In a moment of boredom, I watched a few minutes of this Channel 4 documentary on the Mayan prophecy that the world will end this year.
Prophecies of doom and destruction crop up in all cultures and at all times throughout history, with dire predictions about the end of the world, and even the end of time itself.
But one prophecy stands out from the rest and seems to be gaining more and more credibility: a belief that cataclysmic or transformative events would occur in 2012, pinpointed thousands of years ago in Central America by the Maya.
Film-maker Paul Murton explores what has become known as the ’2012 phenomenon’, travelling to the United States and the rainforests of Guatemala to find out if there is a future after all.
It’s pretty silly stuff. But a couple of interesting things emerged. First, it turns out that the descendent of the Mayans aren’t all that bothered about the prediction, and the end-of-the-world phenomenon seems to be much more located in the West. Second, a woman who runs a company specialising in providing equipment and training necessary to survive the coming apocalypse said that she didn’t want to sound like a religious fundamentalist.
Of course not, she just wanted to make some money. She was referring of course to the ‘End Time’ and ‘Rapture’ movements, in which the Earth will be cleansed of all the nasty people, etc. Unless they’ve bought survival bunkers, of course.
War and conflict was pretty high up on the list of things being discussed. Apparently, war is a sign that The End is upon us. But according to this book (which I’ve just added to my optimists-vs-pessimist-reading list),
the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.
I’m not sure about the cog-sci approach to these questions, but I’m looking forward to reading the book, nonetheless. What needs explaining, then, if Pinker is right that the world is a less violent place than it has been, is why does everybody think it’s all going to hell in a handcart?
The other theme of the Channel 4 documentary was, inevitably, ecological catastrophe. The film itself is unremarkable for its comments. It merely demonstrates the ubiquity of doom in today’s culture. It’s funny how secular liberals have developed their own Rapture movement. I came across a series of online films that reflect precisely that tendency. According to the Youtube channel,
Peak Moment is a biweekly series about resilient, locally reliant living for these challenging times. Programs feature host Janaia Donaldson’s conversations and tours with guests responding to accelerating energy and resource decline, climate chaos, and economic uncertainty.
You can find out what to eat, it seems…
And how to get around town…
And find out how big a house you deserve…
You see, doom has become the measure of all things for some people. It informs their choices about their lives, jobs, relationships, children… Everything. It’s all answered by the doctrine of doom.
I don’t think the claims made by Janaia Donaldson and her associates are worth debunking. They are as absurd as they are unpopular. Few are going to be convinced in the mainstream. There are some fairly extreme cases of environmentalism, but they’re generally completely alienated, rather than influential. What is interesting, however, is to see just how internalised the idea of doom has become for some people — how central it is to their outlook.
Back to the Mayans. If they really were so good at telling the future, it wouldn’t be 2012 they were worried about.