Epochalypse soon!?

Paranoids point to the Mayan calendar’s imminent prophecy, Hollywood and Web sites fuel the flames and experts debate the merits of the Earth’s impending doom

The future, brought to you by the Mayan calendar.

The future, brought to you by the Mayan calendar.

Illustration by Mike Gorman

“END OF THE WORLD: ‘21’ December 2012?????!?!?!?” So asked the spelling-challenged and punctuationally inventive teenager on Yahoo! Answers, that freewheeling forum of desperate questions, dumb advice and comically wrongheaded misinformation.

The “Mayan calender aparently said that,” she continued, “but I’m only 15. I don’t want to die early! Shall I just give up on all my school work ’cos theres no point!”

Sorry to say, “saskia,” but you’re right. You’ve got just three years, eight months and 25 days left: enough time to get your driver’s license, maybe, but forget about reaching legal drinking age. The end times do indeed commence on December 21, 2012. That’s the “end date” of the Mesoamerican long-count calendar that’s been ticking away silently for five millennia.

On that date, this fragile blue orb will suddenly cease to be a very fun place to live. Interloping planets will victimize our solar system with gravitational chaos. The Earth’s magnetic poles will go on the fritz. Our life-giving verdure will be baked to a crisp by the sun’s violent radiation. Gargantuan tsunamis will flood the high Himalayas with crushing walls of cosmically sloshing seawater, earthquakes will cleave the ground and the streets will teem with 6 billion terrified, riotous Earthlings, driven mad with fear. And then … nothingness.


Actually, not really.

Every once in a while, Yahoo! Answers does offer up a grain of truth. Wrote one wise user in response to saskia’s tremulous query: “It’s not true. Relax and do your homework.”

Many other people, however, have yet to get the message. Google “2012” and there are 233 million hits. Try “2012 doomsday” or “2012 prophecy” or “2012 predictions” or “2012 end of the world” and you’re flooded with results. On more than 600,000 Web sites—http://survive2012.com, www.2012endofdays.org, http://december212012.com—discussion both eager and fearful rages about the astronomical, astrological and religio-historic ramifications of the coming eschaton supposedly foreseen by Mayan mystics.

The fervor is pumped by ceaseless specials on the History Channel exploring the “disturbing prophecies” set to come true just three years hence. On YouTube, amateur documentaries of dubious scientific rigor proliferate. On Amazon, one can purchase dozens of books like 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 2012.

This coming November, 2012—a big-budget popcorn flick directed by master of disaster Roland Emmerich—will open in theaters. Watch the trailer, in which those awesome tidal waves lay waste to a Buddhist monastery high on a Himalayan peak, at http://whowillsurvive2012.com. Or lose yourself in the film’s spinoff promo sites: home page for the bogus Institute for Human Continuity or http://thisistheend.com, at which Woody Harrelson’s crackpot survivalist character posts videos proffering his theories on pole reversal, Kukulkan and the “Doomsday Vault” seed bank.

It’s all a lot of fun. It just doesn’t happen to be true.

There’s no mystery as to why so many are flogging the 2012 apocalypse. After all, says Marc Zender, a Mayan expert who lectures in Harvard University’s anthropology department, “There’s a lot more cash to be made with 2012, or end of the world, or ‘Harmonic Convergence,’ than with the more dry analysis.”

What’s interesting is why so many people seem to be buying into it so wholeheartedly. Millenarianism is nothing new, of course. Heck, barely a decade ago, people were in full hair-on-fire panic about the catastrophic implications of Y2K—a harmless flipping of the seemingly self-perpetuating Gregorian calendar.

Why do we continue to work ourselves up about this stuff? Is apocalyptic anticipation hard-wired into humans? Do some people simply crave the excitement? Or do certain folks deal with the psychic stress of bad times—like, say, the ones we’re currently muddling through—by looking for an “escape” on the horizon, by craving oblivion?

Lyin’ Mayans?

Comedian Patton Oswalt has a great bit about witnessing the apocalypse firsthand. The downside is obvious: a fiery, white-hot death. The upside? A table reserved in the “VIP section of eternity.”

“Everyone up there is like, ‘Hey, how’d you die?’ And they’re like, ‘Bus accident,’ and ‘How’d you die?’ And they’re like, ‘Fire ants.’ Then they go, ‘How’d you die, man?’ ‘How’d I die? In the fucking apocalypse! Oh my God, it was awesome!’”

Fun times! And, hey, it still could happen. But if so, it’s more likely to come about thanks to policy hangovers from the Bush administration than because of any Mayan prophecy.

“We have reams of things the Maya wrote about their calendar and considered significant,” Zender says. “They don’t talk about the 2012 date. It’s not surprising, because it was so far off that it wouldn’t have meant anything to them, really. There’s no indication whatsoever, on any of the stone monuments or any of the texts, that 2012 was a matter of concern for them.”

OK, then. But some have posited that the switchover of the long-count calendar presages not an end times, per se, but more of a spiritual upheaval—mass change in consciousness. Did the Mayans say anything about that?

“Absolutely not,” says Zender.

The Mayan calendars are complicated, Zender explains, and there are many of them, all basically cyclical. “There are sacred calendars that are seven days in length and regularly repeating”—a week, in other words—“but there are many other calendars, too: There’s a nine-day calendar, a 13-day, a 20-day …”

The long-count calendar in question here literally predates the existence of the Mayans themselves. They conceived its start to a “sort of arbitrarily designated Day Zero, their equivalent of a creation date,” says Zender, which corresponds to 3114 B.C. on the Gregorian calendar. The long count is a cycle, too. It’s just that its cycle is so long—5,125 years—that it doesn’t turn over (“like an odometer clicks over in a car”) until A.D. 2012.

At which point, says Zender, it’s simply going to “restart and circulate around again.”

“But it gains the patina of all that time,” he says, “and it achieves a sort of cultural significance in the same way that our millennial endings achieve cultural significance. People thought there would be devastation or significant changes when Y2K hit, too.”

Simply put, ancient, mysterious, jungle-dwelling cultures just seem to lend themselves to all sorts of projection in the modern mind. We see what we want to see. (Just look at Mel Gibson’s nauseating Grand Guignol epic, Apocalypto.)

Rest assured, say experts, if you visit present-day Mayans in the highlands of Guatemala, they likely aren’t thinking about the apocalypse.

Avertable disasters

In the minds of many, the notion that massive cosmological disturbances are forecast for 2012 lends credence to the idea that the end is nigh.

Chief among them is that a rogue planet—called Nibiru, or Planet X—is currently coursing on a 3,000-year elliptical orbit that’s kept it out of our sight since the time of the Mesopotamians, but will play havoc with Spaceship Earth when it once again crosses paths with the solar system in three years’ time.

Benjamin Weiss, a professor in the department of Earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at MIT, doesn’t buy it. “The probability of a planet coming from outside our solar system is extremely low,” he says. “Negligibly low, for the rest of the history of our solar system.”

Another much-bruited theory concerns the so-called Galactic Alignment—that, on that winter solstice of 2012, for the first time in 25,800 years, the Earth will be aligned directly with the sun and the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. (It’s an event many are expecting to herald a New Agey “awakening” across the globe.)

“I’ve never heard of that. The Earth’s distance from the sun varies a little bit, but they’re not going to be much closer to the galactic center than they were the year before, or even 100 years before that,” Weiss says.

But, but, but … what about the predicted switching of the Earth’s magnetic axis? A jarring reversal of north and south poles that, according to one YouTube doc, could result in a “Coriolis flip” that, in 72 hours, would unleash a “global superstorm” with winds of 300 miles per hour strafing the face of the planet?

“The Earth’s magnetic poles reverse every few hundred-thousand years, that’s for sure,” Weiss says. “But it takes place over a few thousand years. We don’t think that the poles have ever reversed while humans have been in existence as a species, but it has reversed while there were humanoids. The last reversal was 780,000 years ago. But there’s never been any mass extinctions associated with these reversals. Somehow life has figured out a way to deal with that.”

Last-date romance

What gives? Why do so many people keep hanging their hopes and fears on junk science and bogus archaeological exegesis?

It’s nothing new, says Richard Landes, director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. End-time movements have been around since the beginning of time: apocalyptic terror in the wake of the Black Death, a rash of evangelical millenarian movements in the 19th century, the Heaven’s Gate cult rapturing themselves to the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997, worldwide unease leading up to Y2K.

“Every time there’s a famine, a plague, a this, a that, people are saying this is the end of the world,” says Landes. “And 2012 is your next handy apocalyptic hook. The nice things about dates are that they help you prepare. This is the first one since 2000.”

Apocalyptic thought is intrinsic to monotheistic religions, of course, but the 2012 movement’s cosmic/Mayan aspects lend it a wider appeal, says Landes. “It’s a New Age date, so it can appeal to a secular audience. You don’t have to be Christian. You don’t have to be accused of being some weirdo evangelical fundamentalist right-wing nut in order to find this interesting.”

All apocalyptic prophesies are Rorschach tests, he argues. “People project onto [them]. They project their fears and they project their hopes.” And whether people are fearing the end of time or hoping for massive rejuvenation for a very sickly planet, the “moment of huge convulsion” that 2012 portends is inextricably bound up with our times.

Things are bad. People are looking for change.

“There’s no question that periods when things break down and people feel insecure feed apocalyptic prophesies,” Landes says.

One of the appeals of apocalyptic thought is that, one way or another, it offers an ending. “There is an interesting psychology at work here,” says Landes. “I know people who, because they’re uncertain about the future, would rather have failure than live in uncertainty.”

The hairier things get, the “more we seek a sense of closure,” Landes argues. “Psychologically, many people adopt the language of apocalypticism to sort of go cosmic with [their] own personal anxieties.”

And, he says, Oswalt’s apocalypse routine is spot-on. “The attraction people have to apocalyptic beliefs is megalomaniacal. When you believe that the apocalypse is going to happen in your day, essentially what you’re saying is that ‘I am one of the people that is privileged to live at the climax of history.’ If you take one more step and say, ‘I have an active part in this,’ then you step up on stage. You’re on stage in the greatest drama in the history of the human race. That’s pretty heady stuff.”

So just imagine how many people will be sorely disappointed when the paroxysms of 2012—like those of 2000 and of every projected date before that—fail to materialize.

But fear not! The end may be coming soon enough. If Weiss doesn’t lay awake at night dreading the intrusion of Planet Nibiru in 2012, he does fret over another potential deep-impact event.

“The biggest thing to worry about is an asteroid or comet impact,” he says. “All you have to do is look at the moon and see what happens. It caused the dinosaurs to go extinct 65 million years ago. It’s happened many times, and it will happen again. The consequences are pretty clear. There’s definitely going to be mass extinction.”

There’s one asteroid Weiss and other scientists are watching warily. It’s called Apophis. “There is some concern it might strike the Earth in 2029.”

Can’t wait.

For the next three years or so, Mike Miliard can be reached at <script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">{ document.write(String.fromCharCode(60,97,32,104,114,101,102,61,34,109,97,105,108,116,111,58,109,109,105,108,105,97,114,100,64,112,104,120,46,99,111,109,34,62,109,109,105,108,105,97,114,100,64,112,104,120,46,99,111,109,60,47,97,62)) } </script> .