Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

My Annual Review: 2020 A Terrible Year With a Promising Ending

By David Zilberman

Berkeley's Holiday Spirit

The year 2020 was the worst year I can recall. The pandemic that emerged in January accelerated during the late winter and early spring, stabilized in the summer, and remerged with cooler temperatures. We’ve had more than 300,000 fatalities in the US and close to 2 million globally, and the toll is rising. In addition, this year we witnessed devastating fires, police brutality, violence and civil conflict, resurgence of racism and hatred, and deeply rooted prejudice and ignorance encouraged from the top. There was a lot to report but not much to enjoy. Towards the end of the year, we have seen some signs of hope. Science delivered a vaccine, an incredible feat in record time. The American electorate has decided to end the rule of a divisive and corrupt President and signaled its desire for inclusion, belief in democracy, the need for police and health reforms, and rejection of extremists.

Walking the Dog

My life has changed drastically. No more globe-trotting and more than 100,000 miles added to Mileage Plus. We shelved plans for visits to Budapest, Prague, Belgrade, and Dubrovnik. Conferences in Argentina, Italy, Latvia, and China were canceled and replaced with virtual events. Instead, I rediscovered the joy of life at home sweet home: walking the dogs and rediscovering the beauty of Berkeley, delicious meals (Leorah is a fabulous cook and we are fortunate to live near a mini gourmet ghetto near College Avenue), enjoying watching TV, and connecting with my family and friends through the internet. I’m realizing how fortunate Leorah and I are to be together. Our children adapted to the new reality quite well. Fortunately, they have spacious homes (Aytan rented a place in Rhode Island to avoid New York and gain more space) and could afford the time and resources so their children will benefit from Zooming to school. The grandchildren already make a core of an orchestra, with two aspiring violinists, a pianist, and a ukulele player, and I’m sure the ensemble will grow.

Thanksgiving Dinner

Without travel, I had more time to work. I guess that’s true with everyone, so we exchange emails, participate in multiple Zoom sessions and webinars, and this turned out to be one of my most productive years. I incorporated the pandemic to my research agenda (1 and 2). Some of my research with Tom Reardon and others demonstrates how food supply chains adapted to the pandemic in both developing and developed countries, in particular, companies pivoted to introduce distributional systems that rely more on the internet and reduce social contact. The pandemic expanded differences in wealth distribution and resulted in policies that protected older and richer individuals, and hurt poor and young ones, especially in developing countries without a social safety net. We also found that countries that responded quickly to the pandemic and introducing strict and precise policies that were adhered to, did better than countries that responded slowly to the pandemic and were less able to enforce social isolation. We also investigated the relationship between pandemics and droughts. In some locations, for example, East Africa, the two compounded each other, resulting in severe food insecurity and a human health crisis. Both types of crisis accelerate policy and technological change and provide tests of governance. The pandemic and drought have implications for other crises, including climate change. The cost and duration of the crisis depend on the ability to marshal and implement science-based policies and to inspire cooperative behavior among the public. Ignoring the warning of science will be costly. Mitigation of climate change (by reducing GHG emissions) is likely to be much less costly than adaptation once temperatures rise.

This year I continue to develop my research on implementing innovations through the development of supply chains- and worked on the design of the supply chain to introduce clean (decarbonated) hydrogen as an alternative source of energy for heavy vehicles and other applications. The more I learn about the technology, I am convinced that with policy commitment, continuous investment in research and education, we will be able to obtain energy mostly from renewable sources within 30 years. We will use batteries and fuel cells for storage and be able to sequester much carbon from the atmosphere. The fast arrival of the coronavirus vaccines showed that urgency and sense of purpose can accelerate discovery- and help to control risks threatening humanity. It further convinced me of the importance of removing regulatory hurdles that slow the utilization of modern tools of biology in agriculture. These tools were crucial in developing the new vaccines and are essential if we want to sequester carbon, preserve biodiversity, and attain food security.

I haven’t been on campus since the start of the pandemic (given our space in University Hall, this is not a big loss, but I’m excited to return to the new and improved Giannini Hall). We switched to mostly virtual teaching, which requires extra effort, but it was better than I expected. We were able to deliver the content, but I miss the personal touch, informal communication, and comradery that leads to better understanding and further collaboration. Unfortunately, we were not able to hold the Beahrs ELP summer program, but we had two successful webinars, and next year I hope that we will have an effective virtual program. The MDP adapted quite well to the change and I admire the students and our faculty’s willingness and capacity to adjust to the new reality. Hopefully, next fall we will return to campus and hold “normal” classes.

The best thing that happened during 2020 was the announcement of the generous gift by Gordon Rausser to the university, including the establishment of the Rausser Zilberman fund with an initial contribution of $1 million, with the potential to add another $1 million if the $500,000 gift by Rausser can be matched. I cannot thank my colleague and friend Gordon enough for this wonderful gift to our program, which puts the MDP on a much stronger footing. Even though Gordon retired this year from the university, I look forward to collaborating with him for many years to come.

I wouldn’t be able to continue my research and teaching without the incredible partnership I have had with George Scharffenberger, who navigated the MDP through this stormy season with the dedicated excellent staff: Lisa Robinson, Lisa Feldman, Lauren Krupa, and Chris Young. Scott Kaplan has always furthered my research, and no one could ask for a better teaching assistant. He’s on the job market and I wish we could have hired him in Berkeley. He would be a fantastic researcher, teacher, and he has leadership qualities that will take him a long way. The wisdom and skills of Jed, Joel, Xiong, and Jacob, as well as others, elevated many qualities of my manuscripts and enhanced my productivity. As always (since arriving as a student) I’m thankful for being at Berkeley, in the Rausser College of Natural Resources, and with colleagues and students at ARE, and I look forward to a great 2021.

Happy New Year!