Volume 12 Number 1
Making the Most of the New Millennium
01 February 1999
As the countdown clocks tick their way towards the year 2000, Mary Lean looks at plans to mark a global rite of passage.
The people of Fiji are so keen to be first to enter the third Millennium that they have adopted Daylight Saving, so as to pip New Zealand to the post. After all there are tourist dollars in the tick of the clock that takes us into the 21st century.
Purists will tell you that the actual spot where the sun first hits the earth on 1 January 2000 will be somewhere in the Southern Ocean, north of Scott Island. As it travels on, it will shine down on a bewildering array of monuments to the new Millennium--from a gold-encased capstone on Egypt's great pyramid to a 72-foot-high hourglass in Paris, which will dribble its way through 100 tonnes of sand. Dawn's rays will tip the masts of the largest ever international fleet of tall ships, moored off Gisborne, New Zealand, and run along the 15,000 kilometres of the newly opened Trans Canada Trail.
The sun will lap the sides of Britain's controversial multi-million pound Millennium Dome and light up the humbler--but more useful--achievements of hundreds of thousands of communities who are determined that after the party they will have something concrete by which to remember the year 2000.
And, in the light of that new dawn, a number of chickens will come home to roost. Strikes by the electricians working on the extension of London Underground's Jubilee Line last autumn raised the possibility that even if the Millennium Dome exhibition centre opens on time, nobody will be able to get to it. And no one knows yet whether the frenzied activities of the world's computer buffs will manage to beat the Millennium bug (where computer clocks unable to cope with a new first digit in the year will wind back to 1900, and paralyze hospitals, financial institutions and airlines in the process).
The year 2000 may just be a turn of the calendar, a more exciting date--but it has the power to inspire and to generate action. There's certainly a lot of money about. Britain's lottery-funded Millennium Commission has had £1.6 billion to distribute, and a large part of it has gone on relatively small-scale local projects from drinking fountains to village halls. By the year 2000 it will have part-funded some 350 of the latter, as well as 250 village greens and over 300 community woods, and helped 100 churches to install or repair their bells so that they can ring in the new Millennium. Myriad other projects have been funded by other organizations--or by local efforts alone.
The approach of the Millennium has had a galvanizing effect on the inhabitants of Red Lodge, an expanding commuter village in Suffolk, England. 'It used to be just a small core of 25 people who wanted to do something for the village,' says the Chair of the Parish Council, Bob Burlison. 'But now the whole village seems to be waking up.' They have raised the money (with help from the Millennium Commission) for a new state-of-the-art community centre and are clearing an overgrown local lake and planning a Millennium garden as well. 'The year 2000 seems to be the trigger,' says Burlison. 'People feel they should be doing something to mark the Millennium.'
For Christians, of course, the year has an added significance, as the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth. In Britain the churches are urging people to see the third Millennium as a new start. They are asking everybody to mark the 'Millennium Moment' just before the clock strikes twelve on New Year's Eve, by lighting a candle, keeping silence and making a Millennium resolution: 'Let there be respect for the earth, peace for its people, love in our lives, delight in the good, forgiveness for past wrongs and from now on a new start.' And they are encouraging churches to take a lead in launching celebrations and projects, both in their own communities and abroad.
For other faiths, following different calendars, the celebration of the Millennium is more controversial. 'The year has nothing to do with Islam,' a senior British Muslim told me. 'Many Muslims will see the date as not only a non-religious event, but as something which challenges religion.' Muslims observe the commercialization and hedonism of Britain's Christmas and New Year celebrations with distaste, he says. 'The message seems to be, "Get drunk and forget God".'
Kumar Raval, a British Hindu postgraduate student, shares the concern about the secularization of the Millennium but feels it will nonetheless be a marking moment for people of all faiths and none. 'Because the calendar most people use globally is the Gregorian calendar, the Millennium will mean something to everyone,' he says. 'People feel they are lucky to be alive at this time. And in my (Vaisnavite) branch of Hinduism people have been saying for years that we must enter the new Millennium with spiritual aims and a new consciousness. Internationally all sorts of prayer meetings and sacrifices are being planned.'
Whatever its religious significance, the Millennium is an opportunity. For most people, of course, it's the chance for the party of the century. There's a website which will tell you where the biggest public celebrations will be; tour companies are offering New Year holidays in strategic spots, (don't miss the chance to go diving off Fiji before dawn and surface to catch the first rays of the Millennium); and all the best restaurants in Paris (and presumably other capital cities) are already booked out. Even my local boarding kennels are feeling the strain--people have been ringing 13 months in advance to book their dogs in over New Year 2000.
Those who choose to work, rather than play, next New Year's Eve will be able to demand crazy sums--one British catering firm is talking of £1,000 for a single shift, and some babysitting agencies will be asking £40 an hour.
