As early as January, when David Bowie departed the scene, some were already looking dubiously at 2016. Bowie was an icon of the 1970s, the era when what is now the dominant section of the population in most Western societies in terms of spending power – the post-war baby boomers – came to maturity. As more cultural legends from that age also died – many without the last burst of creativity that made Bowie’s death so poignant – 2016 began to feel like the end of an era.
And when Brexit came in the summer, it was clear that in some ways it was. Articles began to appear listing the horrors of 2016 – from Zika virus to the Turkish coup. By the time Donald Trump was elected in November, on the same wave of rejection of established politics as Brexit, the feeling that 2016 had a peculiar quality was entrenched.
This fin de siècle atmosphere was captured in what became the word of the year: post-truth. Both Brexit and Trump suggested it was open season for bare-faced lying and demagoguery. Yet for those social conservatives who voted for Trump he spoke their truths – and tapped into their fear of an unsettling future of rapid cultural and economic change.
Like the referendum voters in Italy, where Alfio Caruso’s 1960: Il Migliore anno della nostra vita (1960: the best year of our lives) was a 2016 bestseller, they nostalgically looked back to an imagined past rather than forward to an uncertain future. Similar fears of rapid change to their communities seem to have been key drivers of the voting behaviour of 2016’s social conservatives, who were if anything more post-trust than post-truth.
They were also post-irony, as the notion that Trump was the anti-establishment candidate demonstrated. In another irony, the tide of refugees that sparked some of these social conservative anxieties began to recede. Syria nonetheless remained a killing field. However, despite fears that Islamic State (IS) are seeking to export their theatrical brand of terrorism to the West through events such as Nice or Berlin, terrorism’s main victims remained in the same five countries of Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. That 2016 was a particularly bad year is very much a Western narrative.
Sometimes bad is bad
How do you measure bad years? The easiest way is probably through human deaths. In that case, the worst year proportionately may well have been the unrecorded one some 75,000 years ago when Mount Toba erupted with devastating force, causing a “volcanic winter” and nearly killing off humans altogether. The Black Death pandemic of the 1340s is the closest we as a species have come to a similar cataclysm since.
Within the past 100 years, the worst year in terms of death indices may be 1918, when the closing stages of World War I coincided with the deadly outbreak of so-called “Spanish Flu” which killed between 20m and 50m people. Such pandemics are, of course, natural disasters. Human activity can, however, spread them faster and further, as we see by comparing the global impact of the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 with the much more localised effects of the 541 Plague of Justinian.
So globalisation might seem as risky as 2016’s social conservatives fear – though of course it can also help humanity to intervene against pandemics.
Other human activities, notably wars, have the opposite effect. Wars are only the most obvious of the various anthropogenic ways in which humanity can drive up the death index in a given year, not least because they usually bring in their wake the other horsemen of the apocalypse. On such a measure, 2016 barely registers on the worst year index.
Shape of things to come
Humanity’s efforts collectively to win the Darwin Awards through self-destructive warfare were far more noticeable in 1939-1945, the Mongol conquests or the European assault on the Americas. Famines, those other disasters often hastened by anthropogenic mismanagement, have also been far more noticeable in the past, with the estimated 11m deaths of the Great Bengal famine of 1769-1773 both absolutely and proportionately a notable example.
So humanity won no Darwin Awards, thank goodness, in 2016. The year’s peculiar quality – at least for the West – lay more in the way in which it felt like the end of an era. If so, then it also marks the start of a new one. As is becoming clear with Brexit, it is highly unlikely that this new era will bring the comforting certainties social conservatives crave. Instead, it is worth bearing in mind that the kind of economic nationalism many of them seek has in the past proved a gateway to Darwin Award winning conflicts.
Meanwhile, unpredictable figures such as Trump now have their fingers on the nuclear trigger – when they are not busily riling China. If 2016 felt like the end of an era, there are definitely risks that the one about to begin could be a whole lot worse.
About The Author
Peter Paul Catterall, Professor of History and Policy, University of Westminster