Mayans, and Our Desire to be Special

Several people have warned me about the world ending in a few days, on December 21, 2012.  There are variations on the theme, but the basic idea is that the Mayans, who were accomplished mathematicians and astronomers, used an advanced calendar to measure planetary cycles… and that calendar ends at the end of this week.   Some people tell me that the end of the Mayan calendar coincides with predictions by the French seer Nostradamus, although the definitive authority on everything, Wikipedia, holds that Nostradamus did not make such a prediction.

I’ve browsed internet sites about this topic in order to prepare this post and found that there are about as many different versions as there are web sites about the prediction.  I suspect that some versions have more adherents than others, and I have no idea which web sites are the most authoritative.  I’ve read, though, that the world will end as described in the Book of Revelation in the Bible, or that instead, humanity will be erased, leaving the Earth unscathed.  I’ve read that the Earth and Sun will line up in a way that eclipses the energy flowing from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, causing humanity to die off and be replaced by aliens from outer space.

Like any good prediction, this one has plenty of wiggle-room.  Comparisons between our modern calendar and the Mayan calendar require assumptions about how the Mayans determined months and years, so December 21st is only one best guess for the end of times.  Some interpretations place the date a year or so ago, and others place the date a year or so in the future.  In other words, things are not quite as tidy as they were at the millennium, when people only had to figure out which time zone marked where midnight would spell disaster.

Talk about the end of the world carries a certain levity, but like anything conjured by humans has a dark side.   In 1997, 39 members of the religious group Heaven’s Gate committed suicide in order to join the UFO that they thought was hidden in the path of Hale-Bopp, a comet that was uniquely visible from Earth for a few weeks.  And more recently the slain mother of the man who committed the atrocious shootings in Connecticut was reported by some news outlets to be preparing for a doomsday scenario.

Something about the fleeting nature of our lives, I believe, makes us want to live in special times or own a unique slice of history.  If we can’t each have fifteen minutes of fame, then at least we can live in uniquely famous (or infamous) times.  We want to believe that this (insert event here) is different from the thousands of similar occasions that have occurred through history.

If our internal pressure is not enough, we are pushed into believing in the uniqueness of our times by the media.  Some people who are by all means ‘mainstream’ believe that the Earth is in trouble right now, and that warming skies and oceans will bring dire ills to humanity.  The scientists most supportive of global ‘climate change’ repeatedly inform us that regional warm winters are unrelated to long-term climate change, and point out that Sandy was a weak hurricane by weather standards, made devastating by the concentration of people where it happened to make landfall.  But a popular mayor used the tragedy to argue how uniquely horrible the climate has become right now, even though much larger hurricanes travelled the same route decades ago.

At the same time, we read about the impending debt bubble that is consuming our future or the perils of China holding mountains of US debt.   Like others my age, I remember the same concerns in the 1980s over Japan owning too much of our real estate.  But in case the debt issue isn’t frightening enough, newspapers splash color charts about the latest challenge facing our politicians, not-reassuringly called the fiscal cliff.

I’ve lived through quite a few fateful eras.  As a kid I worried about the coming nuclear war as I walked past the familiar fallout shelter signs in the stairwells of my school; the signs are still there, even as the definition of ‘fallout’ has been forgotten.    In my early teens I read about the population explosion that would use up the Earth’s resources in short order; nobody predicted that in some parts of the world (i.e. Japan and Western Europe), lack of population growth would cause problems.  When I was 14, Newsweek and Time magazine carried stories about the coming ice age and the famines sure to occur as a result.  Thankfully, nobody took the actions that some thought were necessary to avert crisis:  to cover the ice caps with soot in order to warm, and save, the Earth!

I never bought into the Red Menace, but I believed what my high school teachers said about peak oil, and all of the world’s oil being gone within 30 years.  Now, 30 years later, stores of oil and natural gas in the US alone are estimated to last 300 years, not counting the resources sure to lie off our coastlines, yet unexplored.  The image of the future painted in the 1970’s included smog-filled skies and rivers thick with chemicals.  Nobody predicted what happened: that air and rivers would be cleaner in most parts of the US than they were in the 1970’s.

I’m certainly not arguing that nothing lies ahead but endless sunshine.  I worry, for example, about a nuclear Iran, and I always worry what our politicians might fail to do. But I doubt a time ever existed when people woke up with no worries.  As for the Mayan calendar and the end of the week, let’s just say I’m not losing any sleep.

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