Interviews by Hayden Higgins
Seeing an empire in decline from inside.
Most Important: The choreography of Oscar Isaac peering down at, stroking, and tenderly kissing the inside of Jessica Chastain's upper arm on the red carpet (and the unanimity of our collective longing).
Least Important Worst Thing: Seeing an empire in decline from inside. We've known the infrastructure of the American state is fragile, but it has been nevertheless alarming to see how easily the political process can be hijacked to prevent the passage of relief measures and essential support services for people who urgently need them (excluding a much-needed $768 billion in military spending for 2022, a five-percent increase). More than anything, though, observing the government's willingness to allow people to die (whether from Covid, poverty, foreign policy, police violence, or some other probably preventable cruelty and premature death) is a centuries-long, but still acute, constantly unfolding terror that is hard for me to put into words. Patrick Blanchfield recently wrote that the real horror of the American death drive is that "it is an indifferent principle of destruction." It, of course, surges through structures of inequity, across well-established lines of race and class and gender and physical ability. But it is a disposition and ideology that is indiscriminate in our often fatalistic expressions of individualistic desires and disdains. It is the grasping at a "return to normal," an already death-making state of affairs, that has revealed the precedented cruelty of American life at an unprecedented scale; honestly, I'm scared shitless to imagine what comes next.
Is there some good in the bad?
Most Important: It feels like there are only global catastrophes to choose from. Or is there some good in the bad? The pandemic has shown how fast we can develop efficient vaccines. The climate summit in Glasgow lets us limp in the right direction. But what about the staggering loss of biodiversity? The "Anthropocene extinction" threatens all life from beloved pollinators to much-maligned but equally important parasites. (Nature's freeloaders keep food webs complex and ecosystems robust.) The most important event this year? The UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 (tbc in 2022)—for highlighting what is arguably the biggest crisis of them all.
Least Important: A bunch of billionaires in their flying machines trying to escape our ailing planet.
People who are not already members of the labor movement are waking up to the idea that they should have control over their work.
Most Important: The Great Resignation, because the pressure that it put on employers delivered power to the hands of the workers. People who are not already members of the labor movement are waking up to the idea that they should have control over their work. In my ideal world, there would be a fresh wave of unionizations (this is already happening), increased wages, and permanent work-from-home options.
Least Important: Facebook's rebrand to Meta. It will take a lot more than a different name before we see Facebook as a new technology company with changed values.
I was more convinced than ever that OECD leaders have unshakable faith in The Market's ability to fix the problem.
Most Important: Ongoing global vaccine inequity. Countries worldwide have been asking since 2020 for the Covid-19 IP rights to be temporarily waived, so that other nations with the ability to manufacture vaccines could add to the global supply and accelerate international distribution. After some pressure, the Biden White House formally announced support for a waiver in principle, but it has done little to make that happen through the World Trade Organization. 2021's global vaccine rollout was beset by delays, shortages, and distribution problems. Now the year closes with (according to UN and WHO data) 67 percent of people in high-income nations having received at least one dose of vaccine, compared to 10 percent of people in low-income nations.
Least Important: The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, which Greta Thunberg summed up as a "two-week long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah." By the end of the conference I was more convinced than ever that OECD leaders have unshakable faith in The Market's ability to fix the problem, the capitalists have similar faith in their own ability to mitigate (or profit from) the "risks," and lower-income nations are justifiably convinced that the wealthier ones would rather lecture, scapegoat, and make empty promises than seriously negotiate equitable and effective approaches to emissions and development.
The whole world is different because this one man ran up the stairs with a bunch of gross idiots behind him.
Most Important: Almost a year ago, a Capitol police officer named Eugene Goodman drew a mob of rioters away from the entrance to the Senate toward an area where more police were waiting. Goodman "is credited with saving the lives of members of Congress on Jan. 6," according to a report in the New York Times.
In the months since, seditious Republicans have tried to downplay what anyone can see on video; rioting Trump supporters came within a hair's breadth of injuring or killing lawmakers at the Capitol that day. If even one congressperson had been killed, the politics unfolding afterwards would have been altered to an unimaginable degree. Literally the whole world is different because this one man ran up the stairs with a bunch of gross idiots behind him.
