MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

Millennial hopes and fears

The poll's vision of the next half-century is mostly a sunny one

PATRICIA CHISHOLM December 28 1998
MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

Millennial hopes and fears

The poll's vision of the next half-century is mostly a sunny one

PATRICIA CHISHOLM December 28 1998

Millennial hopes and fears

MACLEAN'S/CBC POLL

EXPECTATIONS

The poll's vision of the next half-century is mostly a sunny one

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

It's a little hard to believe now, but when 2001: A Space Odyssey hit movie screens in 1968, the notion of everyday space travel— or even of living in a wired world—seemed impossibly futuristic. Commercial flights to the moon? Computers with personality problems? Life on Jupiter? Crazy. But with the new millennium just around the corner, Stanley Kubrick's classic film exploring the possibility of contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life does not seem particularly outlandish. Computers run our lives, flights by NASA’s space shuttle have become routine, and in recent years astronomers have uncovered evidence that points to the possibility of life at some time on Mars and one of Jupiter’s moons. Perhaps it is not surprising then that 42 per cent of Canadians think it is likely that—among other revolutionary developments—humans will discover another civilization in space within the next 50 years. “With everything that’s been happening, anything’s possible,” says Eileen Lacombe, 64, who lives in Montreal. “There could be someone up there.”

Of course, there is some chance that reality will be far different: the aliens may not show, computers could malfunction at the dawn of the year 2000, and space programs may fall victim to faltering national budgets. In fact, only 22 per cent of respondents to the Maclean’s/CBC poll believe that 2000 will usher in a new beginning for the world. They and the others can still dream, though, and it appears Canadians are doing their share when it comes to visions of the next half-century. And mostly they are looking on the sunny side. No less than 80 per cent of respondents think a cure for cancer will be found within 50 years. Two-thirds expect medical science to extend average life spans beyond 100 years. And after a century filled with wars, hot and cold, less than half—44 per cent—expect another world conflict in that time. Finally, when it comes to widespread cloning of human beings—a possibility that many people find deeply disturbing—only 28 per cent expect that to happen.

Expecting global warming to make more parts of the world uninhabitable: Men 56%, Women 68%. Expecting another world war: Men 39%, Women 50%.

Why the optimistic outlook, particularly in a culture constantly bombarded with bad news? “People are tired of the irony and cynicism of the 1980s and 1990s,” says Chris Dewdney, an author and professor of cultural studies at York University. “Its not a dumbing down, but an urge to go forward. The millennium means that we can wash our hands of a really terrible century.”

At first blush, a positive outlook may seem ill-conceived, at least when it comes to finding aliens. But according to Jaymie Matthews, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia, skeptics should remember that the systematic, scientific hunt for radio signals created by other life-forms—popularized by the late U.S. astronomer Carl Sagan and the 1997 film Contact—is only about 30 years old. “It’s very unlikely we would be visited,” Matthews notes, “but most astronomers think that life is fairly common in the universe, and, hopefully, that includes intelligent life.”

No doubt the successful TV shows and films about space travel and aliens—Star Trek, E. T. and Star Wars are the most familiar—have seeped into the popular imagination, Matthews says. But it is also true that television and FM signals have been travelling outward from the planet only since the 1940s. “Thirty light years from here, if there are any alien astronomers with radio telescopes, they might be picking up the first episodes of Gilligan’s Island,” Matthews says, adding wryly, “which might explain why we haven’t been visited.”

What if aliens do show up? Among those who expect other civilizations to be discovered, a significant number—17 per cent, including 29 per cent in British Columbia—think they will look like humans. One of the believers is Peter Fenn, who works for B.C. Liquor Stores in Nanaimo. There is simply too much anecdotal evidence to ignore from people who report having been abducted by aliens, he says. Their accounts often include drawings of human-looking creatures, he points out, with “two legs, two arms, head, couple of eyes—that kind of thing.” He has no personal experience with such matters, he says, but believes that Earth has been visited by aliens. “Don’t you watch TV?” he asks, referring to reports of alleged abductions. And while he has watched The X-Files, the long-running television series dealing with the paranormal, he says he is “more of a Star Trek kind of guy. If you think about it, it’s about what humanity could be.”

If the poll responses are any guide, a healthier and longer-lived population will be afflicted within the next 50 years by weird, sometimes terrible weather. Sixty-three per cent of respondents believe that global warming—higher average temperatures and more extreme weather conditions caused by the accumulation of manmade gases in the atmosphere—will make more of the world unlivable. Powerful evidence supports that view. The world has experienced devastating hurricanes and droughts in recent years, while Canada has had its share of freakish events: landslides and flooding in Quebec’s Saguenay region in 1996, Manitoba’s Red River flood last year, and January’s debilitating ice storm in Quebec and eastern Ontario.

David Phillips, a senior climatologist for Toronto-based Environment Canada, says the vast majority of experts in his field believe global warming has already arrived. Another piece of evidence showed up last spring, Phillips said, when the warm weather started weeks early in Canada and just kept going. “I can’t express how unusual this is,” says Phillips. “I’m overwhelmed, and I’m a climatologist, so it takes a lot to shake my head. We’ve smashed previous records in every season. I’m still numb with what’s happened in Canada over the last 12 months.”

Health, of course, sits near the top of most personal agendas. And even though heart disease and stroke claim more lives, cancers— with their mysterious causes and unpredictable courses—seem to be the most frightening afflictions. There are several bright spots on the horizon, including more tests for early detection and the promise of gene therapy. Winnipegger Don Breen is part of the majority anticipating a cure. Breen, 71, was treated for colon cancer in 1995 and says he now feels well. “We’ve made such great progress in the last 10 to 15 years,” the retired telephone company worker says, “I think we are going to make it in the next 50.”

Among the 42 per cent who expect civilizations to be discovered in space in the next 50 years, 17 per cent think they will look like humans

Despite such optimism, it is highly unlikely that a cure for all cancers is just around the corner, according to Robert Buckman, a Toronto oncologist and author of the 1996 book What You Really Need to Know About Cancer. There are more than 200 different cancers, Buckman emphasizes, with as many different treatments and likely outcomes. Right now, the best hope remains with prevention, he says, such as not smoking, eating a healthy diet and having regular, proven tests, such as Pap smears and mammograms. Still, he says, “People are much more frightened of the word ‘cancer’ than they should be.” Within the next 50 years there are likely to be major advances, such as better identification of high-risk individuals and gene-related treatments, he adds.

It is in such areas of inquiry—slow, incremental gains against old problems—that progress most likely lies. York’s Dewdney, for one, believes that society is at a critical transition point. Human beings are on the brink, he believes, of reinventing themselves: revolutions like bioengineering and artificial intelligence will greatly extend life spans and ultimately lead to the creation of what amounts to a new species. Moral values, among other aspects of present-day life, will change fundamentally, Dewdney predicts, adding: ‘We can’t really envision what it will be like.” The year 2000 may be just another year on the calendar for most Canadians, but it could happen to coincide with a truly new beginning.

Thinking the coming millennium marks a new beginning that will change people's behaviour: 22%. Saying it is a year just like any other: 38%.