Uncle Sam, 2020, bad year
2020: The year that never ends. Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / WhoWhatWhy (CC BY-SA 2.0) See complete attribution below.

Summertime and the Living’s Uneasy

Plague and Conflict to be Followed by Extreme Weather and Politics

In the “best of times, worst of times” tradition, an analysis of what’s to come in 2020.

At the halfway point, 2020 is shaping up as potentially the worst year for Planet Earth since an asteroid strike (inexplicably not shared on social media) wiped out the dinosaurs and 75 percent of all other creatures. What else could go wrong? Surely, some things could go right.

The coronavirus has already killed a half million people worldwide. Although many countries have managed to limit its spread, the US is mourning nearly 130,000 victims. The pandemic has been a slow-motion catastrophe, with a potential vaccine many months — and perhaps years — away. 

And the worst could be yet to come if advice from health experts is disregarded — as has occurred in the US — and especially if a renewed surge of infections breaks out at the start of the annual flu season.

In the US, the number of unemployed Americans — 43 million — is still three times larger than the worst of the Great Depression. The federal government’s stimulus program of grants, loans, and unemployment benefits, intended to prevent a total collapse, has already cost $2.4 trillion, a number so large as to lose all meaning.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, and subsequent police shootings of Black men and women in other states, launched nationwide protests, some violent, as many thousands of people took to the streets.

They were the largest civil rights demonstrations since 1967 — when, after the arrest and beating of a Black cab driver by police, riots ended in the deaths of 43 people in Detroit and 26 in Newark, NJ. The presidential Kerner Commission, appointed to study the root causes of that turmoil, placed responsibility squarely on white Americans for creating or condoning bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally and structurally embedded forms of racial discrimination. Straight talk that produced little action.

Is It 1968 All Over Again?

But the events of 2020 have triggered what appears to be a sea change in American attitudes about systemic racism and social injustice. Although racism persists in many quarters, those who have relied primarily on platitudes are now taking real action. Cities and states are passing new laws to reform police departments. Civil War monuments to soldiers who defended slavery are coming down, and much of corporate America is speaking out, not just with empty words, but also with new policies and hefty donations to social causes. Even the National Football League apologized for not respecting the opinions of its Black players, while squirming at the lack of diversity in its top coaching ranks. 

And we’re only half done. Consider other threats looming on the horizon — some literally.

    • With the Atlantic hurricane season just starting, forecasters predict an above-average 13 to 19 named storms and hurricanes will hit the US this year. That is, unless the giant dust storms nicknamed “Godzilla” and just arriving in the Americas from Africa reduce the incidence of extreme weather events.
    • Thanks to climate change, 2020 could be the hottest year ever recorded. Warmer oceans also mean that hurricanes and their typhoon cousins in the Pacific are likely to be more powerful than ever. 
    • Also due to changing weather patterns and human negligence, much of the world is burning up. A horrific Australian bushfire season finally petered out in February, but not before blackening 26 million acres (roughly the size of South Korea). A regional heat wave has triggered raging wildfires in Siberia, even north of the Arctic Circle, where one Russian town just posted a record daytime high of 100 degrees. In the Amazon rainforest, deliberately set (and illegal) fires to clear land for planting will begin with the dry season next month, and one report estimates that 1,740 square miles have already been prepped for burning — another chapter in the deforestation of an irreplaceable global resource. Arizona is struggling to contain brush fires that have torched almost 400,000 acres, and as summer temperatures rise, firefighters in other western states know that a random lightning bolt or carelessly tossed cigarette will soon call them to the front lines.
    • California residents, also still recovering from wildfires, wake up every morning wondering if this will be the day the “big one” hits. The state’s last major earthquakes were in 1989 (63 people dead in the Bay Area), and 1994 in the Los Angeles area (around 60 deaths and 9,000-plus injuries), both causing billions of dollars in damage. Geologists say it’s when, not if, the state’s next big quake will send grandma’s china knickknacks jumping off the mantelpiece before getting down to serious destruction. Earthquakes, most relatively small, can occur in many parts of the world, but the “ring of fire” around the Pacific is especially wobbly. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake in 2011 centered 80 miles east of Japan triggered a tsunami that killed around 20,000 people, destroyed a nuclear power plant, and left coastal areas either covered in rubble or seemingly scoured off the face of the earth.
    • Could another big hit from an asteroid (or, for variety, a comet) cause an extinction-level disaster for our planet? Yes. When? No idea. Will we see it coming? Maybe. Can we do anything to prevent it? Probably not. The only good news is that it’s occurred only once in the past 66 million years, so the odds of it happening again this year are vanishingly small. But as mathematicians like to say, “It’s not a non-zero probability.”

Despite these past, current, and future threats, there’s one incontrovertible fact: Humanity has survived.

True, the pandemic has wreaked enormous damage in the US: the staggering and still growing death toll, a crippled economy, and even more political nastiness, if such a thing is possible. Despite more positive outlooks in many countries — including China, the presumed source of the virus — in developing countries, famine is on the march, although so far the social fabric appears to be holding. 

But to add some small perspective, consider the halfway mark of 1945, 75 years ago. The US dropped two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, impossible to quantify due to the ensuing chaos, but finally ending a global conflict that extended over six years. More than 85 million people died in World War II — 15 million in battle, 25 million wounded in battle, and 25 million civilians, including 6 million Jews. No war since then has been so costly, in either dollars or lives, and no nation has since detonated a nuclear weapon, though they still lurk in submarines and missile silos.

And back in the 14th century, the Black Death — bubonic plague, spread by rats — killed at least 50 million people — almost two-thirds of Europe’s population. It was another 400 years before the Age of Enlightenment finally started to advance the human cause. 

We can hope to learn many lessons from the tumultuous events of 2020. Black lives matter. Justice matters. Facts matter. Health experts matter. Tweets or trolling by the ignorant, misinformed, or gullible, or spin from elected “leaders” who care more about tomorrow’s votes than today’s lives, have finally met their match. 

One outcome should be greater humility — recognition that despite marvelous advances in science and medicine, a microscopic virus can turn the world upside down. Hopefully, that will teach us to fear and prepare for — instead of sneer at — the next global threat, whatever it may be.

And lack of preparation has brought us to the final and touchiest subject — US politics. The current level of discourse resembles a playground conversation among 5-year-olds whose naps are long overdue, but there is hope. We elected Donald Trump almost four years ago with many voters in denial about his character and priorities. Today — love him or hate him — there is no room for doubt. So in November, unless the Electoral College produces a dead heat (and wouldn’t that be fun?) there will be clear-cut direction from voters for the next four years: more of the same from Trump, or pretty much the exact opposite, with Joe Biden measuring the oval office windows for new drapes.

But then… a new year arrives! That means those of us lucky enough to have survived death and disaster can look ahead to more adventures in 2021. I can hardly wait.

The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Uncle Sam face (Carol M. Highsmith Archive / Library of Congress), Uncle Sam body (Rich Anderson / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), grave (Jo Naylor / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Trump sign (Tara James / Flickr), Biden sign (Biden store), asteroid  (NASA / Wikimedia), ufo (Peter-Lomas / Pixabay), tornado (Daphne Zaras / Wikimedia), clouds lightning (David Russell / Flickr), COVID-19 (Yuri Samoilov / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), and Nathan Bedford Forrest statue (Rob Shenk / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0).

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Tom Barnick / Public Domain Pictures and Kenneth Spencer / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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