Least Important: Critics of web3, NFTs, and cryptocurrency ran riot on both left and right. But even if their objections were valid (and they're not, in general), crypto is here to stay. The condemnation of crypto's energy footprint is long since outmoded, as energy-efficient new blockchains have only continued to come online; it's also short-sighted, since blockchain innovations that are already underway, such as peer-to-peer energy trading, represent potentially enormous energy savings. And while denunciation of all the get-rich-quick crypto quackery is beyond valid, sensible regulations like those adopted in Germany and Canada reduce risks and enforce needed accountability.
I don't mean to be all doom and gloom—my life is going all right—but, I don't know, 2021 was a reminder that these problems are not remedied simply by voting blue or red.
Most Important: It became clear that Covid is not something we can "get over" or eradicate, but rather a terrible force of nature we have to learn how to live with. Key word being "live." Despite Trump being out of office, the new administration unfortunately has not come up with an effective plan for how Americans have to adjust their lives to cope with the seemingly eternal pandemic. Instead, there was this wacky notion that we would somehow be able to just get rid of it, an impossibility without a more effective vaccine—though vaccination is obviously a central part of any sort of post-Covid future—and the proliferation of anti-vaxx conspiracy theories.
The 2020s, I reckon, is going to be a decade where Americans find themselves at the mercy of natural forces that humans have asserted dominance over for centuries. It's not only disease we have to contend with. It's the devastating forest fires that ravaged the American West this summer, and the floods and the power outages and the tornados and all that climate change jazz. I don't mean to be all doom and gloom—my life is going all right—but, I don't know, 2021 was a reminder that these problems are not remedied simply by voting blue or red. Something bigger needs to change.
Least Important: Blah blah blah blah cancel culture blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah viral outrage blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah cable news blah blah blah blah blah blah "please be patient with our staff woe is me because no one wants to work for $7.25/hour anymore" blah blah blah blah blah blah Twitter something blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Zoom fatigue?
After a grueling year, it felt like a huge win for both compassion and direct action.
Most Important: The Kenmure Street protest in Glasgow. Over the past year—under the cover of the pandemic—racist and authoritarian legislation has been progressed through Parliament in the UK, particularly in relation to immigration (Nationality and Borders Bill) and police powers (Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill). Without any real opposition in government, protesting has felt quite hopeless at times. However, in May, residents of Pollokshields rallied to prevent the deportation of two members of their community. What began as a couple of people lying under an immigration van inspired the congregation of hundreds, who stood together for nearly eight hours, refusing to move until the men inside were released. Whenever I watch the footage, it never fails to move me. After a grueling year, it felt like a huge win for both compassion and direct action, and goes to show what can be achieved, even with relatively small numbers.
Least Important: Guys explaining NFTs.
Dolly Church is a London-based writer and researcher, who is interested in urban life, technology, and culture.
What makes us valuable—as people, workers, teams, companies, nations?
Most Important: The way we work has changed forever. There will be no back to normal because normal died in the pandemic. It was killed not by Covid but by ubiquitous connectivity, by machine learning powered automation, by cultural globalisation, by changed perspectives and falling poverty and new money and old ambitions. We all now have a lot to learn: new rituals, tools, and habits. What makes us valuable—as people, workers, teams, companies, nations?
Least Important: Arguments about decarbonization. The shift to clean energy is an utterly relentless economic force, like the incoming tide sweeping away sandcastles. It's not going away.
Tom Whitwell is Managing Consultant at Fluxx. He lives in London, helps companies like the Economist, National Grid, and Condé Nast to develop new products and writes "52 Things I Learned…" every year.
Despite several premature obituaries, the neoliberal era did not expire in 2021.
Most Important: Gabriel Boric, a social democrat, was elected president of Chile. Despite several premature obituaries, the neoliberal era did not expire in 2021; but the success of Chile's Estallido Social—in securing the presidency and a plebiscite to reform Pinochet's constitution—is an inspiring signal against an otherwise bleak landscape for the global left. It would be naive and overly sentimental to say "neoliberalism was born in Chile; may Chileans be its gravediggers," but you'll forgive me for indulging in some optimism of will.
Least Important: I started parting my hair to the left. I switch every few years; I don't know why. It doesn't make a difference. The strategic retreat of my hairline continues apace.
Jenny G. Zhang
It's becoming harder to determine what matters and what doesn't.
Most Important: I was vaccinated in April, a personally significant event that I genuinely and stupidly thought would portend some version of "hot vax summer," just like I believed abstractly last spring that there was no way this pandemic would outlast the warmer months. I was wrong on both counts, which is enough to convince me that it's better not to think too hard about how these events will play out.
Least Important: The past two years have admittedly messed with my sense of proportion, but I have to say it's becoming harder to determine what matters and what doesn't. This exercise nearly always, inevitably, leads to an intellectually confused conclusion that leans toward defeatism. For instance, how are we supposed to process another year in which so much has changed, and yet, on another level, frustratingly little has at all? I have no idea, please don't ask me.
The presence of European-made artifacts on the continent well before Columbus "discovered" North America.
Most Important: A January article in archaeology journal American Antiquity detailed the discovery of a handful of blue Venetian glass beads at Punyik Point, an Inuit site in Alaska. The authors, Dr. Michael L. Kunz and Dr. Robin Mills, used radiocarbon dating to establish the age of the twine holding the beads together, establishing that they must have found their way to North America between 1440 and 1480 at the absolute latest.
The big headline news here is the presence of European-made artifacts on the continent well before Columbus "discovered" North America. But what captivates me the most about it is the long and unknowable journey these cerulean beauties must have taken "carried east along Silk Road trade networks before being ferried north, into the hinterlands of Eurasia and across the Bering Strait, where they were deposited in the icy ground of northern Alaska"—presumably where they were traded to members of the local indigenous population.
Least Important: Ellen DeGeneres, William Shatner, Snoop Dogg, Grimes, Tony Hawk, Steve Aoki, Shawn Mendes, Paris Hilton, Eminem, Quentin Tarantino, Kings of Leon, John Cena, Damien Hirst, and John Cleese, or someone on these celebrities' behalf, minted and released NFTs.
Mark Slutsky is a filmmaker based in Montreal and Principal Writer at Compulsion Games. He writes most weeks at Something Good, which he started when the filming of his debut feature, You Can Live Forever, was postponed. It is now in the can and expected sometime in 2022, but Something Good persists.
America embraced the death cult.
Most Important (Nightmare Edition): America embraced the death cult. It was strange watching people who I know personally, none of whom identified as Republicans, fully embrace anti-vax rhetoric and fill my timeline with Robert Kennedy, Jr., quotes. It's hard letting go of people you love who are too far gone and just accepting that if 800,000 dead isn't enough evidence for them, nothing you say will ever be.
Most Important (Non-Nightmare Edition): Student loan freeze. As someone with six figures of student debt, I've thought about the amount I owe and the impossibility of me ever being able to pay it back every day, except for this year!
Least Important: NFTs, Lauren Boebert, Megan McCain leaving The View, Kamala yelling at Charlamagne tha God, Let's Go Brandon, Democrats groveling at Joe Manchin's feet, Kyrsten Sinema's style, anything to do with the Royal Family, Chris Cuomo getting fired by CNN, Joe Rogan's Covid-19 advice, Porsha getting engaged to Simon…
The longer Americans fall for these talking points, the longer we'll be denying a future to citizens in the global South.
Most Important: The miraculously speedy development of Covid-19 vaccines—and the way developed countries have hoarded both the vaccines themselves and the intellectual property behind them. Judging by similar historical efforts, it could've taken a decade or more to create a Covid vaccine. Instead, it took less than a year. But that glittering triumph is tarnished daily by the inability of millions of people in developing countries to access any vaccine (let alone a booster). Of course, pharma companies have argued strenuously that ramping up production is a more effective way to vaccinate the globe than issuing IP waivers would be, and at every opportunity their emissaries raise the industry's favorite talking point: that preventing pharmaceutical companies from sitting on life-saving IP will actually incentivize such companies to spend less on innovation, thereby preventing the creation of crucial drugs in the future. Now, this bit of propaganda has been effective for a long time. The average American doesn't know, for example, that most large pharma companies are profiting from drugs they didn't invent, or that the vast majority of drug companies today spend significantly more on sales and marketing than on research and development. Indeed, the longer Americans fall for these talking points, the longer we'll be denying a future to citizens in the global South—and the longer we'll face things like astronomically high insulin prices at home.
