St. Olaf Magazine | Winter 2020

Everything’s Going To Be Okay

Take it from the experts: our future is bright! Here are six reasons for optimism.

To hear it from the prime time newscasters, our world is in dire shape. Our digital privacy? Nonexistent. Our citizens? An aging economic burden. Don’t get us started on the climate.

And yet.

And yet when we asked alumni and faculty experts in those exact fields about the future they saw, they shared a more nuanced view.

Behind all of those bad headlines were sparks of promising change, heartening trends, and, yes, even a few reasons for optimism.

Here’s what makes St. Olaf experts look ahead with hope.

Reason for Optimism #1: Our aging population is the result of good investments — and our secret superpower.

Some call it a silver tsunami. Others call it a demographic time bomb. The reality is that our population as a whole is getting older. We’re living longer, and we’re not having as many kids as we did in the past.

While economists fret about the implications of this shift on everything from Social Security to Medicare, Beth Truesdale ’97, a sociologist and research associate for the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, says the bleak headlines sidestep a larger and far more important truth. “We overlook what a monumental accomplishment aging societies actually are,” she says. “We overlook how very fortunate all of us are to be living right now.”

American babies born in 1880, for example, had an average lifespan of 40 years. A baby born today, by contrast, will likely live to nearly 80. What does she credit for this doubling? Truesdale says we can look to the way public and private systems have worked together to make vast strides in areas such as public health, nutrition, and education.

At the same time, birthrates have plummeted. As late as the 1950s, the number of children being born per woman in the United States was about three. Today, that number hovers below two. What’s the cause? Truesdale notes that birthrates tend to fall in tandem with infant mortality rates. “People think, ‘My children are more likely to grow up to become adults.’ And then they start having fewer babies.”

While there’s no question that there are costs to an aging society, Truesdale says the advantages are enormous, and we’re just beginning to harness them. “People are able to contribute economically if they’re able to work longer, but also they’re able to contribute to their communities as volunteers and as citizens for a longer time,” she says. “Often people have terrific skills that they are bringing as a result of lifelong experience. That’s an enormous resource for communities and for the United States as a whole to be able to tap.”

Reason for Optimism #2: We’ve accepted the reality of climate change — and it’s not yet too late to change course.

For years, Associate Professor of Practice in Biology Diane Angell felt like she was fighting an unwinnable battle. She had spent decades teaching her students about climate change, but the lessons she was sharing in the classroom weren’t ones that seemed to resonate much beyond it.

“We would look at the statistics of people in the United States who believed that the climate was changing, and that number didn’t really budge for about 15 years,” she says.

And then, suddenly, it did. Over the past four or five years — as people began experiencing extreme weather events, from hurricanes to fires to Minnesota’s increasingly soggy seasons — Angell saw that scientists’ messages were finally sinking in. According to Climate Change in the American Mind (Yale University and George Mason University: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication), today 73 percent of people believe climate change is happening, significantly higher than the 57 percent who believed the same in 2010.

That shift in public opinion is essential, says Angell, because you can’t fix a problem that you don’t believe you have. “The science was done a long time ago, but I think scientists understand now that we can’t do our research in isolation anymore. We need to bring it into the public realm and have real conversations with our communities.”

Megan Behnke ’16, a biogeochemist and Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University, adds that this shift in public opinion has carried with it a level of activism she finds inspiring. Many states are working to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in ways consistent with the Paris Agreement, for example. In her hometown of Juneau, Alaska, a group of concerned citizens started Renewable Juneau, a grassroots organization that seeks to reduce fossil fuel emissions by 80 percent and has created a local carbon offset program

“There are hundreds of examples of ordinary people saying, ‘I’m going to start fixing this myself,’ ” Behnke says. “And grassroots change like that is the most effective way to change how our society interacts with its environment.”

