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2012: Apocalypse Fatigue

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By:Noah Nelson

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Photo Credit: Image: NASA/Public Domain

Earth: it was fun while it lasted.

Today is the beginning of the final countdown. We've got just 366 days -- thank you leap year -- until a comet strikes the planet, a massive solar flare microwaves the globe, and sentient machine life evolves into the avatar of the Old Gods and does away with the pestilence that is mankind. Alternatively you may believe we've actually due for a new Golden Age when the Mayan calendar cycles back around.

If I was a professional skeptic and dedicated materialist, I'd begin to chastise those who hold to the belief that something big is coming down the pipeline a year from now. There would be a flogging of believers so that we could make way for a cool, bloodless rationality and get to the serious business of dealing with the very scary problems we have here in the "real" world, and to stop spreading myths and get down to facts.

But there's a slight problem with dismissing myth.

The late mythologist Joseph Campbell liked to say that a "myth was a metaphor." For Campbell, the stories that make up myths contain key psychological insights and moral lessons that shape society. It is the lynchpin of a Romantic view of the world, one that the poet Muriel Rukeyser summed up in The Speed of Darkness with the line "the Universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

Our society's collective obsession with the end of the world seems to be hardwired in. What makes 2012 particularly interesting is that it feels like the last in the current series of predicted apocalypses, which began with the Y2K panic (remember that one?) running right up to the proclamation by Harold Camping that the Rapture was due earlier this year.

New Age psychedelic consciousness explorers -- and I don't intend that term as a pejorative, mind you -- like Terrence McKenna have done a lot to popularize the idea that the end of the Mayan calendar signals a tectonic shift in our culture. The overall message is a positive one. If economic globalization is the downside of a connected world, then an expansion of empathy is required to make our increasingly interdependent world one worth living in. In broad terms, they envision a transformation of society from that of a bunch of selfish actors exclusively pursuing their own interests to one where individuality and collective interest are balanced in our decision-making: shades of a cyber-psychedelic utopia.

Yet you can't put the idea of the "end of the world as we know it" out there without some people losing track of the "as we know it" and obsessing over the "end". When that happens, you get to some pretty dark places, pretty quickly.

A CHILD'S FEAR

Bill Hudson is an information systems manager ("I'm basically a glorified computer geek") and amateur astronomer who gives presentations on the science of astronomy to elementary students in California.

"About three years ago I [started] getting these really strange questions about 2012," said Hudson. "At first I blew them off, but then I started thinking about them a little bit. That's basically how I got into the whole 2012 debunking thing: kids were hearing about it, and asking me about it, and that set me down this path."

The "2012 debunking thing" that Hudson speaks of is the 2012hoax.net wiki, where Hudson and a group of like-minded editors collect 2012 theories and apply a generous dose of scientific facts to the claims. Hudson sees the hype that has been built around 2012 as a real problem.

"I think [the 2012 obsession is] dangerous in a couple of different ways," Hudson said. "The first way that it's dangerous is there are a lot of people who are susceptible to the belief in this kind of thing. We've already had suggestions or reports of people, especially young [people], who are in vulnerable states already, harming themselves. We had one woman post to the forums on the website that her daughter attempted suicide. I think it's dangerous from that standpoint.

"I think it's also dangerous from the standpoint that it's the focus of a lot of generalized anxiety. People are generally anxious about things whether that's the economy or you know, political situations or whatever, and when people are in that state they tend to focus on something like this."

During our conversation I suggested to Hudson that what we see in cultural fights over 2012 is the latest battleground in the battle between the Romantic/spiritual worldview and the Enlightenment/rational approach. Hudson parried that notion with a personal fact I found surprising.

"I hesitate to place it just on critical thinking and religion or what you termed the Enlightenment-type of thinking and more religious thinking," Hudson told me. "I'm a religious person. I'm a Christian. I think that a lack of the ability to self-examine your beliefs is a big part of this. From my own standpoint, as a Christian, I have certain beliefs that I understand are not scientific. But on the other hand, I'm willing to say, 'I believe this. I might be wrong and that's okay.' And I don't really see that in a lot of other people. I don't really see that ability to say 'Hey, I could be wrong here.'

"Science is self-correcting. Meaning that science understands that it could be wrong. Somebody could come along with a better theory and replace Einstein any day. Probably not gonna happen, but it's possible."

I pressed Hudson: as a Christian, did he believe in the prophecies in the Book of Revelation, long the obsession of Evangelical Christians here in the United States?

"What I will say will run counter to most American Protestant denominations," said Hudson. "I don't view the book of revelations as a prophecy of the future so much as it was a warning by John of Patmos to the Church about the corruption and the persecution of the Christians under the Roman empire. So it was a contemporary narrative which is what prophecy originally meant. That word prophecy meant preaching about the current situation, the current narrative that was happening at the moment and not necessarily what was happening in the future."

