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Essays

Anxiously Waiting for the Millenium

Published on Wednesday, June 16, 01999  •  17 years, 11 months ago
Written by Paul Saffo for The Long Now Foundation

New Years is over, but don't put your party hats away yet. January first opened the final decade before the end of the current millenium. If history is any guide,we are in for a ten year "silly season" that will build in intensity as we approach the year 2000.

Years end always makes us anxious, and the degree and duration of our collective jitters increases with the number of zeros in the year to come. Decade ends often serve up popular fads like the "Age of Aquarius" of the late sixties, but the twin zeros of a century can deliver more lasting social phenomena.

For example, the western world spent the better part of the 1890s contemplating century's end. The French even gave their anxieties a label -- Fin de siecle. The term survives today, synonymous with the turn-of-the-century mood of sophistication, world-weariness and fashionable despair.

But we reserve our greatest dread for millenium endings. The last time we crossed a year with three zeros, a horde of millenium-struck European peasants disrupted a century of social history, anxiously awaiting the Apocalypse of Biblical prophecy. Of course, this sort of calendar-induced hysteria could never happen today. Guess again. America has a long history of millenial fatalism, and many fundamentalist sects such as The Seventh-day Adventists are founded on millenial beliefs. The single bestselling book of the 1970s was "The Late Great Planet Earth", which predicted that the apocalypse would take the form of all-out nuclear war between the superpowers.

Recent events in the USSR make this scenario unlikely, but the Gulf Crisis offers yet more vivid apocalyptic fare, for the Babylon of Biblical prophecy is located in Iraq. It is unnerving to contemplate the fact that while our diplomats struggled to avert war, a religious minority was hopefully reading events for signs that at long last, the biblical end is near.

The coming millenium constitutes a wildcard of immense proportion certain to affect already fickle consumer attitudes and behaviour. Interest in religion will certainly rise, as Doomsayers read portents of end-time in daily headlines. This will be a boon for TV evangelists, for the prospect of Armageddon may be the only piece of religion dramatic enough to hold its own against the usual fare of soap operas and football games. Millenial anxieties will also breath new life into old urban legends such as ties between company logos and devil worship, creating more than a few corporate headaches.

The millenium may also have a decidedly optimistic impact on secular thinking. One scholar already has written hopefully about "the end of history" and a prominent researcher has proposed a "Millenium Project" aimed at solving the World's ills. Such talk may lead executives to adopt longer term thinking as part of their business lives. The Millenium is already entering the consciousness of mainstream America. President Bush mentioned the Millenium in a recent speech, and no less than Miss Manners has titled her latest book on social etiquette a "guide for the turn-of-the-millenium". The word "millenium" will become an unremarkable part of our daily vocabularies in a very few years.

Finally, New Year's Eve 1999 will be a boon for travel agents, booking tours to holy sites and new age "power spots" all over the world. From Jerusalem to Ayers Rock reservations are already being taken, so it is not too soon to grab your Bible, dust-off your Nostradamus, and get ready for the collective foolishness in the decade to come.