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10 Silver Linings Behind Awful Devastation

by Morris M.
fact checked by Jamie Frater

War. Famine. Teenagers on Xbox Live. The world is full of strange and awful things nearly everyone agrees are terrible. But not every bad thing wrecking our global civilization is always 100-percent horrible. Just occasionally, even the worst or most upsetting things can come with an incredible silver lining.

10Language Extinction Could Improve Millions Of Lives


In the 20th century alone, roughly 400 languages went extinct. That represents a rate of about one every three months. It’s only going to get worse. Some linguists have estimated that by 2100, 90 percent of human languages will have died out. It’s a terrible, tragic idea . . . and one that may wind up improving the lives of billions.

According to linguist John McWhorter, a mass language die-out can only be a good thing. His argument is based on who exactly is speaking these endangered languages. Nearly all the 5,500 languages predicted to vanish are minority tongues spoken only by isolated indigenous groups. In most cases, their languages are driving their isolation. While speaking a native language in, say, Latin America might keep you close to your roots, it’ll also drive you out the job market unless you can also speak perfect Spanish or Portuguese. The result is indigenous communities suffering economic and political setbacks.

In McWhorter’s opinion, this makes languages dying something to be celebrated. As globalization drives these isolated groups into cities, they wind up learning dominant languages like Spanish or English. Leap forward a generation or two, and the native language is forgotten, but the descendants have better opportunities and are more involved politically. It’s a controversial opinion to be sure but one that may just turn out to be on the money.

9Gentrification Can End Racial Segregation


Gentrification is widely perceived as one of the big evils of the 21st century. In London in September 2015, an anti-gentrification mob even went on a rampage, destroying a cafe that specialized in selling cereal. There’s one thing this angry crowd apparently didn’t realize. Gentrification can improve things considerably for local residents.

Lance Freeman of Columbia University carried out a study into displacement caused by wealthy residents descending on formerly poor neighborhoods. By his own admission, he expected to find soaring costs pushing the poor out. Instead, his study reached the opposite conclusion. Although a minority of renters suffered, low-income residents as a whole were less likely to move out of gentrified neighborhoods. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland separately concluded that the financial health of original residents was improved by an area gentrifying.

Then there’s the impact it can have on racial diversity. Many LA neighborhoods, for example, are extremely segregated, with some areas being nearly 100-percent Latino or almost all Chinese. Gentrification makes these areas more diverse, usually without destroying their local character.

8Human Conflicts Lead To Cleaner Air


With the Middle East, Ukraine, and parts of Africa currently in meltdown due to spiraling conflicts, it can be hard to imagine anything good coming from such bloodshed. On a purely human level, that’s probably true. The Earth’s wars are doubtless a living nightmare for those involved in them. Nonetheless, such conflicts do come with a tiny silver lining. Violent wars tend to lead to cleaner air.

Thanks to mass migration as people flee war zones and the utter collapse of economic activity in the region, battlefields can reduce air pollution by a significant amount. How significant, you ask? Try significant enough to affect the whole planet. In 2013, the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico released an analysis of global warming over the 20th century. They found that the disruption caused by World War I and World War II led to an unparalleled slowing in climate change.

Right now, we can see the same thing happening over the Middle East. Syria and Iraq both have significantly cleaner air, as does sanctions-hit Iran. It may come as cold comfort to those affected by these terrible conflicts, but it does show the odd ways in which we humans can unintentionally alter our own planet.

7Soulless Globalization Is Spreading Gay Rights


You don’t have to look far to find critics of globalization. Its detractors claim it’s driving down wages, destroying communities, erasing cultural identities, and eroding nations’ sovereign powers. Yet there’s one area where globalization has been a success: It’s dramatically helped the spread of gay rights.

In a thoughtful opinion piece, The Economist identified two major factors in the sudden global spread of gay rights. The first was the massive waves of urbanization that swept the world in the 20th and early 21st centuries, driving millions into cities. The second was the enrichment and spreading of Western-style democracy in previously poorer countries. As money flowed into traditionally poorer parts of South America, government attitudes toward LGBT people eased. Meanwhile, in countries where homosexuality is still illegal (like India), the concentration of millions in cities has allowed LGBT individuals to find a level of tolerance unknown in rural areas.

That’s not to say it’s all been a success. Globalization has also allowed images of gay pride marches to be beamed into living rooms in homophobic countries like Uganda, hardening already conservative attitudes. But overall, it’s orchestrated a greater move toward tolerance on a global basis.

6Natural Disasters Can Clean Up Polluted Water


Photo credit: Jorfer/Wikimedia

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York in 2012, people expected everything from widespread carnage to the deaths of the city’s infamous mole people. There was one outcome nobody in their right mind was expecting: that the devastating hurricane would rid Long Island Bay of its polluted water.

The unexpected clean-up occurred when Sandy breached the Long Island Barrier. Over the following months, the constant in-and-out surge of Atlantic tides dispersed the toxins in the bay and returned water cleanliness to levels not seen since the mid-1970s. Clams returned to the waters, crab population numbers exploded, and marine conservation in the area improved. You could even swim again off the shore of Fire Island, something that had been impossible for decades.

It’s not just hurricanes that can cause such improvements. California’s never-ending drought has dramatically reduced the number of harmful pathogens in coastal waters, as lower amounts of storm run-off flow into the area. The result is cleaner, healthier beaches and vastly clearer water.

5Smartphone-Addicted Teens Are Lowering Vandalism Rates

In 2013, researchers in the UK came to a surprising conclusion. Vandalism rates, especially among the country’s youth, were dropping like a stone. Despite record numbers of headlines in the tabloid press bemoaning vandals and petty crime, all evidence suggested it was a dying problem. In searching for a reason, experts were left flummoxed. Everything from improved anti-vandalism techniques to lower reporting was offered. But one theory sticks out from the others: smartphones.

The smartphone-addicted young person, who has their nose glued to their screen even in the middle of a conversation, is a particular bugbear of many. Yet this harmless unsocial behavior may be behind a fall in much more harmful anti-social crimes.

The theory goes that vandalism grows out of boredom. With a billion new ways to connect with friends and occupy their minds, today’s teens simply don’t have the chance to get bored. This in turn has led a number to realize that vandalism is pointless. Would you rather spend your wait for the bus catching up on Game of Thrones or smashing the bus stop to pieces?

4Annoying Teenage Slang Drives Language Evolution


Language disruptors are people who invent innovative new words that find their way into mainstream English. They’re the main reason you’re not now gadding about saying “thee” and “thou” and talking about riding your velocipede to the local apothecary. William Shakespeare was one such disruptor, as was James Joyce. But the main drivers of language innovation are nowhere near so lauded. They’re the annoying teenage girls talking in incomprehensible slang.

According to linguistics expert Gretchen McCulloch, women are responsible for driving up to 90 percent of all language changes, with teenage girls leading the way. In 2003, University of Helsinki linguists analyzed 6,000 letters written between 1417 and 1681. They found women were much quicker at adopting new words and phrases and spearheading general language changes. A separate 2009 study found men often lag behind on language changes by a generation.

There are a couple of reasons why this might be. One is that women have greater social awareness and sensitivity to changes in their networks. Another is that mothers traditionally raise children, passing their new lingo on to the next generation. Whatever the reason, it’s those annoying teenage girls on the subway who are driving this necessary change, not the guy complaining about their lack of proper English.

3Extinction Can Benefit Ecosystems


Across the world, species are dying out at a phenomenal rate. Some claim we’re in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event—the first one since the dinosaurs were obliterated 65 million years ago. Each species that blinks out is a loss to science. Yet some argue that extinction isn’t always an unmitigated disaster. Sometimes, it can even be a good thing.

It all depends on what side of the species divide you’re on. Take the case of the dinosaurs. While their obliteration means we’re unlikely to ever experience a real-life Jurassic Park, it led to the rise of mammals, which in turn led to the rise of humans. Without the fifth mass extinction, you wouldn’t be sitting here reading this now.

There are other examples, too. The extinction of the giant Irish elk around 9000 BC directly benefited other species in its ecosystem, helping them establish stronger footholds. According to scientists at London’s Natural History Museum, extinctions such as this often promote biodiversity and give other species a chance to expand. Although no one would ever argue that extinction is an unqualified success—or even just a good thing in general—it can sometimes carry a silver lining for the larger ecosystem.

2Natural Disasters Promote Biodiversity


Most people wouldn’t ever claim tornadoes, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions are beneficial. Dr. Seth R. Reice isn’t most people. In 2001, he published a highly cited book on natural disasters, in which he contended that just about every major disaster you can think of—from earthquakes to floods to storms—has a massive positive impact on local ecosystems.

Reice’s contention was that these catastrophes do more than simply damage landscapes and kill off large numbers of animals. According to his work, they actually promote biodiversity, leaving ecosystems more adept at sustaining life or fulfilling their function. For example, the Mount St. Helens eruption was widely regarded at the time as an unmitigated catastrophe for the surrounding area. By 2001, Reice notes, a hugely diverse number of species were actively thriving on its recently scorched slopes.

A similar effect has been noted with not-so-natural disasters. After Chernobyl irradiated large stretches of Ukraine, previously endangered animals moved in and established colonies. Currently, the town is home to larger populations of lynx, bears, and moose than anywhere else in the country. For wildlife, disasters may not always be such a disastrous thing.

1Your Loneliness Probably Isn’t As Bad As You Think It Is


Despite living in the most connected, globalized society to have ever existed, more and more of us are feeling lonely. This is bad news, as the health problems linked to loneliness have been called comparable to those linked to obesity. Yet even if you’re an unhappy introvert who feels they can’t connect with anyone in their tiny circle of friends, there may just be a silver lining. According to one study, you may be significantly more popular than you ever realized.

In 2014, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis decided to look into social anxiety—one of the leading causes of loneliness. Around 13 percent of people suffer from the disorder, and many assume their few friendships are second-rate. In their study, the scientists interviewed both those with and without social anxiety and also their friends. What they found will restore a little bit of your faith.

Far from thinking they were nobodies, the friends of the sufferers tended to rate their friendships very highly. It was even suggested that sufferers may well be someone’s best friend and not even realize it. It was kind of like that bit in It’s a Wonderful Life where James Stewart realizes what he’s meant to his town all this time. If you’re one of the millions of lonely people out there, do yourself a favor tonight. Try looking at your friendships differently. You may just find that you were someone else’s silver lining all along.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Morris M.

Morris M. is Listverse's official news human, trawling the depths of the media so you don't have to. He avoids Facebook and Twitter like the plague.