2012: Is it the End of the World?

"Castle Romeo" atmospheric nuclear test - March 1954

Ah, hysteria. Omnipresent in any age. Doubly so in ours. Think of it: a couple of millennia ago, hysteria had to plod along from mouth to mouth. A traveling merchant, say, would have a conversation with a shepherd about trouble brewing in Rome. The shepherd, after thinking on the problem for a few days, mentioned it to his wife. She mulled it over for a few days, then mentioned it to another wife at the village marketplace. Someone overheard it at the market… and so on.

Now, hysteria reaches us over morning coffee.

But you and I are thoughtful people, so rather than just giving in blindly to hysteria let’s stop and think about things, shall we? After all, as we well know, December 21st, 2012 is not the first time the world has “ended”…

A Short History of Recent Doomsdays

There are thousands to choose from, going back to pre-Roman times. For grins, let’s just pick five recent ones, which most of us today not only survived, but can remember without thinking too hard:

  • July 1999: The time that Nostradamus’s “King of Terror” was to “come from the sky”. I can still remember hearing about Nostradamus for the first time when I was in grade school. Some older kid told me all about his predictions and how the world was stumbling its way to the finish line, (Crap, I only just got here!) and right there, over recess, I think I lost my happy-go-lucky childhood. Cue two decades of brooding over world events. A big bust then, to be sure, when humanity, after four centuries of dissecting and interpreting his works, hoping, waiting and wallowing in terror, experienced… absolutely nothing. Ol’ Nosty had really lost some street cred by August 1, despite whatever else his cryptic stanzas are said to have predicted.
  • September 1999: The End, according to televangelist Jack Van Impe. This guy used to scare the piss out of me when I was a kid. (I didn’t watch him on purpose… he came on after Elvira.) It seemed like no matter the subject matter of his program there was a nuclear explosion on the monitor behind him. What’s more, he seemed really excited about it. Actually, Sep ‘99 was not his only “End.” He’s made a 20-year career of saying: “This is it! We’re really at The End now!”, and selling 40$ DVDs to that effect. It’s always right around the corner. Interestingly, he has also spoken out against the “Mayan Calendar” predictions (which are “pagan” after all, therefore not to be trusted) and supposedly he is against the practice of “date-setting”. Hmm.
  • Nov 7, 1999: Boy, 1999-2000 was a busy time for doomsdays. It seemed we left no stone unturned, looking for one. Richard Hoagland, author and former NASA consultant, using his old “I have an inside source” bit, says three objects will strike the Earth on this day, and all those disappointed by Nostradamus’s failed prediction perked right back up again. The objects were specks photographed during an eclipse in August. That gave us all three months to squirm and wait for the end. Two of the objects were identified as equipment from the MIR space station. One was never identified. None of them wiped us out. (I’m sure many objects struck the Earth that day, and every day since. Particles, dust, cosmic rays, meteorites. And yeah, we’re frequently hit with man-made space junk. And I don’t even have an inside source to tell me so!)
  • Y2K: Ah, Tragically Hip at the Air Canada Centre. Good times. Especially the part where we counted down to the end of the world, and then were not only still there, but the lights still worked! The next morning seemed a bit like the end of the world, but that’s another story…
  • May 21, 2011: Rapture, according to Harold Camping. “The Bible Guarantees It” claimed his billboards. Well, you can’t fault the guy for dithering.

And thousands since, between, and on backwards to the Assyrians in 2800 BC, who wrote in tablets that their times were the “latter days” and of signs that their world was “coming rapidly to an end”. For a detailed and entertaining list, see A Brief History of the Apocalypse. And of course these are just the date-setters. The number of religions and belief systems which detail the end of the world “at some point” is staggering. Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Islam, Greek, Norse, Buddhist… you name it.

Finally, of course, are the scientists, who tell us that the Earth (along with all the other inner planets) will be swallowed by the Sun when it expands to a red giant, right before its death, some 7.5 billion years from now. But, assuming that gives us (or our evolutionary successors) a decent amount of time to figure out how to jump planets, systems or even galaxies, maybe the end could still be avoided. However, mark this on your calendar: all matter collapses into iron (via quantum tunneling) 101500 years from now. That’s gonna be a bit tricky to survive, unless it’s as some form of pure energy. Even then, there’s no avoiding the heat death of the universe some 1010 76 years from now. An End, if there ever was one. The exact year, of course, may undergo some revisions between now and then.

Of course, with just at a casual glance at our list, we see a problem…

 

What Does the “End of the World” Refer To, Exactly?

Some say natural disaster, some say a War to end all wars, some say Rapture, some say a failure to prepare for the inevitable, some say a technological misstep, some say aliens or a “zombie-pocalypse”. So what exactly are we talking about here?

The problem: “the end of the world as we know it” can mean any one of these:

1. The ultimate “end” of the Universe (heat death, or Big Crunch or the like)

2. The end of life on Earth, owing to forces which we are helpless to prevent

3. The inevitable end of human life on Earth (which, in our arrogance, we call the “end of the world”, but after which the rest of life on Earth goes happily onwards)

4. The end of human life owing to self-extermination (i.e., because of our actions or inactions)

5. Humanity survives, but destroys modern civilization

6. Humanity survives, civilization remains intact, but we destroy our economic lives

7. Humanity survives, civilization remains intact, the economy remains, but is set back a century or two (making life extremely miserable and uncomfortable compared to now)

or…

8. Life gets suddenly and unimaginably easier or better. (After all, this would be the end of the world “as we know it”.)

 So, could “the world as we know it” end on Dec 21st?

Sure it could. Why not?

