The Other 2020
By Stephen Tuttle | Dec. 19, 2020
Well, that was an interesting year. And there was more to it than a pandemic we didn't stop and a delusional soon-to-be ex-president who won't accept reality.
In fact, 2020 was a pretty eventful year, good and bad, without the election or pandemic.
We didn't much slow down wars. Currently, there are at least 40 such armed conflicts around the world, from South America to Chechnya and plenty of places in between. The death toll, including thousands in the still-raging drug cartel wars in Mexico, approached 100,000 again this year, mostly civilians.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 80 million people are now refugees, asylum-seekers, or people internally displaced due to various wars. In Syria alone, 3 million people have sought refuge in other countries, and another 6.5 million have been displaced internally.
We're still actively engaged in combat operations of one form or another in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan. We have 160,000 troops deployed outside the U.S. in 150 countries ranging from a handful in South America and Africa to tens of thousands in South Korea, Japan, and Germany.
We were once again the largest arms dealer on the planet, making sure nearly all the biggest conflicts were bristling with U.S.-made weaponry. We generated at least $120 billion in arms sales, and that doesn't count the recent $23–$30 billion sale of F-35 Raptors to the United Arab Emirates.
It wasn't such a good year for nature, either, and climate change is the likely culprit.
The U.S. saw more than 53,000 wildfires, mostly in the West, which burned 9.5 million acres — twice the 2019 total — and destroyed nearly 14,000 structures, with a cost somewhere between $120 and $150 billion. More tragically, 46 people lost their lives in the fires.
Unusually heavy rains produced rich thickets of brush, which quickly turned to tinder during excessive heat events and flash droughts. Climatologists tell us this is likely to be the new normal, along with heavy rain events, flooding in the Southeast, and perhaps, more record-breaking hurricane seasons.
Another 31 plant and animal species were declared officially extinct though none had been seen for decades. Human encroachment and loss of habitat are the main causes of endangering plant and animal species of all sizes; for example, fully one-third of all oak trees on the planet are now at risk due to logging and agriculture. But it isn't always human intervention causing the problem; a bacterial disease is now putting at risk 22 different species of Central American tree frogs.
But 2020 wasn't all bad news.
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco have agreed to recognize and begin diplomatic and trade relations with Israel in deals brokered by the U.S. They join Jordan and Egypt as Middle East countries that are willing to acknowledge the reality of Israel. The recent recognition of three relatively minor players in the region won't do much to end the endless conflicts, but any positive step is a good one.
There was some good news in the plant and animal kingdoms, too.
Some 400 new species were discovered, mostly plants and insects we just didn't bother to previously examine. This year's list includes 22 new spiders and an especially unpleasant venomous millipede.
Much more exciting was the discovery of a new species of orangutan on an island off Sumatra in Indonesia. A bit smaller than their more common cousins, they've been living in blissful isolation until now. (By “discovery,” we mean they were found by white scientists. Indigenous people have known about the new orangutan for as long as they've been in the area.)
We also rediscovered the legendary New Guinea singing dogs, thought to be extinct for 50 years. They were actually located initially in 2016, but science has just gotten around to confirming genetically they are, in fact, the same animal thought to be gone. (They're called “singing” because when they howl, they sound as if they're harmonizing.)
But the grand prize for discoveries has to be the most recent. A group of marine biologists, studying underwater acoustic patterns, have found what they believe to be a new species of whale. They ran into them about 300 miles off the west coast of Mexico and were able to collect both photos and DNA samples. Test results will determine if this is truly a new species or just an already known variety that has adapted a unique way of communicating.
It wasn't a bad year for medicine, either. Progress was made on treatments for Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell disease. No cures, yet, but we're moving closer.
Every year brings good and bad news. 2020 was tilted to the negative because of two overwhelming events. Hopefully, 2021 will put an end to both of them.