Subscriber OnlyLife & Style2022 Review of the Year

Fintan O’Toole: We are living with the possibility of no future, of civilisation coming towards its end

2022 was a year when the post-lockdown dawn turned out to be the morning after the night before

It is hard now to remember that 2022 was meant to be a year of liberation, and perhaps also one in which we could celebrate human creativity and ingenuity. The great success of vaccination programmes in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to give us the possibility of a fresh start, the sense of a new beginning.

Build Back Better was the promise made by governments in many countries. Not merely would we emerge from lockdowns and anxieties, but we would somehow be better people for the experience – less frenetic, more reflective, more deeply conscious of how much we depend on each other.

Some of us told ourselves that it felt like we had been through, during the pandemic, the equivalent of wartime. And now that war was over – won by the power of international co-operation and the application of rationality.

By the end of 2022, however, nothing could seem more crass than using “wartime” as a metaphor. It had become all too real – most horribly so in Ukraine but also in the tangible consequences that radiated outwards from Vladimir Putin’s invasion: refugees in small Irish villages, soaring inflation and energy prices across the West, threats of starvation in Africa. Rationality and common humanity were not doing so well after all.


Wartime is not linear time. It defies ideas of progress. It makes the present feel like the past.

In his great novel of the second World War, Life and Fate, the Ukrainian Jewish writer Vasily Grossman, evokes “a grief that had always known the way from the military hospitals and graves of the front back to the huts of peasants”. He was thinking of the timeless quality of suffering in his part of the world, the repetition through generations of this journey of grief from battlefields to the ordinary families waiting in their villages for the dreaded news to come.

When Putin launched his invasion of Grossman’s homeland in February, Europe was thrown backwards in time: to tanks and refugees on the roads, to families huddling in basements to shelter from bombs, to blown-up bridges and cities reduced to rubble. To shallow graves where tortured bodies are dumped by a cruel and lawless soldiery that claims to regard its victims as errant brothers and sisters.

By the end of 2022, the images seemed to be coming from an even earlier time. From the fighting around the near-obliterated town of Bakhmut, we saw soldiers standing in flooded trenches, seas of churned-up mud, the blasted stumps of trees felled by furious storms of artillery shells. The ghosts of the first World War joined those of the second in this parade of dread revenants.

Yet there were also drones, high-tech sensors, satellites, anti-radar weapons, electronic jammers, cyberwarriors, virtual wars. On the shores of the Atlantic in the west of Ireland you could hear the voices of young men on the front lines in the Donbas talking to their mothers, wives and children. Everything felt at once grimly retro and mysteriously futuristic.

Yet within this time warp, there was the same old story: millions of families broken up and displaced, hundreds of thousands of people killed or injured, children learning to live with terror, built and natural landscapes sadistically savaged.

We had told ourselves during the pandemic that we would not go back to the old normal, but this is the oldest normal of all – the desire of titled thugs to tell the world that, in the end, nothing counts except the violence of which they are the masters.

Yet, if there is something to be salvaged from the disaster of this war it is that Putin has succeeded only in showing up the folly of this belief. Ukraine has had to fight for its survival and to do so with troops and guns and rockets and missile defence systems.

But it has done so primarily with courage, self-belief, clarity of purpose and old-fashioned patriotism. And these soft qualities – bolstered of course by massive military aid from Nato countries – have been more than a match for Putin’s hard power.

Brute force, it turns out, does not go well with ignorance.

Putin’s ignorance is the obliviousness that is hard-wired into autocracy. Autocrats imagine that reality is shaped by their own willpower. They believe their own propaganda.

Putin, it seems, persuaded himself that Ukrainians were hankering to return to their historic status as Little Russia, the breadbasket and buffer zone of Moscow’s empire. Through his own cloud of unknowing, he could see nothing but the quick collapse of the regime in Kyiv and the disappearance of a nation he had defined as a non-people.

Horrific as the war is, the success of Ukraine’s resistance matters greatly both for its own sake and because it is a rebuke from reality to the toxic fantasies of ultranationalism everywhere. At the most basic level, it reminds us that human beings are not disposable figures in the mad video games played by dictators. They are victims of history, but they also make it.

Ukraine’s misfortune is to be the frontline of a much wider struggle for survival. What is at stake is not just the right to self-determination of one nation, but the futures of democracy and ultimately of human life on the planet.

It’s been obvious for quite some time now that most of what is going on in the world is shaped, directly or indirectly, by the climate crisis.

That crisis also plays havoc with our sense of time. We are living in the future that scientists told us about decades ago – and that we could have avoided if we had listened to them. But we are also living with the possibility of having no future at all, of the brief history of our civilisation coming towards its end.

These are signs that, if democracy is allowed to function, citizens will choose to switch their economies away from carbon

The balmy autumn of 2022 was surely the time when this reality came home to Ireland. Malin Head, near to Ireland’s most northerly point, had no ground frost at all during a season when it ought to have been common. On November 13th, in Co Donegal, the temperature reached 17.6 degrees.

This warm weather – and the record-breaking rains that came with it – would previously have been called freakish. But this weather is not a freak. Our autumn was the sixth consecutive season where every Met Éireann station recorded above average mean temperatures.

And this was merely a tiny taste of what was happening around the world in 2022 as greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise.

