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Our world in 2014

10 currents that contoured global society in 2014.

Photo by Gerard Flynn via Flickr

It is a journalistic tradition during this season to publish retrospective features looking back on the past year. While the year end review of everything from best sporting moments to craziest hairdos amounts to an annual pageant of sorts, it nevertheless seems in the fitness of things—perhaps because most of us rarely take the opportunity otherwise—to reflect on what has happened over the last twelve months.

As is always the case with living history, characters and events intertwine, sometimes in the unlikeliest of ways, and eventually emerge as forces—formed by a sum  greater than any single individual or event—which ultimately shape the world in which we live. With that in mind, here is a look at 10 currents that contoured global society in 2014.

A changing climate and the perils of inaction

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment, yet another comprehensive report authored by hundreds of leading scientists from around the world. The science was peer-reviewed and robust. The message is more urgent than ever. In short, the planet and the species on it will be in dire straits in the coming decades unless strong, concerted and widespread action is taken immediately to curb emissions. 

The report's release coincided with two major international climate assemblies, the UN Climate Summit in September and the Lima Climate Change Conference this past month.  Where the IPCC report was forceful, in contrast the end product of these meetings can only be described as flaccid, and the pledges extracted non-bindingly toothless.

Meanwhile, around the world, extreme temperatures and severe meteorological events continue to pummel the planet in what has become the new normal.

Misogyny, alive and well

In keeping with a seemingly perennial theme in much of the world, 2014 saw yet more horrific acts of violence against women. In April in Nigeria, the brutal insurgency movement Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 girls, allegedly using them as sex slaves and selling them into forced marriage. While the abductions garnered significant attention, such acts are a hideously common practice in conflicts worldwide.

With the exception of the few who escaped, the Nigerian girls remain missing. This month, another 200 women and children were again seized by Boko Haram in a pattern that is becoming routine enough to barely merit a mention in the international media.

Photo by Gerard Flynn via Flickr

The violence was not confined to war zones. In India, the country recoiled as apparently quotidian gang rape and murder were exposed again and again. National figures—almost certainly underreported—suggest that a woman is raped every twenty-two minutes in that country.

Here in Canada, fifteen year old Tina Fontaine's body— who was a ward of the state at the time of her death—was found mutilated in Winnipeg's Red River. An Ojibway girl, Fontaine's murder is part of a broader crisis of murdered and missing Aboriginal women across the land.

Blowback from the war on terror

2014 saw the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a force to be reckoned with. The group successfully took on both the Iraqi and the Syrian armies while enduring aerial bombardments and drone strikes from a coalition of forces which included Canadian fighter planes. ISIS became infamous for their extreme brutality, leading some commentators to speak with near-nostalgia of the old days when Al Qaeda was the principal foe.   

ISIS' ascension revealed the conundrum into which the West has wandered: the newly formed coalition's attacks on ISIS in effect provide support for the Damascus regime in Syria and its ghoulish leader Bashar al-Assad, sworn enemy of the West. Turkey found itself in a similar Catch-22 as it was forced to allow Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters across its borders to fight ISIS while its own army continued to battle Turkish Kurdish rebels—whom Ankara brands terrorists and whom the Peshmerga consider allies.

Photo Yazidi refugees receive support in northern Syria after fleeing Islamic State militants, WikiCommons

In any event, beyond ISIS, Iraq for its part is effectively a failed state. Similarly, Afghanistan remains a battleground even as the US and NATO officially pulled out this week, after a thirteen year conflict that left tens of thousands dead and many others scarred physically and psychologically. Next door in Pakistan, instability continues to escalate. Earlier this month, the Pakistani Taliban staged an assault on a school, executing 132 children along with nine adults. In addition to the human toll of the now-open war in Waziristan, the stakes on the Pakistani front are terrifying given its status as a nuclear power and the ongoing simmering conflict with its eastern neighbour, India—also a nuclear state. 

The shifting terrain of power?

