For more about calendars and the dating of the Millennium, click here.
The mythology of Millennialism: Anti-Christs, Riders of the Apocalypse, nuclear incineration, Second Comings, the return of the space-people, impacting comets and overwhelming disasters. Who wants to be there? This spectre haunts the collective psyche in multiple formats.
The majority of people are pitifully stuck between two forms of denial of the full implications of our situation in the world today: a majority subscribes to fundamental disbelief or half-belief in millennialist ideas, while a minority tends toward a compensatory over-belief in them. There is little careful consideration of the realistic issues in-between.
Millennialism is a belief that the world is heading for a punishing or redemptive disaster, preordained or as a result of human actions, or both. All or most people will fry and suffer, except for the chosen few - the ones who saw the light or did the right thing, or belonged to the right social grouping or faith community. It's a wipe-out scenario in which all that is bad and evil gets swept away, the problem is thereby solved and a new age of humanity begins - at least for the lucky survivors. This is not just a conscious belief but also a lurking unconscious one, a deep part of our cultural programming.
Most people evade looking at writing on the wall – everyone is too busy making a living or a profit. If someone threatens to stir disquiet in the ranks, or if even highly-respected scientists speak out, they tend to be passed off by media commentators and spin-doctors as fomenters of extremist opinion, doomsters or cranks. Or they are listened to with interest and then forgotten - a passing item on the news.
On the other side, it is equally easy for millenialist dramatists to make big, authoritative and definitive future predictions which many people take on without much examination. After the event, prognosticators are rarely held accountable for their unfulfilled forecasts and people forget about them anyway, adopting new predictions to suit passing moods. The failure of end-of-the-world predictions in a gullible age has hardened people into a rejection of all predictions. This is as dangerous as their wholesale adoption.
However well-meant or carefully devised, many predictions are coloured by fashionable or prevalent beliefs, predispositions or paranoias which change in their details but still fall into a pattern. Sophisticated assertions are made, the reliability of which cannot be checked until after the dreaded or exalted event is clocked to happen. This has the effect of rendering people powerless – itself a symptom of our current situation. Only the captain can steer the ship, so let's leave it to him and carry on partying.
We lack experience and data in global survival questions. Millennialist notions do stretch our sense of possible futures, making us aware of matters which indeed deserve consideration. It is well worth acquiring a basic grasp of the spectrum of future possibilities – both extreme scenarios and moderate likelihoods. However, the more one investigates all this, the more one uncovers uncomfortable information and insights which make even moderate scenarios begin to look extreme. When one discovers the extent and wider effects of specific forms of large-scale pollution, to give just one example, one is left with a daunted and overwhelmed feeling of frustration or helplessness. Most people deal with this by keeping their heads down and by looking no further than their own small world and no further forward than three years. This is an escape from, not a solution to, the enormity of the question that faces us.
The extremism of many predictions does not automatically prove that they should be ignored. Self-appointed rationalists beware! One who takes a strongly rationalist viewpoint often does so from an unacknowledged irrational basis. This irrationality is geared to the denial of mystery, of empathic sensitivity or sense of responsibility for past errors.
Anticipation of disaster is not just idle paranoia. We do live in crux times - the world is at stake. Many of the most fundamental issues of human history are up for examination and radical change in our time, whether this is chosen by us or foisted upon us by force of circumstance. If we focus solely on a single issue such as growth in world population, vast and deep historical issues rear their ugly heads, drawing in matters of religion, social structure, politics, economics, tradition and hosts of other complicating factors. The stakes in the global poker-game are high and planet Earth is distinctly not a safe and secure place to live, whether you're in New York City or in an isolated mountain fastness in the High Pamir.
When armies of soldiers, police and security personnel are deemed necessary to guard society from its own members, something is dreadfully wrong. When intelligent beings of the same species threaten each other's existence to the extent of overkill, and when individuals allow their own personal interests to override everyone's collective interests, something is wrong. It isn't necessary to be a visionary or a futurologist. Basic commonsense tells any average human that all is not well. An old Bantu song goes "Listen more closely to things than to people...".
