‘It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine’

(Graphic by Steph Truong)

Whether it be global destruction brought on by forces beyond our world or psychological enlightenment evoked by powers beyond our time, the earth is predicted to undergo a catastrophic change within the following month. But do the prophecies surrounding Dec. 21, 2012 possess any real substance?

The Universe
The least supported of these myths are those with astronomical implications, such as the prediction of a galactic alignment during which the sun and the Earth would be lined up with the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. In this event, it is thought that our world will become vulnerable to turmoil evoked by unknown galactic forces. But even if such an alignment were to occur, it wouldn’t be anything we haven’t seen before. “These lineups happen all the time because of celestial mechanics,” said Arthur Read, an astronomy professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. “Things orbit around each other and every once in a while some sort of alignment happens. It doesn’t mean anything.” Read assured that the only certain cosmic occurrence anticipated by astronomers on Dec. 21, 2012 is the yearly winter solstice, marking the coldest and shortest day of the year due to the sun’s extreme angle in hitting the earth.

Another terror that the universe is predicted to unleash on the earth on Dec. 21 is the dreaded Planet X. Also known as Nibiru, this massive chunk of celestial rock is expected to come hurdling towards the Earth and either destroy it completely by collision or shower it with devastating asteroids during a near miss. However, modern astronomical technologies have not identified this supposed massive celestial object and it is not likely that it could have been overlooked. “If there was such a planet that was headed in this direction, astronomers would have sighted it long ago,” said Read. “There’s no sign of any Planet X, Y, Z or whatever you want to call it that’s headed our way.” An explanation as to why these astronomical events have been tied into the apocalyptic prophecy of Dec. 21, 2012 — despite the sheer lack of evidence available to support them — could be that the event most notably coordinates with the end of the long count Maya calendar and the ancient Mayan civilization were recognized as astronomically advanced for their time, especially since this end date is impressively aligned with our current winter solstice.

The Mayans
The Maya is an indigenous civilization that flourished between 250 and 900 A.D. in present day Mexico and Central America. They were a very progressive people who developed systems of math and science that were beyond their time. For example, the Mayans were able to track the cycle of Venus by constructing observatories. “They didn’t have a modern concept of stars or planets, but certainly by observing the sky and the sun and the moon, as well as the stars and planets, they knew there were patterns in how they moved about, not just daily but over a month, a year or many years,” remarked Gary Warrick, a professor of indigenous studies at the Laurier Branford campus. They also developed a complicated numerical cylindrical system which was reinforced by their astronomical advancements, he said. There were calendars made for shorter and longer periods of time, the latter being a main component in the prophecies of Dec. 21, 2012. This long count calendar is set up in a linear fashion with a starting point at August 3114 B.C. and an end point at Dec. 21, 2012. It has 13 phases of 400 years called baktuns and once they have all been completed, it begins again. “There’s nothing in Maya history that I know of that talks about an apocalyptic end of the world as a result of the long count calendar coming to an end and resetting itself. It’s simply just the end of a long count calendar cycle of 5,125 years and it’s going to go into the next 5,125-year cycle,” said Warrick.

The Maya were an intriguing civilization as they had so much potential but only thrived for a short time and then collapsed, which may reflect why people believe that their calendar predicts the breakdown of our society. And in a way, there is a correlation. According to Warrick, it is important to examine the potential causes for this downfall because there are similarities that can be drawn between the society of the Maya and our own. The Maya, like many indigenous people, practiced a belief in animism which meant that they perceived all things as living and felt that they should be regarded as such. However, there were higher authorities within their communities whose words were held equal to, if not above those of their spiritual faith. Warrick explained that these rulers and elites would demand their people to over work the land in order to satisfy selfish desires driven by greed and power. “Before you know it, the elites and the rulers were quite divorced from that animistic connection to the environment. In other words, I would submit to you that they didn’t really care anymore, it was more about themselves,” said Warrick. “If they could coerce, by threat or force, the peasants to over-produce food for them as tribute, they could get wealth out of that by trading with other elites and gain prestige and status.”

Peasants were especially obedient if authorities were to associate themselves with the gods, a common feature of ancient civilizations. They would carry out orders, believing it was their social and moral duty. Eventually the fragility of the soil collapsed and with it, the sustainability of an entire civilization. “So, are there lessons to be learned from studying the collapse of past civilizations? I would say, yes,” concluded Warrick. “Because there are parallels between what we’re doing and what certain ancient societies did. Especially in their relationship to the environment.” Members of the 21st century New Age Movement, who are notable promoters of the Dec. 21, 2012 prophecies, would agree with this statement in their tendency to romanticize the past and attribute wisdom to ancient cultures who they believe were practicing the true and right way of living: off the land and devoid of the industrial woes of modern times. “[New Age followers] have this vision of how the present could be if we could only get back to the values of those ancient societies and values of the indigenous peoples,” said Warrick. “New Agers really believe that there’s wisdom there that we’re either not paying attention to or have ignored or suppressed and that it holds real value for our lives today.” In this way, they enforce that the Mayan long-count calendar end date will initiate the onset of the end of the world as we know it but not through destruction, through a spiritual awakening spurred by ancient knowledge that has remained stagnant for millennia. But no matter whether the prophecy is hopeful or bleak, there is an over arching assumption with both perceptions that a quick and efficient solution to the struggles of our time is to occur on Dec. 21, 2012 without our own interventions being required. “That’s one problem I have with the apocalyptic mindset, it’s that it absolves you of responsibility to make changes in your society, in your world, in the here and now,” said Warrick. Alexander Damm, a religion professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, illustrates this by addressing the nature of the apocalyptic mindset as a whole.

