTC and retirement homes, according to the Canadian government (“Long-Term Care Homes COVID-19”).

On the other hand, our heavily globalized economic system (which relies on long supply chains to produce and sell products), facilitated the spread of the economic impacts of COVID-19. For example, The Economist explains how many of the materials used in manufacturing clothing are created in China, the clothes themselves are then stitched in Bangladesh, and then shipped to the west to be sold (“Will covid kill globalisation?”). Thus, when COVID-19 forced Chinese factories to close, the entire global fashion industry was hit. This trend was mirrored in most industries, which is helping turn the pandemic into a global economic crisis.

Fortunately, the fact that human activity has caused much of 2020’s worst moments means that we don’t have to hope that our luck turns around in 2021—we can turn it around ourselves. Politicians/voters can change their priorities to decrease our contribution to climate change, and businesses can increase their valuation of less fragile, shorter (and thus less environmentally harmful) supply chains. For example, The Economist’s video proposes a different model they call “regionalisation,” in which businesses try to find where they can achieve the lowest production costs within the region in which they plan to sell their product, rather than globally. To illustrate this concept, clothing brand Zara manufactures its products in Turkey and northern Africa and then sells closeby in western Europe. 

Finally, it is needless to say that the social unrest which dominated much of 2020’s political atmosphere is also human-made and human-treatable. With greater empathy, perhaps we could better understand those with which we seem to have such extreme political differences. Overall, better luck in 2021 would be nice in all of these circumstances, but focusing on this sentiment hides our ability to actively make the changes we would rather see luck deliver to us.

Photo source: ChunkyChewbacca

These problems could seem overwhelming, especially since their solutions are often highly technical and complex. In fact, this may be another reason why we are so prone to engaging in a passive hope that things will get better, rather than an active one (a hope to”) that is derived from our own abilities to improve our situation (Homer-Dixon). Simply put, it’s easier to hope that others will solve the world’s problems. Additionally, one may argue that, although humanity does have the ability to overcome these obstacles, us as individuals have little power to enact our wills.

Although these concerns of powerlessness may have some credence, we as students must consider how much we value trying to contribute to the solutions rather than the problems. If being a part of the solution is something you value, consider whether you could be a part of the solution in the field you’re going into—try to give yourself the ability to actively hope (note: this type of hope entails action on your part). If this is something we fail to consider, we may find ourselves in situations where all we can do is passively (and thereby fruitlessly) hope for others to possibly carry out the changes we wish to see.

On the whole, we should acknowledge that humanity has the tools needed to make 2021 better and have faith in that. “Hoping for” our situation to improve will leave us disappointed, but recognising our abilities to improve our situation should give us “hope to” take action, and if we do, there is little reason why we should fail (Homer-Dixon 2020). Although it may seem that passively hoping is all we can do as individuals, we should recognise that our privileged position as students,with much of our lives ahead of us, means that now is our greatest opportunity to position ourselves where we can be a part of the solution, thereby giving us the power to actively hope to create a better world.
This article drew inspiration from Thomas Homer-Dixon’s article The world seems dire. But we must not give up on hope, suggested to me by my associate editor, Elaine Zhou.

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