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The Apocalypse Is Coming! (...again)

In less than three weeks, the end of the world will happen.

Or, rather, in less than three weeks, a bunch of Mayan-prophesy doomsdayers will wake up and, if they have any grace at all, feel slightly sheepish.

The Mayan epic calendar is set to expire on December 21, or so it seems, and a lot of folks think this will signal the end of the world. They really, truly, sincerely believe it; some of them have even written to NASA with their concerns that a mysterious Planet X will smash into Earth on the designated date. (There seems to be some muddling of New Age thought here, as the existence of this "planet X," sometimes called Nibiru, is a fixture amongst certain segments of the New Age population, its existence allegedly described in ancient Sumarian texts.)

It's easy to dismiss these people as gullible crackpots, uneducated and foolish, unable to see how profoundly stupid their fears are. But I'm not so sure it's that simple.

Apocalyptic fears are a fixture of the human condition. The Mayan doomsday nonsense is not the first such fearful prediction; it's not even the first one to grab recent public attention. Harold Camping, an Evangelical Christian, predicted the end of the world on October 21, 2011...and also on May 21, 2011, September 7, 1994, and May 21, 1988. He got enough folks worked up about his 2011 predictions that many of his followers sold their belongings and caravanned across the country warning people of the impending Apocalypse.

These kinds of predictions have existed for, as near as I can tell, as long as human beings have had language. Pat Robertson has been in on the action, predicting the Great Tribulation and the coming of Jesus in 2007. These fears are so common that a number of conservative politicians, including Sarah Palin, believe that the current generation is the last one the world will see.

Given how deeply-woven these apocalyptic fears are in the human psyche, it seems to me they speak to something important. I believe that, at least for some people, such fears of impending doomsday actually offer protection against an even deeper fear: the fear of irrelevance.

My readership being what it is, I bet the percentage of you who recognize this picture is probably higher than the percentage of the population as a whole who recognize it.

This is part of the Standard of Ur, an artifact recovered from archaeological digs from the site of Ur, one of the world's oldest cities, in what is now present-day Iraq.

Ur was likely first settled somewhere around 3800 BC, or roughly six thousand years ago, give or take. That puts its earliest settlement at about the start of the Bronze Age, plus or minus a century or so. The Agrarian Revolution was already well-established, but metallurgy was fairly new. When it was built, it was a coastal city; that was so long ago that the land itself has changed, and the ruins of Ur are now well inland.

You've probably at least heard of Ur; most public schools mention it in passing in history classes, at least back when I was a schoolkid. Unless you're a history major, you probably don't know much about it, and certainly don't know a whole lot about life there. Unless you're a history major, you probably don't think about it a whole lot, either.

Think about that for a minute. Ur was a major center of civilization--arguably, the center of civilization--for centuries. History records it as an independent, powerful city-state in the 26th century BC, more than a thousand years after it was founded. People were born, lived, loved, struggled, rejoiced, plotted, schemed, invented, wrote, sang, prayed, fished, labored, experienced triumph and heartbreak, and died there for longer than many modern countries have even existed, and you and I, for the most part, don't care. Most of us know more about Luke Skywalker than any of the past rulers of Ur, and that's okay with us. We have only the vaguest of ideas that this place kinda existed at some vague point a long time ago, even though it was among the most important places in all the world for a total of more than three thousand years, if you consider its history right up to the end of the Babylonians.

And that, I think, can tell us a lot about the amazing persistence of apocalyptic doomsday fears.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by astronomy. I wanted to grow up to be an astronomer, and even used a little Dymo labelmaker to make a label that said "Franklin Veaux, Astrophysicist" that I stuck on my bedroom door.

Then I found out that some day, the sun would burn out and the earth would become a lifeless lump of rock orbiting a small, cold cinder. And that all the other stars in the sky would burn out. And that all the stars that would come after them would one day burn out, too.

The sense of despair I felt when I learned that permanently changed me.

Think about everything you know. Think about everything you've ever said or done, every cause you believe in, every hero and villain you've ever encounter, every accomplishment you've ever made.

Now think about all of that mattering as much to the world as the life of an apprentice pot-maker in Ur means to you.

It's one thing to know we are going to die; we all have to deal with that, and we construct all kinds of myths and fables, all sorts of afterlives where we are rewarded with eternal bliss while people we don't like are forever punished for doing the things we don't think they should do. But to die, and then to become irrelevant? To die and to know that everything we dreamed of, did, or stood for was completely forgotten, and humanity just went along without us, not even caring that we existed at all? It's reasonable, I think, for people to experience a sense of despair about that.

But, ah! What if this is the End of Days? What if the world will cease to be in our lifetimes? Now we will never experience that particular fate. Now we no longer have to deal with the idea that everything we know will fade away. There will be no more generations a thousand or ten thousand years hence to have forgotten us; we're it.

Just think of all the advantages of living in the End Days. We don't have to face the notion that not only ourselves, but our ideas, our values, our morality, our customs, our traditions, all will fade away and people will get along just fine without us.

And think of the glory! There is a certain reflected glory just in being a person who witnesses an epic thing, even if it's only from the sidelines. Imagine being in the Afterlife, and having Socrates and Einstein and Buddha saying to us, "Wow, you were there when the Final Seal was broken? That's so cool! Tell us what it was like?"

Human nature being what it is, there's also that satisfaction that comes from watching all the world just burn down around you. That will teach them, all those smug bastards who disagreed with us and lived their lives differently from the way we did! As fucked-up as it may be, there's comfort in that.

Most of us, I suspect, aren't really equipped to deal with the notion that everything we believe is important will probably turn out not to be. If we were to find ourselves transported a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand years from now, assuming human beings still exist, they will no doubt be very alien to us--as alien as Chicago would be to an ancient Sumerian.

They won't speak our language, or anything like it; human languages rarely last more than six hundred years or more. Everything we know will be not only gone, but barely even recognized...if there's anything left of, say, New York City, it will likely not exist much beyond an archaeological dig and some dry scholarly papers full of conjecture and misinformation. For people who live believing in tradition and hierarchy and authority and continuity, the slow and steady evaporation of all those things is worse than the idea of death. Belief in the End Times is a powerful salve to all of that.

Given the transience of all human endeavor, it makes a certain kind of sense. The alternative, after all, is...what? Cynicism? Nihilism? If everything that we see, do, think, feel, believe, fight for, and sacrifice for is going to mean as much to future generations as the lives of the citizens of Ur four thousand years ago mean to us, what's the point of any of it? Why believe in anything?

Which, I think, misses the point.

We live in a world of seven billion people, and in all that throng, each of us is unique. We have all spent tens of billions of years not existing. We wake up in the light, alive and aware, for a brief time, and then we return to non-existence. But what matters is that we are alive. It's not important if that matters a thousand years from now, any more than it matters that it wasn't important a thousand years ago; it does matter to us, right here, right now. It matters because the things we believe and the things we do have the power to shape our happiness, right here, and if we can not be happy, then what is the point of this brief flicker of existence?

Why should we fight or sacrifice for anything? Because this life is all we have, and these people we share this world with are our only companions. Why should we care about causes like, say, gay rights--causes which in a thousand years will mean as much as campaigns to allow women to appear on stage in Shakespeare's time? Because these are the moments we have, and this is the only life that we have, and for one group of people to deprive another group of people the opportunity to live it as best suits them harms all of us. If we are to share this world for this brief instant, if this is all we have, then mutual compassion is required to make this flicker of awareness worthwhile. This, ultimately, is the antidote to the never-ending stream of apocalyptic prophesy.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 6th, 2012 04:25 am (UTC)
I think you dance around a point that has a lot to do with it, and that's selfishness. If you really truly believe the world will end in your lifetime, or shortly after, then global warming doesn't matter, pollution doesn't matter, providing education or social security for the next generation doesn't matter, etc. So that means all the resources & sacrifices required for those things are no longer needed and we can continue to live carelessly & as we please without having to care or think about it.
That's certainly common on the political right in the US, and the apocalyptic beliefs of their religious members dovetail with the outright greedy members who just don't care about a future as long as they get theirs now.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 6th, 2012 04:43 pm (UTC)
Is that what wingnuts think of Keynesian spending -- that borrowing at the bottom of the business cycle and paying down debt at the top, in a fashion that's empirically demonstrated to work, is somehow the same as Republican Party Secretary of the Interior James Watt saying "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns".

