World Prepares to Celebrate the Millennium

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Expect huge parties and blatant exploitation. Expect plastic trinkets and time capsules. Expect soothsayers and doomsayers.

But in 653 days, when celebrations in anticipation of the 3rd millennium begin, you can also expect the results of visionary thinking. Throughout the Western world, an amazing array of mega-events and futuristic projects will offer the best of humankind's imagination and wisdom in stepping into the next century.

Rather than focusing on one night, many public and private programs are seeking a longer-term commitment to spiritual or cultural renewal. They focus on specific ways to address the unresolved issues of humanity or spur creativity through art and music.

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"Dec. 31, l999, will be a wild night," says Philip Bogdonoff, vice president of the Millennium Institute in Arlington, Va. "But it's a time unique in human history, and we can use it as an opportunity to reflect about who we are and where we go."

The year 2000 is in fact an arbitrary calendar date, a social agreement rooted in Christianity. So far, the implications of the millennium for much of the world seem to hover between the urge to celebrate and the motivation to look ahead with responsibility for humanity. A small, vocal fellowship of doom also explores suspected apocalyptic endings, just as in previous changes of century.

But the many unifying meetings and religious events being planned - such as the Third Parliament of the World's Religions meeting in December 1999 in Capetown, South Africa - have brought depth to the celebration.

"Children will be asking us in 2020 or 2042, what did you do at the turn of the millennium?" says Hillel Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Millennium Institute, "And if you say I watched the fireworks on TV, this won't do it for them. But if you can point out the window at the clean river or the clean air, and say you helped get this in motion in 2000, it will be significant to them."

Telecommunications will play a big part in the millennium. At least three international TV broadcasts will link dozens of countries. The Millennium Day Broadcast Consortium of 50 countries wants to begin telecasting from space where astronauts will first see the sun in the first second of 2000.

Back on Earth, several groups are planning world tours on bicycles. The Great Millennium Peace Ride, planned to begin this August, brings together 500 bicyclists from 197 countries, to finish in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 1, 2000.

The year-long Odyssey 2000 tour begins in Los Angeles on Jan. 1, 2000. For $36,000, nearly 250 bicyclists have signed on. Hundreds are on a waiting list. "It's a chance to do something unforgettable and fabulous in the millennium," says Brit-Simone Sutter, an organizer of the trip.

At the same time, unlike huge expositions of the past, the millennium will not have a collection of massive architectural statements. Instead some cities, like Rome and London, are funding extensive restorations to preserve the past. New architecture projects simply haven't been planned. "People in the world are preoccupied with other matters like the population doubling and what will happen by 2050," says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund in New York.

The only huge architectural project under way is the controversial Millennium Dome being built in Greenwich, England, (where all time zones begin at the prime meridian). At a cost of more than $1 billion, most funds come from lottery sales and Japanese corporations.

The dome, covering 130 acres, is made of a translucent, weather-proof fabric suspended from 12 huge masts (300-foot tall) and held by high strength cables. Around the exterior of the dome will be 12 huge spheres for adjunct exhibit areas. At night the dome will "glow spectacularly, a beacon for Greenwich into the next millennium," an official says.

The controversy stems from the central exhibit area. The director of the project, recently returned from Disneyland, confirms that the exhibit will be "Christian in nature" and not "mousetastic." Prime Minister Tony Blair, supporting the dome, says, "It will be the envy of the world."

Beyond architecture, Jay Gary, the online host of Talk 2000, (www.Talk2000.org) a Web site tracking millennium projects since 1995, has posted dozens of programs from organizations and cities urging individuals to be involved in change.

"Many people want long-term change and thinking," he says, "to be pilgrims for the millennium and see a rebirth of the human spirit."

In this spirit, the Millennium Institute proposes that people and communities give "gifts" back to the Earth in the form of ideas and collaborations that help sustain the planet's communities. For several years the institute has promoted the idea of a sustainable future.

At the Third Parliament of the World's Religions, the culmination of the institute's effort, spiritual leaders will announce a series of such gifts. They will also identify the "guiding institutions of humankind" - governments, business, universities, media - and suggest gifts they can make worldwide.

Already some of the gifts promised or achieved have become local examples:

* Students at schools in Louisville, Ky., and Anoka, Minn., are planning Waste-Free Lunch Days to promote recycling and change consumption habits.

* A former prime minister of Iceland, Steingrimur Hermannsson, is planting 1,000 trees in Iceland each year to help reforest his nation. Centuries ago Iceland was 25 to 30 percent forested. Today less than 5 percent is forested.

Many millennium projects by cities and countries are still in the planning stages but facing budget realities. "In this kind of an observance," Ms. Burnham says, "so many things are planned that the outcome can be disappointing because there is event after event."

* France will sponsor an around-the-world sailboat race starting Dec. 31, 2000. Students will communicate with countries along the route. The Eiffel Tower has a giant countdown clock ticking away until 2000 when Paris will be a celebration of lights and performances.

* Bethlehem has a committee for "Bethlehem 2000" and recently hired the M/C Saatchi advertising agency to promote the city as millennial tourist site.

* Germany will host the world's fair in Hanover starting June 1, 2000, with some 40 million visitors expected. The theme is "Mankind, Nature, and Technology."

* New York City's New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square will feature a televised 24-hour global celebration with all 24 time zones on earth appearing on big screens in a 12-block area.

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