Such work is important because, despite public proclamations to the contrary, it’s never too late to make real change. While there are some important thresholds that scientists worry about — for example, when we reach certain levels of carbon dioxide emissions, the result may be less like walking down the climate hill and more like falling off of a climate cliff — Behnke says that shouldn’t stop us from taking action. “Even if you fall off a cliff, you wind your way back. You find a ladder, and you work your way back to the top of the cliff.”

Climate change has often felt like nothing but bad news, but Behnke says the shifts she sees are worth being optimistic about. “Yes, climate change can be scary. But as a society, I think we’re finally starting to ask, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ ”

Reason for Optimism #3: We still appreciate the value of live performance.

We live in the age of streaming services: first Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon; now Disney+ and Apple+, and Peacock. With so much incredible programming available to us for the price of a couple coffees (and no further away than our laptops), is live theater still relevant?

The numbers resoundingly confirm theater’s abiding popularity — and the Jungle Theater’s artistic director, Sarah Rasmussen ’01, says attendees’ increasing sophistication about the medium’s possibilities make her as optimistic as she’s ever been. “People do engage in a meditative space here. They turn off their phones. They’re together, in community with each other. It feels ancient in a way, and it’s also hopeful.”

The Jungle is doing a booming business these days, a trend that mirrors the industry as a whole: a study published in 2018 by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the share of adults who attended visual or performing arts activities had climbed 3.6 percentage points since 2012; last year, Broadway’s attendance was up 9.5 percent from the previous season.

Rasmussen says attendees understand the value of being in the same space as the performers and other audience members, which leads to a fundamentally different experience from watching a screen by yourself. “Do I laugh at something I see at home alone on my laptop? Sometimes,” Rasmussen says. “But being in an audience, someone will start laughing, and that will make me laugh. There’s a different energy, a different sense of listening.”

That laughter is empathy in action — and theater can evoke it in larger ways: When theater brings up something challenging or uncomfortable, audience members can’t just turn away. Not only must they engage with an idea, but they experience others in the room doing the same. “You listen with a sense of curiosity: what is the person next to you thinking about this?” That sense of community is more than mental. Research led by the UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences has shown that during a live performance, audience members’ heartbeats actually start to beat together.

In what can feel like an increasingly divided world, developing that sense of connection, even with those who are very different from us, is a worthy pursuit. Theatergoers understand that. And it’s why those rising numbers are valuable well beyond the dollars and cents.

“Being intentional about spaces where we can come together, where we can be surprised, and where we can both connect more deeply to ourselves and each other, that’s important,” says Rasmussen. “I think it’s more necessary than ever.”

Reason for Optimism #4: Individuals are getting significantly more “security literate.”

Plenty of hackers have found the path to our personal information: Yahoo, Equifax, and Target have all been breached in recent years, spilling our confidential information to just about anyone who wants it. So it may come as a surprise to some that there is someone worth trusting these days: yourself.

St. Olaf’s information security officer, Kendall George, says that a combination of better education about the importance of security and perhaps some hard-won experience has made us all a little savvier. “People understand now that they need a stronger password. They’ve adapted to two-factor authentication [a combination of a password and additional personal verification, such as a fingerprint or a one-time PIN],” says George. “I don’t really hear grumbling about it.”

Even more than that, people are getting smarter about suspicious emails. According to the highly regarded Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, click-through rates on phishing simulations plunged from 24 percent to 3 percent in just 7 years.

It’s not just that we’re no longer being duped by the story of the Nigerian prince who promises a big payoff. It’s that we’re bringing a more appropriate level of skepticism to unexpected emails in our inbox. “People are less likely to click [links] or open attachments when something looks ‘phishy,’ ” George says. “They’re not falling for messages that look suspicious.”

So, while the bad guys might never give up, we can at least know that these days, we’re not our own worst enemy. “Education efforts are working,” says Kendall. “And that’s why that trend is moving in the right direction.”

Reason for Optimism #5: We’re finding ways to bring new conversations to older music.

