In my teens I used to look ahead to 2012 and imagine what life would be like. I would calculate how old I was going to be (39) and try to forecast what extraordinary things might be unfolding at this mythically-charged future time. Even back in the late 1980s, the year 2012 had a gravity and mystique about it. The idea that the Mayan calendar would end in 2012 was already well established and to me the date loomed as a coming of eschatological significance. It hovered over the horizon, out beyond the millennium, close enough to know I'd probably live to see it and distant enough to be shrouded in mystery.
Now here we are. We've made it! It's January 2012 and even the most ambitious prophets could not have predicted the stunning rate-of-change over the last 25 years. The internet, cell phones, budget airlines, free international video calls (Skype), social media (Twitter, Facebook) that topples governments - the list is long and beyond extraordinary. These developments represent a more outrageous transformation of our world than I could have conceived of in my teenage dreams.
So what does it mean: what happens now we're here? While there is a small fringe of people who think that the dates in late December 2012 still contain some cosmic meaning, the vast majority do not expect the world to end or to suddenly transform on 21 (or 23) December 2012. The American Evangelical Christian, Harold Camping holds some important lessons for those inclined to doomsday predictions: in 2011 Harold predicted the end of the world (twice) and like many before him he made the classic mistake of naming a date (both times).
(Surely in the prophets-of-doom handbook it says somewhere near the front, in big bold letters: Under NO circumstances should you EVER give an actually DATE for the end-of-the-world!! It's a no-win situation; if you're right there's no time for pats-on-the-back and in the more likely case that you're wrong, well you look tremendously silly).
No, the world won't end in 2012. In fact, it's more likely that we're just getting started. The global ecological movement is gaining traction. People are waking up and taking to the streets to demand their human birthrights of justice and fairness. Consumers are beginning to realise just how much power and corresponding responsibility they have. Younger people from developed countries are increasingly choosing meaning over money.
Social entrepreneurs are springing up around the world, using innovation and strategies honed in business schools to create new ventures dedicated to improving lives and solving social issues. Even the world's religions, often seen as a big part of "the problem", are talking with each other, seeking to understand one another in dialogue, growing together and building pathways to peace. Some may see this as being overly-optimistic but I believe it is an entirely rational optimism. I maintain that the proposition "the world is getting better" is both valid and true.
None of this is to say that we are not faced with complex and momentous problems. Grinding poverty, destruction of the environment, despotic regimes, the politics of self-interest, racial mistrust, a global addiction to oil and the unfair distribution of wealth and power are part of a cabal of global issues that beset us. They all demand to be taken very seriously and need to be dealt with vigorously on a global scale. In facing these challenges, despair and pessimism are as useless as blind Panglossian optimism or head-in-the-sand "somebody-else's-problem-ism". A balanced and practical optimism and a global community willing to deal with the issues, - this is what we must be striving towards.
2011 saw some encouraging new impulses, notably the Arab Spring and its younger sibling the Occupy Movement. Both have been products of people power, folks rising up to change the "way of things". While it is too early to comment on the relative success or failure of these movements, it seems certain that these episodes of group action, fuelled and connected by social media, will not be the last we see of their kind. With the rise of Facebook and Twitter, the man in the street is no longer merely a consumer of corporately-controlled information but rather has become a publisher (admittedly with varying degrees of quality). This has changed everything. Governments have fallen in the Middle East, the drug funded guerrilla organisation FARC, has been largely defeated in Columbia and a "thousand and one" other world-shaking events have unfolded, at least in part because of someone's keystrokes on Facebook or Twitter.
Today we have more personal power and ability to change the world than any other generation that has ever lived. The relative freedom and wealth enjoyed by many in developed nations, together with their access to mind-blowing technologies, means even average individuals now have the resources to significantly impact reality. As U2 front man Bono said in a commencement address to graduates at UPenn: "The world is more malleable than you think, and it's waiting for you to hammer it into shape".
Armed with the accumulated knowledge of Wikipedia, the wisdom of TED talks, the research capacity of Google and the sheer reach of Facebook, there is no limit to what one determined and passionate person can achieve. And if one can do a lot, imagine what a bunch of people can do - imagine what millions can do. If you're still not convinced that everyday folks can make a massive difference, take a moment to learn about Avaaz and the outstanding global impact this small group has achieved in just five years.
Whether it is the life of Steve Jobs, the Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi, we are blessed with an abundance of modern-day examples of people whose inspired lives are leaving the world better than they found it. We cannot all be world-changers at their level - but we can certainly all do our bit. It's 2012 and it's time we learnt that "we make the world". No more waiting for some cosmic event to happen to us or (even more far-fetched) waiting for governments to fix our problems. It's time to move on from fatalistic worldviews which fail to motivate responsible action.
It's time to wake up and to learn at last the lessons of history. It is time for more of us to take personal accountability for the state of this magnificent, complex, beautiful yet troubled world. The next 25 years are being made by you and me. Get on board, don't be a bystander. The world is our canvas and it's just beginning.
Follow Ben Bowler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/monkforamonth