What big-picture humanist lessons can we glean from this year's news events? Part I of II: Europe on fire, digital systems tanking, the global south enduring climate change.
All end-of-year lists are suspect. One must embrace futility when trying to summarize what happened on a planet of eight billion for one spin around the sun. So why do we do write them? At best, to break up our routines of knee-jerk outrage at the latest inane news item, and to think more systematically about the major events that consumed our attention for whole seasons. In a way, this (and sharing cat pics online, Dog help us all) is what makes us “human”. All animals react in the moment to their environments, but how many others take a beat to review what’s transpired?
We live in strange times. Not the hardest, but perhaps the most ignominious. We have greater access to worldly knowledge and outreach than ever, and still can’t seem to avoid repeating past transgressions. The world of science and tech yields life-changing breakthroughs, while on a sociological level we’re recapitulating fascistic nationalism and other forms of autocratic rule. We look upon the stars with new lenses and great wonder, but also fall prey to obvious hucksters, under myths of individual genius that ultimately come down to coveting anyone who can turn a quick buck (because maybe that means we can, too?). We sometimes unite with such solidarity after disasters, but also keep reaping the ruinous consequences of having failed to invest in climate change mitigation sooner.
So although this list of major international events and crises in 2022 will inevitably fall short—and even though the best one can hope for is a springboard to fuller conversation about where we strove, succeeded, and backslid as a species this past year—here is the core of my humanist concern, when writing it:
We have a glut of resources, but not enough accompanying willpower, agency, and wisdom on a coordinated enough scale to use them well. Will that change in 2023? Can it?
What would it take for us to move past knee-jerk response, and build proactively instead?
In no particular order, starting today with Part I and continuing tomorrow with Part II, here are seven realms where we could use a reboot soon.
1. Europe burns, figuratively and literally
Russia invaded Ukraine on February. Wildfires ravaged an overheated Europe in July. The two events are causally unrelated, but both amount to the destruction of land, livelihood, and human life, and both weigh heavily on questions of European energy infrastructure, along with future immigration policy for environmental and war refugees.
The Russo-Ukrainian war had been in a “cold” phase since the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The return to an active phase immediately displaced four million (though the number is now closer to eight million), and yielded high civilian casualty counts up to and including from heinous war crimes to which the world bore active witness.
Prior to this invasion, the world had already been struggling with the role of oil imperialism in international politics, and also in our (in)ability to mitigate the heavy tolls of climate change upon us. What would international power brokerage look like, if global dominance wasn’t framed by so many petro-economies? Would Russia have been in any position to launch its assault in a world already weaned off oil and gas monopolies?
(For that matter, would Qatar still have been in any position to host a World Cup on the back of indentured servitude, and despite its range of other human rights abuses, if countries weren’t suddenly at the center of the world the moment they struck oil?)
We might feel as though Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is now in competition for our humanist attentions, but what if we saw the bigger picture more comprehensively? To what extent might tackling our rising environmental crisis offer more solutions, in the future, to the cyclical problem of outsize and anti-democratic rule?
On the bright side
Despite some truly lackluster showings at international climate change and biodiversity conferences, the EU ended this year with a monumental ban on products tied to deforestation. The implementation period will take years, but it’s a start—and a world first we can use to call other economic regions to account.
2. Social currency fails, spectacularly
A little over a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s rebrand as “Meta”, in keeping with his desire to launch the Metaverse. As crypto-news purveyor CoinTelegraph generously described the effort, “The name change reflected the company’s growing ambitions to transcend past social media and into the world of Web3, crypto, nonfungible tokens (NFTs), and the metaverse—virtual worlds where consumers are likely to spend more of their time for both work and play.” (Good grief, I hope not.) So what happened in the past year, with this and other deeper dives into digital economies and futures?
All across the digital world, advertisers have withdrawn from major digital media enterprises for reasons that include fears of looming recession, and illustrate how much the whole industry was propped up by a single confidence game. (It didn’t have to be. The internet being driven by ad revenue was a choice tied to the history of the cookie.)
In 2022, Meta dropped to half its previous year’s profits and lost $9.4 billion to its Metaverse efforts: a miserable economic showing that recently culminated in layoffs for 13 percent of Meta’s staff (11,000 people), and leaves the brand roiling from a range of ethical concerns including its role as a staging ground for international genocides, its platforming of seditious activity in the January 6 Capitol plot, and its overall (negative) impact on democracy.
But perhaps there is no better sign of Meta’s struggle this year than how average citizens responded to Elon Musk’s buy-out of Twitter, after a messy game of “will he or won’t he?” that started in April, tore through a mess of legal actions, and concluded in late October with a takeover that ushered in a chaotic run of firings and flip-flopping site policy (with substantial support for alt-right extremists) and also managed to depreciate Tesla stocks. Did folks flock back to Facebook in Twitter’s increasing collapse? No. So while the internet is still scrambling to figure out what the “next” big media hub might be, the distinct failure of Meta to capitalize on Twitter’s depreciation may well mark an end of an era for them both.
Meanwhile, one of cryptocurrency’s own celebrities also crashed and burned in spectacular fashion, wiping out billions of economic value in one fell swoop. When Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX empire announced bankruptcy, the overnight collapse revealed far deeper cracks in mainstream banking and related governance structures. Bankman-Fried’s arrest is just the beginning of a major reckoning especially for US finance, and it also impacts public trust in “effective altruism”, a form of longtermism that merits deeper scrutiny.
Like this year’s heavily promoted Saudi megacity project, the rhetoric around currency of the future tends to result in ventures that only further aggregate wealth in the hands of a few, while undermining democratic action, and even leaving whole countries worse off. How long are we going to keep buying into the buzz?
On the lighter side
Unsurprisingly, a former US president also made the news this year for launching a new line of NFTs. This was apparently a bridge too far for convicted alt-right January 6 rioter Anthime Gionet (“Baked Alaska”), who tweeted on December 15 “i can’t believe i’m going to jail for an nft salesman”, but the collection of 45,000 NFTs sold out in a day, making its creators just under $4.5 million. So maybe this isn’t “lighter” news after all: even if the final report on the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol yields further judicial proceedings, widespread public interest in dubious digital assets clearly has not tanked just yet.
3. The world’s poorest bear the brunt
While digital economies wrestle with the latest online collapses, more concrete societal devastation emerged in many under-developed world regions. Pakistan was perhaps the most widely reported this summer, in a monsoon season that caused more damage than any other, killing 1,500 and wiping out 9.8 million acres of agricultural land. Then there was East Africa, enduring yet another year of extreme drought that killed 2,500 in Uganda and affected 8 million in war-torn Ethiopia. In Nigeria, flooding displaced 1.4 million and killed over 600, severe storms killed over 800 in Madagascar and Mozambique, and Afghanistan saw sharp reductions in rainfall in an economy already enduring hunger.
These figures matter. In my news brief on Pakistan’s flooding this summer, I noted that after the last major climate-change-informed monsoon season, the UN and other NGOs had put together strong recommendations for investment in prevention-oriented recovery. Instead, local governments and private-led initiatives opted for strategies that turned water and urban development into a corporate competition that further disrupted natural waterways and drove the region’s poorest to build up where the environment could least afford it.
The only thing worse than a natural disaster that destroys life and livelihood is one that could have been prevented. Many of this year’s worst events could have been.
This is why I was less than impressed with the outcomes of COP27, our international conference for climate change, and COP15, the world’s biodiversity conference. Both were critical opportunities to make much-needed progress toward industry- and nation-wide change, but while some targeted agreements were hashed out (with US citizens now needing to hold transport and manufacturing industries to their promises for a more aggressive switch to emissions-reducing processes), what’s notable is what didn’t change.
We are currently far from the target set under the Paris Agreement, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, and developed nations have consistently failed to follow through on grand promises of funding for vital global transformations to mitigate the worst of ongoing and escalating climate change disasters.
COP27’s greatest conflict, which ran from the outset to the close of proceedings, was about whether or not to discuss proper financial aid to the world’s hardest-hit regions. And even that ended in little more than acknowledgements of the issue, and promises without strong incentives against further developed-world failures to follow through.
COP15, in turn, boasted as its big win the 30×30 campaign, to turn 30 percent of the world into protected areas by 2030. In theory, it’s a nice thought. In practice, this policy does not require equal sacrifice from all countries (hint: less developed nations also conveniently hold huge swaths of biodiverse terrain), and is often implemented through a highly contentious form of “fortress conservation”.
Such conservation is often used as an excuse to drive Indigenous peoples from their homes, without giving up the exploitation of said “protected” land for eco-tourism, military training, and mining ventures. Absent more precise guidelines, this COP15 “win” (which a Chinese delegate declared in the middle of critiques from African delegates) could therefore easily be exploited by private-public enterprises, at cost to the world’s least developed nations, and without addressing the serious matter of biodiversity loss in the developed world.
Any environmental positives?
Well, yes. In Part II, we’ll get into this year’s forward momentum with green democracy movements: in Latin America, among Indigenous action groups, and even among scientists.
The 2022 global year in review will also explore alt-right militancy, the state of our space race, and medical wins and losses. But is that even close to everything of note that transpired this year? Definitely not—so please get cracking to fill in this list’s many gaps!