The Futurist, March, 1998:
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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
      Phone: 804 358 0417

                          Fin de Millennium
                          Travis Charbeneau
                              slug "fin"
                              797 words
     PULL QUOTE: "Millennial fever reveals our fascination with time."
     From Stonehenge to the latest daylight savings switchover, humans
have been preoccupied with time. For example, we like to divide our
lives into digestible segments. Tens are convenient, so we say
"teenager," "thirtysomething"; "life begins at 40." Decades also
register, as in "Roaring Twenties" and "Swinging Sixties." And we
label centuries, mere ticks of the geological clock, as the "Age" of
this or the "Era" of that.
     Towards the end of the last century, especially during "The Gay
'90s," the decadent tone of Western literature, art and society in
general was attributed to the emotional and psychological upheaval of
"fin de siecle" ("end of the century"). The decadent style, whose most
famous practitioners included Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley,
embodied flamboyant moral corruption, a fascination with and
celebration of the artificial, and a clever if desperate pessimism.
     We also have a strong emotional response to the approaching
millennium, which, again, is related to our innate fascination with
time. Millions today hate daylight savings time simply because humans
distrust human meddling in the scheme of time, even though humans
invented it. When the work of Sosigenes persuaded Julius Caesar to
introduce the radical Julian calendar in 45 BC, the hopelessly
superstitious Romans were universally unnerved. Likewise, when the
Council of Trent introduced the more-accurate Gregorian calendar in
1582, setting the clock ahead by 11 days, outraged rioters cried,
"Give us back our 11 days!"
     As a modern, sophisticated people, we tend to smile at such
irrational behavior, even as we refuse to acknowledge the existence of
the 13th floor in skyscrapers. We might consider whether we, too, are
suffering from irrational numerological perplexities respecting the
calendar -- the anxiety of a millennium's end, a fin de siecle times
ten. Surely the end of a millennium is more awesome than the mere turn
of another century, even so peculiarly awesome a century as the
     Whatever visions the nineteenth-century Decadents may have had
about the future, surely their worst nightmares were exceeded by
reality. Ours has been at once the most terrible and wonderful century
ever, an appropriate finale for the last thousand years of what passes
for progress in human civilization. Noting the fierce character and
furious momentum of this "progress," who can look forward to the next
millennium without a sense of dread? Contemporary appreciation of the
apocalyptic is hardly the exclusive province of religious fanatics or
UFO cults.
     And there is no shortage of decadence as the second millennium
winds down. We have endured scandal-ridden preachers and politicians,
corporate raiders, militia madmen and "the end is nigh" gurus. We have
viewed pornography on the Internet and listened to vulgar lyrics on
CD. More substantially, we have ravaged the environment, automated
both work and play, and invented "compassion fatigue" as a defense
against the incomprehensible scope of suffering in the late twentieth
century. We can reasonably expect the list of depravities to lengthen
as our millennium approaches its end.
     Regardless, we should not forget that the future remains to be
shaped. The disappointing near past and present need not tarnish a
still-innocent twenty-first century. Decency and good sense are not
the exclusive province of our ancestors, nor of those who hold a
nostalgic, "traditional values" view of those ancestors' lives and
times. Despite _fin de siecle_ syndromes and fear of the unknown,
moving into the future does not mean accepting an increase in personal
misbehavior, political incompetence, ecological crime, or
technological mayhem.
     On the contrary, any human future at all, by its very existence,
has become a highly moral proposition. Unlike ages past, where
tomorrows -- good or ill -- were at least guaranteed, our tomorrows
must be _achieved_. Substantial moral progress may be a requirement of
human survival. In the case of modern war, the nuclear weapons that
made us such efficient combatants also forced the industrialized
nations to abandon the ancient game. If even a semblance of world
peace holds, amid micro-genocides and tribal warfare, this would
amount to amazing moral progress.
     It can be argued that through technology we have painted ourselves
into a corner where total war became an adventure we could no longer
afford; that morality, old or new, had nothing to do with it. It would
be characteristic of our species to act from expediency rather than
spiritual motives, but the motivation is not so relevant as the end
result, which is to make even the micro-genocides seem increasingly
     Apart from nuclear war, we are gaining the capacity to fatally
pollute the planet, to disemploy humans altogether, to feed or starve
the nations, and to clone our favorite celebrities. These ever-greater
powers imply ever-greater responsibilities. Wielding such power as we
traverse the _fin de millennium_ may finally force us to build a
resounding "must" into our evolving values, instead of the
forever-wistful "should."