Collins Dictionary chose permacrisis – ‘an extended period of instability and insecurity’ – as their word of 2022. Elaborating on their rationale: the term ‘perfectly embodies the dizzying sense of lurching from one unprecedented event to another, as we wonder bleakly what new horrors might be around the corner’.
Indeed, last year felt so surreal to the point that at times it felt scripted. In England, the relief promised by the official lifting of lockdown rules was dashed within hours by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Just as most people were readjusting to a life free from face masks, a novel and gruesome variant of contagion – monkeypox – infiltrated the sphere of public anxiety. Homes went up in flames due to climate-induced drought, meanwhile fossil fuel companies made windfall profits. Within the space of a week in September, the UK had both a new monarch and Prime Minister (the latter of whom’s sell-by-date was outlasted by a viral internet lettuce).
As sobering as the UK’s domestic plight was, the global situation was far worse as states recovered from Covid-19 at differential rates and extreme weather events ravaged vast swathes of our planet. Adding to the looming spectres of the climate crisis and pandemic, Putin awakened historical demons that were presumed to be tamed: the largest land war in Europe since 1945, a renewed threat of nuclear escalation, 1930s-style sanctions, and energy shortages reminiscent of the 1970s. Given this entanglement of old and novel geopolitical insecurities, what factors would be directing the script for 2023?
A year of ‘authoritarian overreach’
2022 was characterised by what John Lee Anderson (an American biographer, author, and investigative reporter) described as ‘authoritarian overreach’. The proliferation and exacerbation of conflict and humanitarian crises starkly undermined liberal democracy, basic human rights and the securities bought by global trade. For those directly persecuted by authoritarian regimes, the outlook for 2023 is extremely bleak.
Hopes for a Taliban 2.0 evaporated with the entrenchment of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Afghanistan’s crippled economy has shrunk by 30% and over 95% of the population lack enough to eat. The inability for humanitarian aid to act as a leveraging tool signalled the Taliban’s total neglect of its population. The banning of women from working in humanitarian agencies in early January was indicative of further restrictive gender decrees. Yogita Limaye pointed to the diminishing media salience of Afghanistan, and the importance of keeping a spotlight on the situation in 2023.
Women’s rights were also further threatened in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini whilst in police custody in September 2022 which sparked nationwide protests against misogynistic oppression. Widespread anger against the corrupt theocracy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has put the future of the regime in jeopardy. According to the United Nations, at least 14,000 people have been detained and 516 protestors have been killed by security forces. Pre-existing sanctions have made Iranian citizens increasingly dependent on the regime for essentials such as food and medicine. If Iran withdraws from the 2015 nuclear deal, further sanctions could make life more precarious and brings a greater chance of an Israeli attack on Iran in the months ahead.
This withdrawal is all the more threatening given Iran’s deepening military ties with Russia. The number of casualties from the war in Ukraine is unclear, however analysts have estimated within the realms of several hundred thousand. Roland Oliphant forecast two trajectories; either a war of attrition, in which Russia would outnumber Ukraine, or a series of successful Ukrainian offensives forcing Russia to retreat. President Zelensky’s recent tours to the West is a harbinger that a resolution is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Analysing the destabilising effect of the conflict on neighbouring states, Anne McElvoy (a renouned journalist now at Politico) pointed to the increasing likelihood of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
‘Coalitions of bad actors’
One of the factors explaining the proliferation of authoritarianism has been the ossification of ‘coalitions of bad actors’ that have reshaped the geopolitical landscape, Nima Elbagir (CNN’s multi-award winning Chief International Investigative Correspondent) explained. Elaborating on this, Elbagir noted the way in which Putin had been reinforcing and broadening this network to create an ‘un-sanctionable fortress’ in the run up to invading Ukraine. For instance, through the economic and military deals it signed with Sudan and the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation with China. The influence of this network was evidenced in a recent UN General Assembly resolution calling for Russia’s immediate withdrawal from Ukraine; thirty-nine countries either abstained or voted against, representing over half the world’s population.
President Xi has also proved adept at harnessing contemporary crises; for instance employing vaccine diplomacy to silence Ukraine’s condemnation of the human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Northwest China. Analysing Xi’s foreign policy in the coming year, Karoline Kan (who writes about the environment and climate change for Bloomberg), noted the way Putin’s annexation of Ukraine provides the precedent for ‘reunification’ with Taiwan. However, the resistance Putin has encountered could equally serve as a deterrent. More likely, Kan suggested, would be a focus on resuscitating the sluggish economy and reestablishing public confidence in the government. Since the sudden lifting of the draconian zero-covid policy in December 2022, there has been a surge in infection rates, which could lead to 1.5 million deaths.
Floundering global governance?
These developments reflect the global regression of democracy; a study by Freedom House reported that between 2020 and 2021 freedom had declined in 60 states. This is a particularly pernicious trend in the context of a permacrisis, whereby globalised vulnerabilities necessitate cooperation amongst states. At the recent G20 summit India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented on the failure of global governance to address these challenges. Authoritarianism makes this task much more difficult, but complicating it further are the post-imperial crises of Western states.
Particularly implicated in this is America, as a fixation upon domestic political struggles has undermined its foreign policy. President Biden has appeared relatively weak in comparison to Donald Trump, notably in what Anderson described as the ‘disastrous misstep’ of allowing the fall of Kabul in August 2021. Biden has also been ridiculed for fist-pumping Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA believe approved the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. During the 2020 campaign trail, Biden promised voters he would turn Saudi Arabia into a ‘pariah’, however, the energy crisis has won the Saudi prince new allies. Within this context, the octogenarian President’s dealings with Saudi Arabia raises doubts about America’s credibility as leader of the Free World.
Despite Biden’s blunders, his administration’s foreign policy has progressively become more assertive and pragmatic. Elbagir highlighted the way that a Republican House could foster a more decisive approach towards Iran. One trend already underway is the Sino-American decoupling of trade; for instance Biden’s legislation on semiconductors and green technology, worth $465 billion. A hard earned lesson from 2022, Anderson commented, was the realisation that ‘the Free World cannot be economically dependent on the Unfree World’. Relinquishing economic dependencies on these ‘bad actors’ could help lessen their threat, though the global response to American protectionism could do more harm than good to international trade in the coming year.
‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’
The G20 slogan ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ captures the importance of economic cooperation in the context of the climate crisis. Transitioning away from hydrocarbon dependence requires tremendous pragmatism and investment, both within and between states. Climate ambition was stalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which resulted in a winter of energy austerity, with little sign of abatement in the near future. The intersection of climate and energy entrenches both these crises, since they need to be redressed in tandem. However, Fatih Birol, head of International Energy Agency, has described the energy shock as a ‘historic and definitive turning point towards a cleaner, more affordable and more secure energy system’.
One of the lessons of Putin’s weaponisation of energy has been the cascading effects of localised disasters. The nature of many of the permacrises of our age is that they defy neatly demarcated national boundaries. McElvoy explained how the energy crisis might engender a ‘more settled tone’ to climate rhetoric, which generally espouses the idea that ‘there is no future’. This existential sentiment fails to capture the unequal way in which climatic effects are felt. Indeed, time is running out, but more quickly for some than others. 2022 was a record year for temperatures globally, but the most devastating effects of climate change were felt in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, with both carrying the least carbon debt and adaptive capacities. By dispelling the myth that climate impacts are dispersed equally, a more realistic rhetoric that resonates more broadly could be more conducive to progressive climate action and justice.
Linked to this is how the energy crisis has revealed the mutual vulnerabilities within supply chains. In the climate context, although a hierarchy of adaptive capacities amongst states exists, ultimately no nation is immune from precarity. For instance, drought reduced the global supply of grain, the price of which was multiplied by Russian blockades of Ukrainian exports. During COP27, the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund for assisting developing countries was left undetermined. COP28 this year could prove decisive if leaders heed the implications of exporting their climate responsibility. However its location in the United Arab Emirates, a global leader in oil production, could stall progress further.
The age of people power
If there is one hopeful lesson from history to navigate this increasingly uncertain future, it is that watershed moments of change are fought for incrementally by ordinary people with acts of immense courage. The panellists were in unanimous agreement about the extraordinary force of people power and youth movements in 2022.
In Afghanistan 64% of the population are under 25, at least half of which are women. In Iran, the average age of dissenters is fifteen and the nationwide movement ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ encapsulates the desire for fundamental freedoms to be universal. The fierce resistance of the Ukrainian people is captured in the slogan ‘Bravery is Ukrainian brand’. In China, it was factory workers and students who protested against the government’s zero-Covid policy and demanded more general freedoms. The global Fridays For Future youth climate strike will celebrate its fifth anniversary this summer.
The defiance of civilians against tyranny and structural inequalities provides the greatest lesson for navigating the immense upheavals precipitated in the age permacrises. However insurmountable the force of authoritarianism may appear, global leaders are kept in check by the citizens they represent. The road out of these contemporary crises will likely prove long and winding, and along the way it is the solidarity and courageous acts of individuals that will bend the arc of history towards justice.