The past year has been tumultuous: The Afghanistan war ground on, the Iraq war started to wind down (amid great uncertainty about Iraq's future), huge government debts led to austerity and anxiety across Europe.
But there were also global trends you may have missed, and fascinating stories that didn't hit the headlines. Such as:
1 Suicide attacks are falling
Terror-style attacks remained a danger, particularly in places like Pakistan and Iran. But in the United States, arrests of a number of lone men planning domestic attacks were often accompanied by news that the suspects had been under government surveillance, often with agents carrying out elaborate sting operations.
The Department of Homeland Security reported 121 suicide attacks globally that took 1,270 lives through June. That was on pace to be well below the 2009 total, in which 299 attacks claimed 3,177 lives. That, in turn, was fewer than in 2008.
Suicide attacks in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan claimed 88 percent of casualties in 2009 and led the list in the first six months of 2010. But they were responsible for 71 percent of a smaller total in 2010.
Other countries have seen even more dramatic declines. The end of Sri Lanka's war with the Tamil Tigers saw suicide attacks drop from killing 46 in 2009 to none this year. In Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, which once confronted frequent Islamist suicide attacks, there were none.
High levels of violence and terrorism persist, but widespread fears that such tactics would proliferate after 9/11 haven't been borne out.
Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and coauthor of "Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop it," says suicide attacks fell in 2010 largely because of the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Only about 10 percent of people involved in what's usually termed terrorism set their eyes abroad, he argues, and most suicide attackers target local military occupations.
"The reason it's falling is because we're pulling out of Iraq," says Mr. Pape, adding that suicide attacks in Gaza and parts of the West Bank are also down "like 99 percent" because of the Israeli pullout. But he predicts that, as the war in Afghanistan ramps up and the drone war continues in Pakistan, suicide attacks in those areas are likely to rise. "All we're going to do is trade suicide attacks in Iraq for attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he notes.
2 Goodbye, Predator. Hello, Reaper.
2010 was definitely the year of the unmanned Predator drone, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the Bush administration liked the weapon, the Obama administration loves it. In 2009, President Obama's first full year as president, the US increased its drone strikes against alleged Taliban and Al Qaeda members in Pakistan by 50 percent, to 53. By mid-December this year, there had been 109 drone attacks on Pakistan.
The drone (the military prefers UAV – "unmanned aerial vehicle") that has carried out most of the attacks is the General Atomics-designed Predator, equipped with Hellfire missiles and first used in a strike in Afghanistan on Feb. 4, 2002. It was the beginning of a new kind of warfare.
The Predator is now giving way to the next generation of drone – the "Reaper," which is already in use: It flies faster and farther, and carries far more munitions and surveillance gear. There's debate about the ethics of battle by remote control, but it's getting easier all the time.
3 A decline in global hunger
The global recession continues. Ireland and Greece had to be bailed out by their wealthier neighbors. Portugal or even Spain may follow suit. In poorer nations like Egypt, the rising cost of food far outstripped wage growth or job creation. Drought in Russia, a major wheat producer, led to its banning grain exports, creating fear about global food supplies.
But it appears that the ranks of the chronically malnourished fell in 2010. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said in September that 2010 probably saw the first decline of malnourished people in 15 years.
Why? A number of poorer nations saw strong economic growth. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the global economy grew 4.6 percent, after declining by 0.6 percent in 2009. And despite Russia's agricultural prices, other parts of the globe had bumper crops. US grain production hit a record in 2010.
To be sure, vast numbers of people are still hungry. The 10 percent decline in the "chronically malnourished" in 2010 leaves 925 million undernourished – still – and the number is higher than before the economic shock of 2008. The FAO warns that this year's gains are fragile.
4 Change in one-child China?
Many had expected this year to mark the end of China's 30-year-old "one child per family" policy. In September, however, the head of the National Population and Family Planning Council announced that China will stick with the policy for "decades."
Something is afoot. China has ended the requirement that parents must get a permit to have their first child, and for years it has generally tolerated two children or more in rural areas. Since the rules eased, analysts estimate that only about 35 percent of China's 1.3 billion people live in areas where it's enforced.
To be sure, China's estimated fertility rate per woman is 1.6 children, well below the 2.1 needed to keep a population stable, and there may be other factors reining in China's population. Some predict that up to 30 million Chinese men won't have brides available to them by 2020 because the policy spurred selective abortion of girls. Others worry about the economic effect the policy will have, given an aging population.