Here in the news kitchen, we hear your complaints: This isn’t the 2021 you ordered. This isn’t the 2021 any of us ordered. Personally, and I think I speak for a lot of patrons of this establishment, I would like to send it back and get one with no Delta variant. Oh, and hold the huge dose of vaccine hesitancy, thanks. I’m allergic to coups at the U.S. Capitol; that should have been listed more prominently on the menu. Who put that damp squib of an international climate change conference on top? Combined with the side dish — a California roll on fire — it leaves a pretty bitter taste.
Still, if you scrape those burned edges off the year’s news, a lot of the stuff underneath is actually really good. We don’t hear or don’t think about it, because nothing grabs the attention like a thing gone wrong. A positive story that continues quietly, year on year (the explosive growth of electric vehicles, say, or the collapse of the coal industry), can seem invisible. But trust us, good stuff is cooking, and we’re not just talking medical science miracles (like the first brain implant to make a blind person see or the first animal kidney successfully transplanted into a human). These are breadcrumbs compared to the big, hearty, global trends, ones that could make the 2020s a much more satisfying decade than the one-star reviews suggest.
So here it is, direct from the news kitchen, our scraped-off version of 2021. All the big stuff that we can be justifiably proud of this year, in 21 digestible bites. Starting with one that is right under our noses:
1. We fully vaccinated half the human race in a year.
Global effort: the World Health Organization’s vaccine initiative COVAX shipped millions of doses, including this batch of 500,000 in the Ivory Coast.
Credit: SIA KAMBOU / AFP via Getty Images
In an ideal world, we’d have done more to fight COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. We could have deplatformed or talked down more loud buffoons with no understanding of how immunization works (looking at you, Facebook, Fox News, Spotify). But don’t miss the laudable achievement that is history’s largest vaccine campaign. At time of writing, we’ve administered more doses (8.5 billion) than there are humans on the planet (7.8 billion). We’re on course to immunize 50 percent of humanity by the end of the year, not counting boosters, and to hit the 75 percent mark in early 2022.
The scale boggles the mind, and not just in the richer nations of the west. China is now dispensing 8.7 million jabs a day and is 83 percent fully vaccinated. International cooperation is increasingly on the menu; the African Union clubbed together to buy 400 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot, and improved its infrastructure for future pandemics on the continent. Special shout-out to Brazil, where a beloved public healthcare system has now fully vaccinated three-quarters of the population – more than the U.S., more than the EU — despite its president Jair Bolsonaro being a vaccine denier.
2. We’re killing off other big bad diseases, faster than ever.
One of the biggest strains of influenza, known as the Yamagata virus, used to kill around half a million people a year. Now it has simply disappeared. In September, a major study declared it very likely extinct, thanks to all that masking and social distancing. (See, it wasn’t for nothing.) Malaria also kills half a million a year; its days might be numbered thanks to a groundbreaking vaccine, the first ever for a parasitic disease, plus drones spreading anti-mosquito spray in Africa, and our newfound ability to give mosquitoes virus-blocking gut bacteria. Meanwhile a polio outbreak is being beaten back with a novel emergency-use oral vaccine already administered to 80 million kids in Africa. Somewhere the spirit of Jonas Salk is smiling.
3. The world agreed to tax its richest corporations.
Yes, billionaires are still a thing. Yes, they garner far too much attention (really, Time magazine?) and keep dodging tax bills that could help solve the planet’s many problems. But their corporations will have fewer places to stash tax-free cash now that a global minimum corporate tax of 15 percent has been established. Recently endorsed by the G20, this tax plan was the result of years of negotiation involving 136 countries, and will kick in starting 2023. Jeff and Elon, better call your accountants.
4. A record number of workers took their job and shoved it.
It was dubbed “the Great Resignation,” but that barely reveals what’s really going on. August set a new record with 4.3 U.S. workers chucking their jobs, then September blasted right through it with 4.4 million. We saw it on social media. We saw it in the number of job openings (7 million at last count) that far outstrip the number of unemployed. This pandemic, like past ones, has put workers in the driver’s seat. What that means, inevitably, is that wages are going up (while the resulting inflation isn’t as bad as feared). Unions are starting to claw back the ground they lost since their high-water mark in the mid-20th century. Outrageous C-suite pay rises are leading to strikes, which generally lead to wins for employees. Managers everywhere have to be nice, at least, at last. And you have way more power to change the circumstances of your employment than you might think.
