the three good things you missed as the world was ending

Yes, it seemed like the world was still falling apart in 2021, but there is still some very good news.
eoy 2021 collage

From new waves of COVID as rabid anti-vaccination activists ensured that the virus would be with us longer and spawn more variants, to an alarming decline in democracy across the world, to bored conspiracy theorists trying to burn down the planet while those in power twiddle their thumbs in anticipation of a glorious utopian tomorrow envisioned by a professional ivory tower bloviator, 2021 was hardly the best year we’ve ever had to put it mildly. With 5.4 million people dead as the pandemic rages on almost certainly a severe undercount, and societies struggling to adjust to a post-industrial, post-consumerist economy with new and more relevant metrics to judge its success, our “rough patch” seems to have no end in sight.

And yet, hidden among the misery have been some pretty damn positive developments for us and the planet. Scientists and engineers working in spite of shortsighted corporate overlords and politicians are slowly but surely making progress towards a greener planet, new safeguards against future pandemics, and opening new frontiers for humanity when we’re finally ready to give up on work for the sake of work in favor of work to improve our lives and the world we’re currently calling home. While the future is still uncertain, and certainly won’t be perfect, it’s still a big deal that we’re currently making the world a better place even with heavy and consistent headwinds. Here are three big, relevant examples.

we’re testing a vaccine against future pandemics

When COVID hit like a runaway freight train, scientists weren’t too surprised. Just a few years prior, they spoke about coronaviruses being the last remaining source of global pandemics like the one we’ve been experiencing for the past two years. Bacteria are still pretty well controlled by antibiotics, and we still have a wide arsenal against them while we create new ones with the help of AI or use highly targeted alternatives for new superbugs. Other infectious families have been with us long enough to grant us natural immunity, mutate slower and often can’t get us sick when then do, and we have a number of effective or at least functional vaccines against them, with enough people regularly inoculated to prevent full blown pandemics.

But coronaviruses are different and carried enough potential to get us seriously sick, with SARS and MERS being warning shots scientists heeded to start working on a vaccine not just against one, but all coronaviruses, targeting their prime infectious structures. Part of that effort went into creating the mRNA vaccines currently holding the line, but the ultimate goal may be here as researchers prepare for a Phase 1 trial of the pan-coronavirus vaccine. This means that not only could we decisively beat back COVID, but a future pandemic like it couldn’t happen again, as the last source for hyper-infectious viruses comes under our control. We’ll still get sick and face new diseases, but we won’t be caught utterly defenseless again.

green energy is winning against fossil fuels

Ask an investor whether they’d rather put their money in renewable energy or oil and gas, and you’ll probably expect a lot of bet-hedging. But amazingly, big money has spoken and it’s lining up trillions of dollars behind green projects. Why? Because thanks to advancements in both reliability and technology, it’s cheaper to invest in solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal projects than to explore and drill for oil and mine coal, even if you fully account for ten figure subsidies fossil fuels are still getting worldwide. And, of course, it’s hard to overlook the positive PR of enormous funds signing checks to make the planet cleaner instead of doubling down on coal, oil, and gas as more and more research reveals their horrific toll on the environment.

Ultimately, betting on renewables makes sense over the long term. Fossil fuels simply cannot and will not be the energy of the future. Even if we set aside concerns about global warming and pollution — which we shouldn’t — there’s still only so far any civilization could advance by relying on burning 300 million year old plants and plankton for power. Politically, it’s easy and lucrative to pay lip service to the status quo and cast yourself as a defender of an industry in trouble, which is why it quickly became the lazy populist’s go to campaign strategy. But moving our energy infrastructure to cleaner sources and training current energy workers for the jobs that will be in high demand as we do, is where the inertia and money already are.

spaceflight is becoming easier and more reliable

Last year, commercial crewed spaceflight finally proved that sending humans in space on shiny new rocket ships built by private enterprise wasn’t a science fiction pipe dream. This year was the year space tourism became boring and routine, with numerous wealthy and famous people flying alongside astronauts into suborbital space and beyond. While this has prompted many a tone policing think piece about the horrors of the wealthy exploring space while the rest of us peons fight for scraps Elysium style, the reality is very different. Having proven that our dreams of space exploration are actually viable and can create a lucrative market, a lot of other ideas to further advance and clean up Earth are suddenly on the table, even asteroid mining.

It takes substantial teams of specialists to keep humans alive in the hostile, radioactive vacuum of space, and we’re reaching into an environment so harsh and alien, it may be easier for us to become cyborgs to keep exploring it. As we keep pushing forward, we’ll have to come up with bold and revolutionary solutions to problems that could never be tackled by incrementalism because if we fail to, we either die or hit a limit we’re desperately trying to exceed. This means cleaner energy, better, more resilient, and disaster-resistant infrastructure, new materials, new medical discoveries and tools, and new jobs that actually improve and advance humanity. And that’s certainly something to cheer.

# science // covid-19 / green energy / space tourism

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