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December 31, 2011

Unrest, energy, economy were big news in 2011

Daily Star

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Perhaps you've seen The Associated Press list of the Top 10 stories of the past year, based on a polling of about 250 editors and news directors from across the country. It's difficult to argue with the selections, but I would combine some of them and certainly rank them differently.

The AP list included (1) the killing of Osama bin Laden, (2) Japan's earthquake/tsunami/meltdown disaster, (3) the Arab Spring uprisings, (4) the European Union's financial turmoil, (5) the U.S. economy, (6) the Penn State sex abuse scandal, (7) the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, (8) the fiscal fighting in Congress, (9) the Occupy Wall Street protests, and (10) the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

During the year, I wrote about most of the stories on the list, either directly or in reference to specific aspects of an issue or event. While the killing of bin Laden was big news, its importance in the ongoing fight against terrorism was primarily symbolic. After all, it took nearly a decade to "git 'eem," as President George W. Bush had put it.

After President Barack Obama insisted that "justice has been done" when he announced bin Laden's death to Americans on May 1, I wrote that I wasn't "sure gunning down an unarmed enemy qualifies as justice. Revenge perhaps, retaliation for sure, but justice would have meant capture and a trial to prove he was actually behind the horrific 9/11 attacks.

I also criticized the Americans who felt the need to celebrate the killing as some Arabs had done shortly after 9/11. "Our goal should be an occasion to celebrate more peace in the region, rather than the killing of suspected terrorists," I wrote.

I would put Osama bin Laden's death further down in the rankings. Instead, I have come up with the Top Three groups of stories that do well in summing up the news of the year.

The Protests

The top spot should go to the Arab Spring uprisings, Occupy Wall Street and the liberation of Libya, events that would be combined under the story, Demonstrators protest, fight for equality, freedom and opportunity.

"History teaches us that people often will tolerate a repressive regime as long as it delivers the goods; in other words, when people have enough to eat, decent housing, jobs and a chance to better themselves and their families," I wrote Feb. 19. "Clearly, that has not been the case in Egypt and many of its Arab neighbors."

And apparently that also is not the case in the United States.

Months before the Occupy movement began, young people demonstrated in Arab countries because those nations were "not creating enough jobs to keep up with the tide of people entering the work force."

The roots of the discontent that spurred the Occupy movement are so similar to that of the Arab Spring demonstrators, I suggested the new movement should be called the American Autumn. It expressed opposition to corporate greed and control over the government, joblessness, and the financial industry for being the spur for the economic crisis.

It was not in jest that Time magazine's Person of the Year was a generic protester. In just a few months, "the Occupy Wall Street movement has been able to spur what's being called a `national conversation' about (income inequality) and big money's control of government," I wrote in November.

Way back in January, in response to Obama's State of the Union address, I wrote that it was " difficult to feel good about the chances for either government or the corporations being successful in achieving a bright future for our country. People have to decide what they should be doing now to help fulfill whatever best-chance scenario on which they rest their hopes."

With the Occupy movement, we are seeing what some people have decided to do to try to create a better future.

Concerning the U.S. involvement in aiding Libyan rebels, I wrote in June that Obama's "humanitarian pragmatism doesn't make our nation any more consistent and therefore more righteous. So if our role is seen as humanitarian, why Libya? What about Bahrain, Yemen or Syria?"

In Syria alone, thousands of demonstrators have been killed, but the U.S. stays out of the mix.


Not all editors are from areas involved in natural gas drilling and the controversial extraction method, hydraulic fracturing. But in the Northeast, Southwest and eastern Rockies, it is a major energy story.

In late June, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released its revised draft regulations for fracking, but the revisions did nothing to ease the concerns about the process that pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals deep underground at high pressure to fracture the shale and release natural gas.

In July, I wrote that the proposed regulations make the risks of pollution involved in hydraulic fracturing even more disconcerting.

"A review of the DEC's proposals tells me that the agency realizes how risky and potentially disastrous fracking is," I wrote, adding that "because the DEC is proposing to allow fracking in 85 percent of the Marcellus Shale, it's clear it all comes down to the same old argument between what's best for the economy and jobs and what's best for preserving the relatively clean upstate environment."

In October, I noted how important the Nov. 8 election was for the opportunity to put candidates opposed to fracking on local governing boards, especially from the point of view of supporting home rule, or the right of a town to ban the procedure. More than 30 anti-fracking candidates ran for office in Otsego County alone.

Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown were horrendous disasters, and were significant also for U.S. energy policy as they illustrate the potential pitfalls of nuclear energy. The story deserves the No. 3 spot on AP's list.

"While nuclear power is clean and efficient," I wrote in April, "the process of boiling water with the controlled heating of nuclear fuel rods is risky for a variety of reasons, not just earthquakes and tsunamis. The U.S. should use the Fukushima crisis as a spur to more vigorously pursue other fossil-fuel alternatives, such as solar and wind. The president should recognize this and change his position on nuclear power."

The Economy

The economic crisis this year involved not only the volatile stock market, high unemployment, foreclosures and Washington's inability to do anything about those problems, but also the rising anti-union sentiment in some states.

In March, I analyzed how the worsening economy had led some governments, private sector workers and those less fortunate to make vicious verbal attacks against union workers because they have decent pay and good benefits.

"Now, times are tough," I wrote, "so many of those 93 percent of non-union workers resent public employees and retirees, whose pay and benefits are paid by governments and taxpayers. That's because state and local governments are going broke, and taxpayers are struggling just to keep up with their living expenses."

The backlash was taking place in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, where leaders were proposing to dismantle public-sector unions and do away with collective bargaining. They were blaming unions, and the pay and benefits they help secure for workers, for their fiscal woes.

I commented that it was indeed "unfortunate that with the changing times and sour economy so many people are struggling to afford health insurance, most big businesses have scrapped pension plans and governments are facing budget crises. It is also unfortunate that we have to point our fingers with disdain at our public employees because they have what everyone should have."

Returning to the president's State of the Union address, Obama was clearly optimistic in his hopes that "government can harness technology as an ally in our struggle for cleaner energy, different kinds of work and alternative resources _ in effect, a better future."

I continued: "His antagonists in Washington would rather our future be thrown to the winds of private enterprise, where they believe the unrestricted drive for profit will somehow result in what is best for our nation and its people."

After going through 2011, however, it is all too clear that we have to put people over profits, as one of the popular Occupy Wall Street signs notes.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at