Apocalypse, cataclysm, Armageddon, the end of the world. These events are predicted almost every year, sometimes even weekly. The next predicted date for the end of our age has thousands of people either hopeful, concerned or frightened. Maybe you've heard about it, maybe you haven't. Either way it will soon become a part of the lexicon with the release of a major motion picture this year. It’s coming: 2012.
A Tibetan monk ascends to his mountaintop temple in the Himalayas to ring a bell. His eyes widen as he raises them to the horizon. A huge tidal wave looms over the highest mountain range on the planet, threatening to crash down and devastate the environment. Similar devastation awaits the rest of the planet... 2012 trailer
Wait a second! Where on Earth is all of this coming from? What makes people think that the world is going to come to an abrupt end on December 21nd 2012? Climatic projections? Astronomers tracking an asteroid on a collision course with Earth? Economists predicting a total collapse of the trade network? The Bible? Nostradamus? Astrology? An ancient calendar that ends abruptly and somewhat arbitrarily on that date?
The Mayan Calendar
So what is the root of all this speculation? Believe it or not it finds its source in the calendar of a civilization that collapsed before Europeans ever set foot in the New World. The Mayan Calendar is divided into K'in (days), Winal (20 days), Tun (360 days), K'atun (7,200 days) and B'ak'tun (144,000 days). 0.0.0.0.1 represents day one on the Mayan Calendar (August 12, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar).
This itself isn't significant. Calendars have been created by several civilizations with knowledge of astronomy in the past. The Mayan calendar has become a portent of doom because the Mayans believed that we exist in the fourth world (or world of the Fourth Sun in some translations) and that a transition to the Fifth World will take place between 184.108.40.206.19 (December 20, 2012) and 220.127.116.11.0 (December 21, 2012) on their calendar.
What the Mayans actually believed would happen on this date is unclear, as inscriptions are hard to come by and translation is a tricky business. The most complete and understood inscription comes from a monument in the Tortuguero archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico, that scholars agree refers to the descent of the god B'olon 'Ok, the Mayan deity of war, conflict and the underworld. This seems like a negative event to our modern western sensibilities but the Mayan character for descent or “coming down” was often used in a positive connotation in dedications. It is also clear that the Mayans did not believe the world would cease to exist on this date, as they referred to dates past it and considered the changing of an age an event to be celebrated.
However, civilizations have portended the end of the world or the coming of a new age almost since civilization began and the Mayans didn't seem to be particularly adept soothsayers (they didn't see the fall of their civilization coming, for instance) so why has this date become the source of such hysteria? Part of it is the age and mystery surrounding the calendar, part of it is opportunists attaching their pet cataclysm to the Mayans, and part of it is the coinciding of a few astronomical and astrological events to roughly this time period. Lets start with the astronomical events, or things perceived as such.
Astronomy & Astrology: 2012
Galactic Alignment of the Solar System: This is the idea that the plane of the solar system will be precisely lined up with the galactic plane on 12-21-2012. This is completely false. This event occurs every 33 million years or so, and evidence points to it last occurring about 3 million years ago or so, so it's not due for quite a while.
Alignment of the sun to the Galactic Center (as viewed from Earth): The precise alignment actually occurred during the winter solstice of 1998, and the sun will remain roughly aligned to the Galactic Center for 36 years after that date. Also, the event is only a visual phenomenon from Earth and holds no scientific relevance (i.e. no increased radiation, heat, gamma rays or any such nonsense)
The Age of Aquarius: Whew! Good luck wading through all of the ideas about this time period and when it will either begin or end, or what it even means! An Astrological Age is determined by what constellation of the Zodiac the Sun appears in during the vernal equinox, and the current age effects the development of the Earth and its people. For example, the Age of Leo is associated with the warming of the Earth and the melting of the glaciers, the Age of Cancer with domestication of animals and the Great Floods of myth, the Age of Gemini with the invention of writing, and so on. Due to the irregularities of these constellations the exact measurement of an age is difficult to determine. The Age of Aquarius's starting dates range from the 15th to 37th centuries and it will last approx. 2,150 years. It's generally accepted among the Astrological community that the prior Age, the Age of Pisces, started within 100 years of the birth of Christ, so by that reckoning the new age will start roughly between 2050 and 2250, not exactly close to 12-21-12. Astrologers generally agree that the Age will be marked with the fall of religion and the rise of rational thought, but that's where the agreement ends. It could certainly be argued that this transition is already taking place, astrologers point to The Reformation, The Enlightenment , or The Industrial Revolution as indicators of the new Age, though offical astronomical calculations place its start in the 24th century. Consenus will likely not be reached without the benefit of a great deal of hindsight.
Planet X, Nibiru or Marduk: A theory based on mistranslations of ancient Sumerian texts that states that a previously unknown planet or brown dwarf star passes close to the Earth every 3600 years. Some theories state that the planet is inhabited, the source of the “Greys” that have visited us more an more often recently, while others make the more sane assertion that the passing body's gravity or radiation will have disasterous effects on the planet. The theory is not supported by newer translations or any astronomical data. Once proposed to arrive in 2003 by the nut that runs Zeta Talk, they've revised their new date to be 2012, pretty much because it just sounds good. Even the original theorist, Zecharia Sitchin, who was tranlations have been proven to be woefully wrong and his interpretation of artifacts and symbols to be entirely off the mark doesn't expect its return for another 1000 years. Some folks are even attaching the words of Nostradamus, that font of end-times theories that fail to come true, to this event. Man, you just gotta Google this one for all the absurd wildly divergent theories on it, it’s good for a laugh.
Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Object: While 30% of our stellar neighborhood remains unscanned, no object is projected to come close to hitting the Earth until 2880, when the asteroid 1950 DA has a 1:300 chance of colliding with the Earth. While a real danger, it's certainly not going to make a 870 year jump just to prove some people right.
Ecology & The Environment : 2012
Pole Shift: Some of you from the “Sightings” crowd might remember this one from 5/5/95 theory that preyed on our X-files addled adolescent brains. It goes like this: the ice accumulation at the poles will cause the Earth to become unbalanced and it will tip 90 degrees. Completely discredited, with little evidence to back it up in the first place. It seems even more unlikely with the current depletion of Polar ice.
Supervolcano: Recently posed by Discovery and the BBC as a possible Doomsday scenario is the eruption of the supervolcano that currently resides under Yellowstone national park. While the eruption is theoretically long overdue, things are often delayed thousands of years on the geological time scale. Fortunately an eruption of this magnitude will likely require centuries of build up and will almost certainly have years, decades or possibly centuries of warnings leading up to the event. Another real threat that could theoretically happen any day, nothing shows that it will happen on 12-21-12.
Geomagnetic Reversal: An event that may be the origin of the “pole shift” theory, but with actual evidence of its occurrence in the past, and a scientific certainty that it will happen again. The phenomenon itself happens when the Earth's magnetic field weakens to the point that it temporarily winks out of existence, only to return shortly thereafter, having randomly determined which pole is “north” and which is “south”. Unfortunately we know so little about the behavior of Earth's magnetic field that we have no way of predicting this occurrence. The Field does seem to have weakened since we started measuring such things (a very insignificant period in geological time) , and while it doesn't seem to be weakening to the point that it would temporarily fall, we don't know when that point might be. We also aren't sure what this fall and realignment might mean to us on Earth. It might allow stellar radiation to bombard us or it may wreak havoc on weather patterns. It will almost certainly do some negative things to electronics. Certainly a major event, possibly even cataclysmic if modern electronics are disrupted or all electronic data is corrupted, though unlikely to be “world-ending” as it has happened before in human history. Nothing tells us it's going to happen in 2012, but it is one of the few “possible” candidates.
Climatic Tipping Point: Being the theory that at a certain point in time anthropogenic global warming (AGW) will reach a point that human efforts will find impossible to reverse. Assuming that AGW is a real phenomenon (there is still some dissent) this point may have already happened or could happen at any moment. Either way, it will be impossible to determine when it happened except in hindsight as its effects could take centuries to attract notice. Could happen on 12-21-12, but no one will realize it.
