Reasons to Be Optimistic about 2024 (Seriously)
Believe it or not, the world is not going to end tomorrow. In fact, with help from BU faculty, we found plenty of reasons for hope about climate change, mental health, the Middle East, democracy, healthcare, public education, journalism, AI, abortion, and more.
Sometimes it feels like the world is one long, sad trombone sound—wah-wah-wah-wah. The planet’s melting. Democracy’s dying. Our mental health is worsening. The Middle East is at war. AI is going to take all our jobs. Education’s deteriorating. Healthcare’s a fortune. Journalism doesn’t matter anymore. Inflation, inflation, inflation. Oh yeah, and the T is down—again!
Whoa. But hang on. What if we all turned the world upside down? Looked at everything from an alternative perspective? That’s how we wanted to kick off the year. Thanks to the help of a range of faculty experts from across Boston University, we now have all sorts of reasons to feel optimistic about 2024 and beyond.
There are lots of reasons to be pessimistic about climate change: the slow pace of policy change at the national and international levels, resistance and challenges around phasing out fossil fuel use, the very real existential threats to life and the natural world from storms, sea level rise, and droughts. But Pamela Templer, a biologist who studies the effects of climate change, sees reasons to be optimistic that the worst can still be avoided.
“I see students taking action all the time. They recognize that climate change is already affecting their lives and, if something isn’t done soon to change course, their futures will be widely affected by the negative effects of climate change,” says Templer, a College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of biology. In November 2023, she attended the UN global climate summit with two PhD students, both of whom were there to engage with activists and scientists about their research and help further the climate action conversation.
“I’m seeing youth use their voices to ensure they are heard, whether they are taking actions locally on the Boston University campus or showing up and participating at international meetings,” Templer says. “We can’t ignore their voices—with youth voices, we are more likely to make changes that are effective and will secure their futures.”
Photo via iStock/FilippoBacci
The mounting court cases against former president Donald Trump. The (advanced) age of the two presumed front-runners in the 2024 presidential election. The gallons of spilled ink over the seemingly inevitable demise of democracy from news organizations and political think tanks across the country. To the casual observer, all of this (*gestures broadly*) may give the impression that democracy is in a free fall.
Don’t let the noise fool you, though, says Michael Holm, College of General Studies senior lecturer in social sciences and department chair. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about democracy this year.
“People talk as if we live in unprecedented times, and they make it sound like this moment is worse than any previous moment we’ve faced. But if you think about the mid-18th century, or the mid-19th century, it was much worse in terms of antagonistic forces. People have forgotten that, because their own era always feels more threatening than earlier periods.”
Holm’s assessment is that the more extreme political fringes—on the left and the right—are getting more airtime than they have in the past. These relatively small groups “can only offer doom and gloom,” he says, though they rarely have the political will to follow through. “I’m optimistic that the system will prevail.”
That’s because the “forces of democracy tend to be positive,” Holm says, even if they’re slow-moving or encounter setbacks. “The notion that we have a system of debate and discussion does result in net positive outcomes.”
Photo via Unsplash/Element5 Digital
Be optimistic about the T? That’s funny. But the more we thought about it, and once we enlisted the help of Kristian Klinger, BU’s vice president of Auxiliary Services, we realized we were being too Debbie Downer. We have to trust new MBTA General Manager and CEO Phillip Eng and look at a number of moves or strategic decisions that show the fresh approach the T is taking.
- Planned service disruptions to upgrade or repair tracks or signals are a lot better than unplanned disruptions for safety or technical reasons. You know it’s coming, you can adjust your commute accordingly.
- The T honestly is getting faster. The MBTA’s dashboard showed in December that the percentage of slow-down zones on its tracks due to repairs are going down; 43 speed restrictions were eliminated.
- The MBTA hired almost 1,500 new employees in 2023, along with new leadership who insist their goal is improving the system, not just fixing it.
- Comm Ave, especially between the BU Bridge and Kenmore, will continue to become more accessible, with more plans to improve safety for all road users (including more accessible curb cuts, shorter crossing distances, and protected bike lanes).
- The T aims to launch a new fare collection system and, Klinger says, “BU is discussing ways in which fare programs (for employees and students) can be made more flexible.”
- Seniors save, as University employees age 65 or older will receive a significant discount on an MBTA monthly pass. Sign up for a “reduced fare” pass via BUworks, Klinger says.
Photo via iStock/APCortizasJr
Middle East Peace
The war between Israel and Hamas has killed tens of thousands: the 1,200 who died in Hamas’ attack last October 7, the tens of thousands of Gazans killed by Israel’s retaliatory offensive. It has ruptured the sense of safety of some American Jews and, in some cases, their political alliance with former progressive allies.
Yet, Thomas Berger, a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies professor of international relations, sees two faint hopes.
First, for all the bloodshed, the region’s “dominant geopolitical divide” is not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Sunni Islam states led by Saudi Arabia and Shiite ones led by Iran. “The Sunni states see Israel as a major potential ally, and vice versa,” Berger says. “A Saudi-Israeli normalization of relations”—under negotiation before the war paused it—remains “in both Israeli and Saudi interests.”
Second, amid global outcries over Gazan deaths, “Israel knows that it cannot afford to alienate the United States, and the West in general, without risking becoming a pariah state—a sort of Zionist North Korea,” Berger says. “At some point, Israel will feel compelled to suspend its military operations and revive a diplomatic dialogue with the Palestinians.”
He adds: “Let us hope it happens soon.”
Photo via iStock/alexsl
In 2022, the US Supreme Court gave us Dobbs, a ruling that overturned abortion protections afforded by Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. In 2023, Texas’ top court ruled against a woman who sought an abortion for a medical emergency. Now, if you’re wondering what fresh hell 2024 will bring, despair not. There are, actually, lots of reasons to be optimistic.
“The short version is: anytime abortion is on the ballot, all the arrows point in the same direction, which is toward protecting access to care,” says Nicole Huberfeld, the School of Law and School of Public Health Edward R. Utley Professor of Health Law, and codirector of the BU Program on Reproductive Justice.
This has played out in a few ways, Huberfeld says. In 2022 and 2023—and coming up in 2024—there were direct referenda (in the form of ballot initiatives) to clarify that state constitutions, including those in Kentucky and Kansas, did not protect access to abortion care. Both were rejected by voters. In other states, voters similarly rejected measures that would have made it more difficult to pass a constitutional amendment protecting abortion. And, in still others, voters passed amendments to state constitutions that actively protect abortion access.
Another arrow pointing toward protecting abortion appears in political campaigns, Huberfeld says. “When politicians have made abortion an issue in their campaigning, it has been clear that voters do not want more restrictions on abortion,” she says. “So, for example, people were watching Virginia in the 2023 off-cycle election, because the governor was saying that if Republicans take the legislature, they’re going to limit access to abortion, because they didn’t want Virginia to be an abortion destination state for the South. Well, guess what? Republicans didn’t take the legislature. So, that promise backfired, because that wasn’t what voters wanted.”
Photo via Unsplash/Gayatri Malhotra
Even after yet another campaign to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts—not to mention the looming threat posed by generative AI software—the most debilitating blow to the arts sector in recent history was the simple inability to attend events in person. According to Douglas DeNatale, director of the Arts Administration MS program at BU’s Metropolitan College, the seismic changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic can be blamed for the near-collapse of live theater and the protracted recovery of live music.
There’s plenty of reason for pessimism, DeNatale admits. “But there is an equally strong case for optimism, for the simple reason that the arts have an infinite capacity for reinvention.” In other words, these challenges have forced arts administrators to get creative when it comes to supporting artists—and creativity just happens to be their strong suit.
“The [arts] sector found a new capacity to demand equal support from the government, and while US pandemic funding for the arts initially lagged behind other countries, pressure from the sector eventually resulted in significant government support,” DeNatale says. “Ironically, a number of nonprofit arts organizations…emerged from the pandemic in better financial shape than before.”
Meanwhile, artists are reaching new audiences by curating streaming and digital programming in addition to in-person offerings.
“Some theater troupes, like Natick’s Arlekin Players, succeeded in creating playful critically acclaimed interactive theater—even within the constraints of Zoom,” he says. “Boston Baroque displayed creative arts management by inking deals with streaming platforms that brought in a significant new revenue stream.”
And then there’s that pesky AI. Rather than fear the threat of intellectual property theft and job loss, DeNatale sees innovative potential in AI.
“I challenged the students in my Technology and Arts Administration course to experiment with generative AI to create an arts management–related project, and the results were truly astounding—from a compelling, fully realized pitch for a new theatrical production to a vision for a multilayered interactive production of Swan Lake in the public square,” he says.
Photo by Will Chapman
You’d be forgiven for thinking America is a terrible place to get sick these days, with bleak headlines proclaiming the United States as having some of the most expensive, least effective, most inequitable healthcare in the world.
Those are very real challenges, but there’s even greater reason for hope, too, according to Sandro Galea, School of Public Health dean and Robert A. Knox Professor and a healthcare optimist: “There has never been a healthier time to live in this country,” he says.
He recently coauthored a JAMA Health Forum paper making the case for being more upbeat about American healthcare. The United States, he wrote, has succeeded in the past century in helping us all live much longer—around 30 years longer—and in narrowing the life expectancy gap between Black and white people.
“We have had blips,” he says, “COVID among them, but our trajectory is positive, and one expects that we will continue to improve not just length of life, but [also] quality of life.”
