Tag Archives: Societal collapse

2012: The Next Doomsday?

National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City...

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A recent re-watching of the movie 2012 left me wanting to delve more into this propitious date. Next year — specifically December 21, 2012 — has been named as the next date of the apocalypse, or perhaps a worldwide spiritual awakening. NASA and CERN have both stated that the world definitely won’t end in 2012, but what do they know?

The source of this particular apocalyptic prophecy is the ancient Mayans. On December 21, 2012, the 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mayan calendar known as the Long Count comes to a close. The Mayans used a cyclic calendar, like we do. When it comes to the end of a cycle, the calendar flips over and begins again. It doesn’t stop, and archaeologists can find no evidence suggesting that the Mayans believed the world would end on that date, or that anything at all momentous would happen.

But modern-day spiritualists, prophesiers and doomsayers have latched onto the end of the Mayan’s calendar cycle as significant, imbuing the Mayans with greater predictive and scientific powers than they possessed. The ancient Mayan civilization, which reached its height between 25AD and 900AD, was a highly advanced one, though. It had the only known written language of the pre-Columbian Americas and had made significant achievements in art, architecture, mathematics and astronomy.

The Mayan civilization eventually collapsed, although it did not disappear; there are Mayans living in Central America and Mexico today. However, the Maya had abandoned their great cities by the 10th century. There is no universally accepted theory for why this collapse happened, although the cause is likely environmental, such as a decades-long drought or other climate change. Other factors, such as foreign invasion or internal revolt, may have played a part. The last independent Mayan city-state was conquered by the Spanish in 1697. If only the Mayans had been able to predict their own collapse or the Spanish colonization, that would have been much more relevant to their world than what may happen centuries in the future.

We humans routinely assign doomsday to a specific date. The turning of the millennium always invites such predictions, and most of us can remember the hype that built up around Y2K. Similar dire predictions were made when the year 1000 was reached. Other dates have also taken on significance for one reason or another, but so far, doomsday hasn’t come.

This time, the predictions focus on several unlikely scenarios. The Earth may collide with a passing planet or black hole. The planets in the solar system may align, causing a shift in the Earth’s polar axis. Or unusual solar activity may cause worldwide havoc. Simple astronomical observation can (and has) refute all of these predictions.

In the 1970s-1990s, the end of the Mayan Long Count was actually predicted to be a positive event, a transition from one world age to another, and therefore a time for transformation and spiritual growth. I guess it all depends on whether your spiritual glass is half-empty or half-full. I predict that we’ll muddle on, much as we always have, and NASA backs me up on that.

Personally, I think the 2012 hoopla should have ended with Roland Emmerich’s highly improbable movie. No one else, not even a rogue planet or black hole, would destroy the Earth with such glee.

We have to keep in mind that calendars, as prophetic as they may seem, are merely human inventions. The universe is not obligated to live by them or provide an apocalypse on our timetable. Just as our calendar begins with a date that is culturally significant to us — the birth of Jesus Christ — so the Mayan calendar began with a significant date for them — the creation of the present world order. However, these dates are significant only to people, not to planets or the sun, for which 5,125 years is but a blip.

Here is a summary of the 2012 predictions and why they won’t come true from Sky & Telescope magazine (PDF).


The Cycle of Collapse

Diamond says Easter Island provides the best h...

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The “apocalypse” can refer to the end of the natural world, but it usually doesn’t — at least, not in the stories we are constantly telling about it. After the world literally ends, there’s not much left to say, is there? In fact, I can only think of two examples off the top of my head of this kind of “last days” story in fiction, when all life ceases to be: On the Beach by Nevil Shute, in which radioactive fallout from a devastating nuclear war kills all animal life on Earth; and Last Night, a film about the Earth’s last six hours before it is destroyed by either a meteor or the sun going supernova (the movie doesn’t specify). In both cases, the story is about how the characters, who know the end is coming, deal with that knowledge and live out their last days. (There is a whole sub-genre of “dying Earth” stories, as well, but these are typically set far in the future and depict a gradual end, rather than an abrupt one.)

More often, apocalyptic stories assume there will be at least a few survivors.  The apocalyptic event is not “the end of the world,” as the cliche goes, but rather the collapse of human civilization due to some catastrophe. Those who do survive must start all over again from zero. Usually, this struggle for survival is what the story is actually about, and the apocalypse is just the means to getting there.

We’ve seen these collapses of civilizations in our history. Examples include the Anasazi of the American Southwest, the Indus civilization, the Mayan civilization and the extremely isolated society on Easter Island. This last example serves as a microcosm of societal collapse due to environmental destruction. Over time, the islanders cut down all the trees on Easter Island. This led to soil erosion, making agriculture more difficult, and with no wood, the islanders could not build boats for fishing. The population plummeted: a mini-apocalypse. (For more on this subject, see the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond.)

In fiction, one of the most memorable portrayals of civilization collapse is in The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In this case, the civilization is alien, not human. The collapse was always caused by war, brought about by the pressures of overpopulation, and always resulted in total decimation. Survivors rebuilt society, which inevitably led to another collapse. Because the cycle continually repeated itself despite all efforts to prevent it, the aliens became fatalistic and even developed a class of worker whose sole job was to ensure the survival of all knowledge so that civilization could be rebuilt after the next collapse.

The natural world seems to operate on cycles. Day and night, the seasons, the “circle of life,” in which death and decay lead to birth and growth, are all familiar to us. Even the universe itself may be caught in a continual cycle of destruction and rebirth. In human history, we can see how a pattern in how civilizations grow rapidly, reach a zenith, and then either decline or collapse. If an apocalypse does occur, but there are survivors left to start all over again, it seems logical to assume that the cycle would begin again as well, leading to yet another apocalypse. And another. And another. Unless we can find some way to break the cycle, which may mean changing our basic human nature.