Peak Oil Day: The day that oil production reaches its peak, and declines steadily afterwards. Originally theorized to happen in 1970, the day has been repeatedly delayed by rises in supply and drops in demand, such as the shift to more fuel efficient cars in the '80s. Some people theorize that this already occurred in 2006, leading to the recent surge in oil prices, others theorize that it will happen soon or within the next 50 years. Some people expect the day to be marked with massive strife and warfare, but these consequences lessen the more energy demand has been shifted to other supplies. This could certainly occur on 12-21-12, but with the economic recession and recent rise in awareness of the finite supply of oil more and more systems are shifting to alternate fuel source, further delaying Peak Day.
Religion & Spirituality: 2012
Global consciousness shift: Ranging from Jose Arguelles' and Daniel Pinchbeck's theories of humans spontaneously rising to a new level of enlightenment to the Global Scenario Group's (GSG) “Planetary Phase of Civilization” concept, many sources believe that the human race is headed for a completely new societal structure. While Jose and Daniel believe this will be accompanied by a sudden shift in human understanding and mental faculties (ESP! mind bullets!) precisely on 12-21-12, the GSG's Planetary Phase of Civilization states that global society will make a shift from a world of capitalist nations and consumerist states into a more interconnected society of global institutions, ubiquitous information technology and coresponding shifts in culture and consciousness. The GSG believes that this will be a shift akin to the transition out of the Stone Age, or into the Modern Era. I don't think many will argue that the Human race is making a transition from the era of nation-states and human vulnerability to the environment (as opposed to the other way around), there's no reason to believe that this transition will happen suddenly on a single day.
Christian End Times: Ah, the Coming of Christ, that familiar fall back in the doom-sayer repertoire. Honestly, with it being promised every year, if there's any truth to it they'll eventually get it right. Some vague biblical prophecies have supposedly come true: the re-establishment of the Jewish state, a united European state, and climate change leading to “tribulation events.” But Jesus himself gives us the final word on trying to peg down a specific date: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." Matthew 24:35-36
Science & Technology: 2012
The Technological Singularity: This one is my personal favorite, and while a specific date for it is impossible to pin down, its occurrence is becoming a popular scientific and pseudo-scientific theory. The scientific one goes like this: technological innovations are occurring at an exponentially accelerating rate and while the specific algorithm has yet to be pinned down (though several have tried) they all end at a point where technology advances at the same rate that time passes, essentially at a rate inconceivable by human beings. This would happen because of a great leap in intelligence available, either through seed AI (an artificial intelligence capable of improving itself) or through augmentation of human intelligence through cybernetics, gene therapy or drugs. Most theorists put the date for this change at somewhere between 2005 and 2050. The pseudo-scientific theory, generally referred to as Timewave Zero and originally proposed by Terrence McKenna, constructs the algorithm with data from the I Ching, which McKenna then manipulated to give the end date of 12-21-12. While no scientific data gives any specific date, it does seem that the world is headed towards this point, which could lead from anything to Robot Apocalypse to a Utopia, or simply a different age of history with old problems solved and new problems created.
Being a fan of The Apocalypse (Bring on the zombies! As long as they aren't those freaking scary ones from 28 Days Later.) I honestly went into this investigation hoping to find some truth behind one of these theories of sudden, cataclysmic destruction. Having only found evidence for geomagnetic reversal, the climatic tipping point, Peak Oil Day and the Technological Singularity happening anywhere close to this date, and with none of these even having sufficient evidence to point to a specific year, let alone a single day, I was left a little disappointed. All of this has raised another question in my mind though: Why do so many people portend a sudden, violent end to our world on a yearly basis? My guess is that they're looking for an easy way out. A sudden end is much simpler than a slow decline caused by global environmental degradation, trade collapse and widespread warfare.
Sources and Reference:
The Mayan Calendar:
Finley's Mayan calendar notes, including a "today's date in Mayan" calculator
S. Tonkin's atronomical calculations
Age of Aquarius
Zecharia Sitchin's errors
List of Potentially Hazarous Objects
Hutton's Pole Shift Articles
Discovery Channel's Virtual Supervolcano
Scientific American's “Secrets of Supervolcanos”
G. Glatzmaier: The Geodynamo
The Washington Post on Climatic Tipping Point
Religion & Spirituality:
Arguelles' Galactic Research Institute
Global Scenario Group
Christian End Times projected dates
Science and Technology:
Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
Terence McKenna Land
Online Timewave Zero Calculator
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