By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
An arriving dystopia? Siddhartha Mitter says it might be tempting to describe 2020 that way.
“The year 2020 was about canceled plans and unsatisfactory adaptations, from masks to Zoom calls to families facing impossible decisions among improvised models as a new school year began,” he wrote for National Geographic.
It was a year of a flourishing virus and a dysfunctional response, fueled by political acrimony and deep social and economic divisions, Mitter wrote. The killing of George Floyd forced another tipping point, prompting swelling protests through the summer, led by Black Lives Matter, and often meeting harsh response by vigilantes.
And yet ... 2020 also was a year that gave us hope.
The phrase “I Can’t Breathe” morphed from an anguished plea in hospitals and in a deadly police encounter to a battle cry, writes Rachel Jones. We squared our shoulders—and rose up.
“High school seniors lifted their diplomas and lofted their caps from their front lawns as family and friends drove past, determined to claim public credit for their achievement,” Jones wrote for National Geographic. (Pictured above, high-school graduates Datelle Straub, center, and friend Avery Lewis, left, protesting in their caps and gowns following the Floyd killing.)
2020 also saw women in the United States marking the 100th anniversary of suffrage. “We fought,” Jones wrote. “Bare-knuckled. For our version of what the future should look like. For the power to inhale justice, and exhale fear.” (Just today, Virginia announced it would put a statue of a teenage fighter against segregation, Barbara Johns, in the U.S. Capitol; it already pulled down a statue there of Robert E. Lee to make space.)
Nat Geo’s Rachel Hartigan noted the line in the Black National Anthem, “Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” James Weldon Johnson wrote that lyric for “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in 1900 in Florida, the state that then had with the highest rate of lynchings.
Yet Johnson, a Black man who then could not vote, found reasons to hope.
“We can, too—and we have,” Hartigan adds. “We found hope in the doctors and nurses who worked beyond endurance to save lives. We found hope in learning new ways to connect with loved ones. We found hope in the extraordinary developments—the scientific discoveries, the conservation victories, the social awakening—that occurred amidst pandemic and natural disasters. And we’ve found hope in the change that this year of calamity might bring.”
On her 85th birthday in August, legendary marine biologist Sylvia Earle evinced the same hope. “There will be a renewal of optimism in a better world that we know is possible,” she said. “That we can, through our individual and collective actions, turn to a new era of respect for the natural systems that keep us alive, and for one another.”
We’re already seeing positive change. “Just like in wartime, we’ve moved quickly and tried new things,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in an interview with Nat Geo Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg, citing the promising COVID-19 vaccines in the works.
As wrenching as the turmoil has been, “it’s forcing people across all walks of life, all sectors in our economy, and every corner of the planet really to assess whether we are where we need to be,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told NatGeo over the summer, “and what we need to do to get to where we’re trying to go. There’s still hope that we’ll get there.”
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Today in a minute
Volcano erupts, quake hits Hawaii: Lava fountains spurted some 165 feet in the sky in the eruption at Kilaunea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island. It was followed by an earthquake measuring 4.4 in intensity, the U.S. Geological Survey reports today. Significant damage to buildings or structures is not expected, CBS News reports. A 2018 eruption wrecked more than 700 homes.
Iceberg approaching: The South Atlantic island of South Georgia has a diversity almost equivalent to the Galapagos. However, the world’s biggest iceberg is closing in. It may ground into the ocean shelf and spin away, but the iceberg likely will scour the seabeds of food that seals, penguins, and whales depend upon, Nat Geo's Sarah Gibbens reports.
A first? Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico has been nominated to become America’s interior secretary, and would be the nation’s first Native American in that position, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland says she is a 35th generation New Mexican and learned from the spirit of her mother and grandmother. “My grandmother used to clean diesel train engines with a bucket of kerosene and a brush. My mom was a 25-year federal employee. She worked in Indian education. I inherited their work ethic,” she told Nat Geo in 2018.
Facebook and illegal animal sales: Facebook has been a key conduit in the global bazaar for the multibillion-dollar black market for exotic pets and animal parts, used for everything from curios and medicines to leather boots and skin rugs, Nat Geo’s Wildlife Watch reports. One sign of Facebook’s reach: Investigators searched Facebook for 17 common word combinations in the illicit wildlife trade, such as “rhino horn for sale.” More than half the 473 pages and 281 groups ID'd as selling endangered wildlife were created during the past two years. Those Facebook pages and groups represent nearly 1.5 million people. (Pictured above, parts of the rare ancient-looking helmeted hornbill, which is headed toward extinction because of black market trading of its “horns.”)
O Christmas Tree: Two Baltic nations claim to have pioneered the holiday use of these lighted, bedecked evergreen December wonders more than 500 years ago, but experts say the Yuletide stalwart may have begun a little later in the Alsace region of modern-day France. Examining the history of the Christmas tree, Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever covers tree plundering in Scandinavia, Moscow’s flip-flop, and America’s slow adoption of the tradition.
Instagram photo of the day
A fishing tradition: In Ekuk, Alaska, Sharlee Sifsof untangles a salmon from her family’s net. During high season in southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay, subsistence nets such as these can yield thousands of pounds of salmon at a time. The commercial fishery brings in about $1.5 billion a year. Those who fish in the area received a boost last month when the U.S. rejected a proposed copper and gold mine that threatened the world's most productive wild salmon habitat.
The big takeaway
A Cherokee quest: The land was stolen. Now there are new efforts to buy back lands in western North Carolina and Tennessee that Cherokees lived on for centuries, until nearly all were driven out in 1838. At least 25 burial mounds exist in Tennessee and North Carolina, including that of Kituwah, known as “the Mother Town,” considered the place of origin for the Cherokee people. “Our DNA is of this land,” Amy Walker, 79, tells Sheyahshe Littledave for Nat Geo. (Above, Walker picks heirloom beans from her garden at Kituwah, where she plants many of the same crops that her ancestors grew for thousands of years.)
In a few words
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The last glimpse
A second escape: Last January, Greg Slade barely escaped a fast-moving Australian wildfire that destroyed the resort he was managing. Now working on Australia’s Fraser Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Slade recently escaped another bushfire that destroyed half of the environmentally protected island (pictured above). Still reeling from a fire season that torched an area twice the size of Pennsylvania, Australia is “just beginning to wrestle with a future that promises ever bigger and more severe fires,” Craig Welch and Matthew Abbott report.