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OK, time to get 2017 started in earnest! I have some resolutions and ideas–and I’m looking forward to hearing your New Year plans too. But first there is extremely good news in the paper, so let’s lead with that:  the People’s Republic of China has announced that they are shutting down their national trade in ivory by the end of 2017.  The world’s most populous nation is by far the world’s largest ivory consumer: estimates suggest that it accounts for as much as 70% of ivory demand.  The tusks of slaughtered elephants reach the nation illegally and then become part of a vast economy of carvers, traders, dodgy antiques merchants, and suchlike sellers.  All of this is to feed the growing appetite of China’s new middle class, who are hungry for anything which confers status (but who do not necessarily understand just how sapient, compassionate, and irreplaceable elephants are).

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The ban is said to be a direct result of a meeting between the world’s two most powerful men, President Xi Jinping and President Obama, who laid the groundwork for a comprehensive ban when they met in Washington in 2015.  Obama tightened up surprisingly lax ivory rules in America in an effort to save the last proboscideans.  It is a great pleasure to see China’s leadership follow the same path.  The New York Times has noted that the ban is not just sound environmental policy, but also makes sense both politically and economically.  Perhaps other ivory-consuming nations will follow suite! I will be sure to praise their far-sighted leaders as well.

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However elephant conservationists must not pretend the Chinese ivory ban alone has saved our big gray friends. Elephants are in deep trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, and, above all, poaching still threaten the giants. Powerful forces in China (and even here, in the increasingly reactionary United States) will conspire to restart the ghastly trade.  Additionally the mayhem in central Africa which has allowed poachers to flourish is far from over.  Yet this unexpected boon from the Middle Kingdom is a cause for great hope. Let us thank our friends in China for their thoughtfulness and use their fine example as a cause to redouble our own efforts.  If we keep working together we can make sure elephants are still with us not just in 2017 but in all the years to come.

In summarizing the year which is passing, the bleak, dreadful, and meretricious aspects of human affairs leap to prominence (this is not the full thesis of this essay—please keep reading despite this dire opening).  Two thousand ten AD was so filled with earthquakes, insurgencies, layoff announcements, fat stupid North Korean heirs, Snookis, LeBron Jameses, oil spills, and every other sort of malediction–both major and trivial–that it seems like some latter-day lack-wit Pandora must have found another ornate casket.

"Is that a shiny box? I wonder if it has jewels in it? Or even more publicity? I better just peep inside."

Please take heart!  There is not yet a pressing need to reread Revelations or start building an ark.  Distortions of perspective are responsible for making the problems and failures (and minutiae) of 2010 loom up larger in our vision than the real successes and breakthroughs.  First and most importantly, we are still too close to 2010 to understand what was truly important.  Second, the people who produce newspapers, websites, and TV shows realize there is more money in showing Kim Kardashian making a face than in explaining magnetic anisotropy in individual molecules.

The single-molecule magnet Mn4O3Cl4(O2CCH2CH3)3(pyridine)3 crystallizes in pairs held together by hydrogen bonds between chlorine and hydrogen atoms (Mn = green, O = yellow, N = blue, Cl = red, C and H = gray). Seriously! It could cause data storage technology to leap forward!

Looking backwards for examples from the past helps clarify how distorted our view of a year is as it ends.  At the end of 1969 every commenter was writing about Hamburger Hill, My Lai, Altamont, underground nuclear testing, Ted Kennedy’s driving, the Manson murders, and how we were losing the cold war.  Most people didn’t notice WalMart incorporating as “WalMart stores”, or the Stonewall Riots (events which were subsequently realized to be important). Only a very few computer scientists knew that the first Arpanet link had gone live in California and the first messages had started bouncing back and forth across what would evolve into the internet. Nobody of that time really understood the ramifications of such a development.  Imagine trying to explain the internet or Walmart to someone in 1969! Then imagine going even further back to the disastrous year of 1837 when messages were first sent between remote locations electronically and explaining the modern network of communications.

Maybe 1969 was a funny choice to illustrate my point....

Similarly, the scientific and technology breakthroughs of this year will be important long after the frothy jetsam of pop-culture has drifted away and the rubble of contemporary disasters has been cleaned up. This was the year that humankind first created artificial life (albeit of a rudimentary sort).  The National Ignition Facility’s project to build a star in a jar came several steps closer to completion.  The Japanese successfully launched a solar sail in interplanetary space.  Nanotechnology, stem-cell biology, robotics, and innumerable other fields took steps forward. And those are the things we know about–probably other groundbreaking discoveries are not widely known or even comprehensible.  The time traveler attempting to describe 2051 or 2183 is most likely going to be dealing in ideas outlandish to us.

I hope you don’t think this defense of 2010 is teleological (or that looking back at the present from an imaginary future is specious).  With all of the tin-pot dictators, outsourcing, environmental devastation, and reality TV, it is easy to lose track of our real progress and our actual achievements.  Science and technology (along with social and political breakthroughs that we so far missed) can provide a way for humanists not to be disappointed by 2010.  It is now up to people of intellect, imagination, and conscience to bear out the potential of the year’s embryonic innovations.

Whether this was worthy year for humanity (or the drab disappointment it currently seems like) has yet to be decided by the future and what we do with it.   In the mean time, kindly accept my heartfelt wishes for a very happy new year.

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