Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, millions of people felt a growing sense of — I was going to write “relief,” but it might have been “disappointment” — when the world didn’t end on Fake Mayan Prophecy Day. Social media users around the world greeted the non-event with the kind of viral mockery everyone loves these days, so long as it’s someone else’s beliefs being mocked.
Such scares, however, can be serious business; a few weeks before the predicted end of the world, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported that “panic buying of candles and essentials has been reported in China and Russia, along with an explosion in sales of survival shelters in America. In France believers were preparing to converge on a mountain where they believe aliens will rescue them.”
China might seem a strange place for the apocalypse idea to crop up, but the Telegraph said that “In China … a wave of paranoia about the apocalypse can be traced to the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster ‘2012.’ The film … was a smash hit in China, as viewers were seduced by a plot that saw the Chinese military building arks to save humanity.”
That $200 million steaming pile of callous manipulation, I suspect, did a great deal to boost the 2012 myth from New Age circles into the mainstream. As I wrote a couple of years ago, we might be able to forgive filmmakers for creating an overpriced package of ridiculous escapism like The Core or Volcano. Unlike those films, however, and like the fundamentalistLeft Behind series, the film implied their fictional work presaged actual and imminent tragedies.
The filmmakers also dropped the “Rapture” name for extra points among the mega-church crowd, both in the script and in the cruel advertising line, “Will You Be Left Behind?” The difference is that the Left Behind authors seem to truly believe their dubious theology, whereas the filmmakers seemed to be exploiting the genuine fears of real people to make some quick cash.
Even if only one person in ten thousand takes them seriously, scares like the 2012 fakery can cost real people their lives. David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA, told the Telegraph that “at least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”
Apocalyptic scares have cropped up throughout history, and no one has written a more readable overview of them than John Michael Greer. His drily funny book Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and the Rapture is Wrong probably saw sales fall off after Nothing Happened Day, but should still be read as immunisation against the next one.
One area Greer could have explored more, perhaps, was “Why Mayans?” Why not prophecies from Norwegians, or Saudis, or any other group? The answer seems to be twofold; first, it’s easier to project any beliefs or ideology you like on a now-extinct group that can’t protest. There are some descendants of the Mayans left, who have rightly objected to their pop-culture co-opting, but poor Third-Worlders do not generally have the media influence of California New Age gurus.
The other reason has to do with the exalted place Native Americans hold in popular culture. Of course Native Americans were the victims of the greatest human genocide in history, and even into the mid-20th century were portrayed in popular fiction as villainous savages. The response of the Sixties counterculture, though, was insulting in a different direction, projecting onto Native tribes whatever ancient wisdom they wanted to hear. This was done mainly through the use of Italians and other Europeans pretending to be Natives, making up New Age teachings and passing them off as authentic.
As John Miller wrote in the National Review, “Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry on their census forms jumped by a factor of six. Neither birth-rates nor counting methodologies can account for this explosive growth. Instead, the phenomenon arises in large part from the increasingly idealistic place Indians occupy in the popular imagination. Much of it is based on harmless sentiment mixed into a hash of unverifiable family legends and wishful thinking among folks who hang dream-catchers from their rear-view mirrors. But for a distinct subset, it’s all about personal profit. They’re professional imposters who have built entire careers by putting the sham into shaman.”
In some cases people just claim to be Native when they are not: author and provocateur Ward Churchill, actor “Iron Eyes” Cody, and many others. In others Europeans claim special insight into Native culture: Carlos Castaneda, for example, wrote his entire Don Juan series with supposed interviews based on a reclusive Yaqui Indian no one else ever met, while Lynn Andrews did something similar with her Medicine Woman series. The Celestine Prophecy, Mutant Message from Down Under — for a while it seemed every year brought more books from dead or remote peoples, offering life-coaching for upscale Westerners.
Some of these teachings are useful in their own right; Canadian ecologist “Grey Owl” married into Native American communities and wrote beautifully about protecting wilderness, even if he was originally an Englishman named Archie Blayney. “The Education of Little Tree” is a lovely story, even if it turned out to be fiction written by a white segregationist.
Decades of such romanticising, though, means that followers of the Sixties counterculture treat Native teachings with a special reverence – even fake ones, and they usually are. I know a number of people who sneered at Harold Camping’s numerous Rapture predictions who seemed to take the Mayan claims seriously – at least, as seriously as anyone takes anything these days, forwarding memes while filtering any convictions through layers of post-hip meta-irony.
The 2012 books I leafed through also yanked science-sounding terms into the discussion whenever possible, describing a “quantum leap” forward in human “evolutionary levels.” Basically, it’s the same technique used by the religious cult “scientology,” stealing bits of words from actual scientific research and using them to imbue their vague hokum with a bogus legitimacy.
