The presidential election. Hurricane Sandy. Benghazi. The Petraeus scandal. The Colorado movie theater massacre. The tragic Sandy Hook shooting. The news this year, as usual, has been dominated by the usual assortment of disasters, mayhem, wrongdoing, and lunacy. Also as usual — and with the exception of President Obama's win over Mitt Romney — even these big stories tend to fade from the public consciousness pretty quickly. There's always something new that comes along to shock or titillate us.
But what about the big stories that don't even land on our radar — stories with deep, profound, and lasting impact on our lives, our well-being, and our planet? Because of their slow-moving nature, they lack drama and don't jump out at us. They should. From a long list of contenders, I've picked five stories — actually trends — that we should focus on more (but sadly won't) in 2013:
1. We're headed to the poorhouse
What's in your wallet? How about $5? That's how much half of all Americans in retirement will have for food each day, says a study outlining our perilously low savings rate. Ominously, 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. Golden years? Thirty grand might get you one year if you're a tightwad who doesn't get sick. In the old days, retirement was a three-legged stool: Folks had a pension, their own savings and, as a supplement, Social Security. Today, pensions are rapidly disappearing, or underfunded by trillions, and Social Security benefits are likely to get trimmed (higher eligibility ages, reduced benefits, or both). That means your personal savings — or lack thereof — looms ever larger. "Specifically, people ages 50 to 64 — 58 million in 2010 — will likely not have enough retirement assets to maintain their standard of living when they reach their mid-sixties," another study warns. Like a tsunami headed for shore, this problem isn't visible at first, and gets little attention from the media — but when it hits, watch out.
2. The depressingly broad erosion of public trust
Politicians are always accused (often rightfully so) of dishonesty, but this year's presidential campaign hit a new low, with charges of murder and thievery being tossed about quite flippantly. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, their opponents believed, were disgraceful, not to be trusted, and unfit to serve. It's even worse on Capitol Hill, where Congress is rated as honest and ethical by just 7 percent of Americans (must be family and friends). It's bad enough that political partisanship, at times immature, petty, and illogical, makes it difficult to solve our nation's complex and deeply rooted problems — but the breakdown of trust from the citizenry has made it all but impossible. And our contempt extends far beyond the beltway: Business executives, union leaders, lawyers, bankers, and journalists (present company hopefully excluded, of course) all fare poorly. Professions like these are important threads in the blanket of our civil society; its unraveling occurs at our peril.
3. Our unsettling failure to connect the dots
We often identify, and attempt to deal with, problems in isolated terms. But many of our most urgent problems are, in fact, linked, and making progress in one area can often yield advances in another. Connect the dots among the following problems: Median household income peaked in 1999. Rising health-care costs cripple economic competitiveness. Millions of jobs in some industries are being wiped out by technological advances and operating efficiency (robots on assembly lines, for example), while whole new industries spring up, creating millions of new positions. There were 3.7 million private-sector job openings in October, for example, that went unfilled because companies can't find workers with the right blend of skills and education.
Since we live in a society where someone must be blamed, some say companies are at fault. Others say mediocre schools are. Still others point the finger at individuals for learning skills that aren't marketable (who wants to hire a philosophy major?), or not wanting to take jobs perceived as being "beneath" them. Still others say rising health-care costs, which hurt both companies and workers, are the problem. If only things were that simple. In fact, a McKinsey & Co. study points to all of these factors and more. Too few Americans attend vocational schools that give them specific skills that employers seek, and will pay good money for. Companies, seeking to maintain profit margins, are reluctant to invest sufficiently worker training, and are passing more health-care costs onto workers. Bloated school systems aren't adapting fast enough to changing times. On and on and on. It's all related. The culprits are many, the problems complex. We need to start realizing this.
4. The water crisis
Enjoy your long shower this morning? For something that is literally essential to life, we take water for granted. Or at least we used to. But now, two-thirds of the United States is in severe drought, exacerbated by the warmest year on record for the U.S., which is drying up lakes, reservoirs — even the mighty Mississippi River. A growing population, and crumbling infrastructure aren't helping, either. A recent U.S. Geological survey said that we lose a staggering 1.7 trillion gallons of water each year — enough to supply 68 million Americans — because of aging, leaky pipelines and 650 water mains that burst each day. We can fix this, but it won't be cheap: The cost of upgrading our water infrastructure has been estimated at $1 trillion or more. And that's not all: U.S. security planners say water shortages abroad may spark future military conflicts among nations that are growing thirstier by the day.
5. The extinction crisis
Perhaps you've heard stories about how close many of our most well-known animals are to extinction: 97 percent of the world's tigers have been wiped out in the last century and the World Wildlife Fund warns the remainder could be gone in a decade or two. Ditto for elephants, sharks, and even the tiny honeybee, which is essential for pollinating our food sources.
But these are just the high-profile examples. Escaping the broader public's attention, warns the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is the possibility of "30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century." Not just animals, but plants that are critical for human life. Rain forests, coral reefs, grasslands, tundra, and the polar seas — these critical, life-enhancing ecosystems that humans take for granted are all at risk. It is, the CBD warns, the "worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago." Granted, some of this is natural, but human behavior — habitat destruction, pollution and yes, global warming — is accelerating the process. Here's where the above-mentioned public distrust of authority rears its ugly head once more: Although few Americans have knowledge in basic sciences, it hasn't stopped us from challenging or dismissing the peer-review findings of those who do. We don't want to invest in addressing a slow-moving catastrophe like this because it's just too hard to focus or acknowledge something that isn't top of mind. Too bad for us.
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. In my next column, I'll focus on 5 encouraging trends we can all be hopeful about. Happy New Year.
Editor's note: The article originally mistakenly attributed a quote to Albert Einstein. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.