Least Important: The founding of the University of Austin. Congratulations to the small throng of reactionary culture warriors who found a way to recreate Liberty University without the prayer—and without the campus, and without accreditation…and without any actual new ideas? Since it seems wildly unlikely that the school will ever get off the ground, I offer the following bet to Bari Weiss: If your "university" becomes an actual university, I'll buy you a full set of the Loeb Classical Library, in both Latin and Greek. BUT if your "university" turns into a series of web videos, like PragerU except somehow more anti-Palestinian, then you have to read both Manufacturing Consent (in its entirety!!) and the collected essays of Gore Vidal while listening to "The Internationale" on repeat. Seems fair, no?
Ted Scheinman is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine and the author of Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan (FSG Originals, 2018).
This is what it looks like when the state abandons us.
These days, people make a lot of jokes ("jokes") about living in a failed state or being abandoned by the state. If you wonder what those things would look like, we already know: In the US, incarcerated people have borne and will continue to bear the worst consequences of both the pandemic and catastrophic climate change, a fact in particularly horrible evidence in February. People in Texas prisons and jails suffered through a three-day blackout when the state's power grid, separated by choice from regional and national electricity systems, could not withstand demand during Winter Storm Uri. This came on top of a year without adequate supplies of masks, clean water, space to isolate, and, in some prisons, even hand sanitizer. Covid ripped through prisons. People incarcerated in Harris County were vaccinated during the storm—but only because officials did not want thousands of doses of the Moderna vaccine to go to waste after power failure at the county's health department threatened to spoil them.
This is what it looks like when the state abandons us. We would do well to pay attention.
Biden's ending the war in Afghanistan suggests that the US is adopting a novel strategy that I've termed "hegemonic stabilization."
Most Important: There are many important events that occurred in 2021, but I'll focus on one in my specialized area of US foreign policy. Namely, Joe Biden's ending the war in Afghanistan suggests that the United States is adopting a novel strategy that I've termed "hegemonic stabilization" in which the country retains the structures of its empire—its basing system, its budget—while reducing its explicit commitments abroad.
Least Important: The maturation of the young rapscallion "Peanut Jr." into the full-grown "Mr. Peanut," who has resumed his place at the center of the Planters multiverse.
Daniel Bessner is Hanauer Honors Associate Professor of Western Civilization at the University of Washington.
On Feb. 22, Illinois became the first US state to eliminate cash bail.
Most Important: I've never had the confidence I'd need to declare any event the year's most important, even hyperbolically. Let me instead select one with local significance, in case you missed it. On Feb. 22, Illinois became the first US state to eliminate cash bail, which will now end here in 2023. A relief amid the relentlessness of 2021.
Least Important: In a context like this, naming the least important event can only be a wish. (The truest objects of the superlative would be beneath mention.) I'll spend mine on financial market fluctuations, the events whose importance has outstripped to the greatest degree what their importance should be.
With the current growth of the space sector, it won't be long before space flight is affordable.
Most Important: Space tourism! This year we saw the first private crewed space missions from Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX, marking the start of accessible space for all—SpaceX literally took a cancer survivor with a prosthetic leg to space, so if she could do it, anybody can! At current prices it's still going to be a while yet before we make annual trips to space, but no doubt with the current growth of the space sector, it won't be long before space flight is affordable.
Least Important: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope finally launched on Christmas Day after several years of delays (originally planned for 2007!), $10 billion over budget and endless protests over its name—let's just be honest with ourselves, the complexity of this thing to deploy and get operational is insane—it's never going to happen, but I guess we will see in a few months' time.
Dr. Maggie Lieu is an astrophysicist at the University of Nottingham working on Machine Learning & Cosmology.
I'm learning more than I ever wanted to know about the various shapes that grief can take.
