Apocalypse Right Now

Who doesn't love a good 2012 apocalypse throwback? In this article, we invite you to revisit that collective sigh of relief that humanity shared when we realized we were safe from the end of the world. 

But don't dwell on relief for too long. Phoebe Parker-Shames argues that  we get into much more danger when we allow our fantasies about the apocalypse or lack thereof to get out of hand. Faced with the imminent end of the world, some people allowed their apocalyptic convictions  to incentivize them to end their lives, while others fell victim to their fear of death and denied  mortality entirely. Either way, it seems like humans are pretty illogical when faced with the end.

Though our conception of armageddon is perhaps less cartoonish today than it was when this article was written, our awareness of the end of the world is equally present—most of us know that we're running out of time to save ourselves from climate change. Maybe we can learn a lesson about environmental action from the hypocrisy of doomsday cults.

Inevitable Issue, 2013

Almost exactly a month ago, I stood in the middle of an ancient Mayan city. I stared at the pyramidal platforms that once held wooden houses and the wide city square that had been laid and leveled stone-by-stone over hundreds of years of physical labor. Despite my friends’ Facebook jokes about the impending apocalypse scheduled for December 21, I had survived to see the New Year and had made it to Belize.

I first heard about the Mayan calendar when I was in middle school. One of my friends told me that someone discovered a part of the calendar that predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks (supposedly, it said that metal birds would fall out of the sky in a city to the north and bring destruction, but this was also around the same time that my friends believed that if you folded a $20 bill correctly, it provided evidence that the U.S. government had actually orchestrated the attacks). I didn’t hear much else about it until a few years ago when my friends started talking about December 21, 2012 as the end of the world.

As with many Internet-based phenomena, it’s hard to trace the origins of the doomsday theory to its roots. According to KnowYourMeme.com, a website that investigates the origins of online trends, web searches for the phrases “2012 doomsday,” “2012 maya,” “age of aquarius,” and “nibiru” (the last two tie into New Age interpretations of the Mayan apocalypse myth that posit the Earth would collide with an alien planet on that date) began to increase in 2005, with spikes at the end of 2009, January 2012 and, of course, December 2012. The website traced the origin of the apocalypse myth to Michael D. Coe’s 1966 book, "The Maya," which claimed that the Mayan calendar predicted Armageddon would occur at the end of the ~5000 year calendar, on the nal day of the 13th Baktun.

Most Mayan scholars do not agree with this interpretation. Some critics of the theory (including Randall Munroe in his webcomic "xkcd") argue that it is as ludicrous as if someone looked at one of our wall calendars, noticed that it ended on Dec. 31, and declared it the end of the world instead of simply going out and buying a new calendar.

Nonetheless, the concept gained wide interest. On New Year’s Eve 2012, some of my friends were still saying that we’d better enjoy ourselves because it was our last chance. The Colorado College class of 2013 shirt is emblazoned with a Mayan-themed logo and the words “Party like they were right, hope that they were wrong.”

The phenomenon wