Gwynne Dyer: The year when big events were in short supply

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 last month.

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 10 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 summit action could be found – 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 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 no worse than last year's. Nor, in all probability, next year's shortcomimgs.

Gwynne Dyer is a foreign correspondent and author of Climate Wars.