21 Things That Made the World a Better Place in 2021

The pandemic didn’t miraculously disappear. When the clock struck midnight and marked the beginning of 2021, Covid-19 didn’t melt away like a fairytale princess’s party dress, alas, and we were all forced to stare down another year of fear. The good news is: We did it! The bad news is: Well, you know … We all know. So let’s forget about that, just for a moment, and celebrate all of the actually good stuff that happened in 2021.

More Than 8.47 Billion Covid-19 Vaccinations Were Administered Globally

In December 2020, the UK administered the first non-trial Covid-19 vaccine in the world to a 90-year-old woman in a fetching leopard-print scarf. A year later, almost 9 billion Covid jabs have been put in arms around the world—and the number is climbing literally every second. It’s the largest mass vaccination campaign in history! If you were lucky, you got a cool sticker after your shot! The speed, intensity, and efficiency of the life-saving vaccine rollout is a phenomenon that’s powerful to behold, and it is estimated that we’re just three months away from 75 percent of the global population having had their first dose. Read more at Bloomberg.

Scientists Revealed That Cheese Isn’t Bad for You (Really!)

In February, when all memories of seasonal goodwill and cheer had faded away and we were left with nothing but the cold, mocking whispers of the winter wind, scientists gave us a reason to keep going. Speaking out against unfounded rumors that cheese is an evil, murderous entity, one scientist told WIRED: “There’s almost no evidence that cheese causes weight gain—and in fact, there’s evidence that it’s neutral at worst.” This stigma-shattering analysis helped cheese to rebuild its reputation globally—and that’s grate. Read more at WIRED.

The Great Resignation Gave Workers Their Lives Back

If there is a greater joy in the world than quitting, it is everyone in the world quitting at once. Spring and summer 2021 saw a wave of resignations after employees across the globe used the pandemic to reflect on their work-life balance. (Hint: There should be more life than work.) In April alone, 2.7 percent of the American workforce quit their jobs, setting a new record that was then beaten again in August. While employers might be left weeping into their “Can I grab you for a minute?” emails, employees are reasserting their rights. Read more at WIRED.

Drones Helped Us Get a Handle on Plastic Pollution

Philosophers might ask, “Is it really good news to say we’ve developed a small solution to a monstrously large, terrible, terrible, terrible ongoing problem that we ourselves created? Is it really something to celebrate?” to which we say: Just give us this one, please, philosophers, it’s all we’ve got. Throughout 2021, UK-based startup Ellipsis Earth has been mapping the scale of the world’s plastic pollution with camera-equipped drones that are able to (sometimes) identify the exact origin of the trash. These speedy surveys allow experts to better understand the solutions needed in different areas, from pushing through dumping regulations at beaches to installing more bins in littering hotspots. Read more at CNN.

A Human Mind Was Wirelessly Connected to a Computer

In March 2021, researchers at Brown University successfully transmitted brain signals wirelessly to a computer for the first time—the move is a breakthrough for paralyzed people, as the removal of cumbersome wires takes this tech one step closer to being available for home use. Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) have been used to help people type, use robotic prostheses, and even move their own limbs in the past, but for the first time participants in these studies can use this technology in their homes, rather than in a lab setting. Read more at Input Mag.

China Eliminated Malaria

As June came to an end, the World Health Organization declared China free of malaria after “decades of targeted and sustained action” against the disease. In the 1940s, China reported 30 million malaria cases annually; in 2020, the country reported four consecutive years of zero indigenous cases, paving the way for WHO to declare it malaria-free in 2021. In April, WHO launched a campaign to rid 25 more countries of malaria by 2025. Read more at The New York Times.

Donald Trump Was Banned From Twitter

Over the course of the past decade, we have repeatedly seen our digital overlords refuse to protect us from harm, twisting their policies to maximize their profits with very little consideration for the ways in which democracy can be irreparably damaged in the process. This is why it was such a relief when Twitter finally banned not-president Donald Trump from the platform in January, after the Home Alone 2 actor glorified the violence surrounding the storming of the US Capitol by his supporters. The ban came into force on January 8—12 days before Trump stopped being president—and is permanent. Read more at BBC News.

Dutch ‘Bee Hotels’ Helped Bee Populations Remain Stable

More than 11,000 people counted bees as part of the Netherlands’ national bee census in 2021—and what they discovered was encouraging, as urban bee populations were found to have remained steady over the past few years. It is believed that a number of initiatives—from hollowed out plant stems that act as “bee hotels” to a ban on chemical weed killers—are helping the bees thrive. Next stop: AirBeeNBees. Read more at The Guardian.

Analysts Built Software That Revolutionized the Fight Against Child Sexual Abuse

The team at the Internet Watch Foundation in Cambridgeshire have a tireless job: They spend hours trawling through child sexual abuse images and categorizing them to help countries crack down on offenders. This year, the team rebuilt their hashing software so that the data shared with law enforcement agencies across the world is relevant to their localities, meaning they can prioritize the most serious images, more easily remove and block the content, and bring offenders to justice. Read more at WIRED.

NASA Made Oxygen on Mars

If ever there was a year that aliens would say “hiya,” it was 2021—the year in which we reached unprecedented heights of “Yep, we’re living in a simulation.” Anyway, the aliens didn’t say “hiya” (at least not to me), but we got the next (or next to the next) best thing: NASA’s Perseverance Rover successfully converted some of Mars’s carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen in April. As a giant leap toward getting humans on Mars, NASA said the move “could pave the way for science fiction to become science fact,” which is just a cool thing to say. Read more at NASA.

Virtual Queues Revolutionized Waiting

Thanks to the inherently non-socially-distanced nature of queues, restaurants, entertainment establishments, and theme parks around the world decided to shake up the centuries-old habit by starting a virtual queue revolution. By allowing us to queue with a couple of taps of our finger, instead of our feet, virtual queues have reduced the pain associated with waiting (and waiting, and waiting) in line. Read more at WIRED.

The World’s First 3D-Printed School Opened Its 3D-Printed Doors

In less than 24 hours—15 to be precise—affordable housing group 14Trees built an entire school in Malawi this July using 3D printing technology. It is hoped that similar initiatives will help to combat the classroom shortfall in the country, as well as the rest of Africa, enabling children to travel shorter distances to school and work in better conditions. Women and children sang and danced in front of the new school to celebrate its opening. Read more at Reuters.

A Thought-to-Be-Extinct Orchid Was Found on a London Roof

The biggest-ever game of hide and seek ended in June when a rare species of orchid was found growing on top of an investment bank in London, despite scientists believing the plant was extinct in the UK. Ecologist Mike Waller, author of Britain’s Orchids, said: “This is clear evidence that with patience and dedication, even the most unlikely places can become havens for some of our rarest wildlife.” That’s nice. Read more at The Guardian.

The Met Removed the Sackler Name From Its Galleries

While it is unfortunately not possible to erase America’s opioid crisis overnight, leading galleries are at least helping to erase the name of the family that helped precipitate it. In recent years, Purdue Pharma founders the Sackler family have faced increased scrutiny for their company’s role in the opioid epidemic, and prominent museums who’ve accepted donations from the Sacklers are now distancing themselves from the family. Goodbye and good riddance! Read more at The New Yorker.

Argentinian Capybaras Reclaimed Their Habitat by Force

Pick your ideal location for rodents to seek their revenge, and you’ll likely agree that you can’t go wrong with a gated community. In October, capybaras began reclaiming an affluent neighborhood near Buenos Aires that was once their territory, munching on its array of manicured flower beds and neat lawns. This two-for-one act of class warfare and environmental activism was a valiant move by the largest rodents in the world. Read more at Smithsonian Magazine.

Uber Drivers Were Granted Workers Rights in the UK

The gig economy was brought to heel this February when a landmark decision by the UK supreme court saw Uber drivers’ workers rights entrenched. The ruling that Uber drivers are workers and not self-employed opened the doors for minimum wage and holiday pay. “This ruling will fundamentally reorder the gig economy and bring an end to rife exploitation of workers by means of algorithmic and contract trickery,” said James Farrar, general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers union. Read more at The Guardian.

United Flew the First Passenger Aircraft With 100-Percent Sustainable Fuel

In December, 100 passengers flying from Chicago to Washington, DC, were the first in the world to do so with one engine running on 100-percent non-petroleum-based sustainable fuel made from sugar water and corn (delicious!). The fuel is said to burn up to 75 percent cleaner than petroleum-based fuels, and while there is some debate about greenwashing surrounding the event, it was nonetheless a vital moment for the aviation industry. Read more at Business Insider.

The Oscars Had Their Most Diverse Year Ever

When it comes to celebrities, 2021 already topped 2020 by default—no one tried to sing “Imagine” at us when we were locked inside our homes. But there was also progress elsewhere, namely at the Oscars, where years of backlash and a much-needed broadening of voters finally resulted in a diverse lineup of nominees, including the first Asian American ever nominated for best actor. When the ceremony took place (in person!) Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color to win best director, while Yuh-jung Youn became the first Korean actor to win an Oscar. Read more at Variety.

Electric Vehicles Outsold Diesel for the First Time in Europe

In August, electric cars outsold diesel ones in Europe for the very first time, and next year, experts expect that more electric cars will be sold overall in the UK. The surge is believed to be driven by a fall in prices, a wider range of vehicles, petrol shortages, and a rise in the number of charging spots available. Might this be the answer to that whole “climate change” thing? No, obviously. But, you know, maybe it’s a start? Read more at New Scientist.

The Ever Given Was Freed From the Suez Canal

It is a sign of just how grim things got earlier this year that one of the most widely talked and joked about events was a container ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal for six days. I mean, how do you explain that to your future grandkids? Still, we all had a reason to celebrate in late March when the vessel was finally freed (or, to put it another way, when the memes finally came to an end). Read more at WIRED.

Renewable Energy Had a Record Year

When it comes to the climate crisis, the world needs any bit of good news it can get. And in December, the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed that 2021 was renewable energy’s biggest year ever, with roughly 290 GW of renewable energy generation installed globally—a k a loads of lovely wind turbines and solar panels—despite the pandemic and the rising cost of raw materials. Read more at The Guardian.

More Great WIRED Stories

Article Tags:
Article Categories: