Unsolicited reflections on 2015

Back at the beginning of last year, I wrote a post Cautious Optimism for 2015.  My overall point was about focusing on long term trends as a remedy for becoming overwhelmed by the incessant drumbeat of bad news. Was I right?

2015 certainly had its fair share of bad news. I think Syria and race relations in America were two main epicenters of bad news last year.

The continuing disintegration of Syria spawned both ISIS-sponsored or inspired terror attacks in Paris (twice), Beirut, and San Bernardino, CA as well as the refugee crisis that threatens to overwhelm parts of Europe. The widely published photograph of three year old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a sandy beach in Turkey was the saddest thing I saw all year.

Meanwhile, abysmal race relation in America, particularly relations between police and the African-American community continued to generate conflict and tragic deaths. The Guardian published a report called The Counted showing that young black men are killed by police at five times the rate whites are killed. It’s also disturbing that the FBI has no comparable reliable national data on police killings. The statistics were compiled by the Guardian itself in partnership with the Washington Post.

Still several things occurred in 2015 to justify long term optimism, especially of the cautious variety.

First and foremost is the global climate change agreement reached at the COP21 conference in Paris in December. The agreement certainly doesn’t go far enough, but the fact that 185-odd countries signed on and set meaningful, if voluntary, goals on carbon reduction is significant. Tom Friedman at the New York Times called it a “big, big deal.” Hopefully, this agreement will act as a baseline for further actions to reduce carbon emissions. Hopefully also the terms of the agreement will stiffen the resolve of world governments to tackle the problem in their countries. Activists are sure to use it to hold governments to account and this is a very good thing. Perhaps the agreement will have impact similar to the human rights provision of the Helsinki Accords signed in 1975. These were also non-binding, but they became a potent justification for liberal dissent in the former Soviet Union and Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Second, I think the Iran nuclear agreement was a major diplomatic achievement in 2015. Here too, there’s a lot to criticize, and the agreement doesn’t settle or even address many issues with Iran. So no one should be under any illusions about a “kinder, gentler” Iran emerging anytime soon. (I imagine many Iranians think similarly about the US.)  However, the agreement removes the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran from the picture for at least the next ten to fifteen years. That’s a real positive step forward, a rarity in the Middle East.

The US Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges declared same sex marriage legal across the entire United States, a major step forward for equality in this country.

On less down-to-earth matters, 2015 was an extraordinary year for space exploration and space technology. From the New Horizons flyby of Pluto in July, to continued discoveries of exoplanets by the Kepler deep space telescope, to the vertical landing of a Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX, 2015 was marked by amazing achievements in space. NASA has posted a great summary here. And you can find a global list of all spaceflights in 2015 here.

And finally, echoing the theme of long term positive trends, in October Nicholas Kristof wrote this column in the New York Times noting that,

“… maybe the most important thing happening in the world today is something that we almost never cover: a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.”

Here’s hoping these trends continue in 2016!

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