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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

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Moving Away from Capital Punishment

Plus a big-deal child slavery lawsuit, positive global COVID trends, and more

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

This is an extract from our now-weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right? Sign up here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday at 6am. You can read the full newsletter here.

Perhaps you’ve heard that Virginia is set to abolish the state’s death penalty. Symbolically, it’s a big deal—the first execution in the now-US happened in Jamestown colony in 1608, and Virginia would become the first southern state to ban capital punishment. Virginia has executed a higher percentage of people on death row than any other state in recent times.

It took decades of advocacy work to get to this point—Virginians for Alternatives for the Death Penalty had their first meeting in 1991—and it’s also part of a bigger story of the US’ shift away from capital punishment. Virginia will be the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty, after Colorado in 2020. Despite Trump’s last-minute federal execution “spree,” as the Death Penalty Information Center called it, 2020 saw the fewest new death sentences in the modern era, with state executions the lowest they have been in 37 years (see the chart below). 

We took a look at capital punishment here and around the world in “Progress in 5 Minutes: The Death Penalty” by contributor Wendy Biddlecombe Agsar. It’s the first installment of this new “progress in 5 minutes” series—let us know if you like it and want to see more!

Progress: most doesn’t occur in five minutes, five years, or even five decades. In addition to often being slow and nonlinear, making progress happen involves a lot of hard work that is neither eye-catching nor splashy. We think we’re in one of those “hard work” moments now—and would like to splash it around a bit—with the class-action lawsuit that was filed against several chocolate companies, including Nestle, Mars, and Hershey, which accuses them of using enslaved child workers on cocoa farms in their supply chains.

These lawsuits require extraordinary amounts of resources—imagine tracking down trafficked children, who can provide proof that they were trafficked at that, with merely word-of-mouth referral—so it is an accomplishment that this suit has been filed at all. The law that makes it possible is something called the “alien tort statute,” passed in the late 1700s but barely used until the 1980s. This is a quick summary, but essentially, the question at hand is whether the statute can hold US companies accountable for their business practices outside of the US. So this one is a biggie, and could be a major step forward for protecting workers across industries like food, fashion, and beauty. It’s lawsuits like these that improve labor rights in other countries as well. We’ll be watching to see if this leads to a quick settlement or a drawn-out battle.

Since no 2020 or 2021 newsletter is complete without a COVID update, this week we welcomed the news that a universal vaccine that would work on all COVID variants could be available within a year “by targeting the core of the virus instead of just the spike protein.” And we’re following this positive global trend:

Bonus for those who read the captions: this map that shows the US’ vaccination progress (which is improving) day by day and this chart that tracks India’s surprisingly good COVID numbers.

From us: How can cities address the economic harms of COVID? Is remote work here to stay? Is the pandemic truly a tectonic shift away from dense urban areas? Join us on February 25 for a conversation with Penny Abeywardena, NYC’s Commissioner of International Affairs, and Richard Florida, one of the world’s leading urbanists, as we discuss the future of big cities.

We’re in pursuit of a positive, proactive engagement with climate change. Join us on March 11 for Maybe We’re Not F*cked, a conversation with Ted Nordhaus, cofounder of The Breakthrough Institute, and Bina Venkataraman, former senior climate change advisor in the Obama White House.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.