Life’s impossible without viruses. But, Gaia hypotheses aside, 2021 was a grim reminder of our tendencies towards self-destruction. Vaccine-averse pandemic deaths, pervasive climate change disasters, political toxicity, supply-chain bottlenecks and dim-witted insurrectionists were unwanted hallmarks. Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front, was correct in saying “human beings are a worse poison than schnapps and tobacco,” adding “the more primitive we are, the more we believe ourselves to be.” Yet, however Cassandra curses dog us scientists and social critics’ writings project dissatisfaction (as Dickens, Sinclair, Orwell and Huxley once did), it’s time to focus on what was good in 2021. Adapting Phil Harris’ lyrics, as Baloo in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, the future holds promise if we “look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities…the simple bare necessities of life.” So, taking another lead from Johnny Mercer, the Pied Pipers and Perry Como, let’s find solace in survival as we “accentuate the positive…latch on to the affirmative… and not mess with Mr. In-between.”
Quite a few asteroids came within 0.07 lunar distances of the Earth last year. In April, an SUV-sized asteroid, traveling at 18,700 mph came within 12,000 miles of our atmosphere. (For reference, most manmade geostationary satellites maintain 22,000-mile orbits, and the moon’s about 239,000 miles away.) Asteroid 4660 Nereus, about 1,100 feet long (i.e., bigger than the Eiffel Tower) and traveling 14,700 mph, zoomed within 2.2 million miles of us December 11th, an astronomical “near-miss.” Had it collided and exploded near populated areas, even with appreciable atmospheric burn-up beforehand…well, luckily it didn’t! Meanwhile, the new surface rover that landed on Mars last year is making extraordinary finds, and astro-geologists discovered a 4-billion-year-old fossil river bed, where fluvial activity was previously unknown on Mars. Wet, warm Martian histories could have meant life. Like chile peppers on your space tacos? Astronauts successfully grew them on the International Space Station 2021.
Billions of doses of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines were administered around the world last year. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna sera, triggering immune responses with m-RNA technology, were particularly safe and effective. But arrays of internationally-produced sera, combined with test kits and newly-developed therapeutics (e.g. Pfizer’s home-administered Paxlovid pill) added significantly to SARS-CoV-2 disease-fighting arsenals. Despite boos from Texas crowds, after announcing he had gotten jabbed, kudos to former-president Trump for getting fully-vaccinated with a booster.
After previous administrations’ talk and negligible action, the Biden administration passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. The environmentally/socially necessary Build Back Better Act should hopefully follow. We’ve rejoined the Paris climate accord, pledged 30% methane reductions by 2030, and committed to COP26 deforestation reversals. Biden wisely revoked Keystone XL permits, blocked drilling in ANWR, stopped leases for oil exploration on public lands, and ordered U.S. agencies to defund carbon-intensive fossil fuel projects abroad. He also increased fuel emission standards so 40-50% US-produced cars will be electric by 2030. With Ford, GM and alternative-green industries spending trillions to retool, that won’t be reversed.
After $1.9 trillion in COVID relief, 2021 had major job and wage growth improvements as unemployment (4.2%) fell to its lowest level since 1969. Biden alleviated waterway supply-chain woes, canceled $55.6 million in student debt, stopped federal executions and terminated the frivolous “border wall” which was less a human obstacle than an impasse to nonhuman migratory species. 2021 again made national monuments and wildlife refuges off-limits to despoilers, reversing previous missteps fatal to wildlife, especially billions of birds. Cities, last year, began planting trees in low-income minority neighborhoods, where summer temps can be 15-20ºF hotter than leafier, wealthier districts.
Plant-based meat alternatives, competitively-priced, healthier and ethical, proliferated in 2021, and endangered blue and humpback whales, mountain gazelles and gorillas, and Vancouver marmots made comebacks. 2021 again graced us with Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, E.O. Wilson and Angela Merkel. Their wisdom should begin 2022.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.