Looking at the madness unfolding in the Gaza Strip and the Nineveh plain, it is hardly comforting to know that four years ago, University of Cambridge professor Nicholas Boyle predicted that some great crisis in 2014 would determine the course of the rest of the century.
"In the middle part of the second decade of every century," Boyle wrote in his book 2014: How to Survive the Next World Crisis, "we have seen a Great Event, be it a crisis or a positive transition into a new era." He gives as examples:
- 1517: the 95 Theses, which launched the Reformation;
- 1618: the beginning of the Thirty Years' War and a century of constant warfare;
- 1715: the establishment of the Hanoverian succession and Enlightenment-era British imperial expansion
- 1815: the Congress of Vienna, which inaugurated an age of relative European stability and industrialization;
- 1914: the outbreak of World War I, with its succeeding century of colossal violence.
How does Boyle rationalize his fanciful numerological speculation?
"By fifteen or twenty years into each new century," he claims, "those born in the last decades of the old -- say, in the '80s -- are mature and influential enough to dispense with the heritage of the epoch that they never felt was their own."
Naturally, Boyle's analysis has problems. His psychological explanation is tenuous, his selection of critical events seems arbitrary, and his vision of history is Eurocentric. Although he believes the next world crisis will occur "as India and China, after two centuries of exclusion, resume their rightful place in the world system," his attitude toward the Middle East is as patronizing as it is short-sighted.
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" 'Islamic' civilizations," he writes, are "not a profound source of tension in the world, of the kind that moves economies and armies. ...
"The late twentieth-century concern with the culture and politics of these small and otherwise unproductive countries," he continues, will someday seem "as obsolete as sixteenth- or seventeenth-century concerns for the control of the Spice Islands."
In point of fact, this century's best candidate to fulfill Boyle's prediction has been the Arab Spring, which exploded months after he published his book. Its protagonists, coming of age in a new millennium right according to schedule, want to dismantle precisely the view that the Middle East is a marginal player in world history, incapable of democracy and good only for producing oil.
"We are First-World people," an Egyptian engineer told a BBC reporter.
"But people in Europe, you think that I have a camel in front of my house, and I'm living beside the pyramid."
One way or another, now everyone's eyes are riveted on conflicts in the Middle East, which invite, among other things, agonizing questions about Western involvement. On this point, if on none other, Boyle may be correct: He claims the next world crisis, though fueled by global economic inequality and financial collapse, "will not be economic but political," involving negotiation about "the nature of the international order itself."
Heretofore, owing to the successful economic, military and political dominance of the United States, there has been a presumption "that the world was, or ought to be, made up of independent, autonomous nation-states," such as the U.S. epitomizes.
Yet many feel a new model of international cooperation is necessary to handle conflicts in today's interconnected world, however shaky that ideal may be given the demise of Pan-Arabism, the shakiness of the European Union, and recent victories of violent nationalistic ideologies, from Russia to the Islamic State group.
Art and popular culture -- the doomsday fiction of Cormac McCarthy, the zombie apocalypse craze, dystopian cinema like this summer's "Snowpiercer" -- have taken our temperature and detected the end-times fever that is going around. But lately, as I think about today's centennial anniversary of the beginning of World War I and mourn the past century's history of violence, I have been listening to Zbigniew Preisner's "Song for the Unification of Europe," an epiphanic setting of 1 Corinthians 13.
"Love never fails, but where there are prophecies they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled. ... And now these three remain: faith, hope, love. But the greatest of these is love." These words are as wildly optimistic as they are necessary if we are to survive the "next world crisis."