Our society has experienced a zeitgeist, magnified through tweets, memes, and various millennial journalists: “F** 2020.” “2020 was such a bad year.” “Poor us for living through 2020.” On one hand, it makes sense; it can serve as a collective therapeutic sigh to acknowledge that we’ve all been through a lot. However, for a variety of reasons, I think it’s time we move on from messages like this. Indeed, on the eve of the 2020’s last day, I’d like to forcefully renounce our current zeitgeist and its future iterations. Let me explain why.
For starters, the zeitgeist is generic. 2020 is an entire year; 365 days of living, learning, breathing, etc.; an enormously complex thing that can’t be completely portrayed in a Ph.D. dissertation, let alone a sentence. Accuracy suffers in simplification. Put generally, considering complexity beyond comprehension in a variety of concepts, such as a government, a community, or a time period, can be enormously useful. Consider the U.S. government: over 2 million people are directly employed, each with personal philosophy and history. There are so many agencies of dubious definition that no one is actually sure what the complete count is, each with their own cultural norms, implicit biases, and function. Summarizing the U.S. government for any purpose relies on assumptions that reflect our desired conclusion rather than constructing an exhaustive factual basis; summary becomes selection of a subset of available evidence. Such is the nature of a simplifying model. I argue that the same is true for a summary of 2020; any qualitative judgement is such a simplification that it more reflects what we’d like 2020 to be than what it actually was.
Second, perhaps most unsettlingly, the zeitgeist is near-sighted. Many of the immediate trends that made 2020 difficult (coronavirus, wildfire risk) will persist into 2021, but many of the deeper trends — ravages of climate change, rise of disinformation, opportunity inequality, etc., are worsening. A collection of hundreds of scientists recently penned an open letter to governments indicating that inaction on climate change could lead to “societal collapse” in a majority of countries by the year 2050. This phenomenon would not simply happen all happen at once, but gradually more and more year after year. In the words of a good friend, “What if, in ten years or so, those of us remaining look back and say, ‘Gee, 2020 was one of the good years’?”
Third, the zeitgeist is entitled. Let’s not pretend that the wreckage of capitalism hasn’t been accumulating around us for a while; that inequality hasn’t been raising, disease hasn’t been spreading throughout poorer communities in the form of addiction, malnourishment, minimum wage-slavery, etc…. If indeed 2020 was the year that uniquely felt like the world told you that you couldn’t do what you wanted, that’s something to be grateful for! Furthermore in this general category of argument is the entitlement of absorbing other people’s traumas in one’s own. For instance, not only did much of America take on the pain of California’s wildfires (and, strangely, localized it to California even though it was a phenomenon of the whole West Coast) but much of California (and the Bay Area) took on the trauma of a few weeks of smoke even though certain regions of people literally lost their houses. I believe that California sighed over the wildfires in part because it was so damaging for some, but I do not believe that claiming collective victimhood is particularly useful, personally or politically. Instead, we should have been realistic about the direct personal effects, and funneled the extra energy into helping harder hit communities.
Finally, the zeitgeist is lazy. Digging through hard times to remind oneself of instances of community, outstretched hands pro-offered, internal growth and self-reliance that we’ve been forced to build; all of this is difficult but necessary reflection. It’s easier to just mentally toss out the whole year “as if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” as Thoreau deadpanned a century ago. I challenge the reader to think about individual instances of altruism, magnanimity, etc., that they experienced, and I am glad to hold space for responses of that sort. I can provide some societal positives that occurred: (1) we witnessed a surprising and forceful rebuke of attacks on the U.S. voting process. (2) We recorded the largest drop in global emissions ever (7%, roughly India’s entire emissions), with indicators that 2019 may have been peak emissions due to the robust growth in renewables and economic assistance for the sector in large stimulus packages. (3) The EU approved a federated borrowing policy, which, without Britain, is finally helping them abandon German austerity and move leftwards. (4) China committed to 100% net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. (5) We saw the largest protests ever, for racial equality. There are plenty more reasons besides, but my point is that if we make the effort and choice to focus on positive news, we can find it.
With that, I close my argument and wish you a happy 2021. I urge optimism and hope as the most useful strategy for personal and political effectiveness. Fatalism is, simply put, unhealthy. I hope you, my reader, enjoy the end of your 2020 and critically examine the future pessimism memes that are bound to come.