27 December 2010
By Gwynne Dyer
Fake elections in Egypt, Burma and Belarus. A massive earthquake in Haiti, devastating floods in Pakistan, and a volcano in Iceland that killed nobody but inconvenienced millions. Something verging on civil war in Thailand, a reviving civil war in Ivory Coast, and a real civil war in Afghanistan (with lots of foreign help). As these things go, not a bad year at all.
There are 192 countries in the world – or 202 countries, whatever the number is this week. There are almost seven billion people. All those countries and all those people will unfailingly supply enough bad news to hold the ads apart all year, every year. It doesn’t mean that the planet is really going to hell. The media will always search out what bad news there is and highlight it.
A broader view of events would report that not one country in the world was invaded in the past year. Not a single one out of 192, or however many it is. That’s not bad, considering our history, and it’s not just a fluke. No countries were invaded in 2009 either, or in 2008. In fact, the last time a country really got invaded was Iraq in 2003.
It is the absence of really big events (which are generally really bad events) that characterises the year. No Second Great Depression, for example (though the essential work on avoiding that was actually done in 2009). No Great Flu Pandemic. No war in the Korean peninsula despite the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan in March and North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November.
No American attack on Iran, despite all the threatening language. No large-scale killing on the Israeli-Palestinian front, though of course no progress towards a peace settlement either. No high-casualty terrorist attacks on Western countries, though lots in Pakistan, Iraq, India and Afghanistan. (Why do attacks on Western countries matter more? Because they tend to go berserk when they are targeted.)
No financial meltdown in Europe, though both Greece and Ireland have been put through the wringer. No recession at all in the emerging economies of the former Third World, which still account for less than 40 percent of the world’s economy but provided two-thirds of the world’s growth over the past year. And maybe that’s the real news of 2010: this was when the new world order finally became manifest.
This revolution has been predicted since economist Jim O’Neill at Goldman Sachs first grouped the big developing countries with fast-growing economies together as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) in 2001. Subsequent Goldman Sachs studies predicted that their combined economies would be larger than the combined economies of today’s rich countries by 2050, and every update of the study has brought that date closer.
It is still probably five to ten years away, but this was the year when China, the biggest of the BRICs, overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. It also overtook the United States in 2010 to become the world’s biggest producer of cars. For all practical purposes, the revolution is no longer imminent. It is here.
This is as big an event as the end of Pax Britannica and the rise of the United States, Germany and Japan to great-power status at the end of the 19th century. Just last year the G8, the group of seven rich Western countries plus Japan, was still at least notionally the board of management of the world economy, while the G20, incorporating the emerging economies, was a mere courtesy gesture to the new players.
This year, the G20 was where real action was, and the preceding G8 meeting was just a regional strategy session before the big event. The consequences of this historic shift in the world’s centre of gravity will play out over the years and the decades to come, but the reality and irreversibility of the change is now undeniable – even if China’s economy, at the moment, is the biggest bubble in the history of the world.
Apart from that, what else can we say about 2010 that is in any way meaningful? Lists are traditional at this time of year, but there isn’t really much point in a list that includes an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a British royal wedding, and 33 trapped Chilean miners. If you must have a list, go online and you’ll find hundreds of the things. They all mean virtually nothing.
And then there’s predicting the future. The year-ender format always includes some predictions about the future, but the real future is full of surprises. Just consider what a reasonable person would have predicted, on the available evidence, in the last couple of years that ended with “10″.
In 1810, all the European empires had been at war for more than fifteen years, with fighting in every continent. In the next five years, Napoleon would invade Russia and lose an army of half a million men, Britain and the United States would fight a war that included the burning of Washington and Toronto, and after Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815 the old absolute monarchies would come back all over Europe.
So who would have predicted in 1810 that after a few more bad years Europe would enjoy a full century of almost uninterrupted peace and soaring prosperity, or that democracy would spread to most of the big European countries? Nobody.
Same with 1910. It was very near the end of the Long Peace by then, but nobody knew that at the time. The First World War would shatter the old world in only four years’ time, the Second World War would come only a quarter-century later, and by the end of the 20th century the European empires would all be ancient history. Nobody foresaw it. Nobody could.
And the future? Who knows? One could seize the opportunity to bang on about the world’s failure to address the threat of radical climate change, but this year’s failure is not worse than last year’s, nor in all probability than next year’s.
To shorten to 800 words, omit paragraphs 12-15. (“And then..could”)
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.