Let’s consider the ways…

 

25 Ways to “End the World”

Ways in which inevitable forces will exterminate us, regardless of our actions:

  • comet mcnaughtImpacts by comets and asteroids bigger than 5 kilometers in diameter. (1km objects strike the Earth every 500,000 years or so. These, though scary as hell, are survivable, at least by those not at ground zero. The larger 5km strikes happen more like once every 10 million years. The last known 10km object to hit us was 65 million years ago – a possible dinosaur extinction event.) (Though there are competing theories. Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this :))
  • A star going supernova anywhere within 100 light years. (These occur once or twice every billion years. One is probably responsible for the extinction of 60% of the Earth’s ocean life about 440 million years ago.)
  • Increase in solar radiation over the lifetime of the Sun. (Aside from dangers inherent in radiation, there will be a decrease in carbon dioxide to the point where tree photosynthesis and plant life will no longer replenish oxygen in the atmosphere. When that happens, oxygen-breathing animals will die out within a couple million years. Eventually, Earth will become like Venus: a runaway greenhouse effect, superhot surface temperatures,  constant windstorms and acid-rain showers. But, don’t worry, life on this planet will be extinct long before that!
  • Increase in solar luminosity over next 1.1 billion years will evaporate the oceans, which may in turn cause the planet’s magnetic dynamo to come to an end, further resulting in the loss of the magnetosphere, which will accelerate the venting of vital chemicals (nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane, etc) from or atmosphere into space.
  • Glacial periods (every 100,000 years or so, things get really, really chilly. Of course, humanity in some form has survived many of these. But an extreme ice age would mean a global drought, for example. Some humans might survive, but the vast majority who are dependent on modern agriculture for their food supply, will not. We will become hunter-gatherers again at some point.)

Ways in which we might self-exterminate (our actions, or inactions, are the cause):

  • warfare with nuclear or biological weapons (nuclear holocaust or genetically-created disease)
  • scientific accidents (e.g., the accidental creation of a black hole or out of control, self-replicating nanotechnology (a.k.a. the Grey Goo phenomenon))
  • reduction of biodiversity/extinction of other species. (Life needs other life, and we are no exception. So far humans have caused the extinction of an estimated 10% of the species on the planet. If we reduce the number of species on the planet to one, it’s game over.)
  • loss of natural resources such as forests, drinkable water, and mineralized soil (to acidification, contamination, desertification, erosion and salination).
  • increased toxicity (and genetic modification) of our food supply
  • loss of fertility and/or ability to repopulate (Seems crazy to worry about de-population in our days of exploding world population, but if you think about it, overpopulation is kind of self-regulating. For example, when the population exceeds its food supply, a portion of it dies off in famine. The population is regulated by the availability of food, therefore, there can be no such thing as an infinitely expanding population. However, there is very real possibility of insufficiently repopulating. Developed nations the world over, believe it or not, are suffering declining birth rates, to the point where some scientists have extrapolated that humanity will not be able to repopulate itself beyond the year 3000).
  • natural selection. We become, or are replaced, with something more adaptable to future Earth. Based on the above, maybe something that breathes less oxygen and can handle more radiation.

Ways in which we can survive, but terminate modern civilization (i.e., societal collapse):

Here we get into controversial territory. Every philosophy, political ideology and religion has its own theory about what will send society sliding down the tubes of Hell in a handcart. These answers, as we might expect, often conflict, some even diametrically so. Some emphasize environmental factors, like climate and disease, others political or ideological.

I don’t care to survey every theory of social collapse here. If you are interested, here are some links to get you started: Arnold Toynbee, Jared Diamond, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jospeh Tainter.

The study of how societies collapse is fairly recent. It is telling that societal collapse has even become a subject of study, as though we have developed a keen and sudden interest in avoiding self-termination. (The Cold War must have been a wake-up call for many who are now professors and authors). What we now have are beginnings of theories as to why societies collapse. The factors are various and complex, as you might expect, but here are some common elements to societal collapse that all commentators more-or-less agree on:

  • a society’s inability to agree on how to solve its problems (i.e., internal conflicts, squabbles, power struggles and consequent inability to act)
  • an inability to adapt to changing circumstances (i.e., blindly clinging to ideas in defiance of reality)
  • being hopelessly overwhelmed by an outside force

I’m not going to analyze these in any depth. Instead, since this is my blog, I’ll give you my own view, and let you chew it over. I’m not a historian or an anthropologist. But I do pay attention to what’s wrong with this society. So let’s call it:

RW’s Personal List of Ways To Accelerate the Collapse of Society (i.e., how to throw grease in front of the handcart):

  • take power away from the many and consolidate it in the hands of the very few
  • accept pretense and falsity so much they begin to seem necessary
  • accept that corporations, governments, scientists, academics and other institutions of authority are a) wiser than you, b) pursue only what is true and right, and c) have your best interests at heart. In other words, never question them, on anything.
  • accept all conventional wisdom as unerringly true, i.e., beyond the power of your questioning mind
  • laboratory edibles: eat whatever modern humans have invented for you to eat, even if it bears very little resemblance to what is found in nature
  • toxify yourself on a daily basis and accept the “necessity” of pharmaceuticals to eradicate your symptoms and keep you alive.
  • divorce global currency from anything of real value and prop it up on a massive Ponzi scheme of ever-growing interest paid for with ever-growing debt, upon which is charged ever-growing interest, etc.
  • camp-thinking: cling to ideologies and belief systems in defiance of reality, even if it means dieing rather than abandoning your chosen “identity” (the subject of an upcoming post: The End of Isms)

As you might be able to tell, this list is shot-through with a philosophy of self-determination. Whatever else you may be selling, don’t come knocking around here with the idea of leaders and saviors and demagogues as the hope of society.

We’ve seen their handiwork. We ain’t buying.

I agree with Eckhart Tolle’s premise, as laid out in A New Earth, that our job is to concern ourselves with our inner, mental lives, and foster our awakening consciousness, and its outer manifestation (the New Earth) will take care of itself.

In short, get our minds right, and the rest will follow.

There is hope in that.

Which leads nicely into the final discussion of how the World as we know it might “End”…

Ways in which the “world ending” means that human life gets unimaginably better:

  • P49_7_spockSome discovery or invention makes life so different that much of what we concern ourselves with now becomes irrelevant. I’m thinking big here, not just the next generation of iPhone or faster hard drives or a robot to dust your blinds, but something on the order of Star Trek: energy-matter replication or harnessing warp fields or teleportation. Something so big that humanity’s entire day-to-day focus shifts. For example, with energy-matter replication, the ability to create any matter out of the limitless energy of the universe (food, houses, spaceships – you name it!), we shift our focus from making money and struggling to put food on the table, to what… pure creation? Much of humanity is suddenly “unemployed” but we see it for what it is: a good thing. Everyone then “employs” themselves to become artists and philosophers and explorers, or whatever they wish. Of course, it also becomes a lot easier to create genetic plagues, WMDs, and endless triple-icing cinnamon rolls, so, yeah… not all our problems go away 🙂
  • A spiritual or philosophical awakening that eradicates as foolish much of our perceived “differences” and thereby mostly eliminates our propensity to falsity, short-sightedness, territoriality, slavery and violence. What little of these still exist (they always will) we quickly mobilize, as a species, to undermine. Our tolerance for them has disappeared, and we are, with few exceptions, of a single mind on this.
  • Our civilization is replaced with one that does not seek to dominate, control or “defeat” nature and one other, but strives toward harmony in all things. If this seems farfetched, consider that there have been thousands of human cultures which have lived by this rule, but only one which has not: ours. By any stretch of historical perspective, it is this civilization which seems farfetched.

 The end doesn’t have to be bad or catastrophic. If you think about it, most “endings” in our lives are for the better. We reach a threshold of pain and make a change. Let’s remember one of the most important lessons from Illusions:

What a caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.

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 And, yes, one more way the world might end (which must be true, if movies have taught me anything): Zombies.

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Okay, so, of our brief survey of ways the world will or might end, could any or all of these happen on Dec 21st?

Sure they could.

They could also happen tomorrow. Or two hundred years from now. Some of them never, or at a time so distant it bears little upon humans. But when we’re talking about the end of the world, are we really interested in what could happen? Or what is likely to happen?

Here’s a little thing from my philosophy training that my professor gave the pompous-sounding name of “The Evidential Continuum”. The idea is that any knowledge claim, based on the amount of evidence in favor of it or against it, falls somewhere on this spectrum:

Invalid – Possible – Probable – Valid

In other words, the further to the right you want your claim to fall on the spectrum, the more evidence you better have.

Or, as Carl Sagan put it: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

“Possible” means: there is nothing preventing it from being true, and maybe even a little evidence for it. It’s possible Bill Clinton could be hiding in my closet waiting to tickle me when I go for my socks. Why not? He is, after all, human-sized and would fit in my closet. I also think he has enough of a sense of humor to consider it a fun thing to do. This constitutes “some” evidence in favor of the claim. Do I think it likely? Nope. There is a vast world of difference between believing something could happen, and believing something is likely to happen. “Likely” means probable. Probable means: “there is substantial evidence in favor of believing so.” Enough to shift the likelihood from possible to probable. (Plus, I think Bill’s got better things to do. Though I may be wrong about that.)

So, the next question has to be…

 

Why December 21st?

In other words, what is the substantial evidence people have for believing this doomsday will be any more final than any of the other hundreds of doomsdays we have gone through in the last few decades?

Most people I’ve asked mumble something about “Mayans” and back it up with something like “I just feel like it’s time” or “I feel like we are building toward something big.” This is a legitimate feeling, and we shouldn’t dismiss anything here. I’m a big believer in listening to intuition when it’s trying to scream at us. This “doomsday feeling” is based on repeated observations and countless evaluations we are making all the time, without even being consciously aware. We can’t help noticing, and caring, when things seem to be changing and it’s a natural, even logical, process for us to run the clocks forward in our head and have a peek at where we think we’re heading. In other words, I don’t believe we should just dismiss these feelings outright as nonsense. They constitute evidence, of a sort. But evidence of what?

That we are headed somewhere different from today.

But we are always headed there.

If I gave you a different doomsday to be concerned about, say, March 13, 2013… would the exact same feelings apply to that date just as much as December 21? In other words, are our feelings about impending doom, while valid, sufficient to warrant any fears specific to Dec 21st?

If not, what else?

Let’s jump straight into the “Mayan” business.

 

The “Mayan” Calendar

Actually, the so-called “Mayan Calendar” was no more an invention of the Maya than the Gregorian calendar was an invention of Americans (though some Americans probably think so. Hint: Gregory was a Pope, and he lived before anyone even dreamed up the idea of the Virginia Colony.) In fact, the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar was probably invented by the Olmec people (whose civilization was in decline long before Rome was even at its height) and came to be in common usage for thousands of years in South and Central America. The Maya simply left us the most extant examples of it in their monuments, so we refer to it as “theirs”.

So what’s the deal with the Long Count “ending”?

There is some evidence (the correlation between calendars is by no means agreed on) that Dec 21st on the Gregorian calendar marks the conclusion of a b’ak’tun, a period of the Long Count calendar consisting of 144,000 days or roughly 394 years. There have been, of course, many other b’ak’tuns that have ended. The last one ended on Sep 18, 1618. The one before that ended on June 15, 1224, etc. The next one will end on Mar 26, 2407. This b’ak’tun, however, is supposed to be the 13th since the beginning of the Count (in 3114 BC), and the 13th is defined as the end of the Long Count. (In some usages. Some Mayan inscriptions did not end the Long Count when it reached thirteen b’ak’tuns, but continued on upwards until nineteen. In which case, you have nothing to worry about until July 11th, 4378!).

However (and this is where people get confused) the end of the Long Count does not equal the end of the Calendar. It has future Long Counts in it. It resets the calendar. We do this with our own year-counting system. We say “the decade is ending” or it is the “end of the century” or even the end of a millennium. Then we start counting the next one.

Is the end of a counting cycle significant? Sure, to our puny, human-centered, hubris-filled brains it is, yes. It is very significant to us when we have been counting in the 1000s for what seems like forever, and then suddenly the numbers flip from 1999 to 2000. (When my car’s odometer went from 199,999 to 200,000 I started crossing my fingers when I started it. Who knows why?) We are apt to read meanings into the significance of the number-flipping, attach some overblown language to them (“the dawn of a new age”, etc.) and impose those meanings on the universe. No less true for the Maya, than us.

Our mistake: we think the universe gives a crap. That it somehow operates in cycles that we have assigned to it. But however we decide to arbitrarily divide the universe up and count things that happen in it does not make the universe alter its course one jot. It simply exists. In fact, when you consider the billions of years it has been existing, and the many sextillions of stars in it, against the scant thousands of years there have been beings called humans who count things, it seems laughable that the humans should consider anything of their invention significant, let alone their system of counting trips around their one, little star. For perspective, imagine a tiny dust mote orbiting a 4-inch wide piece of rock somewhere in the Asteroid Belt. Imagine there are microscopic beings inhabiting that dust mote who count the trips around their rock. Imagine that one thousand trips around the rock takes say, six Earth minutes. Imagine they referred to each thousand trips as “the dawn of a new age”. You would think them very ridiculous, self-important little dust beings, wouldn’t you? Exactly.

Like it or not, the Calendar goes on. In fact, the Maya gave us prophecies that take place in future Long Counts. There’s one about a coronation celebration in 4772 AD. Not even a coronation itself. Just a celebration of the anniversary of one. Now that’s planning ahead. (And I can’t even send Christmas cards on time!) Other Long Count dates record (and plan) for other life-altering events such as important ceremonial meetings and parades.

For this reason, some regard the end of the Long Count as no more significant than the flipping of a page on the Gregorian calendar, and the “prophecies” ascribed therein, as no more significant than reminders to buy something for the staff Christmas party. Hardly the “end of the world”. (My mother does have a calendar of a topless Cliff Richard in various sports poses. I might briefly consider it the end of the world if I flipped to one of these. Averting my eyes would bring me back, though.)

Moreover, there is every reason to believe that the Maya saw the successful completion of a Long Count as cause for celebration. Mayanist scholars (you know, people who actually study this stuff) say that there is nothing in Mayan prophecy to suggest anything like the end of creation, and that anything else is a projection of our modern fascination with doomsdays onto an ancient people. Also that, when you consider it, the whole purpose of the Long Count is the exact opposite of predicting the ending of things, namely, the preservation of the idea that things are eternal, cyclical and unchanging.

Interestingly, there are still an estimated six million Maya people who will see December 21st, 2012, living in small villages in the Yucatan and Guatemalan Highlands. It is incorrect to say that the Maya people were “wiped out”. They exist now, probably in greater numbers than they did at the height of their classic civilization. They are splintered and isolated, rural farmers in small villages, no longer at the height of their culture – but they exist. And their community leaders disavow any notions of a coming doomsday.

So it seems not even the Maya believe in “the end of the Mayan calendar”.

But here is something else: even in the height of classic Maya civilization, two “Maya” from different cities would not have regarded themselves as “Maya”. They, like the ancient Greeks, saw themselves as loyal to their individual city-states. So our picture of a unified culture obsessed with prophesying and cataloging the end of all things in 2012 or any other age is frankly, a little absurd. What there were, were individual priests in individual cities, ordering scribes to record important dates thousands of years into the future, using several different calendars (only one of which was the Long Count) of such monumental importance as when to strew flowers around to honor this or that king. In different cities, they scheduled different events (and even, as we’ve already seen, used different Long Count cycles!)

We can imagine some future humans, from the year 3560, for example, discovering a preserved day-planner from 1995, and upon deciphering the ancient text which reads: “Tuesday, June 10: 10am: World History Final” concluding that the single, unified culture called “Ancient Americans” prophesied of the End of All Things on June 10th at 10am. And upon discovering different day planners from different cities which said different things for the same day, like “pick up Suzie from ballet class” or “meeting with Joe re. sales numbers”, proceeded to ignore these calendars as uninteresting.

The upshot: we see what we want to see. There’s more “doomsday-obsessed modern West” in Mayan prophecy than there is Maya.

Finally, there is the view that the ancient Maya somehow possessed prophetic powers that we do not. Let us consider that no prophecy of their time (that we know of) mentions anything about what actually did lead to the downfall of their civilization, namely, the coming of the Conquistadores.

 

Galactic or Planetary Alignment

The winter solstice of 2012 (yep, on Dec 21st) is supposed to be a time of great alignments. The Sun, as seen from Earth, will align with the galactic equator, something that is supposed to only happen once every 26,000 years. We would see this as the Sun crossing the exact center of the Milky Way (our on-edge view of our galaxy). This is supposed to set up a devastating gravitational effect with the super-massive black hole, known as Sagittarius A, that we think inhabits the galactic core, some 30,000 light years away.

Except that, as it turns out, the galactic equator is really hard to find, nigh on impossible unless we take a step outside the galaxy, look at it, and clearly define its outer boundaries. And even then, by the best estimates that we can make, the Sun already crossed this galactic equator in 1998. (I didn’t even notice. Did you?)

And as for the gravitational effect, it is always having this. Sagittarius A has its effect on the galactic core, which in turn affects how the stars around it cluster and move, which in turn affects the spiral of the outer arms, etc. The only thing, gravitationally-speaking, which would alter the situation from 30,000 light years away is an alteration of the distance between us. But, again, this is always happening. The spiral arms of the galaxy are constantly moving, and our system is constantly moving within that spiral arm. We move slightly closer to the galactic core, we move away. (Much as we move closer to the Sun over the course of a year, and then move slightly away).

