Six Hopeful Breakthroughs From 2015
Six Hopeful Breakthroughs From 2015
By Sarah van Gelder /

2015 was a year that shook us out of complacency. Black Lives Matter forced the nation to confront the threat of police violence faced every day by African Americans. The refugee crisis coupled with the movement of ISIS into Europe and the United States brought distant wars close to home. The descent of the Republican presidential debate into new lows of demagoguery highlighted the emptiness of political discourse. And across the country, communities experienced the torrential downpours, record temperatures, floods, droughts, and firestorms predicted by climate change models.

But 2015 also brought breakthroughs. It was a year of new activism in defense of black lives and the life of the planet, new focus on the underlying causes of inequality, and evidence of a deep reservoir of compassion that motivated millions in a time of crisis.

Here are my top picks for new possibilities from 2015 that suggest we could be at a turning point.

1. The world set ambitious goals for climate stabilization, but real leadership came from the grassroots

World leaders met in Paris and agreed that temperatures must remain within 1.5 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels to avert catastrophes of all sorts. And then they signed an agreement that fell far short of accomplishing that.

We learned that temperatures are already up by 1 C, and the effects are being felt. It was a year of biblical firestorms in the West and historic flooding across the South, and while there was temporary relief from drought in California, long-term predictions remain dismal for those relying on the sparse water resources of the Southwest.

There were important steps toward real solutions, nonetheless.

As the cost of wind and solar energy generation has fallen, the United State has experienced a renewables boom. Wind now accounts for nearly 5 percent of electricity generation, up from 1 percent just eight years ago. Solar energy installation is up about 19 percent compared to 2014, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association; about a third of all new electricity generation came from solar during the first three quarters of 2015.

Carbon dioxide emissions actually fell globally in 2015. Toxic pollution levels spurred a reduction in coal burning in China and a major ramp-up of renewables.

And investors like HSBC have concluded that investments in fossil fuels are at risk of becoming worthless as energy economics, technology, and climate policy move the world toward renewables. With the record low price of oil “many unconventional oil sectors, such as oil sands, shale oil, and Arctic drilling, have become loss-making in a relatively short period of time,” stated a recent HSBC report.

Leadership for a more sustainable world is coming not from government, business, and the media, which are too immersed in the status quo to lead the profound change needed. Instead, real leadership is coming from small and medium-sized businesses and the grassroots, where activists are resisting new dirty energy mines, drilling, fracking, and infrastructure projects like pipelines and ocean terminals. From the state level down, people are pressing for commonsense policies like a budget-neutral carbon tax. The city council of Portland, Oregon, unanimously adopted a resolution in November to oppose the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure.

2. Black Lives Matters changed hearts, minds, and policing practices

The Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter have changed the discussion of racial justice, spreading out from the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, New York, Oakland, and Baltimore. Their messages have had particularly profound effects on college campuses, including the University of Missouri, where President Tim Wolfe was forced to resign, and Ithaca College, where students and faculty voted no confidence in President Thomas Rochon following a series of racially charged incidents.

Half of all Americans now see racism as a big problem—up from just a quarter in 2009—and the number of those who say more equality is needed jumped from 46 percent to 59 percent in just over a year. According to the Pew Center for People and the Press, this shift in public opinion has occurred across demographics and geographic regions. Even 41 percent of Republicans say racism is a big problem (compared to 34 percent who say it is not).

In Chicago, outrage over the October 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald spilled over into a citywide campaign. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired the Chicago chief of police after a dashcam video, released more than a year after the killing, showed events that were much different than what police had reported. The Justice Department is investigating and Emanuel has apologized for the incident and promised “complete and total reform,” but protesters are calling for his resignation.

3. Bernie Sanders forced inequality and the power of Wall Street into the national debate

The wave of endorsements from the Washington powerful and the virtual blackout by corporate media of opposition candidates assure Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic Party presidential nomination. At least that’s what political insiders say in what may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet an insurgent Democratic base has been rallying behind the Bernie Sanders campaign. Even some conservatives, discouraged by the Republican candidates, are turning to Sanders. His campaign has held massive rallies across the country and broken an all-time record for number of donations, topping 2.3 million, nearly 100,000 more than Barack Obama had received at a similar point in his campaign.

The reason is clear: Sanders is focusing his campaign on the economic calamity that is upending the lives of the working poor and middle class. He argues that today’s extreme inequality amounts to a moral crisis, and he’s showing the links between stagnant wages, the massive transfer of wealth to the top 1 percent, and poverty. The wealthiest 20 percent of U.S. families now owns nearly 90 percent of the nation’s wealth.

