3 Problems That Just Disappeared (That Actually Didn’t)
Despite our belief that we are the ultimate rational creature, the human population truly loves a good, widespread panic. Sometimes, it’s well-deserved, but other times, not so much. For every genuine disaster, there’s one more akin to the satanic panic of the 1990s that had everyone believing their dear sweet child was at risk of being sliced up as an offering by a bejeweled dagger clutched in the hand of a metalhead. Nowadays, most people know that if you see somebody in a Cannibal Corpse T-shirt, any sacrifices they’ve been involved in probably occurred in a game of Magic: the Gathering.
Some other global crises, since averted, are mentioned in the same tone as these blunders, when in reality, the danger was very real. A laughing recollection of some near-miss with a “whatever happened to that?” probably is enough to pop a vein in the forehead of the people who are responsible for keeping those happenings from being entirely less funny. Maybe it’s just a natural human response, the same nervous, relieved laughter that might occur after a tire pops off the back of a truck and almost Final Destinations everyone on your spring-break trip.
Some of these near-disasters “just disappeared” the same way a bullet “disappears” after ricocheting off a soldier’s helmet. Out of sight, out of mind, but that mind came pretty fucking close to getting airholed.
Y2K is one of a certain generation’s favorite punchlines. The technological apocalypse that had everyone filling their basements with bottled water and wet wipes came with a very convenient deadline, and when the sun rose the next day on a functional society, everyone seemed to assume it had all been a load of hooey. If you’re too young to remember what the problem was, it was a devastating reckoning sprouting from a tiny timesaver chosen by early tech: storing dates in computers with a two-digit year value — MM/DD/YY. This is all fine and dandy except that two digits are, quite notably, incapable of displaying three digits, meaning that the page-turn that was supposed to happen between 1999 and 2000 would instead send every computer rocketing back to the beginning of the calendar due to an integer overflow.
This would have been a simple inconvenience if the same computer systems that believed it was the year zero-zero didn’t have to reconcile that information with every file and document they’d ever created that now, in their electronic mind, occurred in the future. When the millennium turned without incident, the general reaction seemed to be, “See, computers are smart! They figured it out!” Which couldn’t be further from the truth. The mostly uneventful entrance into the year 2000 was the product of years of work by tech and IT experts, who had quietly realized the problem and had been working to fix it for almost a decade.
Thanks to their efforts, we didn’t enter a Mad Max film on New Year’s Day, but isolated failures proved it was far from a hoax or overreaction — like when the computer systems at a nuclear power in Pennsylvania, right on schedule at 0000 hours on January 1st, 2000, all simultaneously crashed. For the next seven hours, the workers had to rely on old manual gauges to measure things like temperature and pressure in the reactor core, and considered shutting the whole plant down until the error in the Y2K-proofed system was identified and corrected.
The Hole in the Ozone Layer
Nobody except the most leaden-headed conservatives is genuinely acting like global warming is not both happening and a serious threat to our continued existence, but one particular piece of vocabulary seems to have disappeared: the ozone layer. For years, discussions about the dangers of climate change seemed to be entirely centered around the Swiss-cheesing of this particular atmospheric layer, allowing more harmful UVB light from the sun to pass through to the earth. The complete drop-off of the word ozone in any talks about the threats of climate change might make you think there was a change in terminology, or that the theory was invalidated.
For once, the truth is actually a bit cheerier: We don’t hear about the ozone layer anymore because we fixed it (or at least, are well on our way to fixing it). In 1987, through an antiquated process known as “cooperation,” the Montreal Protocol was put into place by the United Nations. The Montreal Protocol, full name The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, was an agreement signed by 197 countries to phase out the use of all manner of ozone-depleting substances, and by god, it worked. It’s been called the most successful environmental treaty ever, and as of January 2023, the ozone layer is on track to recover to levels of health not seen since 1980. You’d think people would make more of a rare environmental win, but that would involve admitting that global efforts to fix existential dangers are actually worth it.
Let’s take a look at a quote from the New York Times: “The outbreak highlighted many national weaknesses: old, slow vaccine technology; too much reliance on foreign vaccine factories; some major hospitals pushed to their limits…”
This quote, and the problems it’s discussing, might sound pretty current, but they aren’t from a recent article. They’re from 2010, when the H1N1 virus, known as Swine Flu, was on the downswing. A pandemic that, until recently, for anyone not directly connected to the roughly 13,000 Americans who died from it, might have been considered a classic overreaction. For the first two items in this list, blowing them off isn’t going to do much other than maybe make you sound under-informed in a friendly bar argument. Unfortunately, the country waving off the swine flu’s successful containment as a flawless victory, even though it was due in large part to a series of lucky breaks like a generally low lethality rate despite infecting one in five people worldwide and a more effective vaccine than expected, well, that hasn’t worked out great.
It’s like somebody almost getting pancaked by a falling A/C unit, going “that was close,” and then reinstalling the A/C unit in the exact same way, with the same shitty screws. Surely, this time we’ll learn?