In a media environment increasingly dominated by celebrity, scandal and the political horserace, many of the most important stories receive scant coverage. Here are nine hugely important things that happened in 2013 that are rarely discussed:
1. Human rights abuses in North Korean prisons reached a level not seen since the Nazi atrocities.
A new report from the U.N. released in January found that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are being subjected to historic human right abuses. Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge who took the lead in creating the report, told BBC News “They had to live on rodents, grasshoppers, lizards and on grass and they were subject to cruelty, All in all it is a very horrifying story, the like of which I don’t think I’ve seen or read of since the Khmer Rouge [in Cambodia] and the Nazi atrocities during the second world war.” A former camp inmate “told investigators that he was lucky when a warden ordered the tip of his finger chopped off for damaging a piece of sewing equipment used to carry out forced labor — he could easily have been executed for the transgression.
2. The Tea Party became a major advocate for solar energy.
In Georgia, the Tea Party has teamed up with clean energy advocates to bring more solar energy to the state, over the objections of utility giant Southern Co. Tea Party, advocates are motivated not by reducing carbon emissions but by adding more competition to the energy market and reducing prices. Still, the atypical coalition could be a game-changer as renewable producers seek access to energy markets.
3. American cities criminalized homelessness.
In South Carolina, Columbia City passed an ordinance “to remove homeless people from the downtown business district.” Police officers are now specially assigned to patrol the downtown area and a hotline was set up “so local businesses and residents can report the presence of a homeless person to police.” In Los Angeles, Harrisburg, and Raleigh authorities cracked down on good samaritans providing food to the homeless in public. New York, Palo Alto, Tampa and Miami have focused on criminalizing sleeping in public. Overall, these efforts make it next to impossible for the homeless — a population of about 600,000 in America — to get back on their feet.
4. Thousands of people who worked their entire lives had their pensions stolen.
In Illinois and Michigan, thousands of working Americans had their promised pensions stolen from them, despite guarantees in their states’ constitutions that protected their benefits. Those impacted include “retirees who worked their careers as sanitation engineers and teachers, firefighters and police officers, public defenders and city clerks” — many of whom will now be thrown into poverty. As these two Midwest states appear to be getting away with it, many other localities may follow suit.
5. More people died in America from suicide than car accidents.
While mass shootings frequently land on the front page, many more people die of suicide each year. Data released in this year, covering 2010, found that for the first time more people died from suicide (38,364) than car crashes (33,687). While suicide is frequently associated with teenagers and the elderly, the growth has been fueled by “middle-aged Americans.” Experts speculate the rise might be attributable to middle-aged people “coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children.”
6. The oceans changed dramatically, transforming into an acidic stew inhospitable to marine life.
Much of the conversation about climate change focuses on rising temperatures. But carbon dioxide emissions is rapidly making the oceans inhospitable for marine life. Why? According to studies “the ocean absorbs about 30 to 40 percent of the atmosphere’s excess carbon, causing its pH to drop.” These acidity levels can corrode the shells of crustaceans, and have lead to an explosion in jelly fish populations. One Oregon fisherman reported, “Sometimes we’ll catch 4,000 or 5,000 pounds of jellyfish.” Another fisherman said that “he saw baby octopuses climbing up his crab line to escape the water. When he pulled up his crab trap, all the crabs were dead.”
7. The Supreme Court green-lighted the execution of people with severe mental disabilities.
In August, the State of Florida executed John Errol Ferguson, “a paranoid schizophrenic man who believes that he is the ‘Prince of God’ and that his execution is preparing him for ‘ascension.’” The Supreme Court has ruled that people with extreme mental disabilities are not constitutionally eligible for execution, but declined to intervene in Ferguson’s case and other cases like his. Last year, Texas executed Marvin Wilson, a man with an IQ of 61.
8. Vaccine conspiracy theories created localized epidemics of deadly, previously eradicated diseases.
In one Texas town a measles outbreak was traced to a mega-church pastor who preached against vaccines. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, more 1,200 people contracted measles. The outbreak was traced to “the country’s extensive Bible Belt where the majority of fundamentalist Protestants do not believe in having their children vaccinated.”
9. Cities and counties sought to boost their economy by attracting undocumented immigrants.
Much recent coverage has focused on states like Arizona and Alabama that have sought to make their states as inhospitable as possible to undocumented immigrants — with disastrous consequences. But other cities and counties have taken the opposite approach in an effort to boost their local economies, bucking federal guidelines and welcoming the undocumented. In Dayton, Ohio officials “make no effort to pursue residents without legal status, if they are otherwise law-abiding.” In Philadelphia, members of the city council are encouraging Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to stop detaining undocumented immigrants who aren’t dangerous. Meanwhile, Newark Police announced they would “decline immigration detainers issued to the department” by ICE.