As we get closer to the year 2000, there will no doubt be an
increasing amount of coverage of ... The Millennium. One of the things we are likely to see and hear stories about is how far civilizations have come in the past 1000 years or so. In the earlier centuries of this millennium, in the midst of the Dark Ages, life was fairly basic. The dominant influence on societies was likely to have been the changing of the seasons. If the growing season was good and lots of food was produced, then life during the following year would likely be good. If, however, food production was adversely affected by a combination of weather-related problems such as drought or flood, then life would be difficult.
In those days life expectancy was much shorter and medicines were
nowhere near as sophisticated as they are today. People were susceptible to numerous diseases, and the local doctor doubled as a barber whose principal cure was the application of leeches. Yada, yada, yada.
In fact, it is easy to identify many differences in those
civilizations that were in existence at the turn of the last millennium
and those that are about to survive into the next millennium. The
reporting on these differences will likely become a sort of "sport" in the next few years, as we count down the last days of the Twentieth Century. Progress! That's what the media, policy-makers, and cultural leaders will most likely focus on: How wonderful it is to see how far we have come in the past one thousand years.
The English are much more into the millennium at this stage of the
countdown to the year 2000 than are the Americans. A search of the
Internet confirms this. For example, a quick Web search reveals a
Millennium Commission in Great Britain, which is focused on the future.
It expects to allocate more than $2 Billion to support about 2000
activities around the country, among which will be projects,
awards to the public, and a Millennium Exhibition.
There is probably good reason that the British are taking a keen
interest in the turn of the millennium, as they were around and on their island at the turn of the last millennium. Compared to Britain's long history, however, colonized America is only a few hundred years old. To many Americans, crossing from the Second to the Third Millennium will generate no more interest than providing a good reason to party.
Another interesting effort focused on the year 2000 is the Millennium Alliance. This is an attempt to coordinate all of the various activities around the globe that relate to the turn of the century and new millennium. Its organizer, Hillel Schwartz, has noted that, "For decades, the years 1999-2001 have been anticipated by planners, poets, prophets, philosophers, and pop musicians across the continents. This decade, the Year 2000 has become the focus for environmental action, political promises, cinematic fictions, and forecasts about everything from jeans to genetics."
The Alliance is looking toward the future. It has posed questions
that it wants people to reflect upon, such as: What priorities should we set for ourselves as denizens of a planet that is neither infinitely rich nor invulnerable? What am I — what are we — willing to put at risk? What is already at risk?
So, some millennial efforts will focus on the future, while others
will focus on past achievements and culture.
But I think there is yet another "sport" that should be pursued as
well. We should seek to identify similarities between civilizations of a thousand years ago and those that exist today. I would like to see a
focus on how we have NOT changed over the past ten centuries. For
example, most people around the globe still live one or two stories above the Earth's surface. We still depend on scratching the Earth's surface to produce our food. Our food supply is still dependent in large measure on the natural flow of the seasons. We still depend on ports, rivers, and roadways for our transportation and movement of goods. We still license our domestic pets (it used to be pigs that were taxed, now it is dogs and sometimes cats). We are still responsible for clearing our sidewalks, a custom that originated after the Black Plague decimated Europe's's population in the 1300s. Toll roads still exist, as they did centuries ago. The point is, many of the things that we do today and many of the laws that we live by have their roots in the early centuries of the current millennium.
There are also more unfortunate things that seem to have survived the test of time. Warfare remains one of the ultimate ways to resolve
disputes. Ethnic and religious rivalries abound and have become even more threatening due to the easy availability of high-tech weapons. Pollution is still plaguing us. The world's poor exist in large absolute numbers alongside the few super-rich.
As important as it is to prepare for the future, it is also necessary to report on the past. During the next few years, we can (and most assuredly will) highlight positive achievements over the past one thousand years. But it will be equally important to report on areas in which we have not changed our ways. It is in some of those areas where change has not occurred (for example, in the way we settle disputes between people as well as between countries) that a change in the way we do things in the next millennium will sorely be needed.