Happy New Year to PineTreeRepublic readers! As we enter 2017 and approach our second anniversary, it seems like a good moment to continue an emerging annual tradition: the top 10 list of our favourite news articles from the past year.
If nothing else, the twists and turns of 2016 demonstrated the importance of high-quality journalism in order to disseminate accurate information about the state of our world, and the consequences of its absence. What follows is certainly an incomplete list – mainly limited to articles in The Globe and Mail (Canada’s paper of record) and The New York Times – and there were many other worthy reads from these and other media organizations throughout the year. I’d love to hear more about what articles you found most interesting in the comments below.
In the meantime, here are my 10 favourite articles that came across PineTreeRepbulic‘s “desk” (or more accurately, a comfy chair). Each of these were particularly insightful in explaining the root causes of events we witnessed in 2016 – and in some cases, stories that flew below the radar.
I hope you enjoy, and look forward to continued discussions and exploration of the world around us in 2017.
Jan. 9: “A New Cuban Revolution and the Stark Divide between Rich and Poor“, by Stephanie Nolen (Globe and Mail)
“I didn’t go to Cuba planning to report on inequality,” says Globe Latin America beat writer Stephanie Nolen, but the topic surprisingly grabbed a central role in her portrait of the country in early 2016. Nolen speaks with budding entrepreneurs, cleaning ladies, bed and breakfast owners, farmers, and sociologists in an effort to understand the quickly-changing nature of the island. While some of her dispatch repeats familiar tropes about Cuba – the poverty, isolation from the rest of the world, and “stuck-in-time” nature of its rural regions – it also chronicles some of the more recent changes that could be magnified in coming years through the infusion of U.S. dollars. Ironically, one of the last holdouts of communist ideals is now grappling with questions of inequality and privilege, forcing its people to reconcile the principles of the “Revolution” with demands for improved living standards. In fact, the questions Cubans are asking themselves don’t seem too far off from those that featured prominently in industrialized capitalist societies throughout 2016.
Feb. 20: “Unstuck: How Can the World’s Vanishing Middle Class Escape an Economic Trap?”, by Doug Saunders (Globe and Mail)
If there’s one story that unites societies around the world this year, it has been the general feeling that members of the middle class have been “stuck” in their quest to climb the ladder of social progress. Whether it’s in Euclid, Ohio, or Dongguan in southern China, large swaths of the world’s population feel that they’re actually heading down the social ladder. Globe and Mail international affairs writer Doug Saunders digs into the numbers to discover why: In Cleveland, the cost of living a “middle class” lifestyle has skyrocketed by 30 percent since 2000, while in industrial China, rent can increase by more than 20 percent in one year while factory wages remain stagnant. Interestingly, Saunders finds that in both places, similar sets of policies are contributing to keeping the middle class stuck, and points to tangible reforms that could help unblock the social ladder.
June 26: “Britain Rattles Postwar Order“, by Jim Yardley, Alison Smale, Jane Perlez and Ben Hubbard (New York Times)
Prior to Donald Trump’s election, the “Brexit” vote in June was arguably the most significant world event of 2016. In this sweeping article, a quartet of New York Times foreign correspondents piece together the fundamental changes in world order that have come to roost since the financial crisis of 2008-2009. As Europe struggled to deal with a debt crisis, Russia openly violated the principle of state sovereignty through its annexation of the Crimea; China flexed its primacy over its Southeast Asian neighbours, and challenged the Western-backed International Monetary Fund with its own international financial bank; nation-states that were imposed by the West on the Middle East finally exploded; and a massive refugee crisis from this region has threatened the stability of the European Union. These are interesting times, and ironically, the “Brexit” vote demonstrated just how interconnected our world has become.
Aug. 27: “A Chinese Dynasty with a 21st-Century Outlook“, by Nathan Vanderklippe (Globe and Mail)
With global attention focused on the United States, Europe, Russia, and the Middle East in 2016, it was almost possible to forget about the increasing influence that China exerts on the world. The beginning of September presented one symbolic opportunity for the world to check back in, as China hosted the annual G20 summit. In the days leading up to the summit, East Asian beat writer Nathan Vanderklippe profiled the re-emergence of Chinese imperialism during President Xi Jinping’s first three years in power. In diplomacy, business, military, and cultural spheres, Vanderklippe claims, the country’s leaders seek to restore the glory of past Chinese dynasties from the last 2,000 years. The result is a more assertive Chinese foreign policy, and an increasingly powerful country that seeks reshape the current international order to its priorities in the years to come.