Pushing us forward, Galea says, are technological innovations like artificial intelligence, which has the potential to positively impact our physical and mental well-being, and the work being done at BU and beyond to tackle the health impacts of structural inequities, climate change, and infectious diseases.
“If you were to choose any time in history to be alive, you should choose tomorrow,” says Galea. “Because the world is getting better, and healthier.”
Photo via Unsplash/CDC
No one is exactly celebrating the economy. There are simply too many unknown risks lingering around the world—namely two wars, China’s future, and the stubbornly high cost of basic necessities like groceries and rent. But numbers don’t lie. And the so-called “soft landing” the government hoped to achieve looks more and more likely (some economists even say it’s already occurred). Tarek Hassan, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of economics, says there is much more to be bullish about in 2024 than almost anyone expected.
“The pandemic of 2020-2022 caused massive disruption to supply chains around the world and made it harder to produce goods,” Hassan says. “This led to high inflation in all major economies, with the prices of goods jumping up.” One 2022 Bloomberg headline read: “Forecast for US Recession Within Year Hits 100% in Blow to Biden.”
Whoops. But the good news, Hassan says, is that things have been getting better over the last year and will continue to improve in 2024. Supply chains have normalized around the world and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates just enough to cool down demand.
“It looks like this is beginning to work. Inflation at the end of 2023 was at around 3 percent, less than half of what it was at the beginning of the year,” he says, and a far cry from the 2022 peak of close to 9 percent. “It looks like this trend will keep going, and we could see even lower inflation in 2024. We don’t want the inflation rate to drop to zero, but I am hopeful we will get closer to the Fed’s target of 2 percent yearly inflation this coming year.”
In 2022, Hassan says, most people thought a recession was inevitable and unemployment would remain high. “Now,” he says, “I am very hopeful a recession can be avoided.”
Photo by via Unsplash/engin akyurt
The common fear about generative artificial intelligence (AI for short) is that it will eventually get smarter than we are and take over the world in a sort of cyber doomsday of the kind usually seen in sci-fi movies. There are closer and perhaps more substantive concerns about deep fakes in politics, job losses (including for artists), copyright protections, and other issues. But don’t worry, says Azer Bestavros, associate provost for computing and data sciences and a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor. Some of these fears are overblown, others have built-in solutions, and the upsides of AI are far greater than the downsides.
The doomsday takeover is simply not possible, says Bestavros, who is also founding director of the Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering. “AI itself cannot be creative, it cannot just take over the world,” he says. “I understand the anxiety, but I’m optimistic that maybe people are going to wake up from the nightmare, realize there is nothing to worry about. This is like all technologies—it’s going to improve efficiency, it’s going to enable us to do less of the things we don’t want to do and more of the things we want to do. It is going to impact some jobs, sure. But it’s also creating new jobs and creating opportunities. And I don’t know, maybe we’ll all work four days a week because of this. So, maybe society will be better because of this.”
He notes that AI can be used to catch deep fake videos, and that there are already well-documented benefits of generative AI, such as dramatically speeding up scientific discovery of new drugs.
On a more prosaic level, he notes, “I think about how much time I put in my career to make nice PowerPoint presentations. Worry about the formatting, get the pictures, all that stuff. And now you can tell it, here’s the article, put all that stuff on a PowerPoint. I’m not going to use what it produces, but it’s a good start.”
“I’m optimistic that last year was a year where the genie’s out of the bottle, and people can actually use ChatGPT and realize what this thing is capable of doing,” he says.
Photo via Unsplash/Emiliano Vittoriosi
Mental Health’s Stigma
The pandemic and its lockdowns only worsened the country’s mental health crisis. The most recent Healthy Minds Study found that more than 60 percent of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health symptom in 2021. Kara Cattani, director of Behavioral Medicine at Student Health Services, isn’t disheartened by this sobering statistic. She believes the country is making progress and that society is headed toward “greater awareness and acceptance that mental health matters,” as well as “improving access and equity for mental health services.”
Nationally, she says, there is greater awareness surrounding mental health than ever before, which should help reduce the long-standing stigma and help people connect to needed support. “We see this in increasing numbers of students seeking treatment, increasing the prevalence of mental health discussions across campuses and in the news, and in the advocacy for systemic change and prevention by influential officials, like the Surgeon General,” Cattani says. Research on mental health treatment continues to expand—giving experts more tools at their disposal—and there’s been “a lot of energy and effort” looking at how technology can support mental health and treatment interventions.
At BU, Cattani applauds how faculty and staff are working to improve their understanding of how to respond to the mental health needs of students, with the help of Student Health Services new and existing programming. She cites examples, like academic departments requesting coaching on trauma-informed teaching, filled-to-capacity Terriers Connect suicide prevention trainings, collaborations with Residence Life to provide more mental health skills training for RAs, a new peer listening program, and an upcoming mental health roundtable on campus (planned with the Dean of Students office).
