To begin on a happy note, the world didn't end this year.
December 21 came and went without a sign of the Four
Horsemen, leaving the Mayans (or rather their ancestors) with
egg all over their faces. It just goes to show the perils of
prediction - but why would we let that deter us? Nobody is
So, instead of the usual trek through the events of the past
year, why don't we use this yearender to examine the entrails
of recent events for portents of the future? Like, for
example, the vicissitudes of the Arab revolutions in the past
On one hand, there were the first truly free elections in
modern Egyptian history. On the other hand, judges inherited
from the old regime dismissed the lower house of parliament
on a flimsy pretext, and then the Islamist president
retaliated by ramming through a new constitution that
entrenched conservative ''Islamic'' values against the will
of more than a third of the population. Is this glass half
full or half empty?
On one hand, Libyans managed to hold a free election even
though the country is still overrun by various militias, and
Yemen finally bid farewell to its dictator of 30-odd years.
On the other hand, Syria has fallen into a full-scale civil
war, with government planes bombing city centres and 40,000
dead. Did the ''Arab spring'' succeed, or did it fail?
Well, both, of course. How could it have been otherwise, in a
world of fallible human beings? But the mould has been
broken, and already half of the world's Arabs live in
countries that are basically democratic.
The political game is being played pretty roughly in some
Arab countries, but that's quite normal in new democracies -
and in some older ones, too. In the years to come the
transformation will deepen, amid much further turbulence, and
most Arab countries will emerge from it as normal, highly
imperfect democracies, just like most of the world's other
The European Union staggered through a year during which the
common currency of the majority of its members, the euro,
tottered permanently on the brink of collapse. The financial
markets have been talking all year about ''Grexit'', the
expected, almost inevitable withdrawal of Greece from the
eurozone, and speculating on which country would leave next.
It's a mess and Europe certainly faces years of very low
economic growth. But the EU was always mainly a political
project, intended to end centuries of devastating wars in
Europe, and the euro was invented to reinforce that political
So the EU will survive, and will even recover its financial
stability, eventually. It will also remain a major economic
player in the world, although the centre of gravity of the
global economy will continue to shift towards Asia. There is
even reason to think that Asia's triumph will arrive somewhat
later, and in a rather more muted fashion, than the
enthusiasts have been predicting in recent years.
In the last months of 2012 China went through the 10-yearly
ritual in which power is handed on to a new generation of
leaders, and both Japan and South Korea elected new
right-wing governments. North Korea, the nuclear-armed rogue
state that lies between them, put its first satellite into
orbit, thus demonstrating its ability to build long-range
ballistic missiles. And China was almost continuously
embroiled in border disputes with its neighbours (Vietnam,
the Philippines, Malaysia) in the South China Sea.
The world's drift towards global catastrophe due to climate
change is becoming impossible to deny. This northern summer
saw prolonged droughts and heat waves ravage crops from the
United States Midwest to the plains of Russia, and soaring
food prices as the markets responded to shortages in food
This September, Arctic sea ice cover was observed to fall to
its lowest level: and that was only half of the total area
covered by ice in September 10 years ago. And October saw
Hurricane Sandy devastate much of the US east coast, causing
100 deaths and more than $30 billion in damage. It was the
second-costliest tropical storm in American history (after
Katrina, in New Orleans, seven years ago).
Yet the global response is as feeble as ever. The annual
round of global negotiations on cutting greenhouse gas
emissions, held this month in Qatar, merely agreed nations
would try to get some sort of deal by 2015. Even if they do,
however, it won't go into effect until 2020.
So for the next eight years the only legal constraint on
warming will be the modest cuts in emissions agreed at Kyoto
15 years ago. Moreover, those limits only apply to the old
industrial powers. There are no limits whatever on the rise
of emissions by the fast-growing economies of the emerging
industrial powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even
lemmings usually act more wisely than this.
November brought a week of massive Israeli air and missile
strikes against the Gaza Strip, allegedly in retaliation for
Palestinian missile attacks against Israel, but the
tit-for-tat has been going on for so long that it's pointless
to discuss who started it. And nothing Israel does can stop
the growing support for a Palestinian state: in late November
the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine
non-voting observer state status by a vote of 138-9.
And then there's the United States, where Barack Obama,
having accomplished little except health care reform in his
first presidential term, was re-elected, anyway. The
Republican candidate concentrated his campaign on Mr Obama's
slow progress in overcoming the deepest recession in 70 years
(which had been caused by the previous Republican
administration), but just in time the numbers started to turn
upward for Mr Obama.
The economic recovery will probably strengthen in the coming
year (unless the United States falls off the ''fiscal cliff''
in the next week or so), and strong growth will give Obama
enough political capital to undertake at least one big reform
project. The highest priority is obviously global warming,
but there is a danger that he will fritter his resources away
on hot-button issues like gun control.
So much for the big themes of the year. There was also the
usual scatter of promising changes, like Burma's gradual
return to democracy, the start of peace talks that might
bring an end to the 60-year-old war between Government and
guerrillas in Colombia, and the return to the rule of law in
growing areas of anarchic Somalia.
Similarly, there was a steady drizzle of bad news: the revolt
by Islamist extremists that tore the African state of Mali in
half in April, the pogrom against Burmese Muslims in July,
and the police massacre of striking miners in South Africa in
Business as usual, in other words. 2012 wasn't a particularly
bad year; if you think it was, you've been reading too many
newspapers and watching too much CNN. Their stock-in-trade is
crisis and tragedy, so you can always count on them to give
you the worst news possible. It wasn't all that great a year
either, but there'll be another one along shortly.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent London