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There are two main camps concerned with the Mayan apocalypse.
On the one hand we have the Christian dispensationalists — the Rapture thumping folks — who have adopted the Mayan calendar into their prophetic calculations. This was seen most clearly through the film by Nick Everhart called 2012 Doomsday (2008), where the movie links the Mayan prophecies to Christianity by finding early Christian symbols at Chichen Itza. This is what the political scientist Michael Barkun has called “improvisational millennialism” where secular events and thought are perceived to fit into religious and infallible interpretations.
On the other hand, we have the secular apocalypticists. This is a broader group for all intents and purposes are non-religious believers in an impending doom. These people have borrowed an apocalyptic religious vocabulary to describe what they perceive as an imminent end.
Environmental disaster themes are most commonly identified and the fall-out from the Mayan calendar ending in no different. It is this latter group of “secular” enthusiasts who are storing food for the apocalypse, the so-called “preppers,” that concerns the rest of this article.
Why does this group believe this arbitrary date derived from this arbitrary civilization will end the earth? Here reason has been replaced with the conspiracies on the many History and Discovery Channel programs, both of whom claim the mantel of science and exploit that position by giving voice and veracity to conspiracy theorists while ignoring mainstream scientists and Mayan archaeologists.
But what of our post-modern world has led to such escapism and fatalism? Perhaps there is enough wrong with environmental degradation, the financial collapse, increased poverty, dwindling opportunity, a perception of moral decline, culturally and economically disastrous environmental events and so on.
Perhaps what sets Harold Camping’s Rapture date apart from the Mayan one is the secular reasoning that maybe there is something to all of this, that the world is bad enough to warrant an apocalypse.
Apocalyptic thinking has been a contemporary Western pastime of, however. Each generation has believed across the political, social, and religious spectrum that we live in exceptional times, apocalyptic times, the End Time!
From the Religions Right to Earth First, and culture warriors to environmental scientists cum validating public voices. Quite why we think our time is an exceptional apex is most likely our pretension to think our generation is special which gives us meaning, this is made all the more affirming with access to 24 hour media cycles and thousands of blogs reporting on events that provide fodder for coincidental and improvised conspiracies.
Every generation has thought their time was exceptional and bad enough to warrant an apocalypse. That’s a lesson, I think, we should have learned by now, knowing even a cursory history of Western Christian (and Jewish) social movements.
I think this is important to acknowledge if we are not to fall into predisposed fatalism — “there’s nothing we can do, we are past the tipping point,” “save yourself” — which could be self-fulfilling.
Encouraging this fatalism has been a history of popular literature and film promoting apocalyptic scenarios. A short list is not difficult to conjure up: Alvin Toffler’s famous book Future Shock (1970), Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy (1994), Jared Diamond’s bestseller Collapse
(2005), and even Roland Emmerich Hollywood movies The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.
Academic groups are equally guilty of apocalyptic pandering, including those 350ppm naysayers, a “tipping point” we have now well surpassed. Richard Alley, an acclaimed scientist on the subject, writes that we have passed a “point of no return.” Alley is saying there is a time past which the world will end, there is no longer anything we can do about it. But why is there this pessimism in America now?
Whereas the original meaning of apocalypse was once meant to be a message for hope for a millennial turn toward earthly perfection, that God would one day make things right again, its modern American meaning has largely been read as a Jeremiad steeped in the assumption that the world is in moral, political and economic decline.
Many polls since WWII have shown Americans have an increasingly pessimistic look of the world and see it on moral, political, and cultural decline.
The world is getting worse. Utopian visions that dominated in the pre-fin de siècle have been replaced by visions of imminent decline and disaster. Confidence in our past or future is dwindled while nostalgia and apocalyptic fears are catholic. We feel on the verge of collapse and rebirth, at one level brewing a sense of powerlessness and fatalism and on the other a feeling of resentment for those in control. Some of these images give way to a new imagination of politics, where apocalypticism and millennialism are two sides of the same coin, the end and a new beginning, a battle that destroys everything that we know and the utopian condition of rebuilding with the knowledge of a perfect world.
Such conspiracy theories as the Mayan calendar ending are caustic social realities that see no future and rather breed a kind of ‘save-yourself’ individualism. At least their Christian co-doomsayers believe in a better world to follow.
Certainly we are disillusioned by the Enlightenment promises of progress and this leads to feelings of suspicion, resentment, fatalism, vulnerability, disruption, alienation, chaos, disorientation, surveillance, trauma, and catastrophe. Such futurological fears concerning American insecurity about America’s cultural, political, and strategic future is therefore wrapped up within a general concern for secular apocalyptic, and are therefore not eschatological throw backs to the middle ages, but nor are they unique to this generation.
Rather than focus on the easy way out of our problems by throwing up our hands and proclaiming an apocalypse, we should be focusing our efforts on “Millenniums” — those other possible worlds to follow for “salvation.” That is, the many possible worlds that we can imagine, not the singular cherry-picked disasters that will limit our ability to see a better world.
Tristan Sturm, PhD (UCLA 2010), is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada. He has published Op-Eds on the topic of the apocalypse for The Toronto Star, Haaretz and CounterPunch. He is co-editor (with Jason Dittmer) of the book, Mapping the End Times, which is now available in paperback.