This year closes with more hope than it began; not nearly as much as we need. It could be worse. Just on 40 years ago, for example, the world was poised on the brink of nuclear devastation. A Korean civilian airliner was shot down over Siberia when it strayed into Soviet airspace. Shortly afterwards, sunspot activity confused Russian sensors, suggesting the US launched first one, then four missiles and a retaliatory strike on Western capitals was only avoided when a Russian colonel held back from pressing the button. Then NATO military exercises (including the rapid deployment of thousands of troops from America) further escalated tensions. Soon, Soviet nuclear forces were brought to 30-minute readiness to launch. This time, a US airforce general unilaterally refused to raise alert levels, deescalating tensions. At that time perhaps it was only the realisation that total armageddon was so proximate, so swift and would be so complete, that both sides slowly backed down. Will we be safer in the year to come? The challenges we face have multiplied exponentially. Today we don't simply need to worry about a massive nuclear exchange. There's climate change and environmental disaster; increasing social turmoil brought about by the new media; new disease variants; resource depletion; the list goes on. Given this column is appearing in the holidays and its role is to make readers feel bright and cheery, I certainly won't attempt to enumerate all these lurking crises and potential problems. This has anyway been already done by the Canberra-based Commission for the Human Future which offers terrific guides to assist everyone survive threats ranging from A (the Anthropocene) to Z (a Zombie apocalypse). And if that is not a reminder that the most existential threat of all is the loss of joy, together with the ability to inject humour into our lives, then nothing is. Sometimes laughter is the only sensible reaction. The most recent military example of this came earlier this month, as the German army began an exercise involving 18 of its brand new Puma armoured fighting vehicles to demonstrate their readiness for action. These are similar to a variant Australia is looking at contracting Rheinmetall to build for billions of dollars. Unfortunately, during this short initial training period, every single one of the vehicles broke down. This doesn't mean the new weapons won't be effective in the future even if the German 37th Panzergrenadier brigade is now re-equipping with much older Marder vehicles. The point is, rather, that we should take everything, particularly projections about how marvellous things are (or will be), with a healthy grain of scepticism. This is particularly the case with regard to institutional assurances that huge and expensive projects will provide the solution to our problems. A classic example of this is the unveiling of a panacea solution, surrounded by hype and excitement. All too often these end up as huge pits serving no purpose other than to swallow up more and more money, resources and, perhaps most critically, energy. Take another military example, the submarine. Since 2007, this has been posited as the cure-all answer for our defence needs; the one-stop shop solution that would enable the transfiguration of our industrial base, provide deterrence at a cost the country could supposedly afford, and offer regionally superior equipment. Since then, we've had European proposals, worked with the Japanese, contracted with the French, and now have nothing. It's worth listening to this empty echo as the media moves, extolling whatever the next grand design to capture its attention happens to be. That's because a reverberating void is often all that remains after the noise and fury of the drumming media frenzy floats away. Our job as journalists is to bring you excitement and tell you how things are. But sometimes it's worth standing back and asking where you fit in to the noisy procession that the media parades before you, to let you know what's happening in the world. Sometimes it's difficult to know just who is the clown. READ MORE NICHOLAS STUART: So how does this relate to the very serious beginning to this column, with its discussion of existential threats? At the end of every year, there's pressure to say something that makes sense of where we've been or where we're going. It's very easy today to identify the most powerful force shaping our world - its leaders. What's unfortunate is that, although they're driving, they've got no idea of where we're going. It's a throwback to the early years of the 20th century. Back then, it was customary to celebrate remarkable individuals as the shapers of history. People like Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were assumed, by their peoples, to have supernatural powers. They were, indeed, remarkable, but that veneration eventually led to wars, starvation, and destruction. Today individuals like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping want to be regarded as exceptional leaders, which sets up a cascade effect. Democrat voters in the US expect Joe Biden to be an inspirational leader, and not just an old man occasionally making huge gaffes. We want to proclaim Anthony Albanese a prophet, rather accepting him as Prime Minister (even though that should be enough for anyone). This comes from a broader desire. If other people are great, then we don't have to accept responsibility when things go wrong. Anointing somebody else as leader means that we don't have to think. It excuses us from ever having to stand up and make decisions, like the officers who, back in 1983, made the crucial decision to stand-down and not to escalate tensions. Without the actions of these two quite remarkable, ordinary people, our world would not exist. Agency, the ability to shape the world, doesn't just belong to leaders. Few people, fortunately, will ever be put in the position of deciding if a nuclear strike should be launched. What we can do, however, over the coming year is act as if we are the people who will decide what our future will be. This will allow us to find meaning. Only this can enrich us and make our lives worthwhile.