Sept. 16: “What Happens When a Few Big Companies Control the World’s Food Production“, by Ann Hui (Globe and Mail)
In one of the most underreported stories in 2016, the agribusiness giants Bayer and Monsanto announced a proposed $66 billion (U.S.) merger in September that would create the world’s largest agribusiness company. Beyond the staggering numbers, this deal is significant for its role in furthering an important trend over the past two decades: the increasing concentration of the world’s food supply chains into a handful of large conglomerates. Hui notes that there were 600 companies producing seeds, fertilizer and pesticides 20 years ago; now, with the Bayer-Monsanto and other announced mergers, the majority of global production could fall under the control of only three to four companies. In addition to the potential impact on prices for consumers around the world, this wave of industry consolidation also carries risks for the resilience of our global food supply.
Oct. 4: “Tension With Russia Rises as U.S. Halts Syria Negotiations“, by Michael Gordon and Andrew Kramer (New York Times)
Sadly, the Syrian War devolved from awful to even more awful during its sixth year. Most of 2016 was characterized by fits of hope for a negotiated cease-fire, followed by the inevitable disintegration into renewed fighting and civilian harm. The most important turning point seemed to take place in early October, when talks between the United States and Russia over a cease-fire decisively came to an end, while Russia joined forces with the Assad government in bombing rebel-held areas in Aleppo. In addition to the devastating effect on Aleppo and the rest of Syria, this deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations also spilled over to other policy areas, including Russia’s abandonment of a nuclear arms control treaty. It also foreshadowed Russia’s influence in the U.S. election, and the twists and turns that continue to this day.
Nov. 3: “Philippines’ Deal With China on Disputed Sea Pokes Hole in U.S. Strategy“, by Jane Perlez (New York Times)
While populism in Europe and the United States captured the most headlines in 2016, other regions of the world weren’t immune to ushering in new leaders who challenged the status quo. In the Philippines, newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte challenged a long-time alliance with the United States, likely fuelled by U.S. disapproval of his extreme campaign (including extrajudicial killings) against drug users and political opponents. In a highly symbolic move, Duterte reached an agreement with Chinese officials to allow Filipino fishermen to operate around a disputed island in the South China Sea. On the surface, the move seemed to represent a softening of China’s claim of sovereignty over the Sea’s main trade routes; however, it also signalled the Middle Kingdom’s growing influence in the region, and the weakening grip of the United States.
Nov. 5: “How to Get Beyond our Tribal Politics“, by Jonathan Haidt and Ravi Iyer (Wall Street Journal)
If you’re at all active on social media (and it’s quite likely that you are, if you’re reading this blog), it was surely hard to avoid the especially polarized politics of the U.S. presidential elections. In a reflection I wrote after a personal trip to the United States, I was shocked by how extreme political opinions seemed to become normalized this year. In this article, social psychologists Haidt and Iyer break down the tribal psychology that has marked societies from ancient times to today, and how social media has helped amplify our tribal minds in recent years. They argue that a healthy democracy requires a softening of polarized positions, at least towards our fellow citizens, if not our leaders themselves.
Dec. 3: “The Graffiti Kids Who Sparked The Syrian War“, by Mark MacKinnon (Globe and Mail)
Analysts make their living by boiling down complex events into a set of easier-to-understand factors. A particular terrorist attack is explained by U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, an economic recession is the result of a particular fiscal policy, and an election result can be explained by decades of economic neglect in a key electoral region. All of these systemic factors have their role in explaining world events, but individuals also have an undeniable role in shaping history. In this fascinating article, Globe foreign correspondent Mark MacKinnon tracks down Naief Abazid, the Syrian teenager who fatefully spray-painted an anti-Assad slogan in the spring of 2011. MacKinnon pieces together how this one action, combined with all the other systemic issues at the time, sparked the Syrian civil war and subsequent refugee crisis, rise of ISIS, populist backlashes, and geopolitical changes that have marked the last five years. Not since Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand, sparking World War I, has one individual action set set so many world changes in motion. And, as Abazid explains, this all came about from a typical schoolyard dare that happened to occur in a tinderbox that was ready to explode.
Dec. 30: “How A Little-Known Patent Sparked Canada’s Deadly Opioid Crisis“, by Grant Robertson and Karen Howlett (Globe and Mail)
On the streets of East Vancouver, in the Canadian prairies, and throughout the U.S. Midwest and Appalachia, a slow-moving war is being waged, pitting opioids and those who profit from their consumption against individuals and families (often poor) who are devastated by their addictive power. In recent years, fentanyl and its derivatives have led to record levels of overdose deaths in these regions. Believed to be fabricated in China and smuggled across North American borders, their pernicious effects are quickly spreading across the continent. But, as Globe reporters Grant Robertson and Karen Howlett demonstrate, the roots of this war date back to the development and marketing of OxyContin in the mid-1990s. Whereas opioids used to be prescribed very sparingly to deal with pain medication, a concerted campaign by Purdue Pharma during these years, accompanied by the lack of due diligence in the medical community, caused consumption of opioids to skyrocket in the United States and Canada. After a series of lawsuits and a patent expiry, OxyContin was pulled from the market in 2012 – creating the vacuum for the current fentanyl epidemic, involving even murkier global actors.