Most Important: The death of Deja the dog was, for me, an incredibly strange and heartbreaking experience that hasn't entirely ended. She was my first dog, a husky-hound mix with gentle eyes, a nervous deposition, and a tendency toward flight. She was very ill for a very long time, and it was right that she be "put down," but it was also horrible, making that decision, taking her on a last walk, watching her go. Ever since, I've been having dreams about Deja, where she returns to the house and just walks through it on her overlarge, overfurred paws, breathing her terrible breath into the corners, somehow made alive again by the wrinkles and fissures of the universe. These recurring dreams have begun to feel real to me, as though I'm living with a ghost dog, slinking out of sight. I've never believed in spirits or souls but I've always put a lot of stock in the idea that one can be haunted. I'm learning more than I ever wanted to know about the various shapes that grief can take, and I've decided that Deja's mourn-form is perhaps the best case scenario. I know what I'm missing, I know what I've lost, and I feel her still, clacking her nails on the pinewood floors, checking on me, waiting.
Least Important: It wasn't a year without a summer, because that would have been too decisive and bold for 2021. There was a summer, but it was wet and thick. Mushrooms grew to outrageous sizes—white horse mushrooms the size of dinner plates, sickly yellow earth tongues, colorless coral mushrooms that sprawled big as brains on the rotting logs. Vegetables in my garden died while fungus fruited. Black mold grew throughout my house. We didn't go on vacation, we didn't get tan, we didn't feel liberated. There was a summer this year, but it dragged. Fall was better. I have hopes for spring.
Katy Kelleher lives in a moldy little house in the woods of Maine. She's currently working on a book, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, due out in 2023.
The vaccines were only ever a viable solution for a small sliver of the world because we designed the system that way.
Most Important: Workers finding greater solidarity with one another. One of the miraculous things about humans is that they all benefit if they work collectively and organize their efforts. There's no salvation in the capitalist rat race, but work can be less miserable if we find genuine camaraderie. My reporting was better and more fun to do when I collaborated with other journalists this year—particularly women. I got to share bylines with five of them: Meaghan Tobin, Vittoria Elliott, Wency Chen, Kaoruko Ishibushi, and Zuha Siddiqui.
Least Important: Trying to "get back to normal." The vaccines were only ever a viable solution for a small sliver of the world because we designed the system that way. Rich nations can't booster their way out of this without an enormous human cost.
Louise Matsakis is an independent journalist covering tech and China.
"The boat is stuck," we said. "That's the reason."
Most Important: When the Ever Given ran aground on the banks of the Suez Canal, it cut through all the complexity of supply chains and became a stand-in—and ultimately a MacGuffin—of the freight issues and shortages popping up all over the world. Supply chains are breaking down. Why, we asked? And Ever Given was stuck there, with a tiny-looking excavator shoveling away, and it was something we could all point to. "The boat is stuck," we said. "That's the reason."
But I write about distribution and logistics, and generally, there is no there there. Distribution networks are diffuse and inscrutable, often not even understood by the companies who move objects within them. The Ever Given, and the frantic excavator operator, gave form to the formless networks of commerce and 2021 supply-chain issues.
Least Important: Mark, stop trying to make the metaverse happen. The world is burning; no one needs a Second Life-meets-Wii Fit mashup.
We still haven't learned from our mistakes, and more people will die as a result.
Most Important: The 800,000th American died from Covid. We might never know who they were, where they lived, or what kind of life they led, but we can be certain their death is a national failure. The pandemic has exposed all the worst faults in our society: negligent bosses, feckless politicians, boundless conspiracy theories. People paid for it with their lives. This isn't a new story, after two years of viral horror, but its familiarity only reinforces its importance. We still haven't learned from our mistakes, and more people will die as a result.
Least Important: The inauguration of Joe Biden. Yes, I'm joking, but only a little! The Biden presidency has been very boring, which gives rise to a nameless new emotion that is equal parts relief and disappointment. Biden spares us endless scandal and dramatic cruelty, but in their stead, provides a constant low-level meanness. From the White House press secretary's grating "Psaki bombs" to the administration's failure to wield its executive authority in ways that matter, the Biden White House provokes a resounding so what from all who observe it. Biden's better than Trump, but is this really the best we can do? God, I hope not.
Sarah Jones writes for New York magazine.
The GameStop pump was the power of decentralized internet users rallying around one central idea—a meme.
