On the last day of the year 999 A.D., old St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was packed with panicky worshippers, convinced that the world would end on the stroke of midnight. Many had given away all their possessions to the poor. Many had spent weeks doing final penance for their sins. Many had journeyed to Rome in sackcloth and ashes in order to meet God and his angels within the holy precincts of St. Peter’s.
At the high alter, Pope Sylvester II, arrayed in his most splendid vestments, celebrated midnight mass. As the great bell of the basilica began to toll the dreaded hour, some pilgrims died of fright on the spot. The rest huddled together in an agony of apprehension.
But then, as the last stroke of the bell reverberated into silence, and the basilica was neither swallowed up into the bowels of the earth nor consumed by lightning from heaven, the mood of the crowd swung abruptly from stark terror to hysterical relief. Families, friends, total strangers and even mortal enemies embraced and kissed each other and wept for joy. The end of the world had not yet come.
Nor did it come in the 1530s, when German Anabaptists renamed the town of Munster “New Jerusalem” and proclaimed the second coming of Christ. Nor did it come on April 23, 1843, as predicted by the American prophet William Miller — much to the consternation of his thousands of devotees who had sold their belongings and taken to the hills to escape the promised destruction. Nor in 1988, as Hal Lindsey predicted in his best-selling book, The Late Great Planet Earth. Nor in the year 2000 (Remember the “Y2K” scare?). Nor, indeed, as recently as December 21, at the conclusion of the 5,125-year “Long Count” Mayan Calendar.
Nor have we starved to death as the result of overpopulation as some “experts” were predicting confidently just a few decades ago. Nor has the earth run out of resources, despite repeated warnings about “the limits to growth.” Nor have we smothered in our own pollution.
Incorrigible doomsayers used to be able to comfort themselves with assurances that a massive asteroid would strike the earth in February of 2040. But NASA has just announced that the asteroid will pass us by.
Of course, we still have global warming to worry about and, more immediately, the prospect that the American economy will go over the fiscal cliff. But even so, the news is not all bad.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that while global warming is real, its impact may be far milder than previously feared. A doubling of CO2 emissions is likely to produce a rise in global temperatures of no more than 2 degrees Centigrade by the end of this century – and the world may actually benefit from the longer growing season.
Meanwhile, The Spectator tells us that the year 2012 was the best in the history of the world. The lead article of the December 15 issue declares: “Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disaster is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.”
So put the champagne on ice, and break out the noisemakers, confetti and party hats. This New Year’s Eve, I’m going to take comfort from a prediction that another writer, William Faulkner, made over 60 years ago, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “I decline to accept the end of man.” Faulkner said on that occasion. “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”
Happy New Year to all.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.