To begin on a happy note, the world didn’t end this year. Dec. 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 keeping score.
So, instead of the usual trek through the events of the past year, why don’t we use this year-ender to examine the entrails of recent events for portents of the future? Like, for example, the vicissitudes of the Arab revolutions in the past 12 months.
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 centers 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 mold has been broken, and already half of the world’s Arabs live in countries that are basically democratic.
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.
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 toward global catastrophe due to climate change is becoming impossible to deny. This northern summer saw prolonged droughts and heat waves ravage crops from the U.S. Midwest to the plains of Russia, and soaring food prices as the markets responded to shortages in food supply.
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 nonvoting observer state status by a vote of 138-9.
And then there’s the United States, where President 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 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 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 on 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 such as gun control.
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 never mind. There’ll be another one along shortly.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.