Around the year 2000, the future seemed bright. With the 20th century, it seemed we could turn our back on a century which had two World Wars, one with the first use of nuclear weapons, a Cold War, numerous environmental problems including disaster in Chernobyl. There were many great advances, but these were not always without drawbacks.
Finally though, the Cold War ended and the Berlin wall came down. There was slightly more care for the environment, and we were all well off. We successfully dodged the Y2K bug. We celebrated 2000 years of civilisation, although the exact timing was pretty arbitrary. It seemed like the 21st century would be rosy.
Now 10 years in, we have had a series of calamities which seemed to have shaken the previous optimism. First the stock market crashes around 2000, then 9/11. Ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The IPCC reported in the most stark terms yet that if we don’t stop releasing CO2, global temperature and sea level rise will cause significant problems by the end of the century. More recently, we have had a banking crisis, and the threat of a deep recession.
The exuberance of the Millennium celebrations was probably misplaced. There is no harm in a little celebration, but a lot of the problems of the 20th century didn’t go away, they are still around, and steadily getting worse. The 21st century will probably not be remembered as being the party century, when we could all let our hair down and finally just have fun. If anything, it will be notable for some very serious problems coming home to roost and may be remembered for how modern civilisation overcame them – or not.
For the problems are serious. With hindsight, the 20th century was the party century. We used resources like there was no tomorrow. Now it seems not only are those resources going to become very short by the end of the present century, there will be an awful lot of cleaning up to do. We may take the easy option, take our leave and let the hosts clean up. In this case, the hosts who have to clean up will be future generations. They may not be so happy when they realise they got left with the mess and never even had the chance to enjoy the party.