The Mindset  
“It’s a coping mechanism. Apocalyptic belief of any kind, whether it’s in Christian terms or whether it’s commitment to Maya aboriginal calendars or to meteorite theories of rocks crashing into the Earth, those apocalyptic beliefs are a way that people use to imagine a way out of the very real oppressions that they face,” said Damm. This is not a new method of confronting hardship however, but one that is deeply rooted in human history. “The use of the Maya calendar itself is novel, but the idea that a text or something has revealed from days gone by that the world today is going to end, that is as old as Western civilization,” said Damm. “There have been individuals, chiefly Christians but non-Christians too, who every year for the last 2,000 years believed strongly that the world as we know it is going to disappear eminently,” he continued. “What’s also fascinating is that every single one of them have been wrong.” And yet they are persistent.

Members of religions from all over the world have been known to look to their sacred texts for an indication that the end of the world was near and when the word of their own faith failed them in this regard, as it always did, they moved “beyond the frontiers of their own religious traditions to look for someplace that had a parallel scenario, and one of those places has been ancient indigenous traditions in the Americas,” said Damm.  “So, if your own texts don’t work, you have to find someplace exotic and appealing that does give you that sense you want to feel, that the times are about to end,” he added. But why is this sense of doom something people want to feel? It’s a reasonable assumption that the idea of global destruction would be troubling to the average person, but this extensive pattern suggests that it is actually a commonly desired phenomenon. According to Damm, reason for this could be that apocalypticism gives life structure and relevance. “People fear death, people fear meaninglessness and consequently people like, as part of being human or part of being religious, to situate themselves in a much larger framework that says, ‘I am part of a much grander story and I belong to that story and I have an existence that’s going to transcend this often painful and meaningless life here,’” he said.

The idea that there is an imminent end of age which is planned out and can be anticipated makes people feel relevant and, ironically, comforted. “So, part of what I call the human source of apocalyptic thinking is just that desire to transcend the fear of the unknown and connect yourself to a part of a cosmic series of events,” Damm added. The idea of the end of days also provides a sense of justice to those who feel they have not been dealt a fair hand in life, especially if they are being oppressed by superior forces. “People are particularly drawn to apocalyptic or imminent end times motifs because they are one way of responding to periods of deep social or political crisis,” said Damm.  “So the apocalyptic framework of an imminent end time becomes a coping mechanism for people who feel under eminent threat to make sense of that threat by claiming that the suffering and alienation and persecution that they’re going through is part of a much larger cosmic plan. This is a plan in which the forces that oppress them are forces that are about to be destroyed as part of an evil world, and the people suffering are actually about to be delivered from that world into a much better existence.” No matter its appeal, whether it’s the potential for significance or salvation, the search for the sense of a doomed world has prevailed continuously throughout history and has over time transcended is religious roots.

“We are all drawn to that feeling and some of us are drawn to it in very religious contexts and others of us are drawn to it in other forms like the Maya calendar or meteorites crashing into the world,” said Damm. “There are atheist forms of apocalyptic thought and there are religious forms but that common conviction they share, that the end of the world is imminent and that it will give way to something better, I think it reflects a deep human desire.” But whether the aim is to correct the conditions of one’s own environment or that of the world in the case of new age values, whether it predicts destruction or positive psychological change, apocalypticism appears to be a fruitless desire that only offers a temporary comfort for people dealing with hardships and worsens the afflictions of society as a whole. This is because, through apocalyptic thought, people are exempt from having to take initiative and act themselves in altering or putting an end to these conditions. The consequences of such passiveness were outlined in the likely catalysts of the Maya civilization’s collapse, suggesting that we can take a lesson from their culture which could, ultimately, change the world as we know it. But it’s not going to happen all on its own. “Rather than throw our hands up and say ‘oh well, that’s the end of the world. The Maya predicted it,’ let’s roll our sleeves up and try and solve some of these difficult problems,” said Warrick. “We have the capacity to do it. We got ourselves in this trouble through our ingenuity; we can get ourselves out of it if we just put our heads together and our will. Our political will. “That’s a little bit what’s missing and that’s the parallel between [our elites and] the ancient Maya rulers who just didn’t care about the environment anymore and just wanted more and more.” “Some of us sit back and think that God is going to end this mess of a world soon,” added Damm in regards to the religious community. “Others of us think that’s not the way to react. Really we could do a lot to improve the conditions we’re in so let’s get on it.”

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