In Part II of our global review of 2022, let's look at some partial progress in the face of difficult challenges: green democracy rising alongside far right extremism, space exploration successes and setbacks, and a mixed bag in medicine.

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Our exercise in the folly of year-end lists continues! In Part I of this global review for 2022, three key themes emerged from this year’s major news events. The first was “Europe on fire”, and the implications of energy infrastructure policy for the environment and future imperialist tyranny. The second dealt with the collapse of a variety of social currencies, from digital media to crypto exchanges. Last but not least was the brutal cost borne by the global south amid the world’s struggle with climate change.

In Part II, we move to mixed ground: some slender signs of democratic and scientific progress, a whole whack of political backsliding, and the curious state of space exploration.

As with Part I, the pressing question is this: in a world that has more knowledge than ever of the problems we face, but often lacks the will and agency to act on said knowledge, how do we leverage our intel, resources, and networks to effect change? What can we do in 2023 to break cycles of self-destruction and lean into more productive uses of our energy instead?

Let’s look at some areas where 2022 news suggested ways forward:

4. Green democracy rises, sort of

Green democracy rising Latin America and the new environmentalism

This year, South America underwent political shifts that, even when unsuccessful, revealed keys for strengthening green democratic action. For the first time in modern history, Colombia elected a left-leaning president, Gustavo Petro, while Brazil voted Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva back into office after years of environmentally destructive actions under Jair Bolsonaro. Both moves are promising for environmental reforms, especially since Lula has a strong track record for reducing deforestation from his earlier terms in office.

In Colombia, Petro has made ambitious promises for moving the country from extractivist to clean-energy-driven industries. These promises involve improvements to land management, both by returning ownership to local stakeholders for major agrarian reforms, and by tackling conservation efforts in a more regionally holistic manner (i.e., around shared ecosystems like the Amazon). This means a changed sociopolitical relationship with Venezuela, and a shift to a circular rather than export-driven economy.

But the most intriguing action item this year was the beginning of Colombia’s ratification of the Escazú Accord, a Caribbean and Latin American environmental pact first adopted in 2018 for consideration by all 33 member countries, then shelved under Colombia’s last president. As its title suggests, this “Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean” is an express attempt to shift power away from corporations and government actors, and to recenter citizens as direct democratic participants. The accord compels countries to make readily available all pertinent information about projects that could impact natural ecosystems and human thriving, and at every stage of development foster informed participation and respond to citizens’ concerns and dissent. It also establishes legal options for breach of these rights to civic access to information and direct engagement.

This green democratic wave does things a bit differently from Western models, like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a monumental 2022 US bill that provides direct funding and tax credits (and penalties) to incentivize projects involving the transition to zero-emissions vehicles and infrastructure, and cleaning up air and water pollution across the country. Although the IRA has been touted as the largest single investment in climate and clean energy, at $360 billion, it could only pass with extreme concessions that undermine much of its efficacy by investing in new fossil fuel projects and delaying the closure of existing high-polluting facilities. This is the difference that comes from state action that treats average citizens as recipients of aid and relief, rather than as full democratic participants.

That said, South America’s green democratic wave is not without its challenges. Chile was on the verge of a world first this year: a new constitution formed by a citizens’ assembly that would easily have been the most eco-conscious state mandate in the world. However, the government made the unfortunate decision to stage a simple Yes/No referendum for this lengthy document, which resoundingly failed. Such political exercises are very easily manipulated by bad faith actors, and right-wing politicians like José Antonio Kast, who did not want to see Chile move from a neoliberal constitution framed by the dictator Augusto Pinochet, spread extensive misinformation about the constitution’s contents.

In December, Chile’s government stated that it would be drafting a new constitution in 2023, via a committee built from a diverse pool of experts and representatives. But will Chile, and the US, learn from this year’s legislative lessons? Just as it is not sufficient to gift money for green projects to local groups while still sheltering big industry, there is no real democratic agency to a simple Yes/No vote to decide the fate of massive, intricate legislation. An actual green democracy would establish a duty to empower local stakeholders at every step in the process. We’re not there yet, but we’re making strides toward that better day.

