This year has been challenging in many ways for people in every walk of life. It’s been a busy news year to say the least: a global pandemic, a global movement to combat racial inequalities, lockdown after lockdown, an ongoing climate crisis, a US election – you name it, it’s happened.
The stress of it all makes it tempting to say let’s just write this year off. “It doesn’t count,” “I just want to forget it ever happened…” Are phrases I’ve heard many times. But on a social, political and environmental level we cannot afford to do that. 2020 has shown that filling in potholes as they arrive isn’t working anymore. The road needs digging up and resurfacing.
The recent US election was of particular concern to me because the outcome will have a lasting impact on the future of our planet: my political stress was inextricably tied to environmental stress. I know many people felt the anxious helplessness watching the swing state ballot results take what seemed like forever to be counted. Whatever your political stance may be, the fact is that nature is suffering from the unsustainable environment we have created. Denying this, like President Trump has been doing before and since entering office, is only worsening the problem and weakening global cooperation in tackling the issue.
Trump has pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement, a climate accord signed by countries around the globe in order to limit emissions and the increase in global temperatures. Another four years of Trump would give the US free reign when it already has one of the most damaging carbon footprints in the world. The impact of this would be long-lasting considering that the next few years are such a crucial stage in our trajectory to combat climate change. Thankfully Biden recognises that: he has vowed to re-join the Agreement on his first day in office. Climate change policies need to be implemented in all sectors of society and governmental mechanisms in order to achieve long-term sustainability. It’s reassuring to see that Biden is bearing this in mind as he builds his administration with environmentalism as a top priority throughout the different departments and agencies.
Sometimes I say I miss pre-covid life, but this applies to socialising and not wearing a mask whenever I’m not at home – and these in the grand scheme of things are inconsequential. What is not inconsequential is the harsh light the pandemic has shone on the human impact on nature. This is not something we can ignore. One of my favourite aspects of 2020 has been seeing nature regenerating itself and thriving during the national lockdowns. Particularly the dolphins in the canals in Venice – my mother’s hometown – that I have walked down so many times before covid and thought how sad it is that the water is so dirty.
Nature’s regeneration can be seen not just in clearer waters, but in clearer skies too: satellite images during China’s lockdown early in the new year showed the world’s biggest polluter looking very different when human activity was restricted. A similar picture appeared in Italy at the beginning of March after the first few weeks of their lockdown: air pollution levels dropped significantly over industrial regions in the north, particularly nitrogen compounds that derive from the burning of fossil fuels. The drastic reduction of traffic and factory activity is believed to have made CO2 and other polluting emissions 53% less in March this year than in March last year.
It has become abundantly clear that our pre-covid life was not sustainable on a social as well as environmental level: the ongoing racial inequalities and prejudices that still persist in the US (and countless other countries) were another reason the election outcome was so important. Just like in fighting climate change, we all play a role in fighting racism. Just like climate change, racism is by no means a distant threat, but a very current one. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ recent victory presented a victory and source of pride for Black and South Asian communities and shows a step in the right direction towards something governing bodies still sorely lack: representation.
The BLM movement that resurged after the death of George Floyd exposed the harsh reality that still plagues many societies: systemic racism. Sadly, media coverage of the protests too often depicted its violent incidents rather than the coming together of people of every colour to demand change. The movement successfully shined a light on a problem many (mainly white) people were refusing or chose not to see. Social media played a large role in this success, with material circulating widely that tackled historical and social justice matters many were previously unaware of. The French government’s recent security bill that would restrict sharing images and videos of police officers demonstrate an attempt to limit police being held accountable for acts of brutality. The timing of such legislation in the year we have had is astonishing. Disallowing videos of such acts is a blatant attempt to cover up inadequacies in a society that claims to be liberal and socially conscious. The people can’t protest the police force for failings that it doesn’t know about and isn’t allowed to see. It couldn’t seem more hypocritical considering that Macron expressed his shock at a video that emerged a couple of weeks ago of French police beating a black man. Social media has the power to spread awareness, but this is only a short-term solution: educational systems needs to incorporate the ugly colonial histories that Europe is responsible for in order to shape our understanding of the inequalities that continue to form the framework of our society. Whilst schools fail to do their bit it’s up to us to fill in the gaps. I don’t claim to be an expert on either of these topics, but I was recommended Reni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ and David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on Our Planet’ and I would wholeheartedly pass on the recommendation.
Being at home more gives us more time to think and reflect on all that has characterised this rollercoaster of a year. How can we make our impact on the planet one that is respectful rather than scarring? How can we all play a role in making this world more equitable for all people, and not just those who have always been in power? We don’t all have the power of an American president, but we are all responsible for the kind of world we want to live in. Countries are made of people and those people make a country.
These are no easy questions, but when you really think about it, using the extra time that would otherwise be spent commuting, shopping or socialising, can be used to inform and rewire our outlooks and lifestyles.
Changes are in order to fix the problems this year has exposed. But growing up haven’t we all been told that you learn from your mistakes? We can’t let all the pain and cracks that have appeared this year to deepen. Fixing these problems and working towards living more sustainably and respectfully with nature and our fellow humans is the only way we are going to survive as a species. Looking at it this way, 2020 has been one long but important Zoom meeting we cannot put on mute.
Words by Francesca McClimont