While the Earth didn’t end on December 21, 2012, the year’s end was marked by a new awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis. Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the preciousness and fragility of life on Earth. That and other cultural shifts are setting the stage for significant change in the year ahead.
Nine key trends tell the story:
1. Climate Crisis: Alarm Translates Into Action
The climate crisis is the top story of 2012, with record-breaking heat, severe drought that led to the declaration of more than half of U.S. counties as disaster zones, wildfires that burned more than 9 million acres, and superstorm Sandy, with costs reaching into the billions. Four out of five Americans now believe that the climate problem is serious, according to an AP-Gfk poll.
The Obama administration has done little to address this problem—in part because of congressional resistance—but did set higher fuel emissions standards for automobiles, an important step in curtailing greenhouse gases.
The real action, though, is at the grassroots. Bill McKibben and 350.org launched a national movement in the fall of 2012 to press colleges and universities to divest their holdings in big energy companies. Texas and Nebraska landowners, Canadian tribes, and environmentalists everywhere are taking action to block the construction of a tar sands pipeline to ocean ports. Thousands turned out at hearings in Washington state to oppose the transport of millions of tons of Powder Basin coal through the region for export to China. And resistance to natural gas fracking is spreading throughout the Northeast.
Meanwhile, coal plants across the U.S. are closing, and a West Virginia coal company is giving up mountaintop removal as a result of pressure from environmental groups and falling demand in the wake of low prices for natural gas.
With widespread alarm at the extreme weather events, conditions are now ripe for a strong popular movement to take on the fossil fuel industry and its threat to human civilization.
2. U.S. Politics Get More Colorful
2012 saw the number of babies born to families of color exceed the number for white families. But the clout of non-whites is growing for other reasons. African Americans, Asians, and Latinos, along with women of all races, overcame discriminatory voter suppression tactics to hand President Obama the majority he needed to win a second term. The growing clout of communities of color has consequences, putting immigration reform firmly on the national agenda.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s radical platform has alienated large majorities of women and people of color, and more than half of Americans call Republican policies “extreme.”
The failure of policies unfriendly to women, people of color, and many others in the 99 percent has the Republican Party in disarray. There is now space for a progressive and inclusive agenda to emerge aimed at raising everyone up (including white men, but not privileging them).
3. Tolerance for Gun Violence Runs Thin
The school shooting in Newtown, Conn., may be the event that finally turns public opinion firmly against tolerance of gun violence. The Sandy Hook tragedy came on top of mass shootings in an Aurora, Col., movie theater, in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., in a shopping mall in Clackamas, Ore., and elsewhere, for a total of 151 killed and injured, according to Mother Jones. This continues a trend of more than 2,000 children and teens killed by guns each year, according to a 2012 study by the Children’s Defense Fund.
The good news is that a majority of Americans now supports bans on assault weapons, and, in spite of spikes in gun sales, the number of American households that own guns is actually down from the last few decades. Research shows that having a gun in the house increases the risk of homicide and suicide in that household.
4. U.S. Global Military Posture in Question
Pursuing the most globally aggressive military posture on the planet is causing a level of blowback little discussed in mainstream media. U.S. drone attacks are killing and terrorizing civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It remains unclear how the United States will extract itself from Afghanistan and wrap up the longest war in U.S. history. And American men and women in the armed services are now killing themselves at a higher rate than they are dying from any other cause, including combat. The year ended with the apparent suicide of Job W. Price, a Navy Seal.
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The long-term costs to service members and their families coupled with the financial costs of carrying out wars, responding to the inevitable blowback, preparing for hypothetical wars, maintaining hundreds of foreign military bases, and paying top dollar to military contractors may be doing to the U.S. what Al Qaeda couldn’t do. Other empires fell after exhausting their people’s morale and treasure through protracted warfare. The United States is in danger of falling into a similar trap, while neglecting to invest in sources of real security, like the well-being and productive employment of citizens, and the abundance and resilience of the natural systems that supply food, water, livelihoods, and a stable climate.
In 2013, look for a reassessment of our policies of international violence. We will see efforts to rebuild our national self-worth, not based on our capacity to project death and mayhem, but on our contributions to health and well-being, climate stability, and life-enhancing technology.
5. The 99 Percent Got Inventive (and Got Some Respect)
By early 2012, as the Occupy camps were disbanded, many thought the Occupy Movement had died out. But this fall, Strike Debt arose and the Rolling Jubilee raised thousands of dollars to dissolve millions of dollars of medical debt of individuals. Both actions raised questions about why we allow the banking system to transfer so much wealth from the 99 percent to the 1 percent.
Then, when Superstorm Sandy hit, a movement that had become expert at leaderless mobilization rose up to help those harmed by the storm. Occupy volunteers hiked up stairwells to supply elderly tenants of high-rise housing projects with food and water. Distribution centers were set up throughout neighborhoods that had been flooded and lost power. Police, who had once arrested occupiers, were themselves aided by Occupy Sandy volunteers when their neighborhoods were flooded. Even the big disaster relief agencies began referring volunteers and those in need to Occupy Sandy.
The Occupy movement is inventing new forms of action and grassroots power, reinventing social movements, and building the solidarity and ethics of a new society. Watch for more powerful and creative interventions ahead in 2013.
6. Low-wage Workers Stood Up
This was a year of new labor militancy, with Walmart workers picketing for basic rights, Hot and Crusty bakery workers winning a union contract, and the original Republic Windows and Doors workers founding a worker-owned enterprise in Chicago. Still, there remains powerful pushback against labor rights. A so-called right to work bill passed in Michigan—one of many similar bills promoted by the corporate lobby group, ALEC. And the new “free trade” deal, the TransPacific Partnership, looks likely to prevail and to further benefit large transnational corporations at the expense of workers.
Look for labor organizing to continue taking creative and original forms in 2013, mobilizing unorganized workers, confronting low-wage poverty, drawing in formerly middle-class workers who are now confronting the reality of surviving in a low-wage economy, and challenging the power of the 1 percent.
7. Election 2012 Spending Spurs Backlash
What does it mean to hold an election costing nearly $6 billion? Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, 2012 was the year we learned just how many annoying advertisements billions of dollars can buy. The fundraising arms race boosted the power of those in the 1%, since their contributions became more essential than ever to both parties’ victory strategies.
Eleven states have now passed resolutions recommending a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. More than 300 town councils have done likewise, and President Obama has endorsed the movement. The election of Elizabeth Warren to the U.S. Senate showed you can take on Wall Street and win. Look for more efforts to confront the power of corporations in 2013.
8. Love Won
In an otherwise bitter political sphere, love showed up. The image of Michelle and Barack Obama embracing became the most tweeted and Facebook “liked” image of all time. Our hearts broke when we learned of the loss of the children and the brave teachers and staff who gave their own lives to protect their students in Newtown, Conn. The president encouraged a response to the Sandy Hook shootings built on the love of our children rather than on vengeance, on the complexity of the issue rather than on simplistic solutions. He led the national mourning with his tears.
An archetypically feminine approach (to respond to a crisis with “tend and befriend” responses that look out for the best interests of all) could come to balance out the “fight or flight” responses that frequently dominate political discourse. Having record numbers of women elected to Congress in 2012 can’t hurt.
9. More Love: An Outbreak of Marriage
Here’s another place love stepped in. In an election that saw the defeat of candidates promoting an anti-gay/anti-women platform, gay marriage initiatives passed in Maine, Maryland, and Washington. The Seattle City Hall opened at midnight on the first day such marriages were legal to accommodate the flood of weddings; judges and city staff volunteered their time, and well-wishers, both straight and gay, lined the entrance to throw petals and rice, and to cheer on the newlyweds. The festivities were an eruption of unexpected joy on a cold December day.
2012 was the year when the word “love” made a comeback. This valuing of each and every life could undercut partisan bickering, a culture of violence, and political attacks, and set the tone for a new radically inclusive agenda for change.
2013’s Big Story?
The year 2013 may offer our last chance to take on the climate crisis. If we fail to take action that is up to the challenge, we may be like the passengers of the Titanic, arguing over entertainment choices while the real threat looms. With climate disasters mounting, 2013 must be the year we commit ourselves to action at the scale needed to—literally—save our world.
- Following the heartbreak in Newtown, many Americans find themselves wondering—are people just horrible? Jeremy Adam Smith on why compassion, forgiveness, and resilience are everywhere, even in tragedy.
- Religion is the means by which many imagine and work for a world more just than this one. Last year, Wall Street’s Trinity Church refused to shelter the movement; this year, churches and Occupiers are sharing a very different kind of Advent season.
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.