Essays and discussions

Review of 2011

It's hard to know where to even begin talking about the events of 2011. It feels as if a decade of history has been crammed into a single year as a glance down the Wikipedia page for 2011 shows. Even within this maelstrom of events, there are a few that stand out. Firstly, the Arab Spring, that began at the start of the year with the downfall of the Tunisian government and spread throughout the region, causing changes in government in Egypt and (eventually) Libya, ongoing unrest in Syria and political concessions in several other states in the region. Apparently it has been argued in the West that democracy just 'didn't fit' with Arab culture, and this was used as an excuse to prop up dictatorships friendly to Western interests. To me, this seems like an insane argument, and the events of this year appear to have proven that people in Arab states are just as keen on involvement in their affairs of government as those in the West. I sincerely hope that the wave of change continues and isn't subverted by the military (as is looking possible in Egypt) or by Islamist parties (who did very well in the Tunisian election).

The other continuing news story of the year has been the ongoing world financial woes, and particularly the slow-moving car crash that is the Eurozone crisis. Countries' credit ratings are dropping left, right and centre and they are being bailed out not so much by a fund as the sort of complex financial product that got us into this mess in the first place, which suggests a lack of lessons being learned. In Britain, the continuing reaction to the financial situation by the Con/Lib coalition remains a programme of swinging cuts through (it feels like) everything we hold dear. The problem I have with the Eurozone crisis is that although I know intellectually that it's incredibly important and will affect my life and that of those around me for years to come, it feels highly impersonal and abstract. The numbers are too big, the machinations too complex and the timescales too impersonal to feel relevant so I just find myself shrugging and moving on whenever Robert Peston getting excited.

However, there are other perspectives on the financial crisis and one of these is the Occupy movement, starting with Occupy Wall Street and extending around the world. I'm pleased to see that people care enough to start such movements but I'm unsure just how much will be achieved. The Occupy London movement has had an impact on St Paul's but will it have any impact on the City of London? Maybe I'm too cynical, so I wish the Occupy movement well in 2012.

Near the start of the year there was an earthquake and resulting tsunami off the coast of Japan. This is news but wouldn't have stayed in the headlines if it weren't for the fact that the tsunami disabled the cooling pumps for the Fukushima nuclear power plant and led to three of the reactors suffering full meltdown. This episode is significant to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, the poor reaction times and information dispersal of the operating company and Japanese government led to wildly varying stories of what was going on at any given time. That combined with general media hysteria over anything with the word 'nuclear' in it made it difficult to establish what was going on and the level of risk at any given time. After reading up on the incident online (blogs provided a much better, and more nuanced coverage than the mainstream media), my first thought was admiration for how well that the power station had coped. After all, this was an earthquake and tsunami several times beyond what the station had been designed to withstand and it held up robustly. It reinforces my view that the safest place to be in an earthquake would be a nuclear power station. However, it was the aftermath and an old design that meant that the cooling was active (requiring pumps) rather than passive, being gravity-fed, that led to problems. The insufficient protection of the backup generators and difficulty in getting the grid power back online after the tsunami is what led to the reactors overheating and eventually melting down.

Another sad event this year was the ending of the Space Shuttle programme, with Atlantis touching down safely at the end of the 135th Shuttle mission. While the Shuttle programme never fulfilled its mission to deliver (relatively) cheap and safe reusable travel into space, I still feel sad at its passing, as it seems symptomatic of a lack of vision at Nasa these days: the Constellation programme has been cancelled, as has the proposed return to the Moon and to Mars. Although there's still cool science being done by robotic probes, most recently the Curiosity rover being sent to Mars, the era of manned spaceflight is, if not over, then certainly in suspended animation, beyond maintenance for the International Space Station. I suspect that we'll have to look East for our next assault on the Final Frontier, with China's manned space programme in full swing and still on track to put a taikonaut on the moon by the middle of the next decade. And who knows, maybe that will give Nasa and Esa the impetus they need to start looking outwards again.

Closer to home we have continuing austerity being enforced in Britain, something that some people claim was responsible for the summer riots in England, but then there's been so much analysis, often contradictory, that it's impossible to really get any clear picture of why so many people indulged in so much mindless violence. My own theory is that it was at least partially to do with frustration at lives that people appear to have increasingly less control over, boiling over into violence and then looting as an opportunistic afterthought.

In Scotland, we are somewhat sheltered from the worst of the coalition cuts by our own Parliament. 2011 saw the election of the fourth Scottish Parliament since it was brought into being, and the first in which I voted other than Liberal Democrat. I was, and remain, angry at the Lib Dems for their apparent inability to rein in the excesses of the Tories and so looked at voting tactically for the first time. I still have no faith in the Labour party, who worry me as an unhealthy cross of moving to the right economically while still having worryingly centrist 'nanny state' tendencies. This led me to cast my constituency vote for the Scottish National Party for the first time. This isn't because I support Scottish independence, I don't, but the SNP is also a centre-left political party in both social and economic issues. I was fairly impressed with their track record as a minority government under constant pressure from the combined Unionist opposition and, despite this, they did actually fulfil a fairly decent number of their election pledges so I was willing to give them my vote this time round. And I wasn't alone. Despite a system designed to make single-party government very difficult, the SNP swept the board and formed a majority government, with the additional benefit of myself being represented in Parliament by someone I voted for for the first time.

Narrowing the stage still further, it's been a mixed year for me. This time last year, I was worried about my job. As it turns out, the generous voluntary severance scheme at work was over-subscribed and my section's targets were easily met, in fact possibly too much so, with many of us worrying that too many people have been let go for us to continue to do our jobs effectively. One of those to go was my head of department, who will be missed. He had a sound political as well as technical head on his shoulders and I never really appreciated just how much he protected us until he went. I'll also remember him fondly since it was he who took me on as a more or less unknown quantity after my previous department closed down.

In family news, I saw my only sister get married to a man I have regarded as a close friend for over a decade. The stress of managing family around the wedding was, in the end, worth it to see my sister and new jija so happy. However, less than a month after that, my grandmother died. She had been ill for some time, so it wasn't unexpected, but it was still difficult. I only really knew one set of my grandparents and she was part of my upbringing, and also the first really close relative to me who has died (both my other grandparents lived in India and I never really knew them). As a final stroke, the tail end of this year has also seen a very old friend of the family, someone I regarded as a third grandmother, also finally pass away after a long illness.

2011 has been one hell of a year and I'll not be sorry to see the back of it. I haven't even mentioned the death of long-term bogeyman Osama bin Laden, the phone-hacking scandal that's engulfed the British media, the Norwegian shootings, the farce of the AV referendum, the Royal wedding, the end of US operations in Iraq, Liam Fox and his "friend" or David Cameron's "veto" of a European treaty, but so much of what I have talked about has been negative to make this year one to remember, but preferably from a distance.

— 30 December 2011

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