September 7 | Written by Mitali Shukla

After roughly six months of the global pandemic, our country’s state of affairs only seems to be getting worse. The entirety of 2020 has been almost everyone’s worst year, but it is also the year of reckoning: fires ravaged 2.5 million acres in California, the U.S. police killed 781 people and over 193,000 people have died from COVID-19. 

America is burning. It has been for a while, long before the pandemic granted us time and isolated space to reflect on the severity of it.

The match that started the fire was struck long ago. Although these three societal problems are at the forefront of my mind, everything is interconnected. 

Americans have the audacity to only now be surprised when entire communities in Washington, California and Oregon are wiped out by fires directly correlated with climate change and global warming. These “unprecedented” circumstances were ignored when President Donald Trump decided to revive the coal industry and roll back former President Barack Obama-era protections against toxic waste in our rivers and streams, or when we pulled out of the 2019 Paris Climate Agreement. As one of the biggest carbon polluters in history, the U.S. is responsible for roughly one-third of the world’s excess carbon dioxide. 

Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice established the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit in 2015 to focus on pandemics and epidemics like the Ebola virus, only to be disbanded by the Trump administration in 2018. Trump went on record with American investigative journalist Bob Woodward in March saying he wanted to downplay the threat of the virus. Meanwhile, U.S. politicians sold their stocks in January and February before the COVID-19 recession; they all knew exactly how bad this would get, and they did nothing except minimize the impact on their pockets. At the same time, more than 55 million Americans filed for benefits in the past six months, while billionaires received an additional $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic as a byproduct of stay-at-home orders and associated purchases. 

This increasing gap between the disenfranchised and the privileged has been carefully orchestrated for years. The idea that the clock struck midnight on New Year’s and we were hexed by the universe specifically this year is naive. This particular situation took years in the making and was cultivated to steal from the working class that make billionaires rich. This year is the accumulation of years of mistakes, or depending on your views, purposeful attacks on marginalized communities.

And here we are. College students trying to grasp some sense of normalcy. As a sociology major, I think back to one of the terms I learned in my introductory classes, “wicked problems”  that are socially and culturally constructed, and “are difficult or impossible to solve for four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.” 

No matter what you study, we are all solving the world’s problems. Dancers and filmmakers are solving the problem of people needing an escape from the real world; biologists and health scientists are solving the problem of disease and sickness; journalists are solving the problem of the need for disseminated, comprehensive information.

Now that I’m in my last semester of college, I feel like I should be better equipped to address these issues, but it seems as though all of America’s problems are wicked problems. The purpose of education is to create an output of citizens who are able to push through obstacles. And who is more prepared to solve these problems than the people with the information fresh in their minds, possessing a diverse repertoire of academics? 

What I’m trying to get at is that although we are overwhelmed with wicked problems, we have never in our history held more information and expertise in our fields of study. Although we feel powerless as regular college students, in the last six months we have done our best to hold our institutions accountable and demand an end to marginalization. We may not be our ancestors, but we have so much more than they once did. It would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of what we have now and use it to stomp out the flame.