The world didn't come to an end on May 21, 2011.
It failed to end again in October of the same year, much to the chagrin of radio evangelist Harold Camping, who has now sworn off predicting altogether. It was the latest in an apparently endless stream of prophesies naming the date of the Apocalypse. These predictions have historically been the province of seers, through esoteric reading of signs and portents and de-coding the Bible.
But now the warnings of the end of the world come from another, more worrying source -- the scientific community. As Scientific American said in an issue devoted to doomsday predictions in 2010, "You might think that the enterprise of science, with its methods and its facts, would inoculate us against the most extravagant doomsday obsessions. But it doesn't. If anything, it just gives us more to worry about."
The confluence of mystical and scientific reflections on the end times has reached a climax in 2012. The most widely-touted marker of the year's significance is the "long-count" Mayan calendar, which runs out on December 21st after 5,225 years. Even though subsequent research seems to indicate that a new calendar was meant to begin on that day, the popular imagination has been gripped.
Meanwhile, there has been new and worrying news from astrophysicists, geologists and medical researchers. The likelihood of being struck by a death-dealing asteroid had been dismissed as negligible until new information revealed that even the smallest space rocks can have devastating effects, and that these objects -- unlike larger asteroids -- can't be spotted until it's too late to prepare. The huge caldera in Yellowstone Park, a pot of molten rock lying just below the surface, seems to be bulging. It erupts every 600,000 years or so, with species-ending consequences, as we now know. It last erupted 640,000 years ago, so we're overdue.
There's more bad news from the medical establishment. The war against the bacteria that have always threatened humanity seemed to have been won with the discovery of antibiotics. Recent warnings from labs reveal that the bugs are winning through rapid mutation that outstrips the development of new drugs. The specter of deadly illness, once thought unlikely, is now understood to be lurking again.
The list goes on, with some doom scenarios more likely than others: earthquakes may have their origins in outer space, brought about by gamma wave pulses; robots show signs of lethal disobedience; estrogen pollution threatens fertility and may destroy coral reefs; diseases may arrive from outside the Earth's atmosphere. Once, all we had to worry about was superstitious ideas from sandal-wearing prophets. Now even the folks in white lab smocks are scaring us.
But is there really anything new in all this? If we had listened, wouldn't the scientists of all ages given us something to fear?
The philosopher Michel Foucault described himself as an "archeologist" of ideas. He said that he wasn't interested in whether or not something was true in any particular period of history; what he wanted to know was why people thought it was true. Applied to the present, we have the question: why are so many people expecting doomsday now?
Theories abound. One suggestion is that Doom is more exciting. That it would be more fun to go during an apocalypse than being hit by a crosstown bus or succumbing to a routine ailment. Used as a magic charm to ward off plain old death, Doom might actually be useful to people increasingly aware of their own inevitable demise.
Another, more chilling explanation, came from an article in Scientific American. This says that, as creatures of the savannah, equipped by our evolution to notice the smallest elements in our surroundings, we are subconsciously aware of impending events before they occur. So, goes this line of reasoning, we're right. Something is about to happen.
When we began to write and draw The Coffee Table Book of Doom, we wanted to address these questions. Why are the papers and online journals so loaded with material about the many ways we might become extinct? Could it be that we have a secret love affair with the idea of Doom? And, if so, isn't that hilarious?
It seems reasonable to assume that rapid change in the technology and the fabric of society gives rise to anxiety. A new interest in ancestry and ethnic roots appears. Fundamentalists enjoy a revival. People look around for something unchanging to cling to. It isn't surprising that this general unease feels like the end of something. Maybe like the end of everything.
It is said that, just before earthquakes, birds stop singing. Dogs howl. Maybe they are reacting to subtle changes in the very ground beneath them, long before the conscious mind is aware of them.
Could it be that that is what is happening to us?