5. The U.S. is cleaning up its act …
Sure, progress in Congress is sclerotic, and the Build Back Better bill is still subject to Senator Joe Manchin’s whims. But at least there is progress, which wouldn’t have happened without a pair of surprising Senate elections in Georgia on Jan. 5, which threw the “grim reaper” of anti-legislation, Mitch McConnell, out of his catbird seat. As a result, we got a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure and jobs act. An even more bipartisan bill that devotes $35 billion to clean drinking water passed the senate 89-2. Meanwhile, the Mississippi was declared cleaner than it has been in a century. The Keystone XL and PennEast pipelines were officially cancelled after a decade of climate justice activism, while renewable energy installations are at an all-time high. The Biden administration nixed oil and gas drilling on federal land, planned wind farm leases along the entire coastline, and planned to more than double the size of conservation areas. Everywhere you look in mainstream American life, from the massive concrete industry’s net-zero carbon plan to Beyond burgers arriving in McDonalds, you’re seeing efforts towards reduced emissions kicking in. It’s been happening very slowly; it’s about to happen all at once.
6. … and so is China.
Given how much climate change depends on China, we should all care about which way the wind blows in the world’s largest polluter nation. And at least for now, it’s blowing in a direction that should be favorable to us all. In 2021, the country kicked off the largest energy installation in history by far, the Apollo project of renewables, an incredible 100 Gigawatts of wind and solar power in its western desert. Beijing plans to plant a Belgium-sized area of forest every year going forward (perhaps in response to neighboring Pakistan, where 1.5 billion trees were planted in 2021). China doubled the number of wild animals protected, and eliminated malaria within the country. And given that more humans means more carbon emissions, we can all be relieved that the country’s population is set to peak sooner than expected in the 2020s.
7. Endangered animals are bouncing back.
There are a lot more giant panda cubs on the planet. That can’t be bad.
Credit: Ning Feng / Hua Shang Daily / VCG via Getty Images
Speaking of China, its beloved great panda was for many years the symbol of threatened species everywhere. As of 2021, pandas are off the endangered list. In Africa, a vast rainforest preserve full of endangered species itself dropped off a UN list of threatened sites. Enforced fishing quotas means the future looks bright for four endangered species of Atlantic tuna. Bison and wolves are back in Europe. Butterfly populations in California and New York are exploding. Salmon is spawning in the Columbia river again. And while coral reefs around the world, crucial to so much life, are still in trouble from warming oceans, many more of them became protected waters in 2021. Meanwhile the work known as “coral IVF” — taking eggs from prodigious areas of the reef, planting them where they’re most needed — just produced its first successful batch of coral babies. Awwww.
8. Coal is crapping out …
The industry that kickstarted climate change, and has killed millions with air pollution over the centuries, is pretty much done and dusted. Some 44 nations are now committed to ending its use altogether, and the G7 vowed not to fund it any more. Only 36 countries have any plans to build new coal plants, and most of them are one-offs that can’t even raise the necessary cash. Worst offender India, alongside China, watered down the language in the COP26 climate agreement that would have made it official (from “phase out coal” to “phase down coal”) for the world, and yet, India’s own federal bank ended loans to coal projects. None were built this year. A major province in China banned coal for the first time. The U.S. committed to closing its last 200 plants. Spain and Portugal became the fourth and fifth European nations to close their last one.
9. … and oil is all over bar the burning.
Shell and BP are officially in production decline. Chevron and ExxonMobil both lost shareholder rebellions against the way they were dealing with climate change. The International Energy Agency, formerly very pro-fossil fuel companies, now calls their stocks “junk investments” and says we’ve already reached peak gasoline. (There’s also officially no more leaded gasoline on the planet, by the way, saving more than a million deaths annually.) Some $40 trillion worth of private and public funds are committed to full or partial divestment of carbon-spewing stock. The world’s largest shipping company, Maersk, says it’s going carbon neutral as early as 2023. Sure, combustion engines will need gasoline for some years yet. But carmakers are already shuttering their gas vehicle R&D departments. If you want a picture of the future, look at Norway, where gas car sales now account for a mere 10 percent of the total.
