Today is Friday, 21st December 2012, and marks the biggest end of the world prediction of our lifetime. I first became aware of the date around 8 years ago from watching The X-Files in secondary school, for which 21st December 2012 marked a major plot point.1 At that time I remember contemplating where I’d be so far ahead in the future. It was difficult enough to think about where I’d be just 1 year ahead, let alone 8.
After watching the series finale, I started to research about the date, and over time it became a very familiar date to me, such that I’d often wonder what my life would be like on the day the world was supposed to end. Except that it won’t end, of course.
What always struck me as the biggest peculiarity about those who believe it marks the end of the world – or a spiritual transition, etc. – was that they believed of all people it would be predicted by the Maya. Don’t get me wrong, the Maya had accomplishments to be proud of – they were ahead of their time mathematically,2 astronomically and architecturally, but to think that they would be so advanced that they could predict something like the end of the world on 21st December 2012? If any culture was to make such a prediction, surely it would be the most advanced – i.e., us.3 Sure, the Maya were advanced, but only for their time. It seems unlikely they had access to legitimate scientific information we don’t.4
Americans seem particularly disposed towards belief in the end of the world, as this apparently goes hand-in-hand with Christianity. According to a US poll in 2010, “Forty-one percent of Americans said they believe that, by 2050, Jesus will return or, in other words, the Christian Apocalypse will unfold.”5 Being raised in a religious environment myself, I know that my dad also believes we’re close to Jesus’ second coming – and this in my early teenage years seemed likely to me too.
A recent Reuters global poll suggests some less startling figures, but nevertheless extraordinary:
Nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and 10 percent think the Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012, according to a new poll.
One in ten people, it seems, are anxious about 21st December 2012. But why? To anyone interested in what the Maya actually believed, it is very easy to stumble across the fact that they didn’t even think themselves that today would be the end of the world. Or any especially significant transition. Today is just “184.108.40.206.0″ (something that also happened 5,125 years ago) in a calendar system that goes on for orders of magnitude longer than cosmologists expect our universe to last for.6 This end-of-the-world thing is just something we lumped on top of it.
One Russian minister recently tried to calm people’s nerves and claimed “I know it won’t end”, to which Putin chimed in by saying, “It will all end in 4.5 billion years, the reaction will stop and the Sun will turn into a White Dwarf… I don’t believe the world will end this year.”7 Perhaps this is the first time I’ve heard Putin say something I agreed with.
Those cataloguing end of the world predictions will recall Harold Camping’s prediction that the world would end on 21st May 2011, for which some unfortunate people sold their earthly possessions. Prior to this, there was the Y2K affair. I can understand why people thought planes would fall out the sky, but why the end of the world? The fact that it makes a nice, evenly rounded date is just a quirk of the Gregorian calendar – something that I doubt God, or aliens, or meteorites, etc., would give two hoots about.
The fact that we go through so many apocalypse predictions despite no rational reason to put stake in them is much more interestingly an insight into our psychology. In the absence of rational reasons to believe, there must exist some other, irrational reasons. I don’t claim to know what these are, but I enjoy the speculation.
My own thoughts are that it’s another manifestation of anthropocentrism and our sense that we’re part of a bigger-picture. It’s our comeuppance for destroying the planet or committing evils – we feel guilty and so expect some kind of external repercussions. Of course in reality nature doesn’t care one way or the other if the planet is ruined. Our abuse of things can only ever be framed in terms of the consequences caused to other conscious creatures. If there is any external entity that cares, they’ve done a pretty good job of hiding that fact so far, so it would seem inappropriate for them to then wipe us out without warning.8
Another explanation could be that these predictions represent a discontent with our own mortality. The spectre of death is always present, and being that often we have no good answer to it, it becomes a hanging uncertainty we tend to push aside. No one likes to talk about death, and we feel compelled to make up stories to cushion the blow, especially for children (“Lucky didn’t die, he went to live on a farm.”) This probably isn’t the best approach if we want people to understand and accept death.
The consequence of not being able to individually come to terms with the temporary nature of our existence morphs into a cultural paranoia – a vulnerable spot where ideas suggesting some specific knowledge of our finality can be latched onto and take root in a way other ideas wouldn’t be able to. We’re quietly obsessed with it, most of the time pretending we don’t care about it, but secretly knowing we all do.
The word apocalypse itself means ‘revelation’ or ‘drawing back the veil’. Maybe we just want to know the truth of things so much that we’re willing to entertain the destruction of everything in order to find it. Maybe we just need to know why.
Personally, today I’m going to have a drink and watch my favourite film, and celebrate the discovery of such a pleasant answer to the question of what my life would be like on the day the world was supposed to end.
No spoilers here since I like to remain optimistic that not everyone who’ll get hooked on The X-Files has already seen it. ↩
Some hold that they invented the number zero, though this feat was first achieved by India in the 9th century. I say ‘invented’, but of course that depends on your degree of epistemelogical scepticism. ↩
Any cultural relativists reading this must’ve been sent reeling. ↩
Ancient aliens, anyone? ↩
Stellar extinction is expected to occur at around 1014 years, leaving behind just black holes. After 10100 years, these last black holes are expected to have evaporated through Hawking radiation, leaving nothing. But don’t let that get you down! ↩
But then again maybe they let us know their intentions at our local Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council. ↩