As a new decade dawns, we should embrace a cautious optimism, rooted in facts and belief in human ingenuity.
There are many who believe, as this decade comes to a close, that the world is going to hell in a handcart. The failure to take dramatic action on climate change, the perceived coarsening of public debate, the rise of instantly transmitted fake news and populist movements that rail against experts and facts are all taken as evidence that humanity is in the grip of a downward spiral.
We know you, as readers of New Scientist, share our love of evidence and rational problem-solving. So you probably already know that the facts don’t support this narrative. In fact, by most measures, the world is getting better – for humans at least.
That is largely due to science and technology delivering humanitarian and progressive solutions to problems such as disease, hunger, lack of access to clean water, education and family planning. For most people in most places, life in 2020 will be objectively better than it was in 2010.
At the same time, our knowledge of the universe and our place in it has continued to grow. In the world of scientific research, we have seen a constant stream of exciting and transformative discoveries in the decade that is now ending, from the first direct picture of a black hole to new revelations about humanity’s origins and ancestry (see “New Scientist counts down the top 10 discoveries of the decade“).
Scientists also have a new understanding of how our planet works as a living whole, of what rewilding parts of it really takes, of how better to help other species survive in dwindling habitats. In many countries, people have woken up to the impact of their use of materials like plastic. And there is every reason to believe that this progress will continue. Even when it comes to climate change, undoubtedly the defining issue of the coming decade, there are grounds for cautious optimism that we can pull together to stave off catastrophe. It is for good reason that Time magazine has just named the Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg its person of the year.
There are undoubtedly still huge political battles to be fought on the issue. But, thanks to the likes of Thunberg, public acceptance of the basic science of climate change, and awareness of the dangers it poses, has, of late, grown hugely across the globe, even in parts that were previously resistant, such as the US. As we report, the world seems to be waking up to the need for radical action on this and other serious environmental challenges.
There is every reason to hope that this may be the harbinger of a growing acceptance of the scientific consensus on other controversial issues too – vaccines for example. Scientists have a big part to play in this, obviously, but they do have one massive thing going for them: public trust. Whatever you may have read about a rejection of experts in the modern age, poll after poll reveals huge levels of public belief in science and its ability to both flag and solve problems.
A related aside: one of the great unsung achievements since 2010 has been the new insights we have gained into human behaviour. This tells us that the cognitive biases hardwired into our psychology cause us to focus on bad news rather than good, and local rather than global issues. But it also tells us that change, both positive and negative, can happen very suddenly, seemingly out of the blue. Social attitudes are fluid, but social norms take time to catch up, and when they do, rapid shifts can occur.
Of course there are huge challenges ahead. The ongoing rise of robotics and AI will cause a degree of economic insecurity and dislocation that will need to be tackled. Technologies such as gene editing will continue to throw up urgent moral questions. The rise of China on the world stage – at the end of this decade both the world’s biggest polluter, and its biggest developer of green tech – will continue to challenge Western norms and assumptions, in science as in geopolitics. A renewed space race may herald a bright new future for humanity – or risk exporting the worst of our bad habits to other worlds.
“The 2020s look likely to be a defining decade for the future of humanity and the natural world”
And yes, climate change, pollution and the collapse of biodiversity… if we don’t get to grips with these huge problems in the coming decade, we never will, with grave consequences for life on this planet. Indeed, the 2020s look likely to be a defining time for the future of humanity and the natural world.
One thing we can all do, as we enter the next decade together, is to reject fatalistic pessimism and instead embrace an optimism based in facts and a belief in human ingenuity. Our actions – what we do, and what we fight for – have always mattered, and they will continue to do so.