In 2008, talk of change was everywhere. This year that talk will be realized as historic changes take place around the world. In most cases, the process will be gradual and evolutionary. But we must also be prepared for revolutionary transformations as accumulated strains and stresses produce paradigm shifts.

This process will be exhilarating and nerve-racking. Accepted beliefs and behaviors will be challenged; frequently they will have to be discarded. Uncomfortable though this will be, there is no room for complacency or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the obvious.

In Japan, there is every indication that 2009 will be the year in which the opposition is very likely to take the reins of government from the Liberal Democratic Party at long last. That would be a historical moment for Japan, yet it would be but one step in a longer process of political evolution and growth. Even if that transition does not occur — and Japanese politics is always unpredictable — politicians and bureaucrats will be absorbed with either preparing for that shift or fighting it off. The country’s problems will not wait, however. The failure to devote more attention and energy to them now means that they will only get bigger — and a crisis will eliminate any choices we have about tackling them at our convenience.

An equally significant, but more certain, change will take place in the United States. In fact, two changes will occur. The first is the departure of Mr. George W. Bush from the White House, a move that will be greeted with near unanimous applause. We say that with no malice: A recent opinion poll shows that 75 percent of Americans are glad he is leaving office. That relief is also evident in other countries where Mr. Bush is considered a reckless cowboy who practiced unilateralism and disregarded international law.

The arrival of Mr. Barack Obama at the White House is the second part of that equation, a truly historic event in its own right. It is difficult to appreciate the impact of having a black man as president. For many people, it is the realization of the promise of the U.S. Indeed, his election by itself produced a dramatic shift in perceptions and a subtle addition to America’s international strength and standing.

This one-two punch is not mere symbolism: It has the potential to change international political dynamics. The U.S. has been reeling in recent years, rocked by the Iraq war, its tactics in the war on terror and the financial crisis. The advent of the Obama administration changes the U.S. image and could usher in a new era of international cooperation as countries that once could not or would not work with Washington are now free to do so. The question is whether those nations are prepared for a U.S. government that reaches out to them and treats them as the partners that they have insisted they are. Doing so requires a fundamental change in their way of thinking about their relationship with the U.S. and a readiness to take the initiative in new and challenging ways.

If this new spirit exists, it will first manifest itself in efforts to tackle the financial and economic crisis. Crudely put, a large part of the world’s wealth has proven illusory. It is easy to blame Americans for living beyond their means, but their profligacy paid the wages of millions of workers around the world and supported corporate balance sheets. Banks everywhere were complicit in the financial misdeeds that created this crisis, and their profits trickled down too. Most, if not all, of us enjoyed some of those “ill gotten” gains. Now we must all bear the price of adjustment and it is unclear how profound that adjustment will be. The scale of the downturn that lies ahead — some fear another Great Depression — suggests that it will be great.

The looming economic crunch could have a silver lining. The breakneck growth of the past has exacted a horrific environmental toll. It is most evident in China, but we will all pay the price of climate change. But a slowdown is not a solution. The new government in Washington and the economic downturn provide the world with a chance to reassess priorities and begin making real progress in this fight. The painful truth is that success necessitates a radical shift in thinking by consumers and producers. New balances must be struck and “quality of life” must take on a new meaning. It is essential that this shift take place before hundreds of millions more citizens around the world realize their middle class aspirations and take a greater toll on our planet. It is up to those of us who have already realized this dream and helped create the nightmare to show the way and set a better example of responsible stewardship of our planet. Thus far we have done an appalling job.

Facing this new reality will not be comfortable: We have to change the way we think and act in most endeavors. But we have no choice. After years of calling for change, change has been forced upon us. Such is the promise of 2009.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.