And speaking of moral stands, Pope Francis focused his much-anticipated address to the U.S. Congress on poverty, immigration, climate change, the death penalty, and arms sales—not on women, gays, and sexuality as his congressional hosts may have wished.

4. The politics of scapegoating ran short of scapegoats

A politics that relies on vilifying groups of people is running out of people to vilify.

Gay people? With same-sex marriage now the law of the land, the pope asking “Who am I to judge?” and Mormons marching in the Utah Pride Festival, it’s becoming difficult to whip up hate or fear of gay people.

Black folks? Except for a very few KKK and neo-Nazis, that strategy wins little support, and revulsion at the shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina, church was widespread.

Immigrants? Advisers in both political parties warn their candidates: The Latino vote is critical for winning elections in many regions of the country.

Muslims now carry the brunt of right-wing bigotry. Since the shootings in Paris, attacks on Muslims have increased threefold, according to recent analysis by a California State University research group. Still,across the country, young people, churches, and groups of all sorts are standing with their Muslim neighbors, and a majority of Americans believe that Muslim Americans are no more sympathetic to terrorists than other Americans.

That said, women continue to be the scapegoat for anti-abortion protesters, and contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act remains controversial. Women are also still paid about 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gap that has existed for the last decade. It’s worse for moms, who have to work an extra 155 days to make the same amount as dads. Only 14 percent of top leadership posts in Fortune 500 companies are held by women, according to CNNMoney. Congress is only slightly better, with just 20 percent of the seats in the House and Senate held by women.

5. Americans reassessed the U.S. role abroad. Can you spell Q-U-A-G-M-I-R-E?

The invasion of Iraq in 2004 was premised on the idea that the United States could remake the Middle East to its benefit, a goal spelled out by the Project for a New American Century. Instead, the nation’s longest war has crushed secular governments and largely destroyed national economies, leaving failed states, refugees, and extremists who thrive on chaos in its wake.

Attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have contributed to fears that the consequences of these wars are coming home, and yet many support still more U.S. military action. But more than 80 percent of Americans worry that this will simply draw us further into a protracted and costly engagement. This lose-lose circumstance makes this a time ripe for deeper conversations about the future of U.S. military action.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s ongoing drone war has turned out to be much the same as previous wars, generating many civilian casualties, much fear (terror even), and hate. Four former members of the U.S. Air Force recently warned the president, in an open letter quoted in the Guardian, that the killing of innocent civilians in drone airstrikes has acted as one of the most “devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.”

Big questions remain unanswered in the media: With so many of our allies contributing to the financial underpinnings of ISIS, why are we resorting to military rather than financial means to combat this threat? Also, as we move away from reliance on fossil fuels, might we also extricate ourselves from the politics of the Middle East and insist that Israel make a just peace with its neighbors?

6. The United States began a turn away from a prison state

A new consensus is emerging, across the political specturm, that the United States imprisons far too many people—2.2 million, the most in the world. The impacts of mass incarceration are far more dire in African American communities. For example, blacks are imprisoned at a rate 10 times higher than whites for drug offenses, even though whites and blacks use drugs at about the same rate.

An unlikely bipartisan coalition, including Van Jones and Newt Gingrich among others, is advocating for reduced sentences and alternatives to incarceration. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has reduced recommended prison terms for nonviolent offenses, and a bill introduced by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley would cut mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses.

In California, voters adopted Proposition 47 in November 2014. The new law reduces sentences for low-level drug and property offenses and diverts money saved to drug and mental health treatment, education, and trauma recovery services for crime victims. According to the ACLU, the proposition is already showing results: Prisons are less crowded and the state has diverted millions of dollars out of a prison system that costs the state $10 billion a year.

Reentry of those released from prison will be a major issue for years to come. Prop. 47 helps by allowing minor offenders a chance to clean their record. “Ban the box” campaigns prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their felony status before they’ve had a shot at an interview. And progressive cities, like Newark, New Jersey, under new mayor Ras Baraka, focus crime prevention efforts on helping former inmates find jobs and a new start after prison.

Our world is poised at the end of an era marked by the exhaustion of Mother Earth, state violence at home and abroad, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite. It’s clear that era is reaching its limits.

But what will characterize the next? The chaos that rises from failed states should serve as a warning to those who offer only cynicism and nihilism. Instead, grassroots activists and community builders everywhere are creating a hopeful future on the foundation of a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world. This year's weather extremes, the blowback from violence at home and abroad, and growing social movements around the country set the stage for a turnaround in 2016.

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder of YES! Magazine. Follow the Edge of Change Road Trip here, and connect with Sarah on Twitter @sarahvangelder.

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Six Hopeful Breakthroughs From 2015