A Cataclysmic Year


Editor’s Letter:

Serge Schmemann

© 2016 The New York Times
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

This special report contains the fruits of our annual search for “turning points,” the events, trends, inventions and ideas that will move the compass needles of our lives. We found many, and they all matter, but in the end, 2016 will enter history as a pivot that revealed the depth of the fears, alienation and frustration of our times, abruptly upending many of our assumptions about the future.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Populism and nationalism have been spreading through many corners of the world, fed by people’s frustration with globalization, loss of identity and moral certainties, and fears of terrorism and floods of refugees. Liberal democracies have gone on the defensive before the growing popularity of authoritarian rulers. The British vote to part ways with Europe signaled the power of these changes, and then came the American election.

Like the fall of the Berlin Wall 27 years earlier to the day, Donald J. Trump’s election as U.S. president was a cataclysm that brought together many vaguely perceived movements, trends and signs, abruptly signaling that our lives have been irrevocably redirected. In 1989 we were certain it was for the better, but this time we have no idea.

That is frightening, and what happens next might not be pretty at times. But then the world has always advanced by fits and starts, and as you read through the turning points in this section, it becomes evident that there is too much changing on each front — the environment, robotics, culture, Hollywood, exploration, politics — for any one leader, or any one nation, or any populist movement, to reverse or even halt these shifts for long.

We can bemoan or welcome the digital revolution, the coming of self-driving cars, social change or the mass movement of peoples, but we can’t stop any of it. What we can do is try to make these changes work for the betterment of our lives and our planet.

That goes for democracy, too. It is not a fixed formula for governance, but a way of life that is forever adapting and changing, reflecting our highest hopes and lowest fears. Those fears have risen to the surface for now, but hope has always prevailed in time.

So even with this shocker of all turning points, we need not despair.

Serge Schmemann, Editor