Seize the moment and create meaningful change.
By Zoe Weil M.A., M.T.S
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness of 2020.
First came the bushfires in Australia. They burned more than 72,000 square miles (nearly the size of Minnesota) and killed more than one billion animals.
Next came COVID-19, which (as of this writing) has infected nearly eight million people and killed nearly half a million, with the U.S. experiencing more deaths than any other country.
Then came the videotaped murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer – following closely on the heels of other racist acts and murders in the news – which led to an outpouring of rage, riots, and protests in communities across every state in the U.S., with more than 10,000 people arrested in fewer than two weeks.
And yet, despite all this, or rather because of it, 2020 could turn out to be one of the most transformative years of our collective lives, marking the turning point when unjust, destructive, and inhumane systems began to be toppled and transformed.
The changes are starting already.
The chant “Defund the police!” has gone from a rallying cry to the beginnings of reality, with the Minneapolis City Council voting to transform law enforcement in their city, starting with police department defunding. In New York and Los Angeles leaders are looking at their police departments with fresh eyes, fresh ideas, and changing budgets. Every day new policies are put in place to end police brutality, and this is just the beginning.
Hundreds of thousands of white people are embracing Black Lives Matter across the globe, speaking up in ways they never have before, with a new willingness to learn about white privilege and the impacts of persistent racism not only within law enforcement and the prison system but also within the systems of education, healthcare, food, city planning, infrastructure, politics, and economics. As these new white allies support legislative and policy changes, there may finally be enough votes to upend racist structures.
What might COVID-19’s positive transformations look like? Three months of remote learning have led to long-overdue discussions about the purpose and system of schooling. Teachers, parents, and school administrators are asking questions such as: What is important to learn and why? What thinking skills do our children most need to develop? How can we best educate children for the important roles they will play to ensure we have functioning democracies, equitable societies, and a healthy planet?
Such changes in education, should they come, will mean that students learn to be solutionaries – people who provide ideas and blueprints for positively transforming societal institutions and structures. It is solutionary thinking that enabled Minneapolis city council members to cast their vote this week to create new systems for safety and protection in their city. Without the work of thoughtful systems thinkers who shared innovative approaches for keeping the city and its citizens safe, council members might not have felt confident to cast that vote.
COVID-19 may also lead to the transformation of our food systems. Stories about the impacts of meat-eating have abounded during the pandemic, introducing people to the stark realities behind the flesh they consume. People working in slaughterhouses (euphemistically referred to as meatpacking plants) are contracting COVID-19 in large numbers, and many are dying. President Trump deemed meat production “essential,” but surely it is not, and exposés of the industry during the pandemic are revealing much more than the health hazards in slaughterhouses. Factory farming has been unambiguously implicated in previous epidemics, and the animal “wet” markets in China remain the likeliest cause of COVID-19. People are also learning that eating meat in the quantities we do in the U.S. increases the incidence of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and some cancers; is a primary contributor to climate change (remember those bushfires?); and is horrifically cruel to animals.
We could well look back at 2020 as the tipping point when people finally began reducing their consumption of animals and animal products as a way of preventing future pandemics, protecting the environment and wildlife habitats, addressing climate change, and saving more human lives each year from preventable diseases than were lost due to COVID-19.
One potentially positive outcome from the COVID-caused recession is that the economic upheaval has also resulted in a head-spinning shift in economic thinking from some of the biggest beneficiaries of capitalism, who are beginning to re-examine their long held beliefs and discuss economic reforms. This paves the way for solutionary thinkers in economics to have their work reviewed seriously and embraced by those in power who’ve refused, until now, to consider changes to our economic system that could effectively address inequity, poverty, and environmental devastation.
Politics is facing a reckoning, too. With much trepidation surrounding the upcoming presidential election (Will it be hacked? Will it be fair? Will Black people continue to be disenfranchised through voter suppression? Will people be able to vote by mail during the pandemic?), and with citizens speaking out by the hundreds of thousands day after day in the streets of our towns and cities, we may be looking at the largest voter turnout in living memory. And with every subsystem within politics under scrutiny – lobbying, gerrymandering, campaign finance, and the two-party system itself – there’s new hope for a solutionary overhaul.
So let’s imagine historians looking back at 2020 and describing it as the year when these societal systems began to change in earnest. This could be the legacy of an otherwise awful year. Achieving these outcomes won’t be easy. In the midst of dazzling examples of growing awareness, generosity, and action, we are also witnessing divisiveness deepen, hostilities grow, and threats to democracy gain traction. The interconnected systems that perpetuate destructive and cruel practices are tremendously difficult to transform and will surely require our best selves. We must meet this time of great change as engaged, compassionate, well-informed people who harness our anger, sorrow, and fear toward what may be the most important work of our lifetimes.
If you’ve been hesitating to use your three Vs – Voice, Veto, and Vote – consider this your moment. Use your voice to speak clearly. Veto destruction and injustice with how you spend your money. Vote like lives depend on you, because they do. While we cannot bring back those lost to bushfires in Australia, a global pandemic, or years of oppression, we can bring about change. We have the power to make 2020 the year that ushered in a new era of peace, equity, and respect for all life. This is our moment. Let’s get to work.