By Dwayne Flinchum
We read troubling reports these days about climate change, the war in Ukraine, COVID-19 variants, the increase in violent crime, and our ever-concerning mental health crisis — and for good reason. Our challenges are real, urgent, global and local. Along with the risks of severe weather — fires, floods, and droughts — food insecurity, public health concerns, and political and social strife, there are plenty of reasons to simply turn away from the news.
I read a lot about these issues and some, granted, are looming as catastrophic threats to humanity. I work to understand how we can turn missions of science into movements for change. That’s my job as the president of ScientificBrands.
But through the proliferation of ominous reports and breaking news, we can easily lose sight of the possibilities. If we look past the headlines the future does, in fact, look bright. Here are five reasons why I think the global outlook is promising.
1. Our Young People: Stewards to a New World
The Greatest Generation may have lived through the Depression and World War II, but the potential of young people today has yet to be realized. Our younger generation — Gen Y (Millennials) and Gen Z — have grown up with a deepening climate crisis, political turmoil, racial injustices and social unrest, economic uncertainty, and most recently a global pandemic and the threat of escalating wars.
Despite the increase in data that point to a national mental health crisis for many young people, there are many Millennials and Gen Zers that are focused and determined to discover and innovate solutions to create lasting change. Forged in complexity and new societal challenges, they are grounded in long-term sustainability, not fear.
By 2028, Millennials and Gen Z will dominate US elections. According to a Pew Research survey, among Americans ages 13 and older, Gen Zers are very similar to Millennials: progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations. Embracing other countries and cultures in an increasingly interconnected world is both compassionate and wise.
And, according to The New York Times, a growing cadre of young people are undaunted and actually fighting climate doomism, the notion that it’s too late to turn things around. They believe that focusing solely on terrible climate news can sow dread and paralysis, foster inaction and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our young people are proactively taking ownership of their future on this planet, and they are determined to find answers.
2. Coronavirus Trending Toward Endemic Status
As the U.S. is on the brink of crossing one million lives lost to the pandemic, there is at least a silver lining: in highly vaccinated countries, the link between new cases and deaths appears to be much weaker, if not entirely broken.
As reported in The Lancet in February 2022, “COVID-19 is becoming an endemic disease that will always be with us. Endemic does not necessarily mean mild, but there are signs that with high levels of population immunity, the severity of COVID-19 becomes closer to that of seasonal influenza, after accounting for patient age and underlying conditions.”
There are several factors that go into a pathogen becoming endemic, including the susceptibility of a population, behavioral changes that affect transmission and whether the pathogen itself is changing. Epidemiologists and public health officials do not always agree on what “endemic” means. For a disease to become endemic, it must reach a state where it is stabilized, and not causing outbreaks. Rather, it continues to circulate to cause individual cases. This has historically required a transitional process that occurs over a long period of time, and it depends on many things.
According to Jodie Guest, an epidemiologist at Emory University, one measure of the severity of the virus is death rates. “If we see fewer than 100 COVID-19 deaths a day nationwide, according to Guest, the virus has reached the endemic phase,” says Guest.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, in a report issued April 26, signs of past infection rose dramatically between December and February, when the more contagious omicron variant surged through the U.S. For Americans of all ages, about 34% had signs of prior infection in December. Just two months later, 58% did.
Officially, the pandemic will be over when the World Health Organization declares that it is over. According to epidemiologist Charlotte Baker at Virginia Tech, “Once that’s decided at a special meeting, some countries could still be stuck in epidemic status while others may skip right into endemic.”
3. Innovations to Combat Climate Change
Doomsday articles about climate change are having their day — which is great for public awareness and education. But it leaves one with the sense that we’re unable to meet the enormous challenges ahead of us. That would have been true a dozen years ago. Making the transformation to carbon-neutral energy would have been too expensive and impractical. Today, however, wind power is 72 percent cheaper and solar power is 90 percent cheaper than in 2009. Now, officials say it’s actually well within reach. “We have the knowledge and the technology to get this done,” said Inger Anderson, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
Coal use is on a steep decline. Since 2010, coal burning in developing countries like India and China has been reduced or leveled off and it has plummeted in wealthier nations like the US and UK. What is replacing coal? Because of efficiency and costs, it’s a broad adoption of renewable energy resources, like solar — 25 times more is produced today, and wind — five times more produced today — than in 2010.
We have been replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LED lights that are 10 times more efficient. New rules issued in April 2022 will begin phasing out older bulbs in 2023. Research is driving solutions for low-carbon production of cement, electronics, and steel. In transportation, electric vehicles are becoming more advanced and can travel further on one battery charge. To support broad use, the Biden Administration recently announced a $5 billion plan to grow the network of charging stations to 500,000. In the global transfer of cargo, new policies have been adopted since 2010 and large ships now travel at half speed to save fuel.
The airline industry is also investing in new technology. Electric passenger planes are in development by companies like Eviation, with new models possibly in service by 2024. Separately, Airbus A380, a behemoth of the skies, recently completed a trial flight with an engine powered by sustainable aviation fuel — cooking oil and waste fats. Companies like Lift Aircraft, Joby Aviation, and Beta Technologies have developed small electric vehicles that can take off and land without a runway. Joby Aviation received a $400 million investment from Toyota. Beta’s board is loaded with innovators in finance and tech and has $400 million in funding from the government and private industry, including Amazon.
Most climate experts agree that carbon capturing technologies will be important to meet net-zero CO2 emissions. In a bill passed in 2021, $12 billion was allocated to fund research to achieve carbon sequestration, a process that removes CO2 emissions from high-polluting sources like industrial facilities or power plants. Currently, the cost to remove one ton of CO2 from the atmosphere is about $600, a price that is expected to dramatically decrease as technology improves.
For the first time, emissions in some countries are falling dramatically while GDP is increasing. The U.S. is lagging behind EU countries in the reduction of carbon emissions and there is much work to be done. But in the last decade the U.S. reduced emissions by 4 percent, and saw a growth in GDP of 26 percent — showing that sustainability can be very profitable. This same trend of significant GDP growth occurring during periods of lower carbon emissions has been achieved on a more dramatic scale by several EU countries.
So, in the last 20 years we have made progress in research and development, and in practical applications — and this was accomplished in the face of lobbying and misinformation promoted by the fossil fuel industry, and without investment or supportive government policies. Imagine how much we can accomplish when we align and focus the efforts of our nation and other countries in this mission.
4. Greater Diversity Driving U.S. Economic Growth
The latest Census data from 2020 depicts a nation exploding in racial diversity. One category, the “multiple race” or multiracial population, grew considerably since 2010. It was measured at 9 million people in 2010 and is now 33.8 million people in 2020, a 276% increase. The Hispanic or Latino population grew 23%.
While the U.S. population grew by a modest 7.4 percent during the past decade to 331.4 million in April 2020, diverse racial and multiracial groups now account for 139.8 million people, and represent 42.2 percent of the U.S. population compared to 36.3 percent in 2010 and 30.5 percent in 2000.
The growth in diversity is especially prevalent in young people, those under 18 years of age. In fact, 25 percent of Gen Zers are Hispanic, 14 percent are Black, six percent are Asian and five percent are some other race or two or more races,” adding up to 50 percent of the population. America is growing progressively into a robust nation of rich cultures, customs, and languages.
Why is this important? For one reason, according to studies conducted by McKinsey & Company, companies with more ethnic and cultural diversity in their leadership outperformed those with less diverse leadership by 36 percent in profitability. According to the Harvard Business Review, when managers and scholars talk about diversity’s impact on organizations and teams, they’re usually referring to the effects on collective accuracy, objectivity, and analytical thinking. In fact, the largest and most successful tech companies were founded by first or second-generation immigrants, including Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Oracle, Uber, SpaceX, and Airbnb, to name a few.
Beyond entrepreneurism and executive leadership, immigrants fuel economic growth in the U.S. They do not displace American workers; rather, they fill many labor gaps. Data show that immigrants are more mobile than their native peers, and able and willing to relocate to fill in labor market shortages. They contribute at high rates and make up more than one-third of the workforce in certain industries, including home healthcare, hotel work, farming, fishing and forestry — all important to local economies and community growth. In doing so they bolster Social Security and Medicare trust funds. And children of immigrants are more likely to be upwardly-mobile, promising future benefits not only to their families, but to the U.S. economy.
Culturally-diverse societies thrive through the introduction of new art forms, customs and rituals that are specific to different heritages. Black, Latinx, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Indigenous and multiracial Americans, along with other groups, are continually infusing new ideas in to the nation’s landscape of arts and intellectual pursuits. In a Pew Research survey, 64 percent of Americans believe that racial and ethnic diversity has had a positive effect on our country’s culture.
Genetic diversity is also a good thing, scientifically. Studies have demonstrated that genetic diversity in any species helps build adaptability, improves the physical health and resilience of a population, and supports resistance against infectious diseases and other environmental stresses.
5. Human Ingenuity and the Will to Adapt
There is no denying the power of free will and the immeasurable potential of the human spirit. Throughout recorded history, we see examples that demonstrate how we have ultimately overcome the obstacles that have been cast before us. Today, the spirit of discovery and innovation is flourishing in science and technology. We are living at an incredibly exciting time — a revolution of accelerated advancements of human knowledge and understanding.
The James Webb Space telescope is currently at its observing spot, and is in the process of deploying, calibrating and testing. It is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever launched, capable of observing the earliest stars and peering farther into our universe’s past than ever before. Sometime this summer, images of the earliest origins of our universe will begin being transmitted for scientific observation and analysis.
Beyond the mysteries of the universe, scientists have just finished mapping the entire human genome. It will take time for progress in the way of new discoveries to be gleaned from this work, but this breakthrough is important. It will offer insights into human development, the process of aging, and help scientists understand diseases like cancer, not to mention human evolution and diversity.
In the first weeks of 2020, as the entire world stood suspended, seeking to understand a strange new virus that was taking lives at a staggering pace, researchers began work encoding the spike of the COVID-19 virus in mRNA molecules. When the shots were given, recipients’ cells responded by producing proteins that resembled coronavirus spikes. Those proteins trained the body to attack the coronavirus. Within one year after the first illnesses were reported in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, the first inoculation was given to Sandra Lindsey, an ICU nurse, in New York City. The mRNA vaccine was manufactured and distributed in an astonishing span of time. To date, over 11.5 billion doses have been administered.
In the face of so many threats being presented to our race in 2022, human ingenuity is undeniably our greatest asset. If that sounds a little poetic, one only need study the greatest technological and medical breakthroughs of the past century in order to see evidence of the driving force of curiosity that propels us forward in the pursuit of truth and answers.
Even in the darkest moments of our continuing evolution, we somehow manage to meet the demands of these, our greatest crises, delivering yet unimagined and inspiring breakthroughs to ensure that a flourishing civilization continues.