10. Electric vehicles are on a roll.
In the first half of 2021, EV sales the world over spiked by 168 percent year-on-year. The Tesla 3 just became the bestselling car of any kind in Europe. The bestselling truck in America, the Ford F150, unveiled its hotly anticipated electric version (and its award-winning rival Rivian started delivering its electric R1T; we drove it, it’s the future of trucks). Lucid, a U.S. company hot on Tesla’s heels, started delivering its Air this year (we drove it, it’s the future of cars). We started to lose count of the number of governments coalescing around 2035 as the date they will end all gas vehicle sales; perhaps surprisingly, automakers like GM are actually planning for that too. Even notorious holdout Toyota, which once bet its chips on hydrogen cars, joined the EV party with $14 billion in battery investment and a slew of new models announced this year.
11. Renewables are hotter than climate change.
The rise of EVs won’t help the planet if we’re charging them up with carbon-powered electricity. Luckily, in 2021, an estimated 90 percent of all energy projects installed around the planet were clean. The price of solar and wind power continues to plummet far beyond the most optimistic projections, and it’s making electric power so cheap that experts are starting to redefine our notions of what we can do with all this cheap clean energy in the roaring 2020s. The largest single grid in the world, in south Australia, went 100 percent solar this year. Texas, held hostage by its energy companies last winter, decided to install 15 GW of renewable power. The sun and wind are fickle, of course, so you need better battery technology to store their output; luckily, battery tech is more than up to the challenge. This year an estimated 12.4GW of batteries were installed around the world, a new record.
12. The Earth is winning in court.
The legal victories for the environment this year would be enough to make a 1970s Earth Day hippy wonder what they were smoking. A Canadian river became a legal person, with all the rights that implies. A group of schoolgirls in Ecuador shut down gas flaring in their region. High school students in Australia may have doomed the coal-loving government’s plans for new plants. An Indonesian court forced the country’s president to tighten air quality regulations. A Dutch court ordered Shell to slash its emissions. A Belgian court recognized 58,000 citizens as having standing in a class-action climate suit; this too could be the wave of the future. Even in America’s Trump judge-filled courts, Trump-era public land leases to fossil fuel companies were shut down, as was offshore drilling in deepest-red Alaska. Again, pour one out for oil, it’s done.
13. Spaceflight is becoming normal, and less wasteful.
It’s not about the billionaires and their egos; it’s about building a new orbital economy that can save the planet in multiple ways. And that dream took shape in 2021, the year Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX all started running routine trips to space and back in renewable vehicles. SpaceX’s Starship, a long-distance reusable vehicle powerful enough to get us to the moon and back, is doing its final round of launchpad testing as I write this. Even if the first flight in January doesn’t get to orbit as planned, a new space era is clearly dawning.
14. Drugs continue to win the drug war.
As New York and New Mexico became the latest states to legalize recreational cannabis, Oregon pointed the way further forward when its mandate to decriminalize possession of all drugs went into effect. Baltimore stopped arresting people for low-level drug crimes; The Wire is now a period piece. This new mood is spreading internationally; notoriously tough Malaysia has stopped sending drug offenders to jail and started sending them to rehab. Meanwhile, the largest ever study of psilocybin mushrooms confirmed their impressive record on fighting major depression. And while the U.S. government still can’t get its act together on decriminalizing cannabis, polls showed that two thirds of the nation is in favor of weed legalization.
15. The U.S. survived its first major coup plot.
The more we’re learning about the Jan. 6 insurrection, the more it becomes clear: this was an orchestrated attempt at a coup by the sitting president (an autogolpe, if you want to get technical), the first in American history. Not all democratic nations survive such an event; the vice president and the Supreme Court could have gone along with Trump’s plan, letting their political leanings blind them. But our institutions held. Officer Eugene Goodman, a far better candidate for Time’s person of the year than the winner, saved the Senate from a rampaging mob. Trump was impeached again, and more Republican senators voted to convict than in 2020. And while the Department of Justice may feel like it is dragging its heels on prosecutions, bipartisan Congressional committees are slowly but surely bringing the receipts. Steve Bannon, corruptly pardoned in January, was indicted for contempt in November. Is it enough to save democracy? We’ll find out in 2022.
