the macabre allure of doomsday

People hate dying in a cataclysm. But they also like the idea of living at the end of history as they know it.
massive cataclysm
Illustration by Tobias Roetsch

Maybe it’s just me, but does it seem like a whole lot of people seem to have a death wish of some sort? Over the last several thousand years, they’ve been waiting for the world to end in horrible ways and every time that we happen to survive, they just edge the date of doomsday forward whether it’s the good, old apocalypse of the Book of Revelations, a panicked conspiracy theory about bio-weapons or a one world government, or in today’s popular New Age doctrines, the 2012 doomsday prophecy. Why they want the world to end is beyond me since last I checked, being alive is usually not a bad thing. But regardless of the facts, the klaxons of our doomsday scenarios have infested the web and pop culture with tales of terror and woe about to befall us.

Now here’s the funny thing about the rumors of our imminent demise. Whatever plague you pick, chances are that we’ve already dealt with it and came out very much alive. Horrible diseases that have the potential to wipe out the human population? How about the Black Plague and the Spanish Flu? Both were devastating, one to humans in Dark Age and Medieval societies for over a millennium and the other caused a pretty comparable number of deaths in an age with sanitation, quarantines and a solid grasp of germ theory. And yet, we and the rest of the world are still here. Volcanic nightmares? How about the Toba event some 73,000 years ago which is thought to have reduced human populations to a mere 10,000 individuals? That was pretty scary and we’ve been able to survive with nothing more than our brains and stone tools. And this is not to mention all the huge natural disasters and Ice Ages we’ve had to live with.

When we take into account the fact that we’ve been putting up with some of the worst nature can dish out over very long periods of time and not just surviving but thriving, all those doomsday prophecies seem to be a lot less impressive. Even less impressive is the long history of doomsayers constantly setting dates for the end of the world or the human species, their predicted doomsday never coming true and another date set with the same exact underwhelming result. So after unsuccessfully predicting our demise for century after century, do we really think there’s anything more to this prophecy thing than random guessing? From reading holy texts or occult manuals, to harebrained algorithms and computer numerology that assigns arbitrary statistical values to internet activity, it’s all just reading the tea leaves in the grand scale of things. Whoever tries to pick patterns out of the noise might end up with little more than slightly refined noise which yields absolutely nothing of real substance. And the same principle applies to the 2012 craze.

First off, it’s based on the end of the Mayan calendar which, according to the Mayans themselves, just means that someone has to start another set of calendar cycles. Basically, 2012 marks an anniversary of creation according to Mayan mythology and temple ruins have inscriptions with mention of the year 4772 according to the Georgian calendar we use today. Pardon the obvious question but why would Mayans be making plans for a few millennia after the end of the world? It’s sort of like making dinner plans after being warned that you’ll get hit by a runaway truck on the highway on your way to work that morning. And let’s not forget that all the terrifying predictions about magnetic pole reversals, celestial alignments or tectonic and volcanic activity, simply take a set of natural cycles and paint them as something bizarre and sinister. We’ll always have quakes, volcanism, and our planet will always be aligned with something. There’s nothing dangerous or spectacular about that in the very least. And as for rampaging brown dwarfs in our solar system? I seriously suggest a middle school astronomy class to those who seriously advocate this notion for the reasons outlined in the link.

To be fair, there is one threat that 2012 doomsayers may be right about and that’s massive solar flares hitting the Earth. Still, we should note that massive solar flares won’t necessarily happen in 2012, nor are they strictly a phenomenon related to any calendar or prophecy. They’re a constant menace from the Sun and without any serious measures to minimize the damage they could cause, we could be looking at a world without modern power grids or communication. A truly monstrous solar flare would overwhelm our magnetosphere and cut off radio signals while it fries the sprawling systems of power lines that fuel the industrial world. The result? No internet, no power, no heat, no air conditioning, no cell phones and vast swaths of damaged infrastructure to rebuild over a span of several years. And just because it won’t happen in 2012, doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear. A huge flare could hit the Earth with only a few days warning in 2025 or 2030. It’s just one of the dangers nature could throw at us and for which we can prepare by recognizing the danger, doing more solar research, and acting to reduce the potential damage a flare could do.

# science // 2012 / armageddon / doomsday / doomsday scenarios

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