Indeed, the drift in the meaning of the word prophecy from "preaching" to "prediction" is one way that our understanding of sacred texts in the world has become muddled. As it is with a modern priest or astrologer, a Mayan day keeper -- the priest who interpreted the sacred calendars -- had a duty to his community to interpret divine will for application in the moment.

A PROPHECY OF CHANGE

Daniel Pinchbeck has a unique role in the popularization of 2012 as a significant year. His book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, is a record of his explorations of shamanic and metaphysical belief systems. Because of his investigations into Mayan traditions, and of course the name of the book, Pinchbeck is often spoken of in conjunction with the "doomsday" scenarios.

Nothing could be farther from his actual message concerning what 2012 represents.

"I've only and always, and over and over again, said that I don't believe that anything literally dramatic at all is going to happen on that date."

What we find in Pinchbeck -- who for all intents and purposes is the heir to Terrence McKenna in the psychedelic tradition -- is something a lot closer to the use of prophecy in the sense of preaching and less in terms of prediction. If the popular fascination with the date is about a collective desire for change that can address the massive challenges humanity faces -- of climate change, income inequality, and a staggering concentration of power in the hands of a few souls -- then Pinchbeck's message is gospel ("good news") indeed.

"I don't think we're on the verge of a massive shift; I think we're in that shift," Pinchbeck told me. "I think we're already in that prophetic change over and the 'We' that can't confront the climate change is the system that now exists, which is the capitalist system, which has become the world's dominant paradigm. The system of the ego structure, the hierarchy and the centralized secretive model of control. All that stuff is what's beginning to break down, and what has to emerge is the coherent alternative. Which I think the Occupy movement is pointing towards."

Pinchbeck, who lives in New York City, has been following that movement closely.

"The Occupy movement is less to me a protest movement and more a constructive movement seeking to build a direct democratic decision-making infrastructure based on consensus. That's a real challenge; it's kind of the open-source model challenging the hierarchical, secretive centralized model that really dominates."

While Pinchbeck emphatically discounts a cosmic event happening on Dec. 21, 2012, he isn't ignoring the focused attention it provides.

"The date, because it's become kind of fixed in the popular consciousness in whatever fashion provides an opportunity," he tells me. "So I've been working with a group to do a global spectacle event on that day."

The group, Unify Earth, has the motto "what we can imagine, we can create" on their website. The centerpiece of the site is an interactive Google map where individuals and groups can organize gatherings on that date. If one goal is to create a more connected, democratic future, then as the Occupy movement has reminded us, the first step is to get people off their computers and speaking face to face again.

CONNECTIVITY IS A DOUBLE EDGED SWORD

Human society evolves rapidly, but human beings themselves have the same basic needs, physically and emotionally, that they have had for millennia. Our myths and prophecies, in the classical sense, provide individuals and our culture with guidebooks for interpreting events in emotional terms.

The fascination with a 2012 Apocalypse/Consciousness Evolution is both a reflection of our rapidly changing society and a product of those changes.

"I think that the change since Y2K really has to do more with the availability of social networking on the internet," said Bill Hudson. "The ability to communicate these things broadly. So there have always been the Harold Campings of the world. Think back to history and we talk about the Millerites and the foundation of the 7th Day Adventist church. They have always been around. I kind of think that it's just the availability of the broad communication."

The pervasiveness of online communication means that fear and paranoia can spread quickly, as easily as a video file can leak around the globe. This is balanced by what we have seen in the Arab Spring, where social media was instrumental in breaking the backs of tyrants.

"The question," said Pinchbeck, "is whether the new social technologies of communication and collaboration can kind of overturn the dominant model."

The price we pay for the chance to change, it seems, is the perennial night terror that crawls up out of our collective unconscious. Resisting change is as much a part of being human as the inevitability of change is part of being alive. It comes as no surprise that a technological advance as disruptive as the internet should bring with it the full spectrum of humanity's hopes and fears.

In the DNA of the 2012 myth is a sketch of a global society connected by technology and concerned with the challenges humanity faces as a species: climate change, famine, poverty, and the creeping class divide. Very real problems that, while they may not be as dramatic as a comet strike, could very well have just as much of an impact if left unchecked. To give one example, futurist John Shirley points out in a TEDXBrussles talk that when scientists argue we are in the five-year window to reverse climate change, no one can reasonably believe that the political will exists to adapt in time.

In this sense, the 2012 prophecies hew close to the old school definition of the word. They serve as a warning to humanity whose message is as old as life itself: evolve or die.

Originally published on Turnstylenews.com, a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists.

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