Thanks, good to know!
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 7th, 2012 03:53 am (UTC)
Uh huh. I guess it must have been a left-wing president who decided that the thing to do with a budget surplus was a massive welfare program for the super-rich, then, right?
Dec. 6th, 2012 04:57 pm (UTC)
It happens on both sides, yes. But it's not a basic steering principle on the left in the US.
Dec. 6th, 2012 01:58 pm (UTC)
Dec. 6th, 2012 03:26 pm (UTC)
Very well written. This mirrors some thoughts I have been having lately, but was not articulate enough to put in words. Thanks!
Dec. 6th, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the hilarious bit to me is the "I believe in the literal interpretation... of the KJV" style failure to even bother considering that the concept "end of the world" might have meant something different to the Maya than it does to a modern American.

You'd think that the fact that the world that's ending is the Fourth World would be a hint.

Edited at 2012-12-06 04:00 pm (UTC)
Dec. 6th, 2012 05:31 pm (UTC)
I love this: "... rarely last more than six hundred years or more."

What a way with words! Just funning!
Dec. 6th, 2012 07:56 pm (UTC)
Curious about the Mayan prophecy, I picked up one of the few books about it I could find in the Nashville library system and it contained essays from a whole bunch of different scholars, all expressing different opinions and theories. I expected a bunch of nonsense about the end of the world, of course, but a lot of what was in there was a decoding of the Mayan calendar (and therefore some debate as to the actual 2012 date in question), their mythology/religion and how it related to their astrology, and how that tied in with the time cycles that seemed to occur in sequential time patterns. The 2012 date was predicted based on this current cycle we're in - a cycle of approximately 13,000 years - ending near 12-21-2012. Apparently, the beginning of the cycle managed to coincide with the end of the Ice Age. However, a lot of the prophecies, though vague, have been interpreted as an anticipation in the stage of planetary evolution, human enlightenment, or simply central Americans' anticipation of a time when their oppression from overseas population might be reversed. It was a lot of interesting stuff...

Now me, I believe in just about nothing at all, so I just take it all with a grain of salt and just find it very interesting. I like your view of the end of the world theories; it definitely makes the most sense as far as explaining the existence of those propecies. Especially the "all those assholes are gonna pay" attitude. Every once in a while, when I think of the end of the world (or imagine it), the "all you assholes are gonna pay" is the earth's point of view, an anticipation of revenge against the human species for screwing everything up. And then I smile to myself and think, well, if that should ever happen, I just want to be with the ones I love when we all die, and I'll be okay with the rest.

What I like best is your final outlook on it all. I definitely agree. My husband is always scoffing at my passion for trying to change the world, saying that in a hundred years it'll either all be the same as or worse than it is now, or that I'll be dead and it won't matter anyway. I keep reminding him that we should at least make the best of our lives and the lives of those around us, so our short existences can at least be somewhat happy ones.
Dec. 6th, 2012 10:14 pm (UTC)
To get to the heart of the Mayan end-times prophecy, you have to delve a bit into Terrence McKenna and his Novelty theory of human existence. Essentially, he stated that the "eschaton," the end to life as we know it and beginning of a singularity-styled change to all life would happen in 2012; he later glommed onto the Mayan calendar thing for a more exact date.

His speeches are long, a bit rambling, but very entertaining. He managed to influence quite a few people with his ideas before his death, leading to this current apocalyptic meme. I'm not a follower, but it's a fascinating thing to track.
Dec. 6th, 2012 08:34 pm (UTC)
Ur was likely first settled somewhere around 3800 BC, or roughly four thousand years ago, give or take.

Wait, pretty sure 3800 BC was more like 5812 years ago, which is closer to six thousand than four thousand.

I mean, in the long run, your point is still totally valid, since whatever happened in those 2000 years is exactly as important to us as the apprentice potter in Ur's life is. But still. Maths.
Dec. 6th, 2012 11:06 pm (UTC)
Right you are! I added 3800 to 212 rather than 2012 and somehow didn't do a sanity check on the result. :/ Oops! Fixed now.
Dec. 6th, 2012 10:17 pm (UTC)
Nicely written.

I would suggest that there is an obvious party theme opportunity being overlooked for the 21st. From John Michael Greer's Apocalypse Not, consider this about the date:

There is precisely one Mayan inscription, among all of the thousands that survive, which even mentions the date. This is on Stela 6 a Tortugero, a minor Mayan ruin in the Mexican state of Tabasco, and it runs as follows:

The thirteenth baktun will be finished
Four Ahau, three Kankin
[illegible] will occur
[it will be] the descent of Bolon Yok'te Ku to [illegible]

That's all. Bolon Yok'te Ku is a Mayan god; his name means "Nine Foot Tree" and it's been suggested that he has some relationship to the world tree, an important symbol in traditional Mayan spirituality, but nobody knows for sure.

(John Michael Greer, Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and the Rapture is Wrong, Viva Editions, 2011, p. 155.)

Nine Foot Tree parties! Nine Foot Tree parties! Nine Foot Tree parties! Interpret this as you will, and have fun!

Edited at 2012-12-06 10:18 pm (UTC)
Dec. 6th, 2012 11:22 pm (UTC)
Nine foot tree party? Sounds kinky!
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 7th, 2012 06:36 am (UTC)
I always like pointing out the death of the Earth and Sun to my astronomy classes. The looks on peoples' faces is truly fascinating - some get it, some are shocked, others just obviously don't process it at all.

I follow that later in the lecture with the fact that if we wanted to, we can move the Earth with the technology we currently possess. It will just take millions of years and then we discuss if the human race can even plan for something that would take that long.
Dec. 7th, 2012 01:34 am (UTC)
Ahh, you forgot breeder logic. Having kids lends you some immortality. A piece of you will continue into the future.:)

Dec. 7th, 2012 05:17 pm (UTC)
The end of the world isn't scary - what's scary is the possibility of the world ending almost but not quite, and then we're stuck in a post-apocalyptic B movie...
Dec. 16th, 2012 04:17 am (UTC)
"End of the world" doesn't usually mean end of humanity...
Somewhat ironically, aside from "nuke the planet", the most popular concepts of "the End of the world" aren't actually doomsday scenarios at all.

The Apocalypse of John basically says that a bunch of random mystic stuff happens, which allows Satan to escape from hell in the form of a 7-headed dragon, who runs around being an asshole, causing about a third of humanity to die to his shenanigans. Then he gets cast back into hell. And then god reigns supreme for a thousand years. After that Satan makes a brief comeback, but before he manages to do much of anything Jesus makes his second coming and punches him in the face and evil is like totally defeated forever. Potentially horrifying, yes, but nothing like the deluge, where everyone died except Noah's family.

The Mayan Calendar only says that the last age ended after 13 baktuns (a baktun is a period of about 394 years and 3 months), and the current one (probably) will end after the same amount of time. Nobody's sure of what the next age will be like. But as there was no mass genocide at the end of the last one, and neither the Mayans nor their modern descendants predict such for the end of this one, there's no reason to suspect that this would be the case.

There is the potential for the collapse of modern civilization if humanity doesn't get its act together (resource depletion, climate change, financial meltdown, blah blah blah) but if it happens, the most likely result will "merely" be a slow downward grind, with the population and tech levels becoming dramatically reduced over the course of several generations... and then after that, a return to the industrial revolution would be far harder than it was the last time around. Provided we don't take a "nuke the planet" route, obviously.

I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of other "doomsday" predictions that were merely earlier "end of an era" predictions which were later blown out of proportion.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )