I’d often look out the plane window and wonder: how on Earth is this heavy piece of machinery flying? How does that wheel mechanism work, who figured that out? Modern air travel is a screaming, airborne testament to the power of human ingenuity, the practical benefit of science, and the accomplishments of very smart, innovative and daring people. Don’t get me started on satellites and wifi and digital cameras and glass buildings and full supermarkets packed with fresh produce grown on the other side of the planet. And all this gave me faith that, despite the political, environmental and cultural hiccups caused by lapses in our evolving hunter-gatherer brains, we got this. We’re gonna figure out climate change when we have to (because everyone knows the world is run by self-interested politicians who only do things when they have to). We’re gonna figure out racism and sexism and Anti-Semitism and how to get from A to B without gridlock traffic or a 23-car pile-up along the way. Smart people have got our back, because every time you hear something like “we need to change” and “it’s not too late if we act now” it’s not referring to you. Your impact in the we is almost comically limited. Rather, we refers to the 1% of the 1% who actually pull the levers of commerce and power, the we who can make a decision on a golf course that changes the course of history, the we who fund science labs or close coal mines or lobby legislators. I’ve never been to Davos, a TED main event or a shadowy Bilderberg conference, but I imagine it must be exciting to experience a gathering of such we that collectively drive the progress or decline of our human experiment. The we who founded, built and inherited airlines and space programs, digital research, architectural titans and global supply chains. The we who ensure that global pandemics remain spook stories in the media, not an actual reality. Hell, Bill Gates, among the smartest, most generous and accomplished of the we, warned about pandemics years ago! We got this. Growth, progress, order, technology, entertainment, design…we got it all. It’s not just a Boeing, it’s a Boeing Max! Those tragic plane crashes were a warning shot we couldn’t hear in 2019. When 2020 rolled around, the wheels fell off the goddamn plane.
Headline news today, December 8: a 95-year-old lady in the UK has received the first vaccination for Covid-19 outside of a clinical trial. Biomedical researchers have outdone themselves in the race to get our planet back on track, aided by unprecedented support from desperate health authorities weary of telling wearier populations to wear masks and do their part. Full credit to them, and all healthcare workers. It is a testament to what they – not we, unless you volunteered for an experimental vaccine jab - can accomplish when all the chips are on the table. Still, nine months of panic, uncertainty, misinformation, conspiracy, pot-banging, fear-mongering, vitriol, rolling numbers and opaque charts has taken its toll. Like so many others impacted professionally and personally by the pandemic, it’s a duty to ask: How could this happen? Why did this happen? Who was responsible for it, and who was responsible for ensuring it was under control? Then you look at our leaders: an idiot US President who doesn’t read books or care about anyone other than himself; Brexiters who somehow felt that isolation is the best step forward in a globally networked economy; a blundering Canadian PM learning on the job which he has only maintained due to a lack of dynamic competition; hard-line thinly veiled “democratic” dictators in China, Russia, Turkey, India and Brazil. Bezos, the world’s richest man, is hell-bent on putting everyone out of business unless they benefit his business, and Musk, now the second richest man, is hell-bent on pursuing some sort of techno outer-space utopia so that wealth and privilege have an escape route when the planet burns. How did we end up with this sorry lot, and how the hell can we expect this “we” to get us out of this mess? Thank god for the women in charge: New Zealand, Scandinavia, Germany – and soon but not soon enough, the US and Canada. Women who can tackle big issues with a lot more empathy and a whole lot less swinging dick.
I look back on 2020 as the year when my faith in the popular assumption that “smart people have got a handle on it” was shattered. A year when best laid plans crumbled, adventures were cancelled, tension rocketed, questions (not to mention emails) went unanswered, loved ones passed, and the stable ground shook. A year that never delivered. And yet, employing our incredible human talent to rationalize just about anything, I believe 2020 can be looked upon as being entirely necessary. Everyone needed to step to the edge, to peer over the ledge, and slowly back away with a newfound appreciation for what we have, how we have it, and why we cannot take it all for granted. 2020 demonstrated what is possible when the world of science, economics and politics mobilizes and the public makes sacrifices for the greater good. It wasn’t pretty. While I don’t condone or agree with the anti-maskers and hoax fruitcakes, I can certainly understand their frustration. The we with power sold the us without it a promise: work hard, do your job, don’t ask too many questions (especially about finance and politics) just keep cheering for your sports team and buying our crap. In return, we promise that your property value will increase, your kids will have jobs, the planes will take off. Everything will be fine. Well, obviously, it’s not.
Deep breaths then, have a drink, swallow some soma (the soothing, happiness-producing drug featured in Aldous Huxley’s increasingly prescient Brave New World). Perhaps they got us into this mess, but we are all in it. With a little luck and elbow grease, I’m optimistic they will get us out of it, and once all is said and done, we’ve had a critical dry run for the next widespread global catastrophe. The impact of climate change on cities, geo-politics and trade is going to make Covid-19 feel like an aperitif at a twelve-course meal. Even as 2020 shattered all illusions of our infallibility, it also removed the shackles that “it can’t be done.” Scientists developed several safe and innovative vaccines in mere months. Politicians shut down entire economies. Media changed popular culture. All this shifted the course of history – all to battle a tiny virus that threatened a tinier minority of the global population. After this, we can do anything.
Personally, 2020 was the year I spent with my young children – day in, day out. Hard, long days, and yet days I know I'll look back on fondly. Supported by government benefits (this was not the year to be in the business of tourism, events and travel media) it was an anxious, stressful time that nonetheless highlighted how much I have to be grateful for. Living in a world-renowned city in a stable, prosperous country, for starters. Having a safe, healthy, and loving family. Patient and supportive friends and neighbours who regularly withstood my rants. Time to write and reflect and put together a 700-page printed journal in an attempt to apprehend old memories and the passing of time. This year, my daughter won a lottery to attend a public arts school, my Dad kicked cancer, my wife’s career blossomed. Not one, but two friends bought hot tubs (like boats, you don’t want to actually own a hot tub, you want someone you know to own one). I even managed a romantic little adventure in a brief window between lockdowns. Summer was long and hot and dry. I took my kids camping to Vancouver Island and along the Fraser Canyon, on regular bikes rides, berry picking, kite flying on beaches, on trips to explore the best playgrounds in the Lower Mainland. Summer also brought weekly family picnics in the park, where we toasted our good fortune to live in a city that successfully flattened the curve (a term that feels almost archaic now, along with social bubbles and the 7pm evening pot-banging in support of essential workers). I shouldn’t forget that in January I also broke two bones in my shoulder learning to ski, another painful reminder that I’m not quite the invincible buck I once was.
The year was bookended by Netflix sensations that spoke to the times, commencing with Tiger King, a bonkers tale of excess personalities, and ending with Queen’s Gambit, a gorgeous drama about a chess prodigy’s battle for control of her life. We could all relate. Usually, I trawl end-of-year lists in search of the best music, books, films, photography, articles, etc. My heart isn’t in it this year. Even as I type, Spotify is streaming a Best Indie of 2020 playlist, but all I hear is generic-sounding beats of broken dreams. Tough times to be a travel writer, worse to be touring musician. And this is the theme, I think, of 2020. It was a bad year – no doubt about it – but wow, it could have been so much worse. Yet, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, vaccines will soon be here, and I expect there will be a global exhale. We’ll flock to the streets, unleash pent-up positive energy, embrace a new era, and look to new progressive leaders who actually believe in science. Don’t expect miracles: I suspect the United States will continue its inevitable disintegration into a handful of like-minded nation states. China’s Belt and Road initiative will continue to re-wire global trade for its own interests; economic inequality will continue its relentless march to barricade the haves from the have-nots; and the mass extinction event accompanying accelerated climate change – the real endangered elephant in the room – that’s coming up faster than an out-of-control Australian bushfire. Threats are real, and threats are here. Humanity can face the challenges, only because we now know what is possible. Take a page from the Mandalorian and believe it: This is the way.
I wonder how my children will look back on 2020. My four-year-old won’t remember much, but the seven-year-old will, certainly a lot more than I can recall about 1980 when I was her age. She’ll read books and watch movies and say: “I was a kid during the Covid-19 pandemic. I remember we couldn’t have playdates or go to museums or have birthday parties. And I remember how happy everyone was when it ended.”
I hope that’s all she remembers. As for me, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to look out the plane window with the same impressed sense of awe, assuming that whoever is in charge of the wheels has everything under control. As the saying goes: assume anything, and it makes an ass out of u and me.