Will the World Learn from 2020?

December 22, 2020|Annette Lanjouw, Chief Executive Officer, Arcus Foundation

Dear Friend of Arcus,

This has been a truly remarkable year, and unfortunately not in the most positive sense. Globally, we have been confronted with a series of significant challenges and deep questions—some of them existential. The end of the calendar year is somewhat of an arbitrary milestone—and the seismic moment we are living, with its shocks and aftershocks, will certainly transcend the Gregorian boundary into 2021—but it remains a point in time for reflection and resolve.

We are grateful that we at Arcus have reached this point with our operations uninterrupted, our staff healthy, and all of our grantee partners continuing with their vital work. But arguably, none of us will ever be quite the same again as we were before, so shaken are we by the crises that have affected the world. Most of the world’s people are looking forward to the New Year, eager for a new day as if waking from a bad dream. Many speak of “turning the page.” The year 2020 has put so many of us in survival mode—individuals, organizations, institutions, entire democracies. This much is understandable, given the year we are living:

  • COVID-19 burned through our globally interconnected society like wildfire, spreading to every continent.
  • After the tragic killing of George Floyd, the #BlackLivesMatter movement manifested itself far beyond the United States, where it was born, and exposed systemic racism in many societies.
  • We continue to witness the pain and trauma of immigration—and resistance to immigration—across the world, including in the U.S. and Europe.
  • The effects of climate change are intensifying, becoming more severe and dramatic. We had more hurricanes, typhoons, floods, droughts, and fires this year than ever before. And yet we still saw leaders pushing for exploitation of vulnerable habitats and destructive land-use practices, leading to the release of greenhouse gasses, loss of biodiversity, and suffering for countless sentient, feeling, and emotional beings.
  • We see unemployment, food insecurity, and the need for social welfare increasing in the world’s richest countries as well as the poorest.
  • We still see open and accepted slavery in much of Africa and the Middle East.
  • Active threats to democracy are spreading like a fungus around the world, resulting in a breakdown of collaboration, unity, and togetherness, and the growth of isolationism, unilateralism, and nationalism.

Core to these realities is the fact that we do not yet have a culture and society based on equity, fairness, and humanity anywhere in the world; and all of these fires burn strong even as I write.

It didn’t have to be so.

COVID-19 should not have had the impact that it had. It did so because societies, nations, and organizations didn’t work together, didn’t follow the science, and did not understand or address the linkages among its economic, societal, health, and psychological effects. That lack of collaboration and resilience of society was also reflected in the disproportionate impacts of the virus on minorities, which has highlighted yet again the fundamental, structural, institutional, and individual racism in society, as well as the class, wealth, and power divisions that harm the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.

The Black Lives Matter protests, the MeToo protests, and the response to the killing of George Floyd and so many others were reactions to problems that have existed for centuries, but which have not been acknowledged, addressed, and rectified.

None of this is new. Much of it has been predicted. It isn’t really a shock or surprise to anyone. We know that much or all of it was preventable. One major question before us is whether we can learn. And there are other questions too. What will we do about these problems now? Is the world waking up? Will we act quickly enough? Among the characteristics that humans often use to distinguish them from nonhumans is our intelligence, sophistication, and ability to plan for the future. The destruction we have wrought in recent decades is not a positive indicator.

Still, there are reasons to feel encouraged:

  • Amid the “perfect storm,” of this year, we saw the world stop and take stock. COVID-19 has led us to take a dramatic, if terribly expensive, pause.
  • There was recognition of the role of nature destruction in leading to the current pandemic.
  • There was an acknowledgement like never before of the horror of structural, institutional, and individual racism, and an outcry against it.
  • Governments are making significant commitments to halt climate change, to protect biodiversity, to change farming practices to make them less destructive. We saw people take stock of how wonderful it is to hear birdsong, and how the air in Beijing and Delhi was cleaner during the pandemic.
  • We saw diversity in the U.S. visible and powerful like never before.
  • And U.S. citizens turned out for their elections in numbers that were unprecedented.

Much of our learning this year has been sobering, but there are positive lessons too. As a foundation, this ongoing virtual chapter has enhanced our appreciation of the value of working side-by-side with colleagues. It has helped uncover our ability to cope with what we cannot control, and to reckon with what we do not know. We have explored together as a team the gaps in our knowledge about racism and deepened our exploration of the connections between social and environmental justice. We have also become less self-conscious about recognizing our fragility as humans and more comfortable in demonstrating our empathy for the same in others.

Taking these learnings from the meta to the micro—sharing them with others and stepping out of our comfort zone to engage with people who think differently—will be critical to solving some of the fundamental and intractable problems that confronted us this year and to continuing progress toward our vision of people living in harmony with one another and the natural world. The survival and well-being of all living beings depends on that progress.

Collaborating to address the large, systemic issues and the linkages among all the different problems we face is vital to finding real, practical, and sustainable solutions. And we—in partnership with our grantees, allies, and the individuals and communities they serve—will press on with determination.

It has been hard fought this year, but I believe that all together we are better positioned as comrades to face 2021 to advance our grand project. Adrienne Rich, the late lesbian, feminist poet, wrote:

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope?
You yourself must change it.
What would it feel like to know
your country was changing?
You yourself must change it.
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
What would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

If we are standing on that first page, let us indeed seek to “turn the page” and say to one another with conviction and anticipation, “Happy New Year!”