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Disasters, wars: it's business as usual

Date: December 29 2012


Gwynne Dyer

A quick sifting through the entrails reveals plenty of bad news to come - but then again, it always does

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 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. 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. 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 countries.

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.

They thought it would be Spain for most of the year, but Silvio Berlusconi's decision to run for office again - ''the return of the undead'', one European paper called it - switched the spotlight to Italy in November. The possibility that the common currency might simply fall apart, and take the political unity of the European Union with it, could no longer be dismissed.

Meanwhile, secessionist movements flourished in major EU states. In Spain, both Catalonia and the Basque region elected provincial governments committed to holding referendums on independence. Britain and the recently devolved Scottish government agreed on the terms of a referendum to be held on Scottish independence in 2014. And in Belgium, Flemish threats to secede seemed more plausible than usual.

It's a mess, in other words, 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 union.

That project still has the firm support of the political elites in almost all EU countries, and they will pay whatever price is necessary to save it. Even in the regions considering secession from their present countries, there is no appetite for leaving the EU. Indeed, the strongest argument of the anti-secessionists is to say that those regions would have to reapply for EU membership if they got their independence, rather than just inheriting it automatically.

So the European Union 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.

The world's drift towards global catastrophe due to climate change is becoming impossible to deny. This northern summer saw prolonged droughts and heatwaves ravage crops from the US midwest to the plains of Russia, and soaring food prices as the markets responded to shortages in food supply.

This September saw Arctic sea ice cover fall to its lowest ever level: 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 a hundred 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 December in Qatar, merely agreed that they 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 apply only 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.

And then there's the United States, where Barack Obama, having accomplished little except healthcare 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 US 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 the President will instead fritter his resources away on hot-button issues such as gun control.

So much for the big themes of the year. There was also the usual scatter of promising changes such as Burma's gradual return to democracy, the start of peace talks that may bring an end to the 60-year-old war between the government and guerillas 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 August.

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 journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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