Sea levels reached new record heights. Glaciers in Europe melted faster than ever before. The continuation of long-term droughts in East Africa deepened the food crisis. Catastrophic floods displaced nearly eight million people in Pakistan.

Yet the Cop27 climate summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh in November failed to agree resolutions that emissions should peak by 2025 or to phase down the use of all fossil fuels. As if we did not know already, the power of denialism remains strong.

What does this have to do with the war in Ukraine? In the end, everything. The war is one of the morbid symptoms of the climate emergency: the backlash of the fossil fuel behemoths.

Effective climate action requires rationality, respect for science and mutual commitment to international co-operation and legality. Those, like Putin, whose power rests on oil and gas have every interest in destroying each of these things.

In this sense, there is some method in Putin’s madness. His invasion of Ukraine was an assertion of the primacy of the irrational over reason, of lies over evidence, of violent anarchy over respect for international order.

It was also an expression of his fear of democracy – his terror that a democratic state might be emerging in a country with such strong historic and cultural ties to Russia.

That fossil fuel oligarchs are right to fear democracy was made clear in the Australian elections in May. The climate sceptic Scott Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal as a talisman in parliament, was soundly defeated.

Likewise in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who unleashed destruction on the Amazon rainforest lost to Lula, who has vowed to protect it. And in the US, the fruits of Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in 2020 included his signing in August of the Inflation Reduction Act that raises $369 billion for investment in clean energy and climate resilience.

These are signs that, if democracy is allowed to function, citizens will choose to switch their economies away from carbon. This is what makes democracy itself the enemy of the fossil fuel producers – an enemy to be subverted or crushed.

It was no accident that the oil-producing countries of Opec cut production in order to drive up energy prices and help Putin use them as the ultimate weapon in his war. Like the Iranian regime, whose violence against women demanding equality is entirely congruent with support for Putin’s war, they know what side they are on in this existential struggle.

The war in Ukraine thus mirrors the conflicts that have been raging within the democracies themselves. Reactionary ultranationalism is as much an internal threat as an external one.

This conflict is very much a continuing story whose ending has yet to be written. But there are some reasons, at least in the anglophone world, to think that the tide of right-wing populism is ebbing.

In the US, Trump looks increasingly like a beaten docket. Even as he moves ever closer to outright fascism (demanding the “termination” of constitutional government so that he can be returned to power), it becomes increasingly obvious that he is doing so because he cannot win democratically.

The energy emergency, meanwhile, underlined Ireland’s failure to develop its greatest natural advantage: Europe’s richest offshore wind resource

The midterm elections in November were a serious rebuff for Trump, with his surrogates like Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania losing their races. But he lingers as a dayglo nightmare for the Republican Party that enabled him, too strong to be ditched, too weak to win.

In Britain, meanwhile, the other great nationalist insurgency of 2016, Brexit, has also become a zombie project. Polls in 2022 showed that only about one in three voters now thinks it was a good idea – but most of the political establishment (Labour as well as Tory) does not want to talk about it.

What was meant to make Britain great has made it both farcical and tragic. The farce is political – three prime ministers in 2022: Boris Johnson slinking off in disgrace; Liz Truss pouring a can of petrol over herself and the British economy and setting fire to both; the patently weak Rishi Sunak left to pick up the pieces.

The tragedy is in the suffering of the 14.5 million British people now living in poverty, many of whom voted for Brexit. Millions of them have been tipped into conditions very close to destitution, unable to heat their homes or feed themselves properly. There are reasons to fear that this winter will be one that leaves a scar on the British soul.

In the midst of all of this, Ireland seemed a place unsure what to do with its own luck. It emerged from the pandemic in reasonably good shape, as a markedly sane – and in some respects pleasantly boring – place. But instead of seeming calm, it merely seemed becalmed.

A booming economy – made manifest by the astonishing haul of €23 billion in corporation tax, mostly paid by US-based multinationals – did not seem to make for a contented society or a governmental system capable of making the most of its good fortune.

The Ukraine crisis highlighted two great weaknesses in that system. The arrival of 60,000 refugees put barely tolerable pressure on a housing infrastructure already unable to provide decent and affordable accommodation for much of the indigenous population.

The energy emergency, meanwhile, underlined Ireland’s failure to develop its greatest natural advantage: Europe’s richest offshore wind resource. A country that should be exporting clean energy remains dangerously dependent on imports of fossil fuels.

Maybe, if we are being optimistic, Putin’s aggression will put an end to complacency, not just in Ireland but around the world. He has managed to demonstrate, in the most grotesque way, the utter folly of allowing one’s own prosperity and security to depend on the glorified mafias that control most of the fossil fuel resources. The people of Ukraine are paying far too terrible a price for that lesson for the rest of us not to heed it.

The bright new dawn we liked to imagine when we were in lockdown has turned out to be more like the morning after the night before. Maybe 2022 just reminded us that there are no entirely new eras. The time of history doesn’t stop and start – it flows back and forward, bringing the suffering of the past back into the present.

But not unstoppably. The Ukrainians have shown us that we do not have to collude in our own destruction.

Those of us fortunate enough not to have fight for our lives literally can still do so politically. Fight – and win. The departures of Johnson and Bolsonaro, and the slow deflation of Trump, do not banish the threat of reactionary nationalism – but they do show that it can be countered.

What we learned this year is that there will be neither peace nor democracy until we free ourselves from our addiction to carbon. But we also learned that it is indeed possible to get clean.