So far, the 2020s have been the Decade of COVID-19.
For the vast majority of us alive today, this was the first global pandemic we’ve lived through which caused significant deaths and disruption to our daily lives.
The pandemic itself, the measures taken to respond to it, and people’s reactions to both, dominated the news for most of this decade so far.
But the COVID-19 pandemic may not be the defining moment or issue of this decade. Here are five stories to watch, which could be even bigger than COVID-19:
WORLD WAR III
On Feb. 24, the Russian army invaded Ukraine in a massive escalation of a conflict which has been ongoing since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014 and the Russian annexation of Crimea.
While NATO countries, including Canada, have not been involved in direct fighting -yet – in Ukraine, have no doubt that the Russo-Ukrainian War is a proxy war between NATO and Russia.
NATO countries have provided tens of billions of dollars worth of military aid to Ukraine, including $1 billion from Canada, along with training and other support. Since 2014, Canadian troops have been training Ukrainian soldiers (Operation Unifier) so they would be ready for this war, and continue to do so at miliary bases in the U.K. and Poland.
In addition, NATO countries have used sanctions as a form of economic warfare against Russia’s economy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has painted himself into a corner by promising swift victory in Ukraine to “liberate” it from the alleged neo-Nazis ruling the country. If he gets desperate for victory, things could escalate rapidly out of control.
Likewise, China has been very clear that it views Taiwan as its sovereign territory, which it intends to reclaim, and North Korea remains a nuclear loose cannon. Add in all the usual conflict zones and hotspots, and the planet is primed for a large-scale conflict not seen for generations.
Fusion power is the Holy Grail of clean energy technologies, and scientists have been pursuing it since the 1950s.
Fusion works by combing two lightweight atoms, like hydrogen, to make a heavier atom like helium. It’s the process that occurs in the belly of stars, driven and contained by their massive gravity, which makes light, heat and all the heavier elements that make up literally everything.
On Dec. 5, the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) used lasers to pump 2.05 megajoules of energy into a pea-sized gold cylinder containing frozen hydrogen. The lasers caused the cylinder to collapse, fusing the hydrogen atoms into helium atoms and released an estimated 3.15 MJ of energy – roughly 54 per cent more energy than was put into the reaction. It was the first time a controlled (ie not a H-bomb) fusion reaction on Earth generated more energy than was put into it.
If fusion power can be harnessed in a practical, economically-viable way it could be as transformative for humanity as James Watt's steam engine was in the 19th century.
It may still take decades for fusion technology to reach full maturity and power a new era of human history, but this decade will (hopefully) pave the way to that future.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw many people working from home, connecting digitally in new ways, and shopping online for the first time.
Computer technology, combined with high-speed internet connectivity, is changing how we interact with one another, consume information, work, play, buy goods and services, and even creating whole new industries.
As the decade continues, we’ll likely continue to see industries and society as a whole disrupted by the Digital Revolution. As our economy increasingly moves away from an economy of stuff, to an economy of information, there will be new billion-dollar industries created, and other industries and jobs will fade away.
As a society, we’ll have to learn how to mitigate the negative impacts things like social media can have, while finding ways to use the new technology to benefit humanity.
The discovery of alien life, if it happens, likely won’t likely in the form of flying saucers or messages from distant alien civilizations containing plans for a faster-than-light drive and the answer to life, the universe and everything.
The discovery of alien life, or hints that it may exist, will far more likely sound like “NASA’s Europa Clipper probe shows life could be possible under the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa.”
Or “The James Webb Space Telescope has found an exoplanet hundreds of light years away with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, which suggests photosynthesis maybe happening there.”
Or “Martian probe finds evidence of long-extinct single-cell life frozen the red planet’s icy poles.”
The discovery of alien life would profoundly change our understanding of life, the universe and our role in it. Likewise, to not find life in places where it could reasonably be expected to evolve would also tell us something important about the nature and rarity of life itself.
HUMANITY’S IMPACT ON EARTH
Climate change, air and water pollution, over-fishing, noise and light pollution, habitat destruction and fragmentation, over-population, groundwater depletion and water scarcity, deforestation, loss of bio-diversity, solid waste management, ocean acidification, topsoil erosion, invasive species, depletion of non-renewable resources, desertification, collapse of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, melting of glaciers and polar ice, and on and on. It would be shorter to list the natural systems we haven’t screwed up yet, then to list all the impacts humanity has had on our planet – we’ve even polluted the space in earth’s orbit.
Sometime around Nov. 15, the United Nations estimated that humanity’s population hit eight billion people – eight times our pre-industrial population in the early 19th century. It only took 12 years for earth to go from seven billion people to eight billion, and the planet is expected add another 500 million people by 2030. The UN predicts earth’s population will peak at roughly 10.4 billion around 2080.
Every additional human being increases the weight of humanity’s already heavy footprint on the planet. As the consequences of that heavy footprint pile up, our actions – or inaction – this decade will likely be the thing most remembered by earth’s 10.4 billion people 50 years from now.