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It was hard, in 2023, to avoid despair. Yet avoid it we must

Amid a litany of awful global news, from climate disasters to wars in Ukraine and Gaza, Ireland remained remarkably stable and successful

Fintan O'Toole wrap

In April, the European Space Agency launched, from its spaceport in French Guiana, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer. Its mission is to explore three of those moons – Ganymede, Europa and Callisto – and in particular to try to figure out whether any of them might contain “habitable worlds”. It was tempting to wonder what a probe sent in the opposite direction to observe Earth in 2023 might conclude. Perhaps that the blue planet is habitable but not for everyone and, if it goes on as it is, not for much longer.

This was a year in which we seemed to be at once hurtling forward and jolted backwards in time. It was the hottest year on record. Global temperatures have not been so high for 125,000 years. The future, in the form of the climate crisis that scientists have predicted for many decades, is now. It is floods in Newry and Midleton, a tornado in Leitrim, the warmest recorded Irish June and the wettest known Irish July – minor blips in a global context but nonetheless visceral experiences of life in the Anthropocene era.

It is the kind of cosmic joke in which, as in Greece, the weather gods first devastated the land with fire and then drowned it in water. It is historic human settlements such as Lahaina in Hawaii and Derna in Libya burned down in wildfires or washed away in catastrophic dam bursts. It is humans living in the chaotic future their rulers could have avoided but chose not to. It is words such as “freak” and “unprecedented” gradually losing their meaning as the extraordinary melts into the predictable.

The only upside of these calamities is that it is increasingly difficult to deny the reality of human-generated climate change, even in a world saturated with disinformation. Floods and fires and storms and weirdly unseasonal weather are horribly persuasive. The 2023 Ipsos Global Trends survey found that 80 per cent of people across the world agree with the suggestion that “We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly.” Even in those countries where climate denial has been strongest, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, around 70 per cent now accept the truth that humans are responsible for climate chaos and must change their ways urgently.

US support for Israel’s destruction of the civilian infrastructure of Gaza played into Putin’s narrative that the West’s condemnations of his similar assaults on Ukrainian cities are mere hypocrisy

In November, Mary Robinson, as chair of the Elders, clashed with Sultan Al Jaber, chair of the Cop28, over the need to phase out the use of fossil fuels. Al Jaber’s day job is as chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ state oil company, Adnoc – his hosting of Cop28 was, as the environmental policy expert Cara Augustenborg put it in The Irish Times, “like hosting a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at a drug dealer’s house”.

But it is arguable that Robinson spoke for more people even in the UAE (which is not, of course, a democracy) than Al Jaber did. Two-thirds of those surveyed in his own country agree that disaster is looming without urgent change. Even in the petrostates, reality is biting. Which is why Cop28 was not in the end the complete cop-out many feared and at least managed to reach conclusions much closer to Robinson’s than to those of the big carbon producers.

The sense that we are hurtling into the future without having time to control it is exacerbated by both the pace of technological development and the evident idiocy of some of those who dominate it: most obviously the man-child Elon Musk, whose tantrums and tolerance for right-wing extremism turned Twitter into an X-rated cesspit and burned $25 billion in the process. The vast majority of people globally now agree with the proposition that “the world today is changing too fast”. The consumer-driven optimism that new technologies would inevitably make life better has melted in the heat, not only of climate change, but of technology itself.

2023 was the breakthrough year for artificial intelligence. The release in March of the stunningly effective generative language model GPT-4 felt like a moment of great historical significance, a shift in the nature of human evolution. Yet the company that produced it, Open AI, refused to share many of its technical details with other scientists – so maybe not so open after all. In November it fired its CEO and guru, Sam Altman, claiming that he “was not consistently candid in his communications”, but then reinstated him – moves hardly designed to calm anxieties about whether those who are developing this technology really know what they’re doing.

It doesn’t help that Altman, like many of his fellow tech bros, is a prepper, planning to survive the collapse of civilisation. As he once told the New Yorker: “I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defence Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”

It does not seem accidental that arguably the most compelling new serial of 2023 was the post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us, with its deserted cityscapes, vindicated preppers and roving bands of predators. Or that the movie of the summer (admittedly alongside the more upbeat Barbie) was Oppenheimer, in which Cillian Murphy got to intone its tortured protagonist’s most famous line: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Apocalypse seems very now.

In spite of the gloating by the international far right at riots in Dublin instigated by around 200 extremists... Ireland is not, as Conor McGregor claimed, ‘at war’

Yet even as we are careering into the future at breakneck speed, we are also experiencing the whiplash of an equal and opposite reaction. The past is vividly undead. It is a depressing reflection that the most atavistic of world leaders, Vladimir Putin, had a good 2023. Ukraine’s counter-offensive, of which so much was expected, achieved very little: Ukraine made small territorial gains in the south, but Russia took slightly more land overall, mostly in the northeast. Perhaps worse, western attention to and enthusiasm for Ukraine’s struggle began to fade visibly. With no clear idea of the endgame, popular and political commitment to an open-ended war of attrition is hard to maintain. And US support for Israel’s destruction of the civilian infrastructure of Gaza played into Putin’s narrative that the West’s condemnations of his similar assaults on Ukrainian cities are mere hypocrisy.