But this is not what the proponents of the galactic alignment are worried about. What happens every 26,000 years is that our Sun aligns with the galactic equator from our perspective. This, it is reasoned, must have an effect on things. Again, do you see the hubris involved here? Since our Earth has a very slight wobble in its spin (the standard metaphor is to imagine the wobble of a spinning top) the Sun appears in different places in the sky over long periods of time. This is called precession. We see the Sun precessing closer and closer to the galactic center and then moving away from it. Imagine our friends the dust mote beings in the Asteroid Belt, witnessing the “cosmic alignment” of the rock they orbit with the imagined equator of our Sun, say every four Earth days. Yeah… it means absolutely squat.

Far, far more important than alignment would be some sort of collision event (such as a collision of our galaxy with another galaxy) or an ejection event, (i.e., objects actually moving toward us) such as a great outpouring of gamma rays from the galactic core. These have actually been observed, spewing out in massive bubbles out of the north and south poles of the galaxy, and they have no known cause. Rather than fly into a panic about visible objects lining up from our perspective, our time would be far better spent studying phenomena like these. But even then, our own star, only 8.3 light-minutes distant, represents the far greater threat than anything from the galactic core. We regularly do undergo ejection events from it, called coronal mass ejections. They have real effects on us, such as upsetting our magnetosphere, knocking out satellites, cell phone and radio transmissions, and giving us the Northern Lights. What is alignment, compared to something as awesome and terrifying (and close) as this? (This happened in August.)

What can we say of alignments in general? Do they actually signify anything, other than provide an interesting sight picture for us? We often hear about planetary alignments, or astrological alignments (the Sun precessing from the Pisces constellation into Aquarius, for example – thus bringing in “The Age of Aquarius”). Planetary conjunctions (either when planets align to our view or when they line up on one side of the Sun), we hear, are supposed to cause earthquakes and floods and all sorts of nasty business. In 2002 Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury all lined up nicely for us in one part of the northwestern sky. Did you notice? Here was a good one: in December of 2007 (yep, right on the Winter Solstice) Mars, Earth, the Sun, Mercury and Jupiter (in that order) all lined up with the Galactic Center. Why didn’t we hear about December 23, 2007 as a doomsday? Surely that was a far more interesting alignment than the impending Earth – Sun – Galactic Centre alignment? (Also, as Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of pointing out, if we are just talking about 3 objects lining up in a straight line, this alignment happens once a year. And if you don’t care about the order, you can draw a straight line through these three objects twice a year.)

The only two effects planets can have on us are gravitational attraction and tidal pull. The Moon exerts both of these on us, about 50-100 times more so than all the other planets in our system combined. After the Moon (and not including the Sun), the next most influential body on us is Jupiter, which has a puny one percent (1%) of the attraction and tidal force on us that the Moon has. (See Bad Astronomy for the math and a more in depth discussion of why not to worry about “alignments”). So, forget the “threat” of the planets. A real doomsday: if that big chunk of lifeless rock and dust we call “the Moon” took a sudden left turn in space.

The fact is that in every case of “alignment” we are talking, not about remarkable astronomical events, but perfectly ordinary occurrences which we, from our perspective, attach significance to. If our perspective were different, say from Mars, or from a planet in another system, we would have a completely different set of “alignments” to regard as significant. What has any real effect on us is not ordinary alignments but un-ordinary events, i.e., things which, if they entered into our system would cataclysmically alter the Earth and its inhabitants. Things like rogue comets and gamma rays from nearby supernovae and the like. In our own system, we have an Asteroid Belt that is less than 1% mapped. When collisions happen between those asteroids, debris sometimes hits us in the form of meteorites. If those collisions are “large-body” collisions, they could send planet-killers our way, such as the afore-mentioned dinosaur-killer 65 million years ago. So… there’s a bunch of potential Earth-annhilating bombs orbiting out there beyond Mars, and we’re worrying about things lining up 30,000 light years away when viewed from the surface of the Earth?

It’s kind of laughable, when you think about it.

 

Planet X/Nibiru

So let’s consider a theory about something that is thought to be headed towards us, namely, so-called Planet X, sometimes referred to as “Nibiru”. The thought is that a planet-sized object is headed toward the inner solar system as part of its thousands-of-years-long elliptical path, which we haven’t perceived until now because of the vast distance it travels away from us. Ancients, presumably, knew about this planet, since it was closer and observable with the naked eye.

The doomsday scenario is simple enough: Nibiru enters the inner solar system, has a gravitational effect on Earth, increases earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and possibly even causes our spin axis to shift or grind to a halt.

Again, could there be such an object? Sure. We are always discovering new planetoids in our system and long range comets, and some of them do have extremely long orbits, which have taken them outside the possibility of human observation for thousands of years.

But here, we are considering 2012 doomsday scenarios and the evidence in favor of them, which means, we are considering things that could happen in the next few weeks. The evidence in favor of such a claim is… well, a bit thin at this point, putting it mildly. Again, we’re not dismissing evidence here. Some skeptics will summarily (and sarcastically) dismiss people’s claims without considering them. But I say, let’s add it all up. As we’ve already acknowledged, the possibility exists of a long-range orbit object that we don’t know about. So let’s see what evidence exists for one in what remains of 2012, and what against it, and see where we fall on the ol’ evidence spectrum.

So, evidence for Nibiru:

  • the claims of Nancy Leider, a Wisconsin woman who claims to have a brain implant that allows her to receive messages from the alien inhabitants of the Zeta Reticuli star system. She claims to have been chosen by the Zetans to warn humanity of the coming of Nibiru. Actually, her initial warning was for May 2003, but due to that non-event, her prophecies have been updated to 2012.
  • the writing of Zecharia Sitchin, an author who wrote about ancient alien visitations, and who claimed to have interpreted ancient Sumerian texts regarding an additional planet.
  • many, many photos by amateur astronomers of objects they cannot identify

Evidence against Nibiru?

  • Nancy Leider is just one person, and one of the things we like about evidence is that it is, well… evident. To more than one person. This is not to say that she did not receive communications from an alien species, merely that we have no additional reason to believe the content of her claims beyond her say-so. One of the things she could do to strengthen her claim is offer more evidence, but instead she offered us a date, which passed uneventfully, and then backpedaled and claimed that she could not reveal the true date without alerting governments who would then try to enslave their citizens. But none of this seems like the behavior of someone who was chosen by aliens to warn humanity. It seems kind of nonsensical, actually, to warn us of impending doom, but then not give us specifics. Even if she is telling the truth, her behavior is 100% indistinguishable from that of someone who is making up a fiction and then modifying her story over time. So, even if we believe she is telling the truth, her evidence is not strong.
  • Zecharia Sitchin was a fiction author and has been shown to cherry-pick his readings of the Sumerians to suit his fiction-writing purposes. Just like Dan Brown in the DaVinci Code. I did it too, in my own novel. It’s fun to take stuff from history and bend it into stories. But, no such textual evidence exists, according to Sumerian scholars. Of course, they may be misinterpreting the texts, or missing the signs, but in any case, the evidence still is not evident.
  • Many of the amateur photos have been proven fake, reproduced easily with software, admitted to be hoaxes, shown to be lens flares, or to contain relics of bad image processing. Photos, in general, don’t prove your case. They are leads. A starting point for an investigation. But we need something more. It is interesting yes, when we photograph something that we cannot identify. We should study the photos and try to figure them out. But there is a huge, gaping leap in logic to go from “object in photo I do not recognize” to “this must be Planet X”.
  • Anything planet-sized due to enter the inner solar system in December would already be visible to the naked eye. Not to say such a thing will never appear, but its long past due to make an appearance if its coming in less than twelve weeks. Years past due, in fact. It should also be getting brighter and brighter as it approaches the Sun. Even before being visible to the naked eye, it should have been glaring in the infrared.
  • Anything planet-sized entering the solar system should have shown gravitational perturbations of the other planets, moons and objects in the system. Gravitational perturbations do sometimes clue us in to things we cannot see directly. This is how Pluto was discovered, for example. Everything, however, seems to be moving along normally. Whatever minor perturbations in long-range comets that have been observed do not indicate something planet-sized, nor anything that could possibly be in range of the inner solar system anytime soon.
  • The selection of December 2012 date for the arrival of Planet X is not based on any independent evidence, but typically refers to already existing prophecies such as Maya Long Count etc. In other words, if there were some evidence independent of the other prophecies, it would tend to move each claim further along toward the probable. But the chain of logic here seems to be: prophesy the coming of Planet X for some time “soon”, there are other extant doomsday prophecies that occur “soon”, therefore co-opt those prophesies as “evidence” for the claim. But as we’ve already seen, our society is doomsday-obsessed and tends to take any description of a coming doomsday as fact until proven fiction. We are post-apocalyptic sci-fi junkies. What is the functional difference, then, between a completely fictitious claim with no evidence to back it and multiple fictitious claims, all of which use each other as backing? Not much. In other words, even if a thousand different people independently prophesy something for the same day, yet not a single one of them has any evidence for their individual claim, then we have not moved down the spectrum of evidence at all. (After all, each prophet might just be watching the same You Tubes as the others. Which, as we all know, is exactly how hysteria spreads these days).

Again, the point of all this is not to summarily dismiss the Planet X claims. But there doesn’t seem to be much reason to credit them, either. At least not for December 2012.

 

The “Pole Shift”

The pole shift mentioned in connection with Nibiru is one in which our rotational axis is supposed to be moved by the passage of the planet, i.e., what we call North now, moves from the North Pole to a different spot, downtown Rome, for example, and the planet revolves around this new axis. But there is another kind of “pole shift”  mentioned in doomsday circles, which actually has some scientific legitimacy, namely that of geomagnetic reversal. This is an adjustment of Earth’s magnetic field, such that magnetic North and magnetic South spontaneously swap places. This is a known and real effect of unstable magnetic fields. For example, we know this happens on the Sun every 8-12 years, and is associated with increased solar activity during the swap. On the Earth, the periodicity of the swaps is harder to observe, since the periods (called “chrons”) happen more like every 450,000 to 1 million years.

Of course, once evidence for geomagnetic reversals was discovered, it didn’t take long for scientists to start wondering whether they were connected with mass extinction events. A reversal, for example, could trigger increased volcanic activity, which could in turn fill our breathable atmosphere with airborne ash. Not cool.

Furthermore, there is evidence that we are in a chron that has lasted now for a period of about 780,000 years. In other words, we are “due” for another geomagnetic reversal. However, on the timescales we are talking about, so were the Neanderthals, and so will people 40,000 years from now. Again, there is no evidence specific to this year (other than people’s enduring fascination with a 2012 doomsday), and no actual statistical correlation with any mass extinction at any time in the past. This is yet another case of Could it happen?. Sure. It will happen at some point. Is it probable in our lifetimes? The statistics say probably not.

Dec 21st? Statistically so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from it.

So again, even if we want to believe in a Dec 21st doomsday (there are people who do, believe me), geomagnetic reversals, though legitimate, give us little in the way of evidence for one.

 

Conclusion: Get Ready for the Next Date

When we set a date for the end of the world, then weigh all the evidence for it, we’re left with… not much. There are hundreds, if not thousands of books, You Tubes and websites devoted to 2012 as doomsday. Yet, does this really count as “substantial evidence” for the claim? We have not surveyed them all, of course, but each claim seem to fall short under a little scrutiny. Collectively, or one-by-one, they haven’t shifted the doomsday claim much further along on the continuum from Possible.

Which is not to say the End of the World will not happen on December 21st.

This is an important distinction. Nearly all the material I’ve read by skeptics makes exactly the same error as those they are trying to refute. They say: “Don’t worry. The world is NOT going to end on Dec 21st.”

But this too, is a claim backed with no evidence.

Remember: it’s possible. It’s also possible, depending on what we are referring to, that it might happen next Tuesday or so far in the future that it will be some other species’ problem. Please don’t take the foregoing as an argument in favor of dismissing the idea of an End altogether. Our world, even our civilization will end at some point, and we should be vigilant of the signs. There’s just not much to believe, in specific, about Dec 21st. Nothing from the Ancient Maya. Nothing from science or astronomy or geology. Nothing from anyone, except, interestingly, those with things to sell us.

Put it this way: I am unconvinced, based on what we currently know, that Dec 21st will be a day any more remarkable than today, September 17, 2012. Sure, both might turn out to be remarkable days, but I have no specific reason to think so.

Date-setters, remember, have an interest in keeping you scared. In 1910, when someone suggested that Halley’s Comet could spew deadly gas into our atmosphere, gas mask sales went through the roof. Date-setters can sell you things for your protection. Or they can sell you salvation. And when the date fails to produce anything, they go on and set another date, and roll out the next line of products.

Instead of worrying about this date, or the next date, or even an undefined “end” which we’re not even sure to what it refers, how about this: we worry about specific problems and deal with them. Date-setting prophesies, when you think of it, are a little like burying your head in the sand. They say: Well, the end is coming soon, so what’s the point of doing anything about x?

On the other hand, we could ignore the date-setters, keep our eyes open, and do something about it.

 

Why We Always Believe We Are in End Times

This is really what fascinates me: why are we, as a culture, maybe even as a species, so obsessed with The End? Why have we, from the Assyrians on upward, always thought doomsday was right around the corner? I have three theories about this, and probably a little from each column is at play:

1.     We know, on some level, when something is unsustainable.

This registers with us as the squirmy feeling of “this can only go so far”. The de-mineralization of our soil, for example, if it continues unabated, must result in our own destruction. Likewise for the toxification of our food and air and drinking water. The destruction of other species, if it continues to its logical end, leaves only us, which means our destruction. The population growth, if it keeps accelerating, must eventually outstrip the available food supply. Our ever-increasing debt, and increasing debasement of the world’s currencies, must eventually result in a total collapse of the system. We do not need to be economists to see this as inevitable.

So we believe in End Times because we know, on some level, that if our ideas are in conflict with reality, eventually those ideas will clash with reality, i.e., that a mental conflict must have worldly results. We know, because we sense, not that reality will wipe us out, but that our own ideas, held in defiance of reality, will.

When we cling to falsity, we know there must be a reckoning.

And yet, two things counteract unsustainability. One is that reality corrects bad ideas. Things tend toward an equilibrium. Any unsustainable idea we try to carry forward through time, eliminates us, leaving those who hold better ideas. Population does not expand infinitely precisely because there are limits to the food supply. If we try, reality responds with famine, thus curbing the population growth. We cannot annihilate all species except for us, because we, ourselves would be extinct long before that ever happened. We cannot infinitely create economic prosperity by playing games with our currency, so when the crash comes, we are forced to return to creating and exchanging real value.

If we try to defy reality for too long, it bites back, forcing us to change our ways. We adapt or we perish.

The second thing counteracting unsustainability is that when people are pushed far enough into pain, they respond by voluntarily making a change.

There were over two thousand nuclear detonations in the 20th century. They became frighteningly frequent as the century wore on. (You can see a very disturbing animated reconstruction here.) In 1998 we decided, as a species, to cut it the f- out. We saw all too clearly the consequences of the road we were going down. (The last underground nuclear detonation in the US was performed in 1992. India and Pakistan performed their last tests in 1998. North Korea is the exception this century, performing its last test in 2009, to the universal condemnation of the international community.) Last century, we were a species that was committed to arming itself into annihilation. Now we are a species that responds with appropriate horror at the idea. As we do to slavery, or denying women the right to vote, for example. In each of these cases, there was resistance to change, sometimes even violent opposition. But sometimes we succeed anyway and change our ways.

2.     We believe we are Fallen.

Human cultures the world over write of it. A universally described spiritual Fall. It is the parable behind the Eden story: the loss of innocence in the Garden, the eating of the tree, attaining the Knowledge of Good and Evil, etc.

Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael, puts forth a compelling theory: that the story of the Fall describes the belief, held by Semite herders even before the writing of Genesis, that when mankind simply accepted the bounty of the gods and lived off of it as hunter-gatherers, humanity flourished and knew a time of great spiritual bliss. But when mankind decided he knew better than the gods, and began trying to cheat death by planting seeds in the ground and cultivating (i.e., the Agricultural Revolution) we lost our spirituality. This was the Knowledge of Good and Evil, i.e., the knowledge that should only belong to the gods: who should live or die. By laying in a stock against our own deaths, essentially, we began to set up modern society, and things have been getting steadily worse ever since. That we know this, says Quinn, accounts for widespread violence, mental illness and drug abuse: we know our way of life is wrong and we can’t live with ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not, as some followers of Daniel Quinn are, against modern society. I like sitting in my comfortable chair, typing on my Macbook, with a running toilet in the next room, and what must be several weeks of hunting sitting within arm’s reach inside my refrigerator. Modern society allows me to do things like write for a living, in relative safety and comfort. To come up with ideas and stories and share them instead of having to live a brutish existence of daily battle for survival. But modern society also threatens me and my loved ones, in all the ways that we have already discussed.

So what is to be done?

We cannot, as Ishmael pointed out, turn the clock back. We cannot turn the internet and electricity off and go “tribal”. We’ve already eaten of the tree. We know too much. But we could, to use Quinn’s language, change the story we are enacting. We have been acting out this story of “the world is ours, to be dominated by us” for 10,000 years and this is where it has got us: the world dominated – and dangerously close to being unable to support us any longer. What would life be like in the next 10,000 years if we acted out this story instead: “We are part of the world, a vital part, to be cherished, explored and understood along with all the other parts of the world”? Can you see, how, if this story were passed down from parent to child, over the course of say, five hundred generations, things might be radically different? Maybe even be a time of spiritual bliss for humanity?

Why not start now, make this generation 1 of 500? Which story will you tell your child?

 3. The world is always changing from what we are used to.

While I think the previous two theories partly account for our fascination with the coming apocalypse, I think the biggest part is owing to a pretty unremarkable fact of our lives: we are limited, short-lived beings, with an inherent tendency to regard ten-year spans of time as epochs. Much like our little theoretical buddies the dust mote people who regard six of our minutes as the coming and going of a Great Age, we tend to think of anything twenty years ago as laughably irrelevant, and anything twenty years into the future as somebody else’s problem. We have a very limited field of view that only stretches a few years back and a few years forward.

Moreover, we form a strong attachment to particular decades, for most of us our childhood through teenage years, and think “that is the way life ought to be”. We have the most emotional attachment to this time period and when we see things changing from the way they were then we assume that things are “going to hell.” We are, all of us, let’s face it, curmudgeons as we get older. We pine for our childhoods. We speak nostalgically about bars we used to hang out with friends in, which have now been built over with high-rise condos. Parks we used to play in, which are now eight-lane highways or shopping mall parking lots. We forget, that for some 12-year-old, things right now are exactly “as they ought to be”.

Thus, we regard society as being in “decline” only because we define the past as “good”. But what if we take the position of neutrality: the past was neither better nor worse, simply different? Perhaps humanity is constantly evolving, changing, pursuing different things, which differ from age to age. Perhaps there is no “good” or “bad” to it, simply a species taking different turns as it goes.

If we take a more historic view, it seems that humanity’s pendulum swings through a duality: from the pursuit of the mechanistic and materialistic to the pursuit of the spiritual and back again. Perhaps a new pursuit of humanity, in the next epoch, will be to stop the pendulum swinging, recognize the fact that we are both spiritual and material beings, and pursue their unity and harmony.

Hell, it would be something different, anyway.

Here’s something else to consider: maybe things never end. Perhaps they only change in such tiny degrees that we hardly notice them changing, but eventually they bear no resemblance to their own past, so we say “an age has ended”. Ever consider that Rome never “collapsed”? It wasn’t like it was here one day and gone the next. Sure we can look back from the perch of centuries and say: ah, something is quite different now. Rome therefore, is “gone”. Or, maybe not. Maybe it simply changed. There are even some who might say (and I would count myself among them) that we are still living in “Rome”. That is, in essence, what the Romans were after as a society we are after, and though we may have hit slow spots here and there, we haven’t really stopped. We share a lot more in common with so-called “ancient” Romans than we do with hunter-gatherer tribes, for example. Again, Ishmael would say: we are still acting out the same old story of world domination that the Romans did. It is implicit in nearly everything we do.

But let’s come back to our limited perspectives. The world, if you think about it, is different at the end of every day.

We may not notice it. We may believe it’s the same old place we’re used to, but over ten or twenty years the change becomes glaring. The “world as we know it” is always dying. It is always “decaying”, every single day, if we choose to look at it that way. After all, every single day is a little bit less like the day before it. We could also see it as exploring, if we wanted to. Going into new, uncharted territory… pushing back the fog. Or we could see it as building. Or spiraling upwards. Or downwards. The point is, these are all metaphors for Change.

It is the only constant.

The End of the World happens every single day.

 

Your Beliefs About the End of the World Reveal A Lot About You

Ever know someone who was calm, even smiling in the face of a stressful or even dangerous situation? Someone who never seems to shut down when faced with a problem, even a seemingly insurmountable one, but who keep working, chipping away until they find a solution? In other words, someone who does not see problems, even really difficult ones, as “the end of the world”?

On the other hand, have you ever known someone who tends to panic, or fly into a rage, or break down and become incapable of action in the face of their problems? In other words, someone who sees problems, no matter how big or small, as “the end of the world?”

Which do you think most of humanity falls under? Which describes you?

It’s no wonder then, that people of modern affluence see the world’s problems as “the end of the world.”

This is another thing modern society has done to us: it has given us a relatively problem-free existence compared to ages past, such that when serious problems do arise, they seem paralyzing because we haven’t had to flex our “problem muscles”. (Hence a whole series of comedians with bits about “First World Problems”, such as “Goddamn it, they put too much cheese in my taco!”, etc.) Serious problems make us learn, they make us figure things out, and they make us emotionally stronger. The current generation of young folk in the modern West are notorious for being the whiniest ever. They may have cause, over the coming years, to toughen up.

 

One More Thought

People believe in End Times for two reasons: they either fear a change, or they want one.

You get what you focus on. You want an End? You’ll do what it takes to bring one about. There will be some that do everything they can to see their pet prophecy fulfilled. When we are discussing some future disaster, let’s remember cause and effect.

Was the prophecy really fulfilled?

Or were the prophets fulfilling their prophecy?

 

An Idea for what to do on Dec 21st

Crack a beer. Observe the human insanity from a distance. A tent up on a far away hill, for example. Let humanity’s children have their day of riots and firebombs.

And contemplate how turning the page on a calendar can be a new beginning.

Maybe of something great.


 

 

 

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0 thoughts on “2012: Is it the End of the World?”

  1. Dang, Mr. Weir! Now that’s gotta be the most comprehensive yet concise(and entertaining!) essay on the apocalypse ever. Bravo, sir, bravo. A great read!

  2. Glad you liked it! Come back and read it again on Dec 22nd; I think it should have some re-read value. Assuming we're still here, of course…

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