For others, the Millennium offers the experience of a lifetime--to spend the year bicycling around the world, for instance, if you can afford the $36,000 pricetag. If you are young, you could apply to man a tall ship in a series of races around the world--Canada is looking for 2,000 candidates from which to select a crew of 500 for its entry--or join 1,000 young people from the Commonwealth in a concert tour of India. Or you could travel to see the Olympic Games in Sydney--and join in Australia's dual celebrations of the new Millennium and of its first century as a federated commonwealth.
Others see the Millennium as a chance to leave a legacy to the future. The US Timecapsule in Arkansas will entomb a fully furnished house and a variety of cars for the edification of people 1,000 years on, and France and New Zealand also have national schemes. Countless smaller communities are also burying--or storing--parish maps, censuses, letters to descendants and artefacts, in what should be a priceless resource for future social historians.
More ambitious, perhaps, are those, like the organizers of the international Jubilee 2000 campaign, who believe that the arrival of a new Millennium should make a permanent difference to the lives of future generations. The campaign calls on governments and international institutions to remit the unpayable debt of the world's poorest countries and has brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Europe and Canada to demonstrate their support (see page 9).
Other organizations, like the Millennium Institute in Arlington, Virginia, and the World Wildlife Fund are promoting the idea of Millennium gifts. The Institute, which was set up after the publication of the Global 2000 report on the state of the world commissioned by Jimmy Carter, is asking individuals, groups and institutions to commit themselves to projects which will advance social justice and peace, or preserve the environment. 'The making of Millennium Gifts will enable us, in the year 2020 or 2042, to... point to a river no longer polluted, a forest once again flourishing, a society at last responsible and responsive, and say, "This is what we did in the year 2000",' they state.
Their list of gifts already pledged include a students' network to track migrating birds in Israel, Palestine and Jordan; an American carpet company which is redesigning its manufacturing practices in the interests of the environment; a former Prime Minister of Iceland who is planting 1,000 trees a year and a British pharmaceutical company which is providing free anti-parasitic drugs in a bid to eliminate the disease of elephantiasis. They also tell the story of a Muslim farmer in Bosnia who saved the life of a Serbian baby, by giving her mother milk from his cow every day for over a year. Spiritual leaders attending the third Parliament of the World's Religions in Cape Town in December 1999 will announce gifts from their traditions.
The Millennium Institute's list also includes an apology--made by the United Methodist General Conference in 1996 to the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples for a Methodist cavalry officer's role in the massacre at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado in 1864. Many groups see the Millennium as a time to try to heal the wounds of the past two thousand years. Among these are the Christians who are taking part in a Reconciliation Walk along the routes taken by the Crusaders, to apologize to Muslims and Jews for the atrocities they committed.
In western Canada this spirit found expression in 1997 in a 1,000-mile canoe voyage along the coast of British Columbia. The three canoes, built in fibreglass to a traditional design, were manned by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and people from the region's First Nations.
One aim of the journey was to raise $5,000,000 to establish an addiction recovery centre in British Columbia for the year 2000. The other was healing. At each stop in their month-long journey, RCMP Inspector John Grant apologized to the First Nations communities for the abuses of the past--intolerance, the theft of land, the abduction of children and the outlawing of languages and customs. 'It is hard to overestimate the healing impact of a police apology to communities whose culture was shattered by systematic abuse,' comments Canadian singer, writer and ecologist Raffi in an article in Blue Line Magazine.
On the local level too, the Millennium is providing an opportunity for reconciliation. Janet Featonby, the organizer of a heritage project in the small English village of Antrobus in Cheshire, has been astonished by how much it has done for her community, which is spread out along miles of country lanes. Villagers were asked to bring their old photographs, documents and memories to an event in the village hall. 'People met who'd not met for ages--including two brothers,' she says. 'People keep knocking on my door and leaving things and asking when we'll do it again.'
In Nottingham, England, the local Council of Churches has been trying to persuade British Telecom to issue free phonecards to people who want to heal a breach. Nothing daunted by the lack of response, they are now working on a week of reconciliation in June 2000 when people will be encouraged to make up their differences or reach out to someone they haven't spoken to for a while.
One of the simplest--and potentially most far-reaching--ideas focusses not on the year 2000 but on 1999. The Clean Slate Campaign is asking people to take one step in 1999 towards cleaning their slate for the new Millennium (see below).
The idea is that whoever you are, and whatever your faith or lack of it, you can do something that will make a difference to your life--and that of the people around you--in the new Millennium. Unlike many of the schemes mentioned in this article, no funding applications or project audits are required--and there's no need to wait for anyone else.
Among the galaxy of wild ideas, expensive follies, exciting challenges and worthy projects, the Clean Slate Campaign is the one that this magazine is putting its coat on.
A CLEAN SLATE FOR THE YEAR 2000?
The Chairman of the Clean Slate Campaign, Edward Peters, is quite precise about the date on which the idea struck him--15 March 1998. But if the concept of a campaign came as a bolt from the blue, the process which gave birth to it had been going on for some months.
'Various things had happened to me in the previous year in terms of getting freed up to be myself,' says Peters, who lives in Oxford and works with MRA's Foundations for Freedom programme, which trains young people, mostly from Eastern Europe, in the values underlying democracy. 'I had three or four working relationships which I wasn't happy about, where I had felt hurt by people and had then responded in a way which had hurt them. I decided to write or talk to each of them and apologize for the particular episode which had caused offence. They responded generously--and I re-experienced the simple inner freedom that comes when you try to deal with the blockages in your life.'
He had also been through a period of spiritual enquiry. 'I had never been able to understand where the angry side of my personality came from. As I began to understand why I behaved in this way, I found I was becoming less aggressive. My approach to the spiritual life began to shift a bit: I came to regard freedom and joy as the natural state of affairs. What stops it is my wrong attitudes, relationships and behaviour--and, rather like water blocked by leaves and dirt in a gutter, when I deal with the blockages, something is released.'
So when he discovered that a friend had held a grievance against him for 15 years he was both contrite about the pain he had caused and thoughtful about the burdens people carry around with them. 'I wrote and apologized,' he says. 'But I thought that if only we could all let go of these things it would release something, some bubble and spirit, joy and naturalness. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if we could have a Clean Slate Campaign before the new Millennium?'
The way to do it, he reckoned, would be through a simple pledge, which anyone could sign and act upon: 'I promise to take at least one practical step during 1999 towards cleaning my slate.' There would be no obligation for anyone to tell anyone else what they had done--and the steps could range from tidying a cupboard to burying the hatchet with someone or deciding to kick an addiction.
Peters began to discuss the idea with friends and was encouraged by their response. 'I meet regularly with a group of Christian men in Oxford,' he says. 'When I tried the idea out on them, one said he would pay for a website for the campaign (www.cleanslate.org/). Another said, "Whatever happens about a national campaign, each of us can go home tonight and think of something we can do to clean our own slates."'
Another church friend, a lawyer, inspired an expert on charitable law in his firm to offer his services free of charge, so that Peters and his colleagues could set up the legal framework to put the idea into action.
The idea was also taken up by Youth with a Mission, an evangelical Christian group which is one of the participants in the Reconciliation Walk. They put Peters in touch with Christopher Morgan, a marketing consultant of 30 years' standing. 'The idea grabbed me immediately,' he says, 'because of its simplicity--some of the best ideas are the simplest ones--and the fact that it is open to everybody. I could see people who don't go to church, don't believe (or say they don't) thinking, "I was a bit of a so and so to someone a year or two back, why don't I give him a ring?" '
The plan is to build up a groundswell of interest through the first half of 1999, climaxing in the autumn. A number of public figures have agreed to sign the promise and become patrons--including the Chief Rabbi; the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hume; the Anglican Archbishop of Wales; the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain; the President of the National Council of Hindu Temples; and the veteran footballer Sir Bobby Charlton.
The next step will be to build up a network of 'ambassadors' who will take the idea to their family, street, place of work or worship, school or college. 'We don't have the resources or the time to create a centrally driven campaign,' says Peters. 'All we can try to do is to inspire hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people to take the idea and use it in whatever way they like. We will back them up by providing them with leaflets, stickers, badges...'
Peters is emphatic that this is a 'free' idea, which people can respond to at whatever level they wish. 'It is non- denominational and not the property of any group or tradition,' he insists. The only condition is that it should focus on what 'I' and 'we' can do, not on what 'you' or 'they' should do. 'Suggestions about how others should clean their slate are outside its ethos.' But he hopes that some will take it beyond their personal lives into the social arena. 'What about an amnesty for petty criminals who want to make a new start?' he suggests. The campaign's publicity material will include information on where to get help for those grappling with problems of addiction or marital conflict.
One of those helping to launch the campaign is Kumar Raval, who is giving three months between finishing his dissertation and embarking on an internship in an American law firm. 'My role is to put forward a non-Christian perspective and get young people involved,' he says. 'I think my fellow Hindus will respond to the Clean Slate idea because we recognize that the world is a small place where whatever we do affects someone else. In India both the Hindu new year, Divali, and the calendar new year are seen as an opportunity to start anew. There is an image of putting off old clothes and putting on new ones.'
The Clean Slate Campaign is modest in its aims--after all, people are only being asked to put one thing right, and it's up to them to decide what it is. The hope of its organizers is that the experience will give those who try it a taste for new beginnings--and that living with a clean slate will become the habit of a lifetime.