Many people I talk to seem unconcerned with doomsday crazes, considering them throwbacks to an earlier age of superstition, which will die out eventually. It’s been a standard line of science and science fiction for a hundred years, recited in everything from H.G. Wells’ Things to Come to the Star Trek series, that technology would allow humans to outgrow primitive ideas. Instead, however, the opposite has happened — as people spent more of their hours staring at electronic media, they became more susceptible to superstition, for several reasons.
First of all, news and fake news travel instantly around the world, and are increasingly difficult to escape. A year ago today, I was listening to neighbours talk about the alleged Mayan prophecy … at our local pub in rural Ireland. Locals would have been sitting at the same pub fifty or a hundred years ago — several apocalypse scares ago — but would not have easily known about them; until a few decades ago, few places in Ireland had electricity or modern media. Today, though, people here hear the same celebrity gossip, and watch the same blockbusters and visit some of the same internet sites as people everywhere. Instead of a dubious notion having to infect a critical mass of people in a town before spreading to the next town, a con or conspiracy theory can appear everywhere in the world – to a teenager in Saskatchewan, an old lady in Turkmenistan and an Irish farmer – simultaneously.
The modern world has made us more susceptible to superstition in other ways; when we spend most of our time staring at glowing rectangles rather than living in the real world, it becomes easy to become isolated, paranoid, or trapped in a misinformed bubble of like-minded people. Also, when we spend most of our time moving pixels on a screen for a paycheque, it becomes all the easier to fantasise about fighting zombies or some other more hands-on existence.
Finally, the very nature of our online lives means that information flits in and out of our minds quickly, leading us to forget, only a year later, that there were millions of people who genuinely thought the world would end. It leaves us singularly unprepared for the next fake Apocalypse, whose rumours are already circulating somewhere.
You might think that people are right to be alarmed, even if it takes a fake Mayan thing to alarm them. Between fossil fuels and climate change, an increasingly fragile economy and a disintegrating culture, humanity faces all kinds of problems. I’ve been writing about them for years; is it hypocritical of me, you might ask, to criticise someone else’s doomsday theory?
But here’s the thing: peak oil was never the apocalypse. When the theory of peak oil was revived around the turn of the millennium, some well-intentioned and otherwise beneficial thinkers saw in it the doomsday they had been waiting for. Ten years ago, however, when I wrote my first magazine cover story on peak oil, I said that we “won’t wake up Amish one day,” and when conventional oil peaked a few years ago, we didn’t. Rather, the promising peak oil movement dissipated somewhat after that, perhaps because the countdown had ended and the world had not collapsed. Framing peak oil as the apocalypse harmed the movement’s credibility, and undermined the very useful contributions of volunteers in local communities around the world.
Climate change is also not the apocalypse, in that sense. Almost all scientists agree that humans are causing climate change at a geologically alarming pace, but on a human scale the change is slow and scattershot enough to leave many non-scientists unconvinced. Even when events do happen – this or that city being devastated, a record-breaking summer, droughts and floods like no one has ever seen – no one can prove that climate change caused it, and with our short modern memories we quickly move on. Claiming that “we have only ten years left” to stop climate change, as some activists have done for decades, only discredits climate science in the eyes of the public when, ten years later, the changes have been small or quickly forgotten.
None of these crises in our culture, our economy, or in the living world constitute the Apocalypse of John of Patmos, or any of the rest of the Antilegomena. They are not the Big One people have been waiting for, and people need to stop waiting. None of them will wipe out everyone you don’t like, and leave them sorry they doubted you. None of them will eliminate all those other humans standing in front of you in the grocery queue, leaving you with all their stuff.
I do expect a great many crises in the years to come – more weather disasters, economic crashes, wars and rumours of wars. I expect that actions that were once considered unspeakable might become commonplace, just as actions fifty or a hundred years ago are unthinkable to us, and vice versa. Preparing for such long-term events, though, means working with others, making your little corner of the world more resilient in the face of change, and adhering to a consistent set of principles even when the culture shifts tectonically under your feet. It means changing your life in a thousand small and tangible ways.
At some point, of course, the world will end – for you. That sobering realisation – in Greek,Apocalypsi, or Revelation – is what most apocalyptic scriptures are really about; the commonly cited passages about the end of the world take on a very different meaning when you posit that they are not talking about a universal end, but a personal one. That’s what most religions are about: When done rightly, they help you spend your remaining years meaningfully, to think of others before yourself, to set an example the world can see, and to bring you closer to God.
Doomsday thinking, as in the Mayan 2012 belief, does the opposite. It encourages people to retreat into a bubble of believers. It discourages people from making small improvements, when everything is about to be swept away. It makes people passive in the face of predestination. It tells people that God will come to them, and they don’t need to do anything.