Millennial predictions

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto at the end of his 1995 Millenium: a history of our last thousand years made five predictions. His predictions were coined self-consciously with the “trenchantly asserted” tone of futurology, but were spoken with the self-deprecating irony of an author humbled before the diversity of human experience. To display that irony, he in fact made six predictions – the sixth being “these predictions will be ignored or dismissed.” Twenty years on, securely away from millennial apocalypses, if not from Californian futurology and business’ strange gullibility towards predictions of the unknowable, Fernandez-Armesto’s predictions are worthy of some reflection.

Here are the admirably concise and direct predictions:

1. Population growth will be contained.

2. Rival totalitarianisms will return.

3. Big states will continue to fragment.

4. Cities will wither.

5. Initiative will continue to shift.

Only the last prediction requires some clarification of meaning with reference to Fernandez-Armesto’s argument in Millenium. By initiative he refers to the strange and inexplicable energies that drive different regions and cultures at times to assert some dominance over others, to command loyalty from others, to bring new experiences into being. He refers to the Atlantic realm of the 20th century, Western Europe in early modern period, the Pacific rim today. Most interesting of all, he does not predict a national or a regional culture will be the source of future initiative. “Collective self-perceptions can be shared by very widespread groups; and shifts of initiative in the next Millenium may be into the hands of worldwide elites or of a few masters of cybernetics, mouldings world culture from a specific location through millions of modems.” (p. 709).

I will return to each of these five predictions, and assess what can we say after two decades of these millennial predictions. Fernandez-Armesto is a worldly wise prophet, who sees clearly the curse of Cassandra, and fully expects his predictions to be ignored or restated to him as bland and obvious truths. “Admonished decision-makers will go on winking at warnings, as they have always done, and the world, I feel tempted to conclude, will go on getting worse.” So Fernandez-Armesto is a happy pessimist, something of an occupational hazard for an historian, and some glumness at the loss of the glories of the past springs only from a respect for its now unliveable glories. Great conflicts can give birth to great creativity, and the moral grandeur of tragic choices. Yet despite the glory and gloom, Fernandez-Armesto recognises that we bring the magic of culture and the blessing of living long lives in interesting times to our witness to inevitable decay.

So, he concludes

We may not turn out to be good at adapting to any of these possible futures, but at least , after a thousand years’ experience of fitfully growing interdependence, we can face them with a sense of shared prospects and therefore the possibility, at least, of pooled efforts. No earlier age had access to awareness of such comprehensive menace, or of such an awesome chance.” (p. 710)

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