It’s 2012, the year the ancient Mayan civilization supposedly predicted for the world to end. How will it end? We don’t know. When exactly are we expected to die? Not sure. Where will the disaster occur? We don’t know that, either.
But what’s strange about this idea of an apocalypse is not so much the apocalypse itself, but how we are receiving this news. Too few of us appear to actually be concerned about the predictions of world destruction. Environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki could go blue in the face begging us to pay attention to our serious environmental crises, but most of us seem to have decided there’s nothing important we can do about it. Instead, many people have fun thinking of how our doom will come.
Apocalyptic books, movies, and television shows continue to flood the media, become bestsellers, and net millions of dollars. Films like The Day After Tomorrow, War of the Worlds, 2012, and the more recent Contagion have each garnered hundreds of millions of dollars. Older novels, like The Day of the Triffids, still make most top 10 lists of the best apocalyptic books of all time. Oprah Winfrey voted the Pulitzer-winning novel The Road as her book club favourite. Zombie movies are also a fan favourite, recently exploding onto the scene.
The key to these stories is that nearly everyone dies. This way, viewers or readers can ponder what they would do if they were the last ones on Earth. They could go to the candy stores and eat everything in sight. They could steal expensive cars (if they still work), rob artillery shops, or dance naked down the street.
Survivors would have total freedom. No laws, no regulations, no judgements. That would be nice.
Another appeal of the apocalypse is the perspective it places our lives in right now. Why worry about your education, your mortgage, or your social status? None of our current problems would even matter if the world ends. That would be nice, too.
Then there’s the depiction of the apocalypse itself. Writers, filmmakers, computer graphics designers, and other artists jump at the chance to obliterate real-life objects and locations; it’s just so interesting. Viewers no longer have to imagine what global warming can do when films can show them. Vividly. Audiences can now enjoy watching New York City under water, nuclear weapons burning people alive in California, or zombies tearing through the streets of London. Even now, the popular Toronto radio station KiSS 92.5 is giving away prize trips to the Mayan lands to explore the ancient culture and its predictions for the end of the world.
By the way, to clear all that up, yes, the Mayans were unusually skilled in astrology for an ancient culture. But the date the calendar ends on (popularly December 21, but disputably December 23) actually just marks the end of an era, which in the Mayan system is a huge but regular number of years, in the way a $20 bill is a huge but regular number of pennies. Of course, the idea that an era is ending might still be frightening, until you realize that the cycle marked by that date has already ended many times in history, without the world following suit.
Yet some people taking the Mayan apocalyptic predictions seriously. Now that 2012 has arrived, police expect suicide and murder attempts to skyrocket.
David Morrison, a senior NASA scientist, reports receiving at least 10 emails a day from people asking if they should kill themselves and their families. One pregnant woman wrote that she plans to kill herself, her unborn baby, and her two-year-old daughter before December 21 to avoid the world’s end. In another case, American police had one woman ask if it would be ethical to kill her dog as well.
Californian businessman Robert Vicino made millions selling luxury bunkers around the world at $10,000 a person. Each bunker is in a secret location, ready to house its resident in the event of natural catastrophes like global tsunamis or human threats like nuclear war. So far, he has over 5,000 American customers and plans to expand to Europe.
The media knows that disaster makes for better news stories than happy, uplifting ones. Making the viewers worry keeps them watching the news. Besides, who wants to hear about a class of kindergarteners teaching their community to save monarch butterflies when you can hear about the possibility of molten lava engulfing a sleeping village?
Back in the 1990s, the threat of “Y2K” was that computer systems the world over would crash because, for good technical reasons built into the design by programmers in the ’70s, most programs would not be able to adjust from the year 1999 to 2000. Canadians clambered over each other to jam their grocery carts with flashlights, batteries, and bottled water. That New Year’s Eve was dreaded by many as the last day of civilization. In October 1998, the New York Times stated, “Ten percent of the nation’s top executives are stockpiling canned goods, buying generators, and even purchasing handguns.”
But what happened at 12 a.m. on January 1, 2000? Nothing. Everything was fine, because standards had been instituted a couple years prior that forced important affected businesses to have their programmers update all problematic code. The total cost of the work done for Y2K, before inflation, has been estimated at about $300 billion, including $134 billion in the US in preparation for the date and another $13 billion fixing remaining problems after the date.
The nature of this work was so much in the background that people looked around, wiped the sweat off their foreheads, and laughed at themselves and each other—and figured that nothing had gone wrong.
Will the same thing happen on December 21, 2012? Jay Leno made a joke that reflected the sceptics’ point of view: “According to the Mayans, the world is supposed to end in the year 2012. Are you buying that? When’s the last time you even ran into a Mayan?”