1 What major industrial plant is located on the Japanese coast at Fukushima?
2 Of what country is Benghazi the second largest city?
3 In which capital city is Tahrir Square?
Be honest, now – would you have answered any of those questions confidently, or correctly, a year ago? And are they all fairly easy now?
Together they hint at what a remarkable, transformative year 2011 has been.
And that’s without mentioning the sudden closure of the world’s biggest-selling English-language newspaper, or the enthralling (and on-going) public inquiry it led to.
Or the sudden changes of government in Greece and Italy and the threat (also on-going) of European economic meltdown.
The even more startling regime changes in Tunisia and Libya (Egypt was hinted at in question three). Or the protests, rioting and governmental shifts in Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco and Syria.
The astonishing, widely under-reported, number of people who took part in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York. Or the long-running, peaceful spin-off protests in other cities, including London.
From Washington to Moscow, Cairo to the Cape, 2011 has been the year of the protester.
Democracy, so much better at absorbing protest without really changing, has in one way shown itself superior to autocracy.
Even without elections, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and George Papandreou in Greece were ousted without having to be hunted down, dragged from a drain and beaten to death.
In that way, Muammar Gaddafi became as iconic in the bloody manner of his death as he was grimly comic in the manner of his 42-year misrule of Libya.
Whether democracy’s greater flexibility will ultimately prove more durable, or less grim, remains an open question. One to be answered only by the history of the future.
As does the question whether 2011 will be looked back on as one freakish year of upheavals – or just the beginning of a deluge of greater upheavals to come.
VITAL QUESTIONS FROM THE FREEZER
THE television highlight of 2011 was undoubtedly the BBC’s brilliantly filmed Frozen Planet series.
That a series set purely in the apparent wastelands of the Arctic and Antarctic should be so beautiful, so gripping, and so much talked-about was a wonder in itself.
The contrived ‘controversy’ over the filming of new-born polar bears in captivity was a red herring.
Series producer Vanessa Berlowitz dismissed it summarily, and quite rightly, on Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour last Friday. To try to shoot the scene in the wild would have been life-threatening – not just to the crew but, even more crucially, to the bears themselves.
Far more importantly, travel writer Sara Wheeler was asked in the same programme about the melting ice-caps: “When you’re there, how much does it worry you?”
Her measured reply concluded: “I don’t know what the right-wing agenda is, to pretend that global warming isn’t going to cause serious problems for all of us.
“Because the scientists who are there, bringing the data back, don’t know the answers, but they know that something bad is going to happen.
“And they also know that it’s not the earth that’s going to suffer.
“The planet will be OK, it will restore itself, as it always has. It’s us that are at risk.”
Indeed so. But I think I can offer Ms Wheeler some insight into that right-wing agenda.
It’s not just that they’re in what psychologists call a state of denial – though millions of people seem to be. It’s also partly the typical right-winger’s blinkered selfishness.
The 19th-century pit-owner didn’t want to know too much about the grinding poverty of the workers whose toil kept him in luxury.
The man in the 21st-century street doesn’t want to know too much about how his comfort depends on the desperation of generations not yet born.
At the end of 2011 his quietly nagging fear must be that the reaping of the whirlwind may not be so far off after all...
2011: the environmental harvest
- In the year the world’s population topped seven billion, greenhouse gases rose to record levels, the melting of the Arctic ice almost topped the 2007 record, there were record extremes of both heat and cold in the US, droughts and heatwaves in Europe and Africa and record numbers of weather-related natural disasters.
- 2011 began with floods in Australia which covered an area the size of France and Germany combined, and ended with a tropical storm that killed 1,000 people and made 300,000 homeless in the Philippines.
- Thailand had its worst floods in 50 years, while both China and the Horn of Africa suffered their worst droughts in 60.
- In one seven-week spell early in the year, Argentina, Chile, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tonga, Burma, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Sulawesi, Fiji and New Zealand were all hit by major earthquakes.
- And that was before the quake off Japan on March 11 that unleashed a tsunami which killed 15,500 people, caused the meltdowns of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima and led to 160,000 people fleeing the area or being moved away.
- The big wave is now reckoned to have cost around £134billion in lost production and physical damage. Decommissioning the station is expected to cost a further £10bn.