The Emergence of a Global Society

Article excerpt

So much of what we take for granted in 2000 would have been unimaginable in 1000.

In our MTV culture, image and the moment are everything. Context and history are usually ignored. The approaching end of the millennium, however, provides an impetus for us to step back and reconsider history, to take stock of where we stand and how we got here. That is why The World & I is launching a 16-part series, starting with this issue and running through December 1999, examining the most significant developments of the past millennium in order to better understand our world today.

It is important to do this because, as a truly global society struggles to emerge, we face numerous obstacles and challenges. To meet these with any chance of success will not be possible without a grasp of the history and context from which they have emerged. This is particularly true since the end of the millennium has coincided with a profound change in the structure of geopolitics.

The end of the Cold War brought with it the demise of the bipolar global system it had generated. A multipolar system has taken its place, bringing to new prominence a disturbing range of regional and ethnic conflicts. Most of these conflicts are based in bitterly remembered and disputed history: Israeli versus Palestinian; Muslim versus Hindu in India; Protestant versus Catholic in Northern Ireland; Croat, Bosnian, Serb, and Albanian in Yugoslavia and its former territories are just a few examples. While an understanding of history alone will not resolve these conflicts, no solutions are likely in its absence.

A HISTORY OF CONFLICT AND CHANGE

The history of the past thousand years has been marked with its share of conflicts, but the period's most remarkable feature has been the degree of change that has taken place and the rapidly increasing pace at which it has occurred. If an educated person of any culture in the year 1000 had received a miraculous vision of the world in the year 2000, he might well have said: "You cannot get there from here." So much of what we take for granted would have been beyond his wildest imagination, let alone his comprehension.

To bring out the contrast, we open our series this month with "Life a Millennium Ago," written by Current Issues editor Robert Selle, which describes what daily life was like for one Baldred the shipwright. We will conclude the series next year with a look at all the inventions and developments of the past thousand years that have become part of our daily lives yet would have been inconceivable to Baldred.

Progress, then, is one key for understanding the past millennium. It is not an uncomplicated concept, but the first thing to note about it is that it is almost unique to the last few centuries of this millennium. Most societies for most of human history had little or no concept of change. Where they did, it was often change for the worse. Thus the philosopher Plato, whose classical Greek world has long been venerated in Western civilization as the origin and model of rational inquiry, regarded his world as the corrupted vestige of some prior golden age.

Learned men in Europe in the year 1000 were aware of the lost greatness of Rome. Recapturing the greatness of classical Greece and Rome was one of the motivating forces behind the Renaissance. Indeed, only in the last few centuries did Europeans begin to have a sense of having gone beyond the achievements of the classical world.

A NARROW WORLD

People in the year 1000, wherever they lived, had no concept of a world of unfolding and multiplying possibilities. Tradition ruled, and material circumstances were tightly constrained. What hopes of change people held rested largely m the life hereafter, depending on their religious faith. The vast majority of people survived through subsistence agriculture, where they were not pastoralists or hunter-gatherers. That means they were tied to the soil and to village life. …