ADELAIDE - In the very midst of the Dark Ages of Europe, the coming of the year 1000 was viewed with fear, trepidation and alarm.
This was the year many theologians of that era believed would see the end of all things and the second coming of Jesus as foretold in the Bible.
There was a palpable sense of expectation throughout Christendom which grew steadily as the year 999 CE progressed, reaching a crescendo on New Year’s Eve.
I imagine that the expectation of religious shock and awe reached almost hysterical proportions as midnight approached and then….nothing happened.
Life went on as before, no doubt to the great disappointment of those who had expected to be enjoying a post apocalyptic life in heaven.
Of course, most readers will know that there have been many predictions that the world will end.
To date at least, they have all been wrong.
That said, the end has come awfully close on several occasions.
Scientific evidence exists which demonstrates fairly conclusively that one version of this world did end rather abruptly 65 million years ago when a gigantic meteorite smashed into the earth in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
No one knows how big that meteorite was but, based upon the size of the impact crater, scientists think it was somewhere between 11 and 81 kilometres in diameter and travelling at a rather brisk rate of about 20 kms per second.
Of course, the physical world did not end, just the lives of most of the creatures that were unfortunate enough to be on earth at the time.
It will take a very much larger interstellar visitor to destroy the earth entirely.
What might do the trick is one of the so-called wandering planets that have somehow become detached from their ruling stars and are doomed to spend eternity hurtling through space.
This seems very, very improbable, but you never know.
So, while we can be confident that the physical world will not end anytime soon, we modern humans have a hard time understanding that we all are remarkably vulnerable to a variety of cataclysmic events, most of which are of our own making.
The obvious example is the prospect of a nuclear war. Especially in the 1960s, my generation (born in the decade after World War II) lived with the very real possibility that nuclear war would break out, whether by accident or by design.
This was not merely a theoretical risk. The Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 brought the USSR and the USA to the very brink of all out war.
Were it not for the fact that the captain of a Soviet submarine refused to obey an order to fire a nuclear torpedo at US ships blockading Soviet transport vessels carrying missiles to Cuba, we all would be living in a very different world.
Seldom have we collectively owed so much to the basic common sense and humanity of one person.
So, even if you have never heard of Captain Vasili Arkhipov, you should give thanks that this quiet and unassuming man convinced his colleagues that a nuclear strike was a very bad plan.
History shows that the Soviets turned their transport ships around. The USSR subsequently negotiated a deal with the USA whereby it withdrew its medium range missiles from Cuba and the US withdrew its missiles from Turkey.
So, while we have all escaped extinction so far, more than once we have experienced the end of the world we knew.
An example of this was the end of the Roman Empire in Britain, which most historians agree can be dated to around 400.
As the legions of Rome departed, I imagine the Britons were somewhat bemused. All the certainties of life for nearly 400 years - such as the Roman system of justice, the road system and even the currency - were suddenly called into question.
There are no records to tell us exactly what happened next but the evidence that exists indicates that a period of anarchy ensued during which various individuals and groups struggled to seize and retain power.
The situation did not really stabilise until at least 200 years later, and even then it was regularly subject to disruption due to invaders from Scandinavia and Europe.
Another example is the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. The carefully ordered world of the Aztecs was overturned within the space of a few years and perhaps 90% of the indigenous population were killed or died of disease or were enslaved.
Thus the Aztec world ended, to be replaced by a rapacious, sanctimonious and often very cruel colonial regime.
I would contend that Papua New Guineans have so far experienced the end of the world at least twice.
The first time was when Europeans came ashore in the late 19th century and announced their intention to stay. A world that had stayed much the same for thousands of years was about to be massively disrupted by an alien culture.
The second time was when, on 16 September 1975, the fledgling nation became fully independent of its former colonial rulers and free to make its way in the world under indigenous leadership.
The fact that independence was achieved largely without conflict may have helped disguise the true significance of this event from most Papua New Guineans.
Independence almost at once created a new world as the colonial machinery of government (and the philosophy and values that underpinned it) was dismantled and replaced with an entirely home grown version.
Now, few living Papua New Guineans have any memory of the colonial era and so their world view is necessarily entirely moulded by their experience living in a post-colonial world.
In this way a version of the world ended for PNG in September 1975.
Now we are all living an era when the ideas and assumptions that have underpinned the nature of our world since at least the end of the Cold War are being called into question.
The catalogue of forces for change now at work in the world is truly astonishing: anthropomorphic climate change, the demise of the USA as the sole superpower, the rise of imperialist China, the increasingly apparent death throes of global neo-liberalism and the impact of Covid-19 are just some of them.
Each of these factors on its own is a major challenge. Taken collectively, they constitute a tremendous assault on the socio-economic and political underpinnings of the current world order.
History suggests that when and how these issues are resolved will determine the shape of our collective new world for several generations and maybe much longer.
I think it is reasonable to conclude that we are witnessing the end of one version of our human world. What the next world will look like is still very much an open question.
What is certain is that, after thousands of years of stability, it seems PNG is about to witness yet another period of potentially very abrupt change for the third time in a little over a century.
To paraphrase one of Australia’s innumerable recent prime ministers, it an exciting time to be alive in PNG and elsewhere besides.