There are a lot of important lessons that Americans should glean from the mostly awful year that will soon and mercifully come to an end – some of them quite sobering.
We must recognize, for instance, that we still have many miles to travel in conquering the nation’s original sin of racism and that the ground on which our democracy rests is not as rock-solid as we long assumed.
And then there’s the painful reminder that mass willful self-deception — in which millions of humans are driven by fear and mistaken perceptions of self-interest to believe and repeat demonstrable lies — must still be combated at every turn.
Happily, however, we’ve also received some more hopeful lessons, most notably about the power of truth and love and coming together as a community. Indeed, there’s an extremely encouraging lesson from this latter realm that may well be the most important that 2020 has to teach us.
As is being made clear right now in thousands of locations across the United States by the near-miraculous deployment of the coronavirus vaccine, humans still have the capacity to rapidly solve existential problems that confront the planet. Just a few months ago, such a wondrous outcome seemed wildly optimistic, if not downright fanciful. Many observers were worried that a safe and effective vaccine might be years away, or perhaps even beyond the capacity of our scientists to develop at any point.
Today, however, as you read this, millions of safe and effective vaccine doses are being administered pursuant to rational and humane public policies that target priority populations, like health care workers and vulnerable people at risk of severe illness.
And while we are a very long way from being out of the woods – which only mass inoculations for billions of humans will ultimately make possible – it’s clear that by harnessing and coordinating the best of our public and private institutions, we’ve put ourselves on the path to overcoming the pandemic, saving millions of lives, and rebuilding the global economy.
As amazing as the vaccine accomplishment is, however, the fact that society has pulled of such a feat should not have come as a total surprise. Here in the United States, this kind of intentional public-private action has been responsible for taming any number of deadly diseases in the past – not to mention defeating the scourge of Fascism during World War II and landing humans on the moon during an era of stopwatches and room-size computers with less power than modern fitness trackers.
And it is such action on a much more massive and sustained scale that is now essential for humanity to successfully cope with and surmount its greatest current challenge: the increasingly dire climate emergency that envelops the planet.
Dreadful as the pandemic has been, its impacts will pale in comparison to the disastrous consequences that climate change will produce if we do not get it under control by rapidly and dramatically reducing our use of fossil fuels.
Thankfully, there are at least some indications that we can still pull off this amazing achievement as well. As former Vice President Al Gore explained in a recent New York Times editorial entitled “Where I Find Hope,” “scientists, engineers and business leaders are making use of stunning advances in technology to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels far sooner than was hoped possible.”
In particular, Gore highlights the encouraging fact that precipitous drops in the cost of solar and wind energy are allowing for their increasingly rapid spread, even as fossil fuel producers are writing down the value of their oil and gas assets by huge amounts.
This is clearly a movement that public institutions must abet with all the means at their disposal, including: a) immediately ending all direct subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, b) properly accounting for the existing indirect subsidies (such as the vast sums spent on cleaning up and addressing the environmental and health effects of carbon pollution), and c) entering into direct public-private partnerships with renewable energy producers to promote and expand their competitive advantage in the marketplace.
As the United States and numerous other Western governments have acknowledged during other existential crises in the past – wars, depressions, natural disasters, pandemics – times like the present and issues like the climate emergency are not ones on which we should lose much sleep over government interference in the capitalist economy. Indeed, when it comes to energy production, now is one of those exceptional moments in which government should be in the business of picking the winning and losing sectors.
As has been the case with developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, there’s simply no time to waste.