From devastating floods in Pakistan to Italy’s far-right PM to overturning Roe v Wade, this was a year of extremes
How do you turn 365 days experienced by eight billion people – and billions more other beings – into some kind of story?
Maybe you start with some events?
In which case, 2022 was the year that Covid vaccines kicked in. Daily global deaths hit 77,000 on 7 February, and have declined fairly steadily ever since. It was the year Russia invaded Ukraine, the first war between major European powers since 1945.
The Horn of Africa experienced its worst drought in 40 years, after an unprecedented fifth consecutive failed rainy season. The Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front agreed a peace deal after two years of a civil war that may have killed half a million people.
Pakistan drowned in the most severe floods in modern history.
It was likely the worst year ever for Amazon deforestation. It was also the year that Jair Bolsonaro’s chainsaw presidency of Brazil came to a fiery end, defeated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a journey that took the former president and great defender of the rainforest from jail on trumped-up (perhaps we should say ‘Bolsonaroed-up’?) charges back to high office.
It was the deadliest year for West Bank Palestinians since the UN started keeping data, as Israel swung to the far right. The war in Yemen paused in a ceasefire over the summer, but killing returned in October. Azerbaijan attacked Armenia, taking advantage of the latter’s protector in Moscow being distracted.
Inflation surged. Crops failed. A neo-fascist became the Italian prime minister for the first time since 1945. Far-right leader Viktor Orbán won an unprecedented fifth term, becoming Hungary’s longest-serving prime minister. The Philippines elected the son of its former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Jr (known as ‘Bongbong’), as president, despite ongoing allegations of corruption.
At the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping secured a record third term as China’s paramount leader, and managed to change the party’s constitution to enshrine his rule. But shortly afterwards, the country exploded into protests on a scale not seen in decades – firstly about its zero Covid policy, but also about so much more.
Iran, too, revolted. The Saudi government executed 80 people for “holding deviant beliefs” – the biggest mass execution in recent years – and Joe Biden gave the country’s crown prince immunity from prosecution for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated. Emmanuel Macron defeated his far-right rival Marine Le Pen – but ran his own grim, racist campaign against France’s Muslims.
The US Supreme Court, now controlled by conservatives, overturned the abortion rights of Roe v Wade and slashed the power of the Environment Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions. Trump’s Republicans were gloriously snubbed in the US midterm elections, failing to take control of the Senate. Gustavo Petro was elected as Colombia’s first left-wing president.
It was the first year that Britain had three prime ministers since George Canning died shortly after taking up office in 1827. Sinn Féin became the first nationalist party to win the most seats in a Northern Irish Assembly election. The SNP/Green government in Scotland proposed – and had snubbed by the Supreme Court – their plans for an independence referendum in 2023. The UK’s longest-serving monarch died.
Profits at the world’s seven biggest oil firms soared to $150bn as demand spiked post-Covid and supply shrank due to sanctions on Russia. But, more broadly, capital struggled: after global corporate profits grew by two-thirds in the 2021/22 financial year, they are expected to dip when this financial year comes to an end next spring. The ten richest people in the world lost more than $200bn, partly because of Elon Musk’s various escapades, but also because inflation is eating consumer demand.
COP27 committed the world to “a pathway of devastation”, the football world cup committed sports-washing.
Or, instead of events, I could look at some key government policy changes.
The EU started to deliver its vast post-Covid stimulus package, worth more than two trillion euros – about 18 times the size of the postwar Marshall Plan, in real terms. The aim is to deliver a transition to a low-carbon economy and a transfer of funds from richer to poorer countries. As Italian philosopher Lorenzo Marsili put it to me, the package likely “saved the EU”.
The US started to deliver its vast post-Covid stimulus package, the Inflation Reduction Act. It, too, will pump billions into green infrastructure. As did Japan. As did China.
In the UK, on the other hand, our government announced no such package, instead proposing future cuts.
Or we could look at trends.
After a rapid surge in emissions as the world escaped lockdowns in 2021, 2022 saw a slight further increase, with increases in US pollution not quite offset by reductions in China’s making it the most carbon-polluting year ever.
The world’s population grew to eight billion, and the proportion who live in cities hit 57%. The number of smartphone users worldwide reached 6.6 billion. The global infant mortality rate fell to 26 for every 1,000 live births. The global literacy rate grew to 87%.
According to the International Monetary Fund’s World Inequality Report 2022, “10% of the world’s population owns 76% of the wealth, takes in 52% of income, and accounts for 48% of global carbon emissions”. While accurate figures are hard to calculate, it seems likely that the richest 1% continue to have more wealth than the rest of the world combined, trillions of which they continue to hide in tax havens.
Incidents of hate crimes against trans people soared in the UK. And also in the US, where a mass shooter targeted a drag show at Club Q in Colorado Springs. Two of the five people killed were trans. The club’s co-owner was clear in connecting the mass murder to the grim transphobic moral panic, which grew this year.
My own experience: Ireland, Turkey and Italy
Or I could tell you about my experience of the last 12 months. For me, as for many people, 2022 was the year I got out and about again.
In spring, I went to Northern Ireland for the election (and for a wee holiday with my wife and daughter) and watched the latest stage of the decline of Northern Irish unionism up close.
Perhaps the simplest thing I saw while there was how the British state has utterly failed to make a case for itself. Sure, Brexit has done damage. But perhaps austerity even more so.
Twenty years ago, when I first started to speak to people on the streets of Northern Ireland, from Belfast to Derry, the NHS and unemployment benefits were powerful reasons for staying under Whitehall’s umbrella, however you identified. Now, with both fraying, those arguments are weakening.
The election didn’t produce an executive because the DUP refuses to serve under Sinn Féin (as the Good Friday Agreement requires it to). And so the people of Northern Ireland will go back to the polls in 2023, to confirm that, yes, they really meant it.
In autumn, an openDemocracy ‘away day’ took us to Europe’s biggest metropolis.
The best way to get a sense of the scale of modern Istanbul is from a boat. Take a ferry west from Eminönü pier in the ancient city and the narrow Bosphorus soon opens into the Sea of Marmara.
On both Asian and European shores, previously hidden curves and slopes come into view. And from each one, as far as you can see, protrude a thousand tower blocks. At night, after the sun has set over Europe, light from the lamps of millions of living rooms refracts through the warm sea air, and the land appears to twinkle.
This is Europe’s New York – with its skyscrapers, deep-sea ports and nine million people; built on top of the Middle East’s Budapest – a 19th-century imperial capital, with splendid palaces, colonial plunder and two million people; built on top of the Rome of the East, with its ancient sites and its four million people. It is both Europe and West Asia’s biggest city, the capital of the Middle East and the crown of the Balkans.
It represents, in other words, a future that we do not. Increasingly, places like this are core, places like Britain are fringe.
This year, Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan briefly fell behind in the polls for the general election next June. Although I met plenty of people in Istanbul furious with Erdoğan, I didn’t find anyone excited about the opposition or with anything else to vote for. Everyone with a vision is in jail; the remaining alternatives (rather like in Hungary) look like a weaker version of the devil you know. I imagine Erdoğan will be re-elected.
Later in autumn, in Italy, I explored how alienation from politics is a direct road to the far right, how the sense that ‘they’re all the same’, that ‘nothing ever changes’, leaves a carcass of distrust in democracy on which neo-fascists feed.
But I also met the resistance: more and more young people, young women in particular, who can see that there are real differences between the futures ahead of us, that there is a version of tomorrow we must fight against. And one worth working for.
We just have to build it ourselves.
I’ll look forward to doing that with all of you in 2023.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence