While the rest of us were stockpiling bottled water and/or champagne in anticipation of January 1, all the pundits were reflecting upon what humanity has achieved in the last thousand years and what the next thousand may hold for us. Inevitably, their thoughts turned to recent achievements like high-speed communication, the automobile and a more open global economy. These are the developments, commentators say, that will shape the next millennium.
While these accomplishments are very important to Western society as it stands today, they pertain more to the last century or even the last decade than they do to the last millennium. If we truly want to give ourselves credit for our millennial accomplishments, we must look beyond our recent feats of electronic, mechanical and social engineering to the more basic developments that made these things possible.
Indeed, we are all standing on some very large shoulders. In the last thousand years, humans have developed modern democracy, conquered infectious diseases that once crushed civilizations, increased the efficiency of agriculture by orders of magnitude, more than doubled the average life span, abolished slavery and improved the status of women. We needed the freedom of thought provided by democratic society, the leisure provided by readily available food and the time provided by longer lives to produce all the technical wonders of the last century.
But have we, as a species, really accomplished anything at all? Only a small percentage of the world's population enjoys the fruits of the achievements of the last thousand years, let alone those of the last hundred. Most of us still endure authoritarian governments, crippling disease, poor nutrition or subjugation based on our gender. Forget about e-commerce or running water.
In many ways we are running on ice. We win points as a species for averting nuclear conflict (so far), but lose them again for maintaining a nuclear arsenal in the first place. Some nations deserve credit for improving nutrition and medical care for their citizens, but deserve blame for tolerating starvation and poverty elsewhere in the name of the free market. The same innovations that have revolutionized our society, like fossil fuels to produce electricity and fertilizers to increase agricultural productivity, threaten ever-graver environmental problems in the future.
There's no reason to despair, however. For Princeton students, all of this simply means that some of us besides computer scientists and aerospace engineers will be relevant as the new millennium begins. If we are truly to move forward, we will need historians to study what we've done wrong and what we've done right, policy analysts and political scientists to cure social ills, doctors to cure our bodies and environmental scientists to figure out how to do everything without putting us back a planet or two.
Humanity's problems are fixable in the next millennium. If anyone can fix them, we can. Melissa Waage, a columnist from Johnson City, Tenn., is a politics major. She can be reached at email@example.com.