What Went Right in 2022

My new year’s tradition of looking at the past year for positive news felt strained this time, with democracy and liberty under fire while war, intolerance, and greed dance with the cruelties and idiocies of autocracy, seemingly unstoppable. But it’s still worth a look. It’s got to get better than that ray of sunshine of an opener, surely?

The nearly global “30 by 30” agreement to protect 30% of the world’s surface by 2030 is an obvious place to start. The most ambitious environmental effort yet to not burn down our own house, it is cause for pragmatic celebration. But it’s a good example of the challenge of this task, because there’s always a “yeah, but.” Because countries don’t have to actually follow through on the pledge. Plus, the two countries in the entire world that aren’t part of the group are disproportionately influential. One would think the Vatican would care more about preserving life, and the US Senate never ratified Clinton’s 1993 signature to join, though Biden endorsed and committed to it anyway (we just have to see next year if Americans’ eyes are open). But the agreement is still encouraging, despite the shadows.

This same blend of light and dark is in the next one too: covid. Last year saw many of us getting out of the house again, returning to travel and contact, families reunited, lifestyles restored. It was beautiful and nourishing…but hard to celebrate when so many died or are still at risk. Still a step forward, but I wish we could run.

The next one flips the script. Putin’s War in Ukraine is an obvious heap of vileness, but with flashes of light around the perimeter. The tenacity and courage of the Ukrainian people is profoundly inspiring, but the best news would be if they didn’t need to show us anymore. The conflict has also accelerated the widespread shift away from oil (particularly Russian). Biden enacted a plan to reduce our emissions by 44%, not as good as the EU’s 55% but still a big step forward. The war also demonstrated the next item on the list.

Democracies, while embattled, are not dead yet, and many came together to oppose Putin’s threat to modern civilization and moral decency through sanctions. This was in doubt beforehand, and it could only happen because several crucial countries (namely the US and France) defeated their own domestic saboteurs of Reason (and Bolsonaro was sent packing in Brazil, taking his suicidal environmental and social policies with him). Maybe the light of widespread wellbeing hasn’t gone out yet after all, and even demagogues have to listen to sense now and then. Turkey restored diplomatic relations with Israel. The Philippines ruled that big polluters are “morally and legally liable” for their harm. Iran was unable to assist Putin as much, since courageous protesters were in the streets.

But what about more clear wins? Any of those?

Ethiopia’s horrendous two-year civil war is apparently over, after both sides agreed to end hostilities. Maybe soon the word “Tigray” will have a very different connotation. And we ethical travelers will be ready to visit when they’re ready for us, yes?

Tigray, on the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea

Science and medicine are the reliable drivers of positive progress, and 2022 was no exception. Incredible advances against cancer, with better tests and treatments, including astonishing progress toward a vaccine. The same for Alzheimer’s, a disease that terrifies my mind, heart, and spirit all together. Bioengineered corneas to cure blindness, strides against malaria, and we’re increasingly integrating nature’s powerful psychedelic pharmacy in treatment of addiction, depression, and PTSD. (This decrease in stigma is mirrored by an increasing number of police agencies that are adjusting their response to substance abuse away from criminalization, instead seeing it as a public health crisis, a much better approach.)

We took a big step toward fusion as an energy source. Hard to tell how massive, or soon, that could be, but still a hugely positive sign. We found a worm whose spit helps break down plastic. Hydrogen powered trains emit nine times less CO2 than planes (and people are returning to my vagabond favorite: the overnight train). Lab created blood cells transplanted into people for the first time. Transparent solar cells you can put on your windows. Madrid is combining Middle Eastern wisdom with Dutch engineering to install vertical gardens to cool urban hotspots. Lots of stuff like that as more leaders and voters realize that caring about the planet and each other is economically advantageous too. My favorite may be the new Sodium-Sulphur batteries that are much less toxic to produce (and four times stronger) than the ubiquitous Lithium-Ion ones.

Madrid’s wind garden

Another of the big zeitgeists: all around the world I meet people working too many hours and living too few. In 2022 yet another 4-day workweek pilot project got resounding approval, with 86% of participating firms saying they will continue the model. In the UK 65% of businesses already offer shortened weeks, and Belgian workers now have the right to request it. (Most don’t make the Spanish mistake, where the decrease in hours meant a decrease in pay, missing the point entirely. Now if we can just shift to worker-owned corporations, we can really get cracking.)

But what about those anti-democratic barbarians at the gate, intent on burning the library? Most of the Trumpian election deniers lost their 2022 campaigns, and the world’s two most menacing tyrants are in unexpectedly weak positions. Russia’s war against moral decency is a multi-layered disaster, and pent up frustration (and viral death) from the failure of a heavy-handed Covid policy are threatening the passivity required by their neighbor. Perhaps a little island that produces 22% of the world’s microchips (and 90% of the really good ones) will continue to defy domination by a great big country seeking exactly that.

The Social Progress Index for 2022 shows a continuing trend toward more tolerance and social progressivism worldwide, which means an uncountable number of lives getting a little bit better. Only four countries were identified as going the other way (Syria, Venezuela, Libya, and…the UK). I continue to watch in horror as half the US political establishment spends its time making life harder for trans kids, but maybe they’re running down their cruelty batteries, and the distraction circus can’t go on forever.

Confidence in one’s own country is important, so forgive me a little US self-pep talk. We banned gag orders against victims of sexual assault, so no more women will be swept under the carpet. (Okay, less women. But step by step.) We invested $122 billion in hiring new teachers, countering covid-related learning loss, and supporting students’ mental health. The Affordable Care Act somehow survived the Republicans, so we strengthened it, making it possible for 4 out of 5 people to find health coverage for $10 a month or less, helping lower the uninsured rate to its lowest level ever (8%).

Inflation is a huge problem, and while we just spent 40 Reagan-infected years making sure no government can directly help us, we did use the pressure to invest in clean energy, finally let Medicare negotiate drug costs, and impede Big Pharma’s greed by guaranteeing rebates if they raise prices faster than inflation. We did a little gun regulating, expanded access to mental health care, and Republicans couldn’t stop all the debt relief for students. We shored up US elections a little, increased the percent of federal contracts that go to “small disadvantaged businesses” to the highest level yet, took a few steps against the insanity of locking people up for weed, and reunited 70% of the children ripped from their families by Trump. We spent $200 billion to challenge China’s hold on microchip production (which will arguably benefit not just the US), and protected same-sex couples and marriage equality.

Yeah, but? Well, I’ll just say that it’s nice to be frustrated by a lack of progress from those holding the pen, instead of hiding in the bomb shelter from them.

This year’s look back at good news was strained, but it always is. Progress mostly happens steadily and without snazzy optics, and the human animal is trained by evolution to focus on threats. But the impressively international study that showed a worldwide overemphasis on negativity in the news also found a strong element that wanted to read the good stuff. So here we are.

At the end of the day, as I return to my textbooks for a refresher on the Dark Ages, I am reminded how good it is to be alive today, despite the forces that want to make America feudal again. We humans are capable of dispiriting cruelty and astonishing greed, but we’re also hard-wired for generosity, kindness, and caring. And as I look at the year behind, I find a lot of institutional brutality, but human kindness flowing up to meet (and often overwhelm) it. And that is cause for celebration.

So happy 2022 survived & accomplished, and welcome to 2023 and all the goodness we can create in it!