Russia annexed Crimea this year and continues to back an insurgency in the Ukraine—whose fighters are accused by Ukraine and Western powers of downing the Malaysian Airlines plane with 298 people onboard—prompting concerns over the advent of a new Cold War. Russian leader Vladimir Putin dared the West to intervene and pointedly called NATO the greatest threat to Russia's existence, but evidence now suggests that Russia is paying the price economically as sanctions begin to bite—the ruble has declined by 70% since sanctions took effect.

Still, looking beyond the borders of the Ukrainian conflict, there are signs that a slow power shift is taking place in the world, which perhaps explains Putin's emboldened approach. Russia is aligned with Brazil, India, China, and now South Africa—collectively known as the BRICS countries—whom this year established their own New Development Bank as a counterpoint to the US-dominated World Bank and ultimately as a challenge to the hegemony of the US dollar. While it is a trend difficult (to the point of impossible) to appreciate in the West, much of the world is inexorably turning its attention to these new regional powers. One only has to travel through Asia, Africa, or South America to see mega-projects and other forms of investment in emerging economies funded by these regional power blocs.

This is not lost on the global population. In a Pew Research poll, the preponderance of public opinion in a substantial majority of countries around the world agreed with the statement that "China will/has replaced the US as the leading superpower", a powerful indictment of the US as the undisputed global leader.

The rich got richer

Plenty of evidence emerged in 2014 of what many had already suspected: the rich continue to get richer. A study by Credit Suisse, a Swiss financial firm, found that the richest 1% of the world’s population are getting wealthier, now owning more than 48% of global wealth. The report noted that global inequality is, on the whole, increasing.

The study echoed an Oxfam report from earlier in the year which determined that the net worth of the richest 85 people in the world is equivalent to the combined wealth of the poorest 50% or 3.5 billion people. The top 1%, according to Oxfam, control 65 times more wealth than the bottom 50%. The Oxfam report concurred with Credit Suisse that inequality is worsening around the world.

Democracy and the freedom to choose

The world's largest democracy went to the polling station this year. Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became India's 15th Prime Minister in a convincing win which saw his right-wing Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) crush  India's natural ruling Congress party and command an outright majority.

Photo from Narendra Modi Flickr.

Modi is a polarizing figure who was previously banned from the US and condemned worldwide for his role in the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 when he was Chief Minister of that state. The ethnic violence in Gujarat resulted in the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Muslims, including the gang rape and ritualistic slaughter of hundreds of women and children. Since his victory, Modi has nevertheless been hailed for his aggressive free market economic policies and his eager rapprochement to potential trading partners.

Elsewhere, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong stood up to the Chinese government in what became known as the Umbrella Movement. The protests opposed restrictions placed by Beijing over the selection of candidates who could stand as nominees to represent the territory. While according to polls the protesters enjoyed the support of the majority of Hong Kong residents, after several months and following numerous clashes, police moved in and cleared the barricades earlier in December.

Photo by hurtingbombz via Flickr.

Over in the Middle East, the hopes and promises of the Arab Spring of 2010 have now largely descended into the deep-freeze of an Arab Winter. Egypt, where perhaps initially the most inspiring of movements occurred, is back in the grips of the military, and continues to jail protesters, opposition members, and journalists. Protests continue but the army appears to be standing firm.

Hands up, don't shoot: race back in American spotlight

The killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a bullet fired from a white police officer's gun in Ferguson, Missouri, brought the issue of race back into the living room of the American nation on a level not seen since the Rodney King riots of 1992. The subsequent protests—which are ongoing—produced images of officers dressed in full combat gear armed with military-style weaponry facing off against protesters, and awakened the suburban middle class to what minorities (and the underclass in general) already largely knew: at its margins, American society is on the verge of becoming a fully militarized police state.

Brown's killing further heightened already elevated tensions that had resulted from the choking death of another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, at the hands of an NYPD officer. In both cases, grand juries chose not to indict the officers involved in the killings. To compound matters, this month two NYPD officers were gunned down by a man who had previously stated his intention to avenge the deaths of Brown and Garner.