16. Trump lost his main mouthpiece.
Go back to any point in the last five years, assuming you can find a time machine, and tell yourself that Donald Trump’s Twitter account has been permanently deleted. Watch the tears of relief form in your younger eyes. This lie-filled, hate-spewing spigot has been the single most dangerous media source for half a decade, as well as Trump’s pride and joy. With it turned off and his Facebook and YouTube accounts suspended, the former president has found little traction in his thus-far-half-hearted bid to return to the White House in 2024. His attempt to build a rival social media service seems to have stalled after a source code copyright violation. And with New York investigators closing in, he may be running out of time to get anyone but his most rabid supporters to fall under his sway again.
17. QAnon is in hiding, and in decline.
The Capitol coup woke up social media companies who’d been asleep at the switch when it came to QAnon. The online conspiracy theory, involving a secret cabal of satanists and pedophiles, had a major growth spurt during the pandemic. Then the jailed QAnon shaman from the Capitol riot became the most prominent face of the movement. Twitter shut down 70,000 Q accounts. A comprehensive book and an HBO documentary exposed Q for what it is, and predictions of Trump’s reinstatement and JFK Jr’s return from the dead failed to pass. A digital forensics report in May concluded that Q’s major hashtags had evaporated, and the chatter on friendly platforms like Gab and Parler had not taken up the slack. It may yet see a resurgence, but so far the insurrection seems to be when Q peaked and rolled back.
18. Black Lives Matter saw some major wins in the U.S.
The man who murdered George Floyd and happened to be wearing a police uniform at the time is now behind bars for 22 years, and is about to plead guilty in the federal civil rights version of the case. The Georgia men who killed Ahmaud Arbery for the crime of going out for a jog are also incarcerated, awaiting sentencing, thanks to tenacious activists demanding their arrest. This kind of justice should be the norm, of course. When it didn’t seem to be forthcoming in the Kyle Rittenhouse case, we got a good look at how broken the system can still be. Luckily, progressive District Attorneys in cities and counties across America — the ones who can really do something to change that system — are fighting to end cash bail and no-knock warrants, mass incarceration, and mandatory sentencing minimums. DAs in LA and San Francisco are moving so fast, they’re facing recall efforts led in part by police unions.
19. Safe abortion access increased … elsewhere.
Women winning the war: Activists celebrate the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico.
Credit: Antonio Ojeda / Agencia Press South / Getty Images
The U.S. Supreme Court may be hostage to its extreme anti-abortion wing, which has decided a law in Texas that empowers private citizens to sue abortion providers has no legal problems at all that they can see. But in the rest of the world, more countries are moving in the other direction. In 2021, abortion was legalized in South Korea, Thailand, and Argentina, while safe access increased in New Zealand, Ecuador, and Uruguay. The biggest victory came in September, when Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalized it — raising the possibility that Texans who need a safe abortion may soon be going south of the border.
20. Bitcoin miners are struggling.
The complex, highly speculative, energy-wasting, server-based activity known as Bitcoin mining now uses seven times as much electricity as all of Google. So it was good that 2021 saw efforts to clamp down on the practice. China’s comprehensive ban on the practice led its Bitcoin miners to pack up and leave. Tesla announced that it would stop accepting the currency because of environmental concerns (though it’s looking into accepting Doge for merch). Then the price of Bitcoin plummeted, making profitability even harder for the miners. Perhaps now our finest minds can start paying attention to more planet-friendly uses of crypto, such as a coin that rewards recipients for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.
21. Facebook is in big trouble.
It wasn’t just whistleblower Frances Haugen, and the receipts she brought to show Facebook just doesn’t care about the clear harm it’s doing in the world. We got a similar picture earlier in the year from the most comprehensive book yet on Mark Zuckerberg’s out-of-control company. No, what really screwed the social media giant was the fact that as Haugen testified before Congress, its entire service went down for the better part of a day. That showed how many millions of people had come to rely on WhatsApp, Instagram, and the original Facebook service, for communication and commerce. Which in turn gave governments around the world their clearest signal: If Facebook can’t manage itself properly, perhaps it should be broken up or regulated as a public utility.
Will all that be enough to rein in one of the few companies to fall victim to bipartisan anger this year, or will its Meta rebranding pull the wool over enough eyes? To find out, you’re just going to have to come back to the news kitchen for a generous helping of 2022. Which, as you probably know by now, will not be everything it seems on the surface.