The Lesson of 2020: To Build Back Better, First Get the Structure Right

Thursday, January 28, 2021

This image is not an accident: Car near port of Beirut, 2017.

In my 2020 retrospective, I promised a reflection on last year's greatest lessons for humanity. Turns out, if you boil it down far enough, there's just one big one:

Two years ago Nina and I visited my aunt and uncle in Colorado, spending a week at their cabin outside Granby, near Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2020, Colorado recorded the three largest wildfires in state history. One of them, the East Troublesome Fire, finally halted just a stone's throw from the cabin's front door. The season's fires collectively burned 840,000 acres, an area larger than Rhode Island—but not because of drought or beetle-infested dead timber. Not really.

Two years earlier we were strolling with friends along the Beirut corniche, surrounded by joggers, fishermen, skateboarders, and kids on tricycles. In 2020, their world was turned upside down, their businesses and schools and homes ruined, and over 200 killed—but not by an abandoned pile of fertilizer igniting in the port. Not really.

And a few decades before that, I was born into a world with problems that had worsened until they threatened our species' very existence: nuclear war, epidemic disease, climate change. In 2020, we all saw our world turned upside down—but not by a virus from a wet market in Wuhan. Not really.

The real problem? We can't get the structure right.