The delusive reaction of many in the West to the dramatic mutiny of Putin’s one-time sidekick, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in June betrayed a lack of realism. Never mind that Prigozhin was a murderous thug, or that no alternative political leadership emerged to take advantage of the revolt of his Wagner Group – this was going to be the beginning the end of Putin. In fact, the episode (and its violent coda in August when Prigozhin and nine others were killed in a plane crash presumably engineered by the Kremlin) merely underlined the grim continuity of Putin’s firm hold on power.

It was a good year for Putin, too, in giving him reasons to hope that he can rebuild his international coalition of allies, even in the West. His admirer Geert Wilders won the largest block of votes in the Dutch general election. The pro-Russian candidate Robert Fico won September’s election in Slovakia. But most importantly for Putin, his devoted fan Donald Trump is riding high in the polls. He is a strong favourite to win the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election and in with a very good chance of beating Joe Biden in a contest that would itself be evidence of the grip of the past: two men who would be well into their 80s at the end of a second term replaying an election fought four years previously.

Trump was indicted four times between March and August: for corporate fraud in Manhattan, for election interference in Georgia, for his role in the attempted coup of 2021, and for stealing classified documents. But not only did the indictments fail to damage his political brand, they seem to have enhanced it. His lawlessness is, for tens of millions of Americans, powerfully attractive. And this, too, is part of a larger crisis in the world: the decline of law.

It was bitterly ironic that 2023 was the 75th anniversary of a great milestone in human history: the adoption at the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The point of the declaration is precisely its universality – the insistence that people everywhere and “without distinction of any kind” have the same basic rights and freedoms. Only a fool would suggest that it has been honoured consistently since 1948, but it was certainly dishonoured through gross inconsistency throughout 2023.

While the ultra-rich preppers plan to save themselves, we have to combine to save the world

The horrific events in Israel and Gaza showed that very many people who purport to believe in human rights do not in fact do so. Faced with atrocities, they ask: who did this and to whom? They calibrate their outrage according to the answers. For many, Hamas’s murder, rape and kidnapping of Israeli civilians were, at most, qualified horrors. For many others, the collective punishment of Gazans – mostly of children and women – in the most intensive killing spree of the 21st century was a regrettable necessity. The humanity of the victims was not enough. Universality collapsed into tribalism.

Where does Ireland sit in this maelstrom? Largely as a place that can’t quite believe, or cope with, its own luck. In spite of the gloating by the international far right at riots in Dublin instigated by around 200 extremists, in spite of genuine tensions and anxieties generated by the arrival of large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, Ireland is not, as Conor McGregor claimed, “at war”. It is a stable democracy with full employment and, for now at least, a bulging Exchequer. It has skilfully navigated the threatened crisis of Brexit: the signing of the Windsor Framework in April and the collapse of a threatened revolt against it by hardline Tories marked the effective end of that spasmodic enterprise as a viable political project.

Ireland is not, of course, immune from the effects of global crises. But its primary problems are those caused by the mismatch between a dynamic society on the one hand and a sclerotic system of planning and governance on the other. Housing, transport and even basic infrastructure such as sewerage are utterly inadequate to the demands of a growing population. Inequalities of social class and gender have been allowed to fester. Serious discussion on crucial long-term issues such as the restructuring of the taxation system have almost no purchase on the political world.

It was probably RTÉ's bad luck that its troubles, mostly self-inflicted, could be seen as a microcosm of these wider failings in the public realm. Other countries might envy the idea that the misreporting of the earnings of a star TV and radio presenter (Ryan Tubridy) could entrance the nation and have it glued to meetings of Oireachtas committees – we had little, they might think, to be worried about.

But the saga revealed a culture of entitlement, a carelessness with public money and some rank bad management of the provision of a vital public service that were by no means unique to the national broadcaster. It raised questions (so far unanswered) that could and should be asked of many other public bodies: what are you supposed to achieve, what do citizens have a right to expect, and how are their resources being used to enhance their lives?

Even in a country that has been shielded from the worst effects of climate chaos, war, the subversion of democracy, uncontrolled technological change and the decline of respect for law, it was hard, in 2023, to avoid despair. Yet avoid it we must. The scale of the change that is required has never been clearer: the phasing out of fossil fuels, the redistribution of the fruits of economic growth away from oligarchic elites and towards ordinary citizens, the harnessing of new technologies for the common good rather than for the elevation of yet more power-crazed overgrown teenagers, the deepening and reinvigoration of democracy with new systems of engagement and accountability.

But all of these changes have to be fought for. 2023 made it starkly obvious that this is a fight, not just for a better world, but for a habitable world. It’s a fight, not just for justice, but for life. While the ultra-rich preppers have their guns and gold, their gas masks and their remote ranches to escape to, the rest of us have the power of collective action. While they plan to save themselves, we have to combine to save the world.

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