The Mayans have been getting some great press lately. They've cornered the market on apocalyptic predictions, at least for this week. But the truth is, the end has been nigh for centuries. Like a global death wish, humanity has been obsessed with predicting the devastating end of the world since the beginning and always has an open ear when someone announces they've figured out the exact date when it all goes boom.
Though Jesus is quoted in Matthew as saying, "No one knows about the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven," scrutinizing scriptures in search of clues to Doomsday has been a popular Christian pastime since the first century. And the continued success of the Left Behind books and other end-time adventures are evidence that the trend continues. A recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 15% of Americans believe the world-ending events described in the Bible will take place within their lifetime. Jesus' disciples believed the same thing.
Unfortunately, if you believe the Earth's days are numbered, you start treating the planet like a rented car. One Christian friend told me protecting the environment is the equivalent of polishing the brass on the Titanic.
But it's not just the religious marking up the calendars. Physicists and astronomers have often described a catastrophic event bound to destroy us all. From Halley's comet to the alignment of the planets to rouge super-colliders, men and women of science have repeatedly declared the imminent end and found themselves wrong.
Whatever the source, when people believe the world is about to end, they do silly things. History is littered with apocalyptic panics in which enthusiasts give away their savings, leave their families, and even commit murder in the belief that there won't be a tomorrow. Then comes the apocalyptic hangover, the awkward day-after-the-last-day when people wake up to find the world still intact.
So if this weekend you attend an End-of-the-World Party or toast the final days of this poor globe, you'll be participating in an age-old human tradition - celebrating an end of the world that doesn't happen... yet.
Owen Egerton is the author of the new book Everyone Says That at the End of the World.