Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime.
— Henry David Thoreau

We're a few years away from the next millennium. Let's step back and examine our lives from a millennial perspective.
     How much has life changed in the last thousand years? We have much better transportation, communication and health care. Our world view has changed from a primarily religious one to one that's primarily scientific and secular. More and more of us live in democracies and have a say in how they are run. The biggest change is that we're much more efficient in providing for our material needs, because of the specialization of labor and because of our machines.
     What does this mean for our lives? History tends to be the story of the best-off: the rich, powerful and influential, the movers and shakers, the contributors and thinkers. For these, life hasn't changed much in a thousand years. They had rich lives with houses, books, music, food, servants to do their bidding, influence in society, a stimulating environment. Their concerns must have been the same as for the privileged of our age: love and work, politics, power and position, war and famine, birth and death. For those at the top economically, life hasn't changed much during the millennium.
     How about the worst-off, the ten percent at the lowest level of society? For them things haven't changed much either. The poor, even in America, don't have access to our good communications, transportation or health care; they have votes in our democracies but don't know how to use them. They don't get a share of the material wealth that comes from the industrial revolution. Was material life for the poorest ten percent living in Europe in the middle ages worse than life in today's urban projects, with its drugs, violence and broken families? I doubt it. And there are plenty of people in undeveloped countries living a life that's identical to the life their ancestors led, 1000 years ago.
     Life has improved somewhat for those in the middle. There is more material wealth because we now have machines to help with the menial labor, and those in the middle get some of this wealth. They use it to buy better health care and they have a say in how society is run. They travel and use telephones and spend a third of their lifetimes watching television. This is all change, but how important is it? There's plenty that's important that has stayed the same: love, family, friendship, other relationships with people, nature and animals and the earth.
     The lives of individuals have not really changed much in a thousand years, but it seems like more because we're neophiles: we're crazy for new styles, fads, technology. Music is out-of-date before it's even played on the radio or in public. Computer technology leaps ahead every year. We have automobile model years and television seasons to bring an illusion of newness and change when nothing has changed.
     We've lost the religious outlook of a thousand years ago and haven't replaced it with values that give spiritual satisfaction. Selfishness and material acquisitions give a short-term perspective because we, and our possessions, don't endure. We try to appease the restlessness that comes from our spiritual malaise with an illusion of activity and progress, and an orgy of acquisition. We crave the new but it never satisfies. An important task in the new millennium will be the development of new systems of thought, value and myth -- secular religions based on a materialist foundation, compatible with science and society, suitable for both the educated and the uneducated. Over the next thousand years these will replace religions, which are based on science and myth that are outdated by thousands of years.
     What of enduring value will our age leave for the future? Science and technology, surely. And a political synthesis of democracy, capitalism and socialism. In the arts we may leave little. Our pop art is of low quality, and our "serious" art is too much preoccupied with fashion, fad and style, too full of self-conscious cynicism about artistic value, and is trying too much to emulate pop art and to become a successful commercial product. It won't endure.
     There will be much assimilation in the next millennium, because improved transportation and communication have connected all the parts of the world. Race will inevitably vanish, since the thermodynamics of human intermarriage won't allow the process of mixture to be reversed.
     Cultural assimilation will increase, too, as we all get familiar with other peoples, by visiting them and seeing them on television. TV programs and pop songs are a common culture for Americans, as well as shock troops of American cultural conquest, abroad (isn't it horrible?). More and more, peoples will learn one of a few standard languages and get drawn into one of a few world-wide cultural empires.
     At the end of the last millennium, in the year 1000 A.D., there was widespread belief that the world was about to end, that Jesus Christ would return to earth for the last judgement, to inaugurate a thousand-year reign of justice. It's an interesting coincidence that now, right at the end of this millennium, we're faced again with the possibility of the end of the world. Technology has given us the power to destroy the earth: quickly with nuclear war, or slowly by poisoning it with our wastes.
     If we suffer a one-in-a-thousand chance of catastrophic nuclear war each year (and surely it's more than that!), there is statistically about a two-in-three chance it will occur within a thousand years. And it seems plain that if we continue on our present course of gradual environmental destruction, the earth will be uninhabitable long before then. The air and water will be fouled, plants and animals will be extinct, there will be too much heat and too much ultraviolet. A thousand years ago we were in a stable equilibrium; we could have carried on indefinitely living as we were on the earth. Now we're unstable -- we haven't yet come to terms with the effect of the industrial revolution upon the earth -- and we'd better do something about it before it's too late.
     The challenge we face is finding a balance between our short-term and long-term needs, a new system of priorities. On a material plane, we need to accept less for ourselves in exchange for an increased likelihood that life on earth can survive and be worth living in the long term. We can compensate for this by orienting our lives away from the material and transient side, toward the cultural and spiritual values that make life worth living. If we do this, perhaps we can start a golden age, and leave a legacy of art and accomplishment to be a beacon to guide mankind through the next millennium.


Copyright © 2000 - 2007 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.