The world's problems are ever-increasingly interwoven with each other. The solution of one issue rests on the solution of many others, and these rest on yet more interdependent issues. Dedicated conservationists seek to protect endangered species and landscapes and to re-educate the public, yet nature conservation on its own is a symptom-oriented first-aid measure which cannot heal the root-causes of environmental degradation. It proceeds only a small distance before it comes up against blocking issues in other spheres – rhinos in East Africa are decimated by poachers supplying traditional medicinal ingredients for affluent consumers in East Asia, and bird stocks in Antarctica are affected by agri-chemical practices a long way away.
Conservationists thus cleave into two camps: those moved toward political action and lifestyle choices (such as direct action or personal consumption-reduction) and those pressurised by funding and authorities to attend to localised small-scale, single-issue conservation work to rescue certain specific species or environments – as long as it doesn't change the big issues, raise taxes or greatly affect anyone - as long as we can continue with business as usual.
Yet times are now crucial. Ominous multiple global issues are by now well-known: over-population; over-consumption by some and under-nourishment for others; ozone-layer depletion, atmospheric warming and climatic change; political instability and social stress; toxic, nuclear or military risks; urban, industrial and agricultural pollution and environmental degradation; habitat and species decline; immune-system degeneration; decline in male sperm-counts; creeping corruption, dishonesty, cynicism and profit-chasing; personal, family and community breakdown; and, most crucially, governmental and institutional incapacity and unwillingness to remedy all these. Yes, we're heading toward a precipice, but just don't look, and it will go away.
These factors insidiously eat away at the inherent robustness and potential in both nature and humanity. Strong lobbies portray our situation as normal and manageable, yet it is all approaching some sort of crescendo. In this, millennialists do have a point. People might prefer business as usual, yet usuality and normality are in decline. It's safer to expect the unexpected.
In every single department and cranny of human life, large-scale world issues are reflected in people's personal experience and predicaments. The world is visibly more crowded. Sold-out impotence, shoulder-shrugging resignation and individual helplessness pervade so many people's lives. Birdsong and contemplative sunsets are forgotten – if they don't happen on-screen, they're unimportant. Foot-tapping restlessness, short attention-spans and perpetual busyness lead successive generations into ever-subtler forms of avoidance. Global uncertainties affect you and me. The risk of getting mugged, even in our own home, confronts so many of us. Is this the world we want to live in?
This acutely-loaded situation generates a new undercurrent of worldwide awareness – an awareness which has never existed in the way it exists now. Underneath a pile of societal carcinogenia something else is being generated: a widespread, deep and latent disaffection, a questioning that emerges only when things get to be too much, or when poignantly symbolic events take place. At such moments, a big question arises surreptitiously in the rear psyche of most people: is this what life is really all about? Wasn't there something else we all came here to do or to be?
Such estranged questioning and disillusionment has found expression mainly through the utterances of odd-balls, misfits, poets, vocal minorities, romantics, far-sighted visionaries or outraged radicals. However, widespread unconscious disaffection has arisen throughout the world's public too: only a small proportion of the billions alive today live free of reservations about the state of the world. Most people accept what they get, yet if truth be known only very few experience true satisfaction with the manner of civilisation in which we live. Many people work hard to justify things as they are or labour to make things better. Yet they also experience serious, secret, deep, largely unacknowledged reservations, even if these surface only during unusual moments of truth, loss or disadvantage.
Opinion polls rarely investigate people's truly fundamental feelings and might not be capable of doing so. Evangelists and futuristic preachers tap into these feelings, spin-doctors tame them and ad-men prey on them – but what happens afterwards? We are still faced with the same inescapable issues. A short, sharp conclusion lurks furtively in the back recesses of people's awareness, waiting for something to stir it: it simply says, "I've had enough".
There it is, a spiritual enzyme gnawing at the foundations of our beliefs. It's a secret yearning for a better life and a happier world – a world where the efforts, the aches and joys of life are proportioned to a more authentic base-line of reality. We are given to understand that our modern world represents an apex of human achievement, yet there's a sensing that there is a further reality beyond this – a reality we glimpse during moments of insightful peace or razor-sharp personal crisis. It's a reality which soon becomes forgotten as soon as we return to 'normality'.
Disaffection levels reflect a hidden growing saturation with sales-talk, political spin, moral judgements, public untruths and social control-mechanisms of all kinds. People get to feel quietly hemmed in by the life to which they feel obliged to conform. People go along with it - perhaps there is no alternative - yet they have grave doubts. Fundamentalism and conservatism divert us into a simplistic world of either-or, black-and-white certainties which betray a gaping insecurity, an insecurity with the Unknown.
A large proportion of humanity loiters passively in this point of history, dissatisfied with the present and concerned about the future. This covert dissatisfaction has achieved a crucial level of intensity – though where the critical breakthrough-threshold lies is anybody's guess. The intensity arises from daily-life experiences culled from the very achievements modern civilisation has given us – world-shrinking satellite TVs, telephones and faxes, global migration and travel, corporate products, multicultural influences and obligatory education.
We have surreptitiously become global citizens without having been properly consulted or notified. It's a mixed bag of blessings and sorrows. We're discovering a new set of possibilities. A new level has appeared at the top of everyone's personal pyramid of social relationships, called the human race – the endless unknowable crowds we push past at airports, stations and street corners. There they all are, masses of milling faces. Who are these people? Do they have anything to do with me? We occupy the same planet, yet how many different worlds do we live in?
This new globalised awareness lurks furtively under the surface of consciousness. It generates another kind of historic awareness which has not been present for all peoples of all times: the awareness that things do not intrinsically have to be as they present themselves to us now. This causes a mysterious restlessness and multiplication of wants and aspirations, whether expressed or hidden. Hidden, held-back hopes are dangerous, since they can surge out when the lid is even slightly lifted. They can cause sudden outbursts of irrational mass-behaviour.
This phenomenon was demonstrated in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s when the promise of change, justice, freedom and prosperity was dangled before unsuspecting Soviet citizens. As soon as the grinding post-Stalinist oppression eased under the guiding hand of Gorbachev and his colleagues, newly-visible issues such as 'the nationalities question' bubbled up to the surface – an issue once buried under the prevailing ideology of Soviet political life. The nationalities question proved to be a stronger force in some parts of USSR than the urge for gizmos and well-stacked supermarket shelves – people in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia and other states were willing to sacrifice the promise of security and material comfort in favour of national self-determination. Soviet perestroika-planners of the time had not anticipated this: their plan was to effect an ordered and integral transition to a more appropriate liberalised economy in USSR – but they had forgotten the human factor.
Similarly, worldwide, the rush for economic growth and techno-propagation overlooks what's fermenting underneath. High-growth business centres such as Singapore or Dubai possess a veneer of achievement, provision and finesse – and, by implication, happiness – yet just as many new social problems arise in affluent, successful economic centres as in shanty-towns and high-rise residential stacks. The ills of affluence are less obvious and visible, more private and smoothed over than poverty and underprivilege. Yet there they are: loneliness, comfortable alienation, obesity, tedium, stress and diminishing meaning in life. Growing buying-power purchases only limited expressions of freedom, accompanied by a creeping indigestion arising from a boxed-in feeling, from a privatised subdivision of properties and communities and an insulated, padded world of gated communities, air-conditioned cars and glass-fronted offices.
So, there is millennialism, a belief in a great, sudden, total, global showdown with truth. There is the millennium of our dating system (which was actually 1,000 years ago, but Year 2000 will do), there are religious and cosmological beliefs in a Big Crunch, and there is the actual situation of our world today, where space, resources, natural balances, social conditions and other objective factors are coming to a head. And they all mix together in our time. It's a veritable soup of belief and fact. It connects with something in the human psyche. It stays below the surface unless deeply unsettling conditions emerge to bring it up. And then we move into a new phase. It might be that millennialists have got things a wee bit right.