You don’t have to tell Oles that choral music has the power to unite communities and change lives — an appreciation for music might as well be inscribed in Oles’ DNA. In a world that’s becoming more open to the ideas and music from diverse populations, music’s powerful influence is as strong as ever. Yet plenty of people are beginning to wonder where, exactly, the music typically found within the context of the traditional choral canon fits in.

For Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, visiting instructor in music and conductor of the St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus, the answer is right alongside some of the most current works by groundbreaking composers. Since arriving at St. Olaf in 2018, he’s been pulling together musical selections that are part of the traditional canon and contrasting them with current pieces that challenge those existing norms.

Recently, for example, the Viking Chorus performed the world premiere of the conversation-starting composition No Color, with lyrics including:

No color

No color can come between us

No shade to be thrown

No turn to be taken to demean us

No hue of hate to be shown

In conjunction with the performance, the piece’s nationally renowned composers, Shawn Kirchner and Stacey V. Gibbs, traveled to campus to participate in open dialogue with the Viking Chorus on how they conceptualized the composition. The composers shared with the students that while some people who hear the words “No Color” or “colorblind” find it to be a positive attribute, the opposite is also true. It was an entry point, says Wondemagegnehu, into what can often be a difficult conversation.

“This gave us an opportunity during our rehearsals to jump into dialogue and hear how each of us define the word ‘colorblind.’ We began to process what it means to see somebody else’s race and differences while acknowledging our own,” says Wondemagegnehu. “Because of these conversations and experiences, we grew as an ensemble. Singing the African American spiritual Steal Away — music I consider to be a major part of the choral canon — with new eyes and hearts created a such a rich experience for all of us. And to top it off, we even got to collaborate on Steal Away with the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus. So many beautiful intersections, all introduced by beginning the conversation.”

For 2020, Wondemagegnehu hopes to include an excerpt of Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom, a choral piece written in 1943 using Thomas Jefferson’s words. “The Thomas Jefferson we know today is a profound and problematic character,” he says. “So how do we program that piece in context with broader social justice initiatives? That’s where the innovation can take place.”

In the end, Wondemagegnehu says, the goal is to have an ongoing conversation with older works to understand what they can continue to offer in a world that looks vastly different from the one in which they were created. “We can have different conversations about these pieces of music now,” he says. “And that’s something that allows them to live even longer.”

Reason for Optimism #6: Video games are becoming more inclusive — and open-hearted.

No matter how you slice it, video games are big business. In 2018 alone, global video game revenue topped $43 billion, surpassing the total global box office for the film industry by a cool $2 billion.

But video games are still fighting plenty of negative stereotypes: that they’re misogynistic, violent, and focused on grim storylines that center on dominating, destroying, and stealing.

Associate Professor of English Rebecca Richards says there’s plenty to be concerned about — but there are also remarkably encouraging changes within the larger videogame landscape. “Today we have more game developers who are creating games that are challenging that dominant narrative of what a video game is.”

Part of the reason for this shift is the non-intuitive demographics of video games: a full 48 percent of gamers are women.

While you’ll find them playing all the big-budget games that are making headlines — Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat, for examplethey’re also very well represented in puzzle games (think Monument Valley) and digital collectible card games (such as Hearthstone).

Those eye-popping numbers are attracting a wider range of video game developers to the field itself — and giving those developers all the incentive they need to develop games that flip the dominant narrative of violent games on its head.

Take, for instance, the game Flower. “There are no words and no people in the game,” Richards says. “You play as the wind, going through different landscapes and picking up flower petals. As you pick up more flower petals, you regenerate the land and bring it back from decay.”

The game is meditative, beautiful, and musically gorgeous. No one dies. And no one gets hurt.

Flower may not (yet) be a billion-dollar behemoth, but it represents just one of the many ways that the widening video game audience and community of developers is helping make the entire industry more vibrant.

“For a long time, it was the same people making similar games over and over,” says Richards. “Now there are more of us — more people, more perspectives. People are saying, ‘I don’t want to play a game where I continually die. I want to play a game where I feel peaceful, and I’m working with others instead of against others.’ More ideas are welcome, and that’s something to be optimistic about.”