The Real Significance of the Year 2000

By Steve Kangas

Many people are already dismissing the hype surrounding the year 2000. After all, watching the odometer turn over is a rather meaningless event, unconnected to anything out in the real world. The year doesnít even usher in the 21st century or Third Millennium — the year 2001 does that.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the year 2000 as inconsequential. To see its awesome importance, letís look at three dates in the last 2,000 years of Western history that stand out as prominent milestones.

1. The Christian Era

The first is the birth of Jesus, reportedly in the year 4 B.C. (Ancient confusions about the calendar are responsible for Jesus being born 4 years "Before Christ." Under an accurate calendar, we would already be in the 21st century.) Even if you are not a Christian, there is no gainsaying that Christianity dominated the Western World and uniquely determined the path of Western development. So Jesusí birth rightly stands as a supremely important date.

2. The Scientific Era

The second milestone is the year 1610 A.D. In that year, Gallileo pointed his telescope to the heavens and ushered in the Scientific Revolution. Human knowledge has exploded since then, resulting in all manner of scientific, economic and social miracles. Consider all the advances that have occurred in the West during the last four centuries:

Any one of these events by itself would constitute a major improvement. Taken together, they provide overwhelming evidence of humanity's upward trend. Of course, the human race is not completely out of the woods yet. Over-population, pollution, and nuclear war are serious threats to civilization which may do us in yet.

Which brings us to the third important milestone of Western history:

3. The Year 2000

The exact year itself is not so important as the decades immediately before and after it, which feature several critically important trends coming to a head. The first is the population explosion. It took from the dawn of humanity until the year 1800 for the earthís population to reach 1 billion. By 1930 it was 2 billion. By 1960, 3 billion. By 1975, 4 billion. By 1986, 5 billion. By 1997, 6 billion. The year 2000 will mark the point where continuing this explosion becomes risky: we are currently adding the population of China to this planet every decade. This explosion is placing a growing burden on the earthís finite resources, and threatens environmental disaster. New technology can solve some of the emerging problems of scarcity and pollution, but some resources — like land — are limited in absolute terms. The critical question is which will grow faster: our technology or our population?

The evidence suggests that our technology is not advancing fast enough. After decades of growth, food-per-person is beginning to shrink, despite growing demand:

World production trends per person of basic foodstuffs (1950-1993) (1)
Grain1950-84 +40%1984-93-12%
Seafood1950-88 +1261988-93-9
Beef & Mutton1950-72+36 1972-93-13

Add to this the fact that the world's water basins are generally being drained faster than the hydrolic cycle can refill them, and it's clear that expanding populations and shrinking resources are going to become the world's number one problem in the very near future.

Just how much of a problem can be seen in a famous 1994 Cornell study. (2) A team led by Dr. David Pimentel found that the world will probably be able to handle no more than 2 billion people by the year 2100. They arrived at this conclusion by considering the future "carrying capacity" of the land — that is, the amount of available resources needed to sustain a level population. These resources primarily consist of fertile land, fresh water, fossil fuel energy and a diversity of helpful natural organisms. Changes to some of these factors are quite predictable — for example, humans are expected to run out of fossil fuel in the next 35 years. (The Cornell team used the most optimistic figures for their calculations.) The team found that the carrying capacity at the turn of the next century would provide only 2 billion with a modest but comfortable standard of living. But, according to U.N. projections, current population trends should reach 11 billion by then.

To avoid massive starvation and deadly competition will require a drastic change in our current habits. Dr. Pimentel notes: "Even if we adopt a zero population growth strategy tomorrow — a little over two children per couple — the world population will nearly double. It wouldn't stop growing for 60 years."

The second trend coming to a head in the year 2000 is the Information Age. Both televisions and computers began their modern ascent in the 1940s. By the 1960s, most American households had television, but the spread of computers was much slower. It wasnít until the 1980s that personal computers became affordable and widely used. And it wasnít until the 1990s that individual computers began linking up to the Internet in large numbers. The year 2000 stands as a logical milestone, since by then a majority of all Americans and Europeans will be online. And e-commerce (or market transactions conducted over the Internet) is just starting to soar in the final years before 2000, promising to revolutionize our economy.

The third trend is the depletion of the earthís oil supply. Estimates vary widely as to when we will run out of oil, but generally they fall between the years 2010 and 2050. This will force a drastic social revolution upon us — the end of our gas-powered cars, generators and other machinery. Keep in mind that oil will not run out suddenly, but will gradually become harder to find, meaning that society must begin making the transition to other energy sources even sooner than these projected dates. The transition shall also require enormous research and development, manufacturing and marketing, all of which cost enormous time and money. To avoid complete disaster, the transition must start soon — now, around the year 2000. (3)

There are other trends: the human genome will be completely mapped not long after the year 2000. Not only will a host of diseases and ailments suddenly disappear from the human condition, but we will no longer be able to avoid controversial questions about genetic ethics. Another trend is globalization, with the growing influence of the U.N., economic unions rising in Europe, Asia and North America, and the rise of multinational corporations, all serving to minimize the role of the state.

Finally, of course, there is the Year 2000 Bug. Even if we manage to solve this problem in time to avoid disaster, the Y2K bug is a powerful reminder of how dependent we have become on technology, and how even simple problems require the help of everyone to avoid catastrophe.

So the year 2000 isnít just a symbolic milestone. It will begin a sudden new era of change and challenge unlike any we have seen before.

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1. Lester Brown et al. (eds.), Vital Signs 1994 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 20.

2. David Pimentel, Marcia Pimentel, Rebecca Harman, Matthew Pacenza and Jason Pecarsky, Population and Environment, May, 1994.

3. See Craig Bond Hatfield, "How Long Can Oil Supply Grow?" Hubbert Center Newsletter 97/4. Website: