The recession will buy President-elect Barack Obama time to do what’s right, but how much is the question.
In the minds of most Americans, and the overwhelming majority of people elsewhere, we are saying good riddance in 2009 to a long period when brutal and ignorant policies reigned supreme.
This is the end of an era. We're saying goodbye to George W. Bush - and an Iraqi journalist said it best.
Surely the most telling image of 2008 was Muntadhar al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at the U.S. president. His brother says he changed his shoes after he heard that he was being sent to cover the Bush press conference: he wanted to be sure that the ones he threw were Iraqi-made.
He also gave some thought to his words: "This is the farewell kiss, you dog!" as he threw the first shoe, and "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq" with the second.
Of course, Bush did not create all the world's problems, and they will not vanish when he does. Here's the lowdown on what faces us in the new year.
ECONOMIC MESS-UP The global financial crisis that exploded when the Bush admin decided not to save the foundering Lehman Brothers investment bank in September still has some distance to run, and the full extent of the damage is not yet known.
A recession was due around now regardless of who was running the U.S. government. Until some genius discovers a way to abolish the business cycle, which is driven by basic human psychology, recessions are bound to occur from time to time.
What frightens people is the possibility, eagerly touted in the media, that this might be not just a recession, but an actual depression. There's a big difference between unemployment rising to a peak of nine or 10 per cent before dropping back to normal after a couple of years, and unemployment rising to a peak of 25 per cent and not returning to normal for 10 years, as in the dirty thirties.
It's clear that the masters of the universe are running out of ideas about what to do. None of their normal tricks, like dropping interest rates, seems to stop the headlong decline.
But the truth is that it always feels like this on the way down into a major recession, yet it's usually over after 15 or 18 months.
Where is the evidence that it will be different this time? The banks are in much more trouble. There are those who think governments are over-reacting this time and making things worse.
The good news is that the G7 economies are not shrinking faster now than they were going into the last three recessions (early 80s, early 90s, early 2000s), which suggests that what is coming will not be much worse than those.
This may mean that the current frenzy of deficit spending is indeed more than is strictly necessary, but nobody wants to take that chance - least of all Barack Obama, who seems well aware that a big crisis, real or perceived, creates opportunities for major change.
OBAMA FACTOR It is possible that Obama's election, and not the financial meltdown, was really the key event of 2008.
For a time Obama will be free to do what he thinks is right, and to justify it in terms of the crisis.
His cabinet and other high-level appointments suggest that he will make few initiatives in foreign policy, limiting himself perhaps to speeding up the timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq.
Health care, education and welfare are all areas where Obama can and probably will push through reforms that have been stalled for several decades, but it has become increasingly clear in recent weeks that environment - climate change, to be specific - will be the area to see the most radical policy changes.
Obama is not only going to alter the laws in this area to encourage emission cuts. He is going to spend the money, justifying it as dual-purpose expenditure that both creates jobs and serves a genuinely useful purpose. It's unlikely that there's enough time to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto accord by the current 2010 deadline, but if Obama is as serious about this as he seems, it could be done by the end of his first term.
So there's a bit of unadulterated hope. In other domains and regions, the picture is more mixed.
SOUTH AMERICA, BEYOND U.S. CONTROL In the Americas, Cuba fumbles its way toward a post-Castro future with much anxiety but no violence beyond the usual state-backed oppression. (The Obama administration could ease the transition greatly by ending U.S. sanctions.) The various left-wing regimes of South America also stagger onward, free for once to succeed or fail on their own without U.S. intervention.
BLEAK AFRICA Africa south of the Sahara has had a deeply discouraging year. The resurgent fighting in eastern Congo was showing signs of expanding into a major war involving lots of foreign troops by year's end, and the Darfur war in Sudan is no nearer to resolution. Ethiopia began pulling its army out of Somalia in December, but not before reigniting the Somali civil war, and Somali pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden and further south are becoming a serious hazard to shipping.
MIDDLE EAST ON BRINK, AGAIN The big development in the Middle East was the relative decline in violence in Iraq, combined with the emergence of an Iraqi government confident enough to insist on a deadline for the withdrawal of American troops.
But the current bombing of Gaza and the prospective victory of Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu in the forthcoming Israeli election practically guarantee another long period of Arab-Israeli conflict.
IRAN THREAT FIZZLES Various governments fretted aloud about Iran's alleged drive for nuclear weapons, but the legal grounds for the complaints were as flimsy as the unity of the complainers. Whatever Iran has in mind, it can safely get on with it.
WOBBLY PAKISTAN The country made a shaky transition from the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf to a civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, although nobody would describe the governing coalition of parties as either coherent or stable.
Afghanistan remains mired in a civil war with extensive foreign involvement.
The third major terrorist attack on Mumbai in 15 years in November pushed Indian patience to the breaking point, as once again there was evidence of sponsorship by Pakistan-based extremist groups.
Few believe that the new Pakistani government (which had just launched a peace offensive toward India) was sympathetic to these groups; many doubted that it could get them under control. At year's end, Indo-Pak relations were again in the deep freeze.
CHINA CHALLENGE Dozens died in nationalist demonstrations against the Chinese regime in Tibet in March. Sichuan province was struck by an earthquake that killed at least 69,000 in May, but three months later the Beijing Olympics were a spectacular success.
RUSSIAN DILEMMA In Europe, the big news was the war in the Caucasus that erupted in August when Georgia tried to seize the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
In order to conquer South Ossetia, Georgia would have had to kill or expel the Russian peacekeeping troops, but the Russian army easily repelled the Georgian assault.
A ceasefire stopped the shooting after five days, and Russian troops had all left Georgia proper within two months, but Moscow did recognize the independence of South Ossetia.
Some circles in the West believe this war proves that Russia under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has expansionist goals, but there is no reason yet to believe that the West and Russia are committed to a new Cold War.
QUIET EUROPE The most exciting political events were the Spanish election in March (the socialists keep power), the arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in July (off to the Hague for trial), Greenland's vote on increased autonomy in November (yes) - and, of course, Ireland's rejection of the new European Union constitution in a referendum in June.
Europe has gone from the world's most violent continent to its most placid, and most Europeans are quite happy to have it that way.
FAREWELL, PETROLEUM In January 2008, oil reached the $100-per-barrel mark for the first time; in mid-July it touched $147 per barrel; and by late December it was back down below $40 per barrel. This extreme volatility is exactly what is predicted by most models when we are at or near "peak oil."
But this does not necessarily mean regular oil shortages and permanently high prices, because a parallel downshift may be getting under way in the demand for oil.
The United States is about to get serious about greenhouse gas emissions, and that means U.S. oil use will fall.
A lot of other countries are already on that track, and more will follow. If they all get it right, then oil will be neither scarce nor expensive - and nobody will care much about it anyway.
Gwynne Dyer's new book, Climate Wars, has just been published in Canada by Random House.