According to the NAACP, 76 black people have been killed by police officers since 1999. The attendant mistrust in the black community is palpable. This falls against the backdrop of much more widespread social inequity: black people are, on average, twice as likely to be jobless compared with whites, are less than half as likely to have obtained higher education, make half as much income, and have six times less accumulated wealth. Moreover, these disparities have not changed significantly in the last four decades, and in some cases have worsened.

Photo by Paul George via Flickr

Two-state dream annihilated as Gaza burns

In July, ostensibly in response to the murder of three Israeli teenagers, Israel unleashed the fury of its hypermodern military on the Gaza Strip, an area one-eighth the size of Metro Vancouver. When the dust settled, 2,200 Palestinians were dead with over 1,500 of them being civilians, according to UN figures.

Strong-armed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a Nietzschean leader if there ever was one—stared down international condemnation and even managed to make a mockery of the Obama administration's tepid admonishments to stop the attacks (even as the flow of US weapons to Israel continued unabated).

With Gaza's infrastructure reduced to rubble, the state apparatus has essentially ceased to function. Meanwhile a new generation of Palestinians has undoubtedly been radicalized, ensuring the cycle of terror and violence will continue for years to come. Over in the West Bank, Israeli settlement building continues unabated, gobbling up ever more land and making a Palestinian state unviable from a practical point of view—even if there was some miraculous change in political will, which in itself would appear to be little more than a shadow of a dream at this juncture.

Another scourge in Africa

The deadly Ebola virus careened across Western Africa in 2014, leaving thousands dead in its wake and many more affected as orphans, widows, widowers, and in countless other ways. As of December 29th, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US estimates that 7,700 people have perished in the worst Ebola outbreak in history. The economies of the afflicted nations, already fragile and compromised, have ground to a halt. Local governments and aid groups like Medecins sans frontieres (MSF) pled for international support at the outset of the crisis but help was slow in coming as the catastrophe ballooned out of control.

Ebola marked yet another public health disaster on a continent already vulnerable from conflict and often tenuous infrastructure. As in the case of the HIV pandemic—not to mention with treatable but deadly diseases like malaria and tuberculosis endemic in many parts of the continent—much needed health care support is lacking in the region and when it does arrive, it is often too little, too late. Harvard's leading public health expert Paul Farmer was blunt, calling the Ebola outbreak and its mismanagement "terrorism of poverty".

Photo by European Commission DG ECHO via Flickr

Canada's shame

And then there is Canada. A country stereotyped as "nice", which once enjoyed a reputation as a progressive—if somewhat inconsequential—force on the world stage, its image has metamorphosized into something less savoury in recent years, so much so that London-based magazine The Economist branded us "uncool"in 2013.

This year, the European Climate Action Network's annual climate change performance index once again ranked Canada as "very poor" in terms of overall environmental performance, although we were usurped from the position of worst environmental performer among industrialized nations—a title we had held for two consecutive years—by the Australians. Much, though not all, of international criticism directed our way relates to the tar sands, viewed as a blight by many around the world, particularly in Europe. But there is more to it than that; a global perception appears to be materializing which views Canada as a wealthy environmental recalcitrant that functions as a self-serving obstacle to efforts aimed at combating climate change.

Inside Canadian borders, the relationship with First Nations has continued to sour over the year. Ottawa's inaction on the murdered/missing Aboriginal women has drawn ire from both local and international human rights groups. At the UN this September, Canada was the only country in the world to oppose a document aimed at protecting of the rights of Indigenous people. Back at home, the inability to move ahead on such crucial community-building institutions as educational policy and justice system reform created further divisions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

Canadians will go to the polls in 2015. It will be interesting to see whether we blame our leadership for our new-found uncool status—or whether we blame ourselves.

Onwards to another year

As is inevitably the case, the past year was a difficult one for many people around the world. It is easy—and often entirely appropriate—to place the blame squarely at the feet of those who operate out of centres of great power, however and wherever that power is derived.

But for those of us who enjoy lives of privilege, as the year comes to a close it is also worthwhile spending a moment looking inwards.  Privilege confers responsibility—responsibility to act as part of the solution to the world's ills, and moreover to ensure that we are not contributors to these very same problems.

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