The end of the world as we know it?

Exploring the infamous 2012 ‘end of the world’ myth and why the world is so eager to believe

We want to believe our generation is special, because we have a fear that life will go on without us, says Vincent Mosco, head of the sociology department.
We want to believe our generation is special, because we have a fear that life will go on without us, says Vincent Mosco, head of the sociology department.
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Photo Illustration by Justin Tang

2012 is going to be a big year for me. I’m going to finish my undergrad, turn 22 and hopefully either embark on more schooling or enter the workforce.

According to some believers, it’s also the year I’m going to perish along with the rest of humanity.

Over the past few years, the hype surrounding the 2012 phenomenon has gained momentum, culminating with the release of the disaster film 2012 two years ago.

While the claims of an impending apocalypse may seem ridiculous to most, the thousands of dead birds and fish that have been popping up in places like Arkansas have even the most rationally-minded people turning to the internet for answers about 2012.

The claims began with the Mayan Long Count calendar. The calendar was devised in ancient times, and is still in use in some communities, most notably in Guatemala. PhD student Leah Huff, who teaches at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, studies Mayan lore and ways of thought.

According to Huff, the fear the Mayan calendar has induced in people is largely due to misguided interpretations.

The Long Count calendar marks the date by counting the days since creation. The current calendar began in 3114, the mythical year of creation, and starts again every 5,000 or so years. The new calendar is set to begin on Dec. 21, 2012.

Huff said contrary to what some believe, this does not signify a prediction by the Mayans that the world will end in 2012.

“Just like our calendar doesn’t ‘end’ after December, the Mayan calendar doesn’t end after 2012,” she said, adding that this simply signifies the beginning of a new era.

She said there are aspects of the Mayan calendar which are quite similar to Western astrology, in that an individual’s personal characteristics are said to be dictated by which day they are born on. Through her studies, Huff has come into contact with well-known Mayan elder and daykeeper Pedro Cruz. He keeps track of and interprets the days of the Mayan calendar. Cruz shares his teachings and interpretations worldwide with both Mayans and non-Mayans alike, Huff said, adding that Cruz’s predictions for 2012 are actually quite positive.

“[Cruz] interprets [the end of the calendar] as the end of an era where humans are controlled by ambition, which has brought the capitalist system and greed, and the beginning of an era where humans will be led by love and compassion,” she said.

While the Mayan Long Count calendar is the most popular symbol of 2012 apocalypse woes, others have turned to astronomy in an attempt to prove their claims.

David A. Hanes, the head of the department of physics, engineering physics and astronomy, said one belief people hold is that a powerful gravitational pull will spell disaster for the earth in 2012.

“Dec. 21, 2012 is the winter solstice and that’s when the sun is in the lowest position in the sky,” he said.

“The claim has been made that [the sun] will also align with the center of the galaxy and that this is unprecedented, and that this will lead to some catastrophic event.”

At the centre of the galaxy in the Milky Way is a giant black hole, Hanes said. Some people believe that the alignment of the sun with this black hole would create a gravitational pull that could cause potentially devastating results.

These beliefs are held by some New Age spiritualists. Another New Age interpretation involves “Nibiru,” a planet that some claim will collide with Earth in 2012.

This theory was put forward by an American woman named Nancy Lieder who claimed she communicated with aliens who informed her of Nibiru.

Hanes said he disagrees with these claims.

“[The sun] won’t align with the centre of the galaxy,” he said. “The sun will be aligned with the Milky Way, but it does that a couple of times any year anyway.”

Even if these claims were true, the effect they would have wouldn’t be enough to harm the Earth, Hanes said, adding that the gravitational effect that one feels from the black hole at the centre of the galaxy is about equal to the effect someone feels from another person walking past about 100 metres away.

“All of the people around you have more influence on you than the black hole at the centre of the galaxy does,” he said, adding that claims like these are nothing new.

Hanes referenced a book from 1974 called The Jupiter Effect, which predicted a catastrophic alignment of the planets.

“The claim was … that their gravitational pull would cause all sorts of earthquakes, and California would fall off into the oceans,” he said. “The gravitational influence of the planets, even added together, is just tiny.”

Hanes said people generally misunderstand how little influence faraway stars and galaxies have on the earth.

While claims may seem far-fetched, they are evidently widespread.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a page on their website featuring 2012-related frequently asked questions, the answers to which debunk popularly-held 2012 beliefs.

While this may seem as outrageous as needing a website to explain why the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist, it’s proof that such fears of cataclysmic events extend beyond a few eccentric individuals.

Vincent Mosco, head of the sociology department, said it doesn’t surprise him that some people genuinely believe an apocalypse is coming.

“People believe all sorts of things that we don’t have empirical or factual foundation for,” he said.

For Mosco, the interesting question is why such stories persist over time.

“My sense of things is this: people have always wanted the age, the generation, the era that they’re living in to be a special one, so we have designations for them: the digital age, etc.,” he said. “We not only seek an identity for ourselves as individuals, we seek an identity for the time in which we live, and whether that identity is a good one or a threatening one, at least it’s an identity.”

Mosco said he thinks many people have a fear that life and history will go on without them, and therefore want to believe the time they’re living in is ‘special.’

“Philosophers and others have a name for the feeling that grows from this desire, and that term is the sublime,” he said. “That is, we look for those experiences that are going to lift us out of the common, banal, day-to-day life we live. We seek the sublime or something that is transcendent, that overcomes what for many is the tedium of everyday life.”

Sociologists have studied the groups that subscribe these theories for a long time, Mosco said.

“We tend to find people who are disconnected and alienated from others who find in this shared belief in end times at least some meaning and some connection to other people,” he said. “Lonely people, alienated people, 

down-on-their luck people who need a vision bigger than what they’ve got in their lives today.”

So what do these individuals do when the day passes and the world hasn’t ended?

“There are many different reactions,” Mosco said.

“Some people are crushed that they’ve invested so much time in something that didn’t pan out. Many people develop rationalizations, from ‘we got the date wrong’ to ‘maybe that it’s happening but, you know, it’s taking longer.’ Very few people—and it’s understandable—come to the conclusion that ‘I guess I was wrong and I’d better fundamentally change what I believe.’”

The number of hard-core believers in the 2012 claims is likely not significant. But how do we account for those who scoff at the idea in general but don’t write it off entirely?

We live in a world of surprises, Mosco said, which means we’re constantly on guard for any number of things, even those which seem absurd.

“We’ve been accustomed to think, well, it probably won’t happen but we don’t know, because we’ve seen some strange things, including ones very terrifying like, for example, the attack on the World Trade Center,” he said. “Even those that rationally believe there will be a 2013, we also realize that 2012 could prove to be so horrific that it could feel like the end of the world.”

Kaitlin Chandrarajan, ArtSci ’12, admitted to previously believing the world might end in 2012.

Chandrarajan said she first heard about the 2012 predictions five years ago from her grandfather, who told her he’d read about them in a book by controversial Swiss author Erich von Däniken.

“When he told me this, I believed it,” she said, adding that her belief in the claims was partially spurred by her respect for her grandfather.

“As time went on I thought, ‘this is pretty ridiculous.’ The amount of attention it received kind of made me stop believing in it,” Chandrarajan said, adding that she now jokes about the phenomenon.

“I say things to my friends like, ‘Oh, you know, when we get into med school we’re going to get hit by a meteor or something,’” she said. “I don’t take it seriously. If we are about to die, we might as well live life to the fullest. There’s not much you can do about it if the world is going to end.”

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