Africana Plus

No38 January 2000.1

The year 2,000

Our zeros

What are they then, these zeros, which seem to be causing anxiety to so many human beings?
Just having a series of zeros on your bank statement will not bring you much interest. But put a little number before the zeros and everything changes.

The United Nations told us last October that there are now six billion human beings on the earth. Nine zeros in fact, with a six in front. More than a third of these persons live in China and India. Every year, for better or worse, eighty million people are added to the world population, 95% of them, or seventy-six million, in developing countries. There are more people in the 15-24 age-group than ever before: one billion. There are nearly two billion between 0 and 15. What are the chances of a decent life for all these young persons?

Inequalities are growing inexorably. In 1960, the ratio of the richest to the poorest was 1:30. In 1995 it was 1:82. The three richest people in the world have bigger fortunes than the combined Gross National Products of the 48 poorest countries. There are a lot of zeros with no little number in front. Is such a situation acceptable?

Then we may think of life-expectancy in the year 2,000. More than twice as many young people as usual want to marry in that year. They think it will be a magic year, it will bring luck. It is as if all these little zeros, with a 2 in front, will be a protection against failure. 2 fits nicely with marriage, but no one wants the zeros, the failures.

Perhaps some think that marrying in the year 2,000 will guarantee a long life. But we already have six billion persons. What will happen if everyone goes on living longer? Moreover these newlyweds of 2,000 all want children. Even China wants to increase the number of children from one to two or three per family.

Space-launches have accustomed us to the countdown: five, four, three, two, one, zero! If zero in general suggests insignificance, in the countdown it is the most significant figure of all. It means everything is ready and in order, go ahead! It is the turning-point between preparation and execution.

There are countdowns in our lives as well. People might say, "Five years, four, three, two, one and then zero: death, nothingness." Or it might be a countdown to life: "Three months, two, one, before my child is born: then zero: new life." The important thing is to try and understand the meaning of the final zero. Is it a turning- point, a new beginning?

Will the new millennium mean the final victory of liberalism, the system which puts profits before justice? Or will it signify a new beginning, as in the song of Renée Claude, a new world in which the common good will take precedence over individual interest?

"I will love you until the next millennium! I shall love you!
Whether you are a Ugandan whose life-expectancy, because of AIDS, is forty;
or an Indian in danger of dying from intestinal worms through drinking dirty water;
or an illiterate Chinese, because girls mean so little among you;
or an under-nourished Peruvian, because my neighbour's cat has more protein in its diet than you.
Yes, I shall love you as best I can until the next millennium."

We shall soon all be using these zeros when we write down the date. They might stand also for our weaknesses, our mediocrity, our powerlessness, all those negative factors which may find expression in depression or anger or withdrawal. We are always talking in terms of zeros: the zeros of the genocides and wars which have so scarred the century which is now passing away.

What then do they mean, these zeros of the coming millennium? It is not the zeros we have to consider but the number which goes before them. The zeros have no meaning until they are qualified by a preceding digit. Perhaps our digit for 2,000 should be a Man Standing Upright, this Man who erected a great Cross before our miseries, a capital T which transforms our zeros into unearned wealth. It is the hidden zeros of acts of generosity which change the world, not the zeros on a lottery ticket.

Yes, the year 2,000 will be an extraordinary year to the extent that the countdown ends in life, for all those billions of our brothers and sisters. Then we shall be ready for take-off, not only into space but also into eternity.

Michel Fortin, M.Afr.

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