Review of 2012: Our writers and tweeters look back at a year's news from space to the jungle

Did it change the world, or just distract us for a day or two? Richard Askwith introduces our look-back at the past 12 months.

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So what was that all about? One minute you're wondering what the year might have in store; the next you're wondering what, if anything, you'll remember it for.

In a sense, it's the same question: when someone mentions '2012' in years to come, what memories will it conjure in your mind? It's no easier to answer than it was back in January. Some obvious subject-headings suggest themselves, now as then: the Olympics; the Leveson inquiry; the re-election of president Obama; and, presumably, some aspect of the Middle East's travails. The rest is speculation.

There will, inevitably, have been deeper themes: turning-points and watersheds for which future historians will use '2012' as shorthand. But it's far too early to pick them out. Was this the year that the first nail was hammered into what would become the coffin of British press freedom? The year the eurozone crisis hit rock bottom? The year the US finally faced up to the perils of climate change? Perhaps. Or perhaps all three propositions are closer to being the opposite of the truth.

Only time will tell. In retrospect, we can look back at 1812 and recognise instantly that this was the year when the outcome of the hitherto endless-seeming Napoleonic wars was determined. It may not have seemed so obvious at the time; just as it probably wasn't obvious that the assassination that same year of a serving British prime minister would never really lodge itself in public memory. But the death of Spencer Perceval, unlike the failed invasion of Russia, didn't change history.

Sometimes, of course, years are remembered not for historic turning-points but for events that resonate on a more human scale. All sorts of things happened in 1912 that would change history, principally by helping to cause the First World War. But all that most of us can tell you about it is that it was the year of the Titanic disaster – and (if we are especially clever) of Captain Scott's disastrous race to the South Pole.

There has been no shortage of compelling human dramas in 2012. It seems possible, though, that some of the biggest – the Jimmy Savile scandals, for example, or the murder of a British family in Annecy – are simply too harrowing to make a permanent mark, and will turn out instead to be things we sweep under a carpet of forgetting as soon as we decently can.

As for the other stories that once made deafening headlines (leaving aside the Olympics, which we celebrate today in a separate sport supplement), it's alarming how quickly most of them have faded. Would you associate 2012 with the belated conviction of two of Stephen Lawrence's murderers? With the Costa Concordia disaster? With the Queen's Diamond Jubilee? With Felix Baumgartner's leap from space? Or with the 'cash for access' scandal?

Would you, asked what you remembered about the year, have mentioned 'Pastygate', 'Plebgate', 'Calm down, dear', the resignation of Fabio Capello? The shaming of Bob Diamond? Samantha Brick? Naked Prince Harry? All these were huge talking-points at the time; most already feel like obscure historical footnotes.

Perhaps it's just me, or perhaps our attention spans have grown too short for events to resonate for a full 12 months. If a news story does run and run, it's usually because it's a broad issue (the ailing economy, corporate tax avoidance, extreme weather, the Church of England's sexual difficulties) that keeps returning in a different form. Such themes are hardly unique to 2012.

I suspect that – Olympics apart – the stories that truly define the year have yet to be recognised, although in retrospect they may well seem obvious. A time may come when every schoolchild knows that the Higgs boson was found in 2012; or that this was the year when the dieback fungus arrived that would wipe out every ash tree in the UK. Perhaps this year heard the first shots fired in the great Sino-Japanese war – or the last shots fired in the Syrian revolt. Perhaps this was when Julian Assange began his 40-year stay in the Ecuadorian embassy.

History is capricious about what it preserves and what it consigns to its dustbin. Some years – 1712, for example – are remembered for barely anything. (Try it, if you run out of party games.) We can speculate all Christmas about which events of 2012 will echo through the ages, but your guess is as good as ours; which is why, in this Review of the Year issue, we don't attempt to distinguish between events that changed the world and those that simply changed the moment.

Like every year, this one has been exhilarating in its complexity. From politics to the press, fashion to foreign affairs, royalty to the environment – every category has produced contradictory messages. (Was it the great British drought that defined our environmental year, or the great British floods, or the great British freeze?) Over the next 22 pages, our specialist writers look back on the moments that meant most to them, under 14 headings. (The arts, and sport, have their own supplement.)

The overall theme is 'the long and short of it' – with each topic accompanied by a memorable image and the tweets that sometimes capture, best of all, the spirit of a particular event.

What you make of it all is up to you. What history makes of it remains to be seen. But we can make one pronouncement about the significance of 2012: it was the year the world didn't end.

For decades – some say centuries – New Age enthusiasts and admirers of the ancient Mayans have held that the end of the world would take place on 21 December 2012; a belief so popular that, until recently, it was the main result thrown up by an internet search for '2012'.

At the time of going to press, however, the world hadn't ended. If you're reading this, it still hasn't.

Review of UK politics in 2012: It was the Seventies all over again
Review of 2012: How a nation fell in love with the Olympics
Review of the media in 2012: Secrets from beyond the grave
Review of the environment in 2012: In the eye of the storm
Review of technology in 2012: World wide web of trouble
Review of the Middle East in 2012: The uproar after the uprising
Review of food & drink in 2012: How the sausage suddenly got sexy
Review of entertainment in 2012: The lords of the dance
Review of the economy in 2012: This was not supposed to happen
Review of the US election in 2012: Oh, the sheer excess of it all!
Review of fashion in 2012: All aboard the haute express
Review of science in 2012: A big red planet and a tiny particle
Review of celebrity in 2012: You can't always get what you want
Review of the eurozone in 2012: A crisis of debt and identity