Last, Cattani says her team is dedicated to not only treating mental health issues across the general population, but also to helping those students with unique needs, those who have been historically underserved, and vulnerable populations. She cites their ongoing collaboration with the Newbury Center to provide a weekly support group for first-gen students, and a new support group for trans and nonbinary students called TRANScendence. “I feel optimistic that we are making progress in the area of mental health,” she says.
Photo via Unsplash/Mitch
There would be a lot more headlines bemoaning the death of local journalism if, well, a few more newspapers had survived to print them. Nearly 3,000 local papers have perished since 2004, according to the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, a contraction of 39 percent. In the meantime, newspaper employment has shrunk 70 percent, suggesting that even the survivors are struggling.
“The business model wasn’t disrupted,” says Brian McGrory, chair of the College of Communication journalism department, “it was entirely crushed.” As advertising revenue dried up, outlets struggled to convert print readers into paying online subscribers. “We had this insipid phrase many years ago that information wants to be free,” he says. “It doesn’t.”
McGrory had a front-row seat for this tumultuous period, editing the Boston Globe (the paper he once delivered growing up in Weymouth) for a decade before joining COM in 2023. Despite plenty of reasons for pessimism, he sees signs of hope for local journalism. “There’s definitely a stronger inclination to pay for journalism,” he says. At the Globe, that’s translated into a near 250 percent increase in online subscriptions since 2018. Elsewhere, communities are rallying behind nonprofit journalism start-ups as they pioneer a new financial model. In eastern Massachusetts, the New Bedford Light (est. 2021), the Concord Bridge (est. 2022), and the Newton Beacon (est. 2023) are recent examples of this new breed of newsroom.
At COM, McGrory is eager to help these new outlets become sustainable. On January 25, he hosted a one-day boot camp for newsroom start-ups, covering topics that ranged from cultivation of donors to how to avoid being sued. And, on February 14, COM will host a panel discussion, Saving Local Journalism.
“BU has to be at the forefront of this,” McGrory says. “We’re doing it for society and we’re doing it for our students. We want them to have opportunities when they leave BU to work for successful news organizations.”
Photo via Unsplash/The Climate Reality Project
At a time when LGBTQ+ rights are increasingly under attack around the country, the importance of safe spaces for the queer community can’t be underestimated. Therefore, we present one other bright spot in 2024: BU’s brand-new LGBTQIA+ Student Resource Center, which officially opened in December 2023.
The professionally staffed center, housed at 808 Commonwealth Ave., serves as a resource and community space for students, clubs, and intersectional identity groups. Features include a multipurpose room for meetings and events, study spots, lounge spaces, and views of downtown Boston. The center is the result of a yearslong collaboration between the Dean of Students office, BU Student Government, the president’s and provost’s offices, and student activists.
Like its downstairs neighbor, the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, the new space “is going to be able to host a lot of types of programming—education, celebration, community-building, intersectional-identity exploration—[and] I’d love to see it used in similar ways,” says Dean of Students Jason Campbell-Foster. “It’s really a space to celebrate community.”
The LGBTQIA+ Student Resource Center is on floor 2M of 808 Commonwealth Ave., and it’s open Monday to Friday, 9:30 am to 5 pm. Learn more about the center and how to get involved by visiting its website.
Photo via Unsplash/Sophie Emeny
Between widespread teacher shortages, politically driven attacks on public education, and challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, optimism can feel fleeting when looking at the state of America’s schools. But here is one area where hope exists—inclusive education for students with disabilities.
The right to a free and appropriate education was not always guaranteed for students with disabilities in the United States, says the BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development’s Lindsey A. Chapman, special education program director and lecturer. For decades, students with disabilities were isolated, excluded, and segregated from their peers in school.
Today, thanks in large part to legislative protections and continued advocacy by disability activists, greater attention is being given to ensuring that all students with disabilities have access to high-quality and inclusive educational experiences. Districts like the Boston Public Schools, having recognized long-standing and systemic inequities in the ways students with disabilities are identified, educated, and disciplined in the district, have committed to engaging systemic change in this area. The BPS plan includes an expansion of teaching and learning models in general education classrooms to support students with disabilities, including team teaching with licensed general and special education teachers. Chapman says this work is far from over, but she says it is important to remember that we’ve come a long way over the last half-century.
“Inclusion and educational equity for students with disabilities in our educational system are pressing social justice issues, and there is growing movement and recognition of the need to make progress on this front,” Chapman says. “In other words, it feels like it is finally on people’s radars.”
Photo via Unsplash/CDC