Bonus good news: the Scientist Rebellion

The Scientist Rebellion merits a mention, too, for direct actions taken in April against state and corporate actors failing to act responsibly around our climate crisis. These scientists endangered active academic and industry roles by taking to the streets outside government and oil company buildings, risking and in some cases undergoing arrest to make their outrage heard. They went to this extreme to protest state policy that allows corporate interests to supersede scientific data, and otherwise to bypass the democratic will of the people.

The Scientist Rebellion is fueled by a rising tide of interest in degrowth, a concept that calls for deprioritizing GDP growth as the main metric of our species’ thriving. Instead of treating our societies as capable of meeting climate change mitigation goals simply by swapping out energy sources while keeping demand for industry outputs high (the “green growth” or “sustainable growth” model), degrowth calls for a more holistic reframe to elevate local agency and reduce the need for as many material goods in the first place.

Degrowth also made it into this year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, along with the first express recognition, from this highly influential global research body, that growth-oriented economies currently play a prohibitive role in climate change mitigation. More drastic changes are necessary.

5. Far right militancy and nationalism does, too

Fascism in India who's in charge of 1.4 billion | the Indian flag

But another form of political power also weighed on the news this year: the further rise of far right and full-on nationalist movements. Obviously, Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine offers a clear example of state-driven extremism, while the official start of Chinese leader Xi Jinping‘s third term marks a concerning consolidation of power under one party and person. (Especially amid the ongoing oppression of the Uyghur people. In late August, the UN released a long-awaited report outlining human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.) Also troubling was this year’s Italian elections, where the rise of the far right took the form of Giorgia Meloni, a woman with literal fascist ties through a pro-Mussolini party, becoming prime minister.

The problem runs deeper, though. In Israel, Jewish supremacists from the extremist Religious Zionist bloc, which includes the far-right Jewish Power party, secured a stronger foothold than ever under an emboldened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to office this month by leveraging the extreme right wing shift among young Israelis. His judicial policies, government complement, and approach to apartheid in the West Bank bode poorly for the fate of Palestinians and other Arab peoples in the region in the year ahead.

Religious extremism flourished in 2022. In India, home to 1.4 billion under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a group of Hindu extremists called Hindutva have been emboldened in their hateful treatment of religious and related ethnic minorities, with particular animosity shown toward Muslim citizens. The history of these ethno-religious hostilities runs deep, but with a decided uptick in concerning state actions and complex legal battles in 2022.

And in the US, of course, Christian fascism has wrought significant damage this past year. It’s not simply a matter of far right sympathies on the Supreme Court, or fallout from the January 6 Capitol riot, which was this year laid bare through extensive committee hearings that culminated in a damning final report. Far right Christian militancy has also yielded more emboldened attacks on queer populations, while right wing Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who joined a wave of Republican stunts this year weaponizing immigrants, is poised to leverage extremist sentiment in his own run-up to a possible bid for presidency.

Any positives?

We can certainly hope that judicial proceedings emerge from the US Select Committee’s findings, and that a poor midterms showing for Republicans dampens enthusiasm in throwing their lot in so quickly with far right extremists. There is also much to be admired in the hard road of resistance taken up by protesters in Iran, fighting for an end not only to the “Morality Police” who murdered a 22-year-old woman in September, but also to the whole oppressive state. (Though its likeliest replacement should concern us as well.)

But with religious extremism emerging across the board, in Jewish, Hindu, and Christian forms (along with obvious Islamic varieties, most notable this year in Iran and Afghanistan), humanists would do well to pay attention to the underlying causes that make human beings susceptible to nationalist rhetoric. Precarity abounds, and amid rising displacement pressures from climate change, any existing anxieties about shifting demographics and power arrangements are not likely to end any time soon. Individual outbreaks of far right nationalist fervor are symptoms of a far more complex disease.

6. The space race gets messy, petty, and corporate

Artemis 1 successfully launches NASA back into the space race

This year also saw the unveiling of the James Webb Space Telescope, which in July released its first high resolution images, and illustrated the range of deep space mysteries it can help us unpack in the years ahead. 2022 was also a good year for SpaceX, which launched its Falcon 9 rocket a whopping 61 times and marked the stabilization of private industry as a competitive leader in space exploration. This, in the same year that saw NASA struggle to launch Artemis 1, a key mission in the development of human capabilities on the Moon and Mars, even as China reached its next milestone on the path to establishing our species’ second permanently inhabited space outpost, Tiangong Station.

There are now a wide range of companies investing in space travel futures, and this year India also notably entered the small satellite market, in its own improving space ambitions.

But that sixty-first mission for SpaceX should also give us pause, because Falcon 9’s load was EROS C-3, part of a series of “commercialized” spy satellites built by Israel Aircraft Industries and owned by ImageSat International (ISI). ISI boasts of the importance of these next-generation satellite networks to military operations, stating that “through ISI’s advanced ground control segment, [EROS] enables defense and intelligence organizations to conduct operations under complete confidentiality and data protection, as well as independent mission execution.”

These are delicate operations to place in private hands, as we saw earlier this year in Elon Musk’s social-media politicking over the fate of the StarLink satellite network in connection to the Ukrainian military. Longtermism allows many billionaires to believe themselves better suited than the rest of us for investing in the future, and there is no turning back the clock on the role of private industry on the frontlines of space travel. Still, we should pay close attention to what 2022 illustrated about the potential downsides of leaving sole control of related industries to any one billionaire, or country. Surely there’s a better, more globalized way for us to reach in wonder for regions as of yet unknown?

7. Medical research breaks ground despite privatization’s concerns

Alzheimer's latest drug and science journalism's memory problem

The problem with scientific advancement is that it can only be achieved at a pace set by the fallible humans doing the work. (For now, at least. Come on, AI overlords of medical know-how!) In the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned a great deal about the power of mRNA research, the body’s immunological responses, and the critical importance of taking sociological impacts into consideration when setting public health policy. At a terrible cost, in the loss of millions of lives and the long term impact to hundreds of millions more, we have significantly accelerated related vaccine and post-viral disease research.

But 2022 wasn’t just a year for medical advances, including the first new ALS drug in five years, groundbreaking work with the revival of dead organs, and an FDA-approved treatment to delay the onset of Type 1 diabetes. It was also a year in which we had to reckon with the consequences of data tampering in a fraught field of medical research.

This summer’s Alzheimer’s scandal involved a complex array of potentially bad faith actors: from private companies competing to get overpriced drugs to market, to researchers with vested financial interests in specific lab outcomes, to oversight boards also skewed by stock market incentives. It is still too early to say how many of our standard beliefs about Alzheimer’s need to be revised in the wake of multiple major papers now proving suspect. The cost to patients and their loved ones, however, cannot be undone.

Scientific method is robust in the long term, with self-corrective mechanisms eventually winning out over short term failings. But the toll of human error, even just in the short term for medical science, calls for us to be more cautious in general, and to eliminate as many societal factors as possible that we know will compromise the integrity of our research.

Oh, and about those AI…

In a year with tremendous panic about machine learning “taking our jobs” (i.e. the latest form of socioeconomic anxiety for life under corporate monopolies), it bears noting that so-called AI tools have also been an immense boon in scientific fields. AlphaFold, a program developed by Google-owned DeepMind, transformed the industry in 2020 with exceptional predictive skills in computational protein-folding tasks. Two years on, it (and programs building off its success) continues to make excellent strides in anticipating the 3D structures of some 200 million proteins. Current challenges include accurately modeling antibodies and nanobodies (including for SARS-CoV-2), but once mastered, the benefits of this technology for speeding up drug design and development will be significant.

These seven groupings certainly do not represent all the world’s most important events in 2022, but hopefully this global review provides a foundation for discussion of the rest.

What were the most pressing areas of global concern for you in 2022? Where did we most notably backslide, advance, or otherwise reveal critical aspects of our humanity? What lessons, if any, did you take from the broader trends underpinning specific news events?

And how might we best apply them to the hurting world ahead?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.