Indonesian President Joko Widodo with US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders (Photo by MAST IRHAM/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The greatest shitshow on Earth

Hopes and fears at the end of 2022

Artillery Row

What a year. A brutal winter war is underway, live on TV, with Russia’s onslaught on Ukrainian infrastructure leaving millions without light or heat, let alone food. Vladimir Putin’s determination to starve or freeze Ukraine into submission is like some modern-day Genghis Khan — “throwing his soldiers like logs of wood on to a burning furnace”, to quote Man of the Year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Most of us had only ever heard about this kind of war from parents and grandparents, with stories of hardships we thought belonged in history books. All the while Putin murmurs aloud about the threat of nuclear weapons, again unthinkable in our minds in this period of our history. This war is far from over. A year to forget, right? Maybe not.

For months the peacemakers seemed absent without leave

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan believed that humanity often had to stare at the abyss before recognising the imperative to change. Wherever you look at the end of this traumatic year, you surely recognise that. Despite the tragedy and turmoil of 2022, there is a wake-up call across our world at work now.

Start with the defiance of the Ukrainian people and their leadership, in the face of overwhelming odds and power: defying Russia’s supposed might in Kiev, then Mariupol and finally at Kherson. Look at a good neighbour like Poland, taking in more than 1.5 million refugees from this war — or at the West, displaying the kind of unity of purpose, policy and weaponry that was completely missing when Putin annexed Crimea a few years ago. The abyss demanded change. It delivered change. 

Yet the abyss this year went beyond the savagery inflicted upon the likes of Kiev and Kherson. Shortages, from food to energy, are triggering hunger in the poorer regions of our world and power cuts in richer ones. As prices rise at the supermarket and petrol pump, suddenly inflation and higher interest rates are again a part of daily life everywhere, not just in basket-case economies like Argentina and Turkey.

For months the peacemakers seemed absent without leave. Yet change there is underway too. Presidents Biden and Macron, the centripetal figures of the US-Europe alliance, jointly declared a willingness to talk peace to Putin. In recent days Russia’s tyrant has, quite astonishingly, raised the idea of a settlement. Is peace in play? As yet, no. Is it feasible? Perhaps.

What to make of China? The year began with widespread fear that China’s Xi Jinping might use Ukraine as a precursor to invading Taiwan, that he was unstoppable in his ruthless quest to make China the world’s number one in economic and political might. He certainly succeeded at home, securing a third term. The Biden administration has quite skilfully tried to slow China’s rise, however, warning Xi when it comes to Taiwan and working hard at relations with others in Asia: India, Indonesia, Japan.

Xi ended this year dropping his zero-Covid policy, after facing protests at home over the endless lockdowns and an economy weakened by shutdowns, a housing market collapse and youth unemployment at a record high. Now China’s challenge will be how to handle the inevitable Covid caseload. Suddenly the “Chinese century” has stuttered, at least for now. Rivals such as India are exploiting the window to present themselves as the Asian leader of tomorrow. Witness Apple’s recent decision to move many operations out of China to India.

As for that other headline fear this year, the much-vaunted rise of the autocracies from Moscow to Beijing to Tehran, think again. Putin’s blatant strategic failure in Ukraine, alongside long-awaited challenges to Xi’s leadership, speaks volumes about the challenges the dictators face. When the Ayatollahs in Iran end the year using brute force and public executions to try to silence Iran’s women, you know change is not a dream, but a work in progress.

The climate summit in Egypt fell far short

What about climate change, the time-bomb facing us all? Ahead of the latest climate summit, I remarked to old friends still working in TV news: “We’re all in the same lifeboat, right?” To which one responded, with typical frankness: “We’re all sharing the same shitshow, my friend.”

Floods from Germany to Pakistan. Drought from Angola to Brazil to Europe to the western US. Wildfires from South Korea to France. Heck, didn’t we have flash floods in London and New York this year? The planet gave us enough evidence and finally killed the argument over whether we have an emergency and whether humankind is responsible for it.

True, the climate summit in Egypt fell far short, and the abyss surely screams out for a new forum in which to confront the planet’s meltdown. But consider how renewable energy has gone from being a worthy cause to a must-have imperative. Think like a German or a French family, knowing they cannot ever rely again on Russia’s oil and gas. Suddenly solar power makes sense, even if the dominant supplier of panels is China. Once again, change is afoot.

There, perhaps, is the real take-away from this apparently awful year. As divided as our world is politically, there are eight billion of us now and only so much room and time to fight with each other. We see the abyss. We know change is imperative. The battle of the hour, live on TV, continues in Ukraine. The toughest battle is fighting carbon emissions, however — because Earth may be a shitshow, but the show must go on.

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