I have to admit that I was seduced at one time by the whole Mayan 2012 calendar business — that there might be a great planetary/cosmic reckoning in December of this year.
It’s been heralded and hyped in dozens of books over the last decade, along with a booming survivalist industry, and it’s certainly not difficult to imagine some crescendo of dire problems in the offing with all the trends that beset us: climate change and extreme weather (whether “natural” or man-made, or a combination of both, it’s definitely happening), peak oil, disappearing fisheries, overstressed fresh water supplies, declining crop yields, new viruses, antibiotic resistance, solar flares, economic mayhem, nuclear proliferation… and all these celebrities dying young! It’s fuel enough to power even the moderately paranoid.
But a new book goes a long way in debunking the imminent apocalypse: “The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America” by Matthew Gross and Mel Gilles.
Disclosure: The authors are friends of mine from Moab.
It is superbly written and researched, far exceeding my expectations. The authors trace the lineage of apocalyptic thinking back to the ancient Hebrews after they suffered a series of invasions and calamities that, along with the novel influence of Zoroasterianism, inspired a new linear concept of history — that there was a beginning, and there will also be a climactic end, to human civilization.
Previously, traditional cultures viewed the world cyclically — a succession of deaths and rebirths, just like the seasons, changing regularly but stable and predictable, with humankind but a more sophisticated species of fauna in the natural world. But now, history had a new meaning: humankind was on an evolutionary path beyond nature.
Christianity inherited the meme, and nowadays many Christians are convinced that the Tribulation and Rapture are nigh, as more secular-minded people are equally convinced that global warming, nuclear pollution, a solar knockout of the global electrical grid, or mutant bird flu are the four horseman of the coming Apocalypse.
The Mayan calendar, according to New Age folk, merely establishes a likely date for the beginning of a great transition, when a new phoenix of enlightened consciousness will arise from the ashes of the old order.
The end of the world has been scheduled many times before, of course, and all these dates, such as the “Great Disappointment” of 1844, have been postponed. Every decade some preacher sets a new date, the flock prepares for the Rapture, selling off assets and neglecting to milk the cows — and nothing happens. The 2012 date is just as phantasmagoric, so we can all stop hoarding gold and ammunition.
The advent of the 24-hour news cycle established by CNN opened the door for a lot of hyperbolic fear mongering — not only “if it bleeds, it leads,” but “if it might bleed, it leads.”
As many psychological experiments have proven, there is no greater motivator than fear, which in some cases can serve as an early warning system, but it can also be crippling, as the authors note: “By allowing the challenges of the 21st century to be hijacked by the apocalyptic storyline, we find ourselves awaiting a moment of clarity when the problems we must confront will become apparent to all–or when those challenges will magically disappear, like other failed prophecies about the end of the world.
Some cultures in the past have stubbornly chosen to perish rather than adapt, as the economist John Kenneth Gailbraith noted: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”
The two most salient cases being the Norse settlers in Greenland, who could not dispense with their dietary prohibition against eating fish, and starved to death as the more fertile Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age; and the Easter Island culture, which ravished its isolated and limited ecology with conspicuous consumption for competitive status displays (the famous sentinel sculptures).
The conclusion: our sun has several billion years of provident energy left, and the world is not going to end anytime soon. However, the parameters of the world we have known in our lifetimes, fueled by cheap oil, are gradually changing, and it will behoove us to keep our minds open, unfettered by old habits and specious fears, and prepare to meet new challenges with our uniquely creative spirit.