Most Important: The GameStop pump, but not for the reasons you think.
Yes, a bunch of Redditors were able to rally around a stock they all sort of half-ironically-half-sincerely cared about, shooting its value into the stratosphere. Which is funny or terrifying, depending on your outlook. But the real importance of that moment is that it was, even more so than the election of Donald Trump, an inarguable demonstration of the networking effect of the internet. Unlike with Trump's campaign, there is no doubt that the GameStop pump was the power of decentralized internet users rallying around one central idea—a meme. And that is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle.
Least Important: This might be an incredibly hot take, but I think it's the "rise" of TikTok?
TikTok is, without question, the most important social network in the world right now. And 2022 is poised to be the year it breaks through into the mainstream. But it's also an app predominantly used by children. Is TikTok the next Facebook? Or is it really just the next Tumblr, which, in and of itself, was the next Myspace? Yes, 2022 will be the app's biggest year, but it could also be the one we look back on as its peak.
One big issue with becoming the de-facto app for teens is that you quickly become the nostalgic thing they look back on from their childhood. Just ask any big YouTuber who suddenly found themselves their generation's version of Steve from Blue's Clues. Are Hype Houses the next innovation in entertainment or are they just Disney Channel shows for Gen Z?
I'm ready to be wrong about this!
We thought it would be the end; it is still just the middle.
Most Important: Vaccines. Was that this past year? Honestly, to say "it's a blur" overstates the coherence of my personal timeline, but while many historically important things happened (the insurrection, the climate disasters, the continuing tragedy of the world's refugees, Afghanistan), nothing felt as globally and personally important as the advent of available Covid vaccines. I cried in the car going to get my first shot, I cried when the needle pinched my arm, I cried in the car after the vaccine. It was a big moment that felt like one, a rare thing.
Of course, that was thousands of variants ago. Millions of privileged and not-privileged Americans rejected them. We thought it would be the end; it is still just the middle. But when Omicron fades from view, I am still hopeful we are much, much better off than before we got our little square cards, the ones that still don't fit in our wallets.
Least Important: I want to say "NFTs" but even typing those letters is exhausting. One hundred words is too long for them. So, I think TikTok has been overblown. It's a popular platform with great algorithmic surveillance powers, but other than trapping both teens and Boomers in dance crazes and encouraging eating disorders, I'm not sure what it will be remembered for. The thing that will replace it is already being made. We just don't know it yet.
Reyhan Harmanci lives in Brooklyn.
I don't know what other answer there could be.
Most Important: It's corny, but I don't know what other answer there could be except everybody being able to get vaccinated, hug their friends and family again, and generally hang out indoors.
Least Important: Multi-billionaires sending multi-millionaires into sub-orbit.
It's the climate, of course.
Most Important: It's the climate, of course. Pick any ineffectual legislation, desperate report, ridiculous boondoggle with an abbreviated name (G7, COP26) to gnash teeth over in between baling out your home from floods or fleeing wildfires.
Second was the anti-sex cardboard beds at the Olympics, a collective fiction we landed on due to unprecedented global levels of boredom and horniness.
Least Important: Facebook rebranding as Meta. Zuck sheds one skin for another to slither out of even the tiniest bit of responsibility for what he has wrought. May his nightmares be full of endless regulators asking him to end Finstas.
Shanti Escalante De Mattei
I know you don't want to hear it, but this blockchain tech has already fundamentally disrupted the art world.
Most Important: The NFT boom. I know you don't want to hear it, but this blockchain tech has already fundamentally disrupted the art world. When Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple, sold Everydays: The First 5,000 Days for $69 million, he became the third-most-expensive living artist. Auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's saw the age of their median buyer plummet from 70-plus-year-olds to the 30-to-50-year-old range with their NFT sales with buyers signing in from around the world. I've seen many, many announcements for a number of NFT startups as traditional auction house dealers, lawyers, artists, and the rest abandon their old jobs and try to get the jump on the crypto-revolution.
Though the art world is the first industry to really be changed by the advent of NFTs, it's not going to end there. I had been skeptical that NFTs would be anything more than a bubble for a long time, but that changed when I saw Zuckerberg's Meta announcement. In that video he described a parallel, immersive, virtual economy, and it's very likely the NFTs are going to be how this new economy technically works. As stupid as this shit can come off, as badly as you may want to dismiss it, I think this is here to stay.
