Adam Boulton: The glimmers of hope and reasons to be cheerful as 2022 ends
2022 has been a tough year, in which the UK has often been hit harder than its peer countries in the G7 – the club of the world’s wealthiest democracies.
Russia’s bloody attack on Ukraine led to dramatic spikes in energy costs.
A global cost of living crisis has been driven by soaring inflation and interest rates.
In the UK, hard-pressed workers across the public sector are striking.
Unprecedented political instability in the governing Conservative Party means there have been three different prime ministers in the same year.
Meanwhile, billions of us are grappling with digital technology and connectivity. Some fear social media is rendering traditional representative democracy impossible while handing power to autocrats and unaccountable corporations. Online communication has certainly made us angrier and less tolerant of others.
The world’s population passed eight billion people this year, further increasing the existential pressure humanity is placing on the planet. Extreme weather events attributed to global warming are more frequent than ever.
Globally, the COVID pandemic has claimed more than six million lives, and it is not over either, with a million more deaths predicted in China as the Communist Party reverses its zero-COVID policy.
Taken together, these problems paint a dark picture of life in 2022, yet as we try to cope with them there are glimmers of hope. As we head into the New Year, I want to lift the gloom and rustle up some reasons to be cheerful.
Hope and unity emerge from war in Ukraine
No one should minimise the horror of the war in Ukraine, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides and is still enduring the deliberate destruction by an aggressor of a modern European state. Russia’s superiority in size may still mean that Ukraine never gets back all its territory.
Still, the course of the war so far has confounded all President Vladimir Putin’s calculations and shattered the dreams of dictatorial regimes elsewhere. Russia did not conquer in a few days.
The Western democracies did not prove weak and venal. NATO is not “brain-dead”, as President Emmanuel Macron sneered a few years ago. It is stronger, with Finland and Sweden joining the military alliance.
Led by the US, UK and Poland, Western nations have given billions of dollars in military assistance while accommodating refugees. Just as importantly, the thirst of the Ukrainian people and their leaders for liberty, peace and democracy, stressed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his impassioned address to the joint session of the US Congress, reminded us all of the values which should unite us and which are worth fighting for.
For all their faults, Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss gave Ukraine solid support, even though it cut across their key post-Brexit foreign policy of turning away from Europe. British governments from now on are likely to grasp the importance of good relations with the UK’s closest and largest trading bloc, based on practical co-operation rather than ideology.
A healthy democracy
There is no going back on leaving the EU. But the UK has the chance to enter a new phase without obsessing over the question of Europe, which has dogged the Tory party at least since the 1990s, bedevilling the nation in the process.
Conservative governments no longer have an excuse to be distracted from dealing directly with more important questions such as growth, productivity, and fairness.
If the ruling party does not adapt and address these issues, opinion polls and recent local and by-elections suggest that the electorate may be ready to make a change.
Whatever the outcome at the next election, this is the sign of healthy democracy. Something the increasingly restless people of Russia, China and Iran, for example, are not able to enjoy.
In elections in the West this year, the tide appeared to be turning against populist leaders with links to Russia.
Candidates most associated with Donald Trump, who called Putin a “genius”, fared badly in November’s midterm elections. The Democrats kept control of the Senate. In France, President Macron was re-elected in April, defeating a challenge from Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally.
Game-changing future technology
In an era of modern communications, the world should not and cannot de-globalise. The knock from the loss of Russian energy has led, however, to increased emphasis on the importance of producing our own green energy and trading with friendly and stable partners.
2022 will be a record year for commissioning renewable energy programmes, a trend which was already accelerating before the Ukraine invasion.
Other scientific breakthroughs this year point to game-changing future technologies. In the US, experimenters have for the first time achieved atomic fusion, producing more energy than was used to trigger it.
Chinese scientists claim to have found a way to produce hydrogen by electrolysing salt water. Applied on an industrial scale, this would dramatically increase the supply and cheapness of a potentially “green” fuel.
A test case in the Amazon
There were two important world meetings on the environment this year – COP27 in Egypt on climate change and COP15 in Canada on biodiversity.
Neither was dramatic, but both re-affirmed commitments already moving in the right direction. Crucially, at both summits, richer nations agreed to remove one of the biggest obstacles to moving faster.
They agreed, though so far more in principle than practice, to pay poorer nations for loss and damage caused by Western industrialisation and to protect vital ecosystems. Both are battles against time and the pace of degradation.
Brazil will be a test case. Deforestation in the Amazon increased catastrophically under encouragement from outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro. Lula da Silva, who takes office in January, campaigned successfully on a commitment of zero deforestation in the rain forests, wetlands, and savannah. He has re-appointed a highly committed environment minister,
Marina Silva, and upped the budget to combat destruction.
We’re living longer and healthier
68.7% of the world population have now had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. A total of thirteen billion doses have been dispensed. The capacity of the disease to kill is receding.
An anti-malaria vaccine also became a live possibility this year. Global life expectancy went up to 73 years in 2022, albeit by 0.24%. A woman born in Britain this year can expect to live to 83 – that’s 21 years progress on the average female life span in 1926, the year Queen Elizabeth II was born.
Life expectancy increases are plateauing in the UK and US. The most dramatic advances are in poorer countries. Today, 9.2% of the world population live in what is defined as extreme poverty, compared to 36% in 1990. That is still more than a billion people. In the same period, deaths of children five and under has fallen from 34,200 each day to 14,200.
Pioneers believe that mankind is on the brink of a much greater transformation in both preventative and therapeutic medicine – thanks to the use of AI technology in mapping the human genome and proteins, and the possibilities of so-called CRISPR gene editing.
A better tech universe
We are not in control of the ways online technology is changing almost every aspect of our lives. Authoritarian regimes use it to control information and their own citizens. In free societies, trolls and conspiracy theorists send untruths around the world, aided by bots from hostile nations.
Ordinary people go on social media to vilify others and to “cancel” them. The furore on both sides over Jeremy Clarkson’s casually vicious comments on Meghan Markle are just the latest example.
Meanwhile, tech companies and entrepreneurs have become absurdly wealthy.
In 2022, we began to respond to this stupidity haltingly. The US government legislated against passing strategically vital tech to China. The UK government considered essential issues in the Online Safety Bill. The EU moved against US tech cartels.
FTX collapse into fraud burst the cryptocurrency bubble. Elon Musk’s humiliating mismanagement of Twitter showed the world that tech geniuses do not have all the answers. A better, less uneven, tech universe should emerge from all this, not least because the rising generations are growing up in it.
Beyond the metaverse, digging deep into the worlds of politics, health, and the environment unearths some reasons to be cheerful as this year ends.
All the same in 2023, as teachers write at the bottom of report cards, MUST DO BETTER.
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