Least Important: Immersive Van Gogh.
Shanti Escalante De Mattei is a Brooklyn-based staff writer for ARTnews covering NFTs and everything else. She writes about the climate culture for Ann Friedman's newsletter as an Ann Friedman Freelance Fellow.
Setting numbers aside, people are just… done.
Most Important: Americans are perhaps more disillusioned than ever with politics. It took a global pandemic, the gutting of an infrastructure bill, and continuing inaction on climate change for many to realize it, but Democrats simply don't have the gumption or the empathy to stop conservatives from hurtling us ever faster toward catastrophe. When 2021 began, President Biden's approval rating was over 50 percent; by December it had plummeted to 43 percent.
And setting numbers aside, people are just… done. They're quitting their jobs, reexamining their lives, and realizing that careerists in Congress don't understand the desperation they feel. For decades, the left has been asked to make a Faustian bargain: support "safe" corporate-owned candidates because the incremental progress they (sometimes) achieve would be preferable to the alternative. This year, I hope, that playbook ran its course.
Least Important: The Great Resignation. Much has been made of the fact that millions of Americans left jobs this year. As I noted above, I think that trend is certainly symptomatic of a broader dissatisfaction with the status quo. But we tend to underestimate how easily capitalism wraps itself around us like a boa constrictor, tightening its grasp even as we feel like we can still wriggle our toes. I worry that, without more foundational challenges to stagnating wages and costly health care, 2021's tsunami of two-week notices will read like a curious blip in hindsight—a flight of fancy, the year we thought we could escape the death grip money has on our lives.
Electric vehicles will replace internal combustion engine vehicles in our lifetime.
Most Important: It's hard to argue against the Capital insurrection on Jan. 6 not being hands down the most important event of the year. Even if it ends up being a one-off event and not a trend of escalating political violence in the United States, it will still be in the first paragraph of histories of this era.
However, because I think this is going to be an extremely common answer, I'll give a second option in the interest of variety: 2021 was the year that the electric car won. Electric-car makers have sky-high valuations and traditional car makers are plunging billions of dollars into electric-car manufacturing and telling markets that 40 percent or more of their sales will come from electric vehicles by the end of the decade. All of this investment locks in the reality for the future: Electric vehicles will replace internal combustion engine vehicles in our lifetime, meaning less greenhouse gas emissions and cleaner air, along with all the follow on health effects that come with that.
Least Important: Return to office. As vaccines began to roll out at the end of 2020, talk of return to office began to build. Companies put out memos on hybrid work and remote workers began to return to cities again. But all of this proved to be premature. Between vaccine hesitancy and delta variant, it never materialized and those same companies were forced to walk back those policies.
My prediction: It isn't ever going to happen. Covid is going to continue to cause havoc over the course of 2022 and 2023, whether it's additional variants or concern about breakthrough cases. While this will diminish over time, by the time it does, any job that doesn't explicitly require the worker to be in person will have moved to remote-first by default and any company that tries to buck this trend will be at a disadvantage in the marketplace. This will make it easier to be a two-career couple or an army spouse, but will make it harder to feel connected at work.
Many of these same people are working overtime to ensure that the 2024 vote goes their way—legally or not.
Most Important: The attempted coup.
This is the same event I chose as the most important of 2020. Then, just a few weeks later, shit hit the fan. On Jan. 6, people stormed the seat of US government, seeking to overturn an election. Ever since then, the person they were trying to keep in power, his inner circle, Republican leaders, and conservative talking heads have done everything they can to minimize what happened or to spin conspiracy theories about it. Meanwhile, many of these same people are working overtime to ensure that the 2024 vote goes their way—legally or not. I'm scared. We should all be scared. Here's hoping I don't have to say that the protracted right-wing effort to overthrow American democracy was the most important event for the third year running.
Honorable Mention: Vaccine inequity.
As Ed Yong recently wrote in the Atlantic, "People in rich countries are getting their booster six times faster than those in low-income countries are getting their first shots." This is, in a word, gross. We can do better. For moral and for practical purposes, we must. And that starts with patent waivers.
Least Important: Billionaires going to space.
If only the world's richest dudes would resolve to do less dick-waving and pay more taxes in the new year.
Seyward Darby is the editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine and the author of the book Sisters in Hate: American Women and White Extremism (Little, Brown, 2020).
Even the clearest victory in human health can be turned into an issue of political identity.
Most Important: It's hard to pick just one in a year that included a "great resignation" and a coup attempt, but I think I have to go with Covid vaccinations, which was an important event on multiple levels. For one, it's a vaccine for Covid! It's what we spent all of 2020 waiting for. But also, it's a perfect example of how radicalized conservatives have become, that even the clearest victory in human health can be turned into an issue of political identity. How do we come back from a nation that's been so divided by far right misinformation?
Least Important: Generational conflict. Whether it's "Millennials vs. Boomers" or "Gen Z vs. Millennials," it's all frivolous nonsense that only serves to distract from the true problem: income inequality. Depending on which source you look at, the rich got 40 to 60 percent richer during the pandemic while working Americans struggled. But it seems like every time serious discussions start up about taxing or regulating the rich, there's suddenly a flurry of stories about Millennials to redirect everyone's anger at each other. We need to stop falling for it and stay focused on the rich.
Together we can move mountains and chart a course for a future worth living in—and time is running out.
From strikes and unionization drives around the country to the "Great Resignation" and struggles for more rank-and-file democracy within the labor movement, 2021 was the year that a remarkable number of working people finally dug their heels into the hard ground and resisted the decades-long backslide to oblivion and the top-down assault from an insatiable ruling class that is vampirically draining all wealth and resources from our rotting society. 2022 needs to be the year that we bring more people into the fight, get organized, and go on the offensive. The deck is stacked against us, but together we can move mountains and chart a course for a future worth living in—and time is running out.
It was quitting the job that was killing you because you're on this planet to live, not work.
Most Important: Whatever happened (or didn't) to you. If I have learned anything from the last two years, aside from that you can't trust institutions to operate with the best interest of the community or planet in mind when money is on the table, it's that only you can separate the signal from the noise. It was the birthday or the deathbed where you were needed, even if it meant taking precautions. It was the four hours you drove to see your brother, because if not now, when? It was those books you loved and gave away because they're too important not to share. (We Still Here, My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Crooked Hallelujah, and The Sentence, in my case, if you're wondering.) It was quitting the job that was killing you because you're on this planet to live, not work. It was missing community. It was the phone calls you made to get people to vote in local elections. It was the school meetings you went to in support of teachers and librarians who want students to be safe, have choices, and think critically. It was the vaccine you received and the mask you wore because you believe the lives of others matters. For me, it was the Cherokee Gourd Dance Christmas Powwow my friend asked us to help cook at in order to feed a community. It is whatever you missed this year and decided you will never miss again.
Least Important: Space is the new Everest. At least that's what I thought until I started looking at articles that follow the money. Now, I'm not so sure. On the one hand, I've read Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." If billionaires think they can wait out plagues while they hover over our planet, good luck with that. On the other hand, let them eat freeze-dried cake. Or is that their line?
Cherokee Nation citizen Andrea L. Rogers writes fiction and nonfiction and is the author of Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story and the forthcoming book from Levine Querido, Man Made Monsters.
Here's to another year.
The least important thing that happened in 2021 is that the year is ending.
The most important thing that happened this year was, I dunno, the ongoing global pandemic?
You know, I've been doing these for years. And what's funny is when you read them back it almost seems like things around America have been unremittingly bleak since at least 2015, when I joined up. What's there to hope for?
I'm so tired, lol. I did, however, find a meme I really liked—an anonymous edit of a comic. In lieu of something profound, let me describe it to you.
So it's a classic setup. A man and a woman are in a grocery store.
The woman asks: Is this Hell? And the man replies sensibly: "In what sense?"
"The present moment is both eternal and painful," the woman says.
"In Hell, there is relief in utter helplessness. Here, our actions have consequences for both ourselves and others," says the man.
"Truly, it is worse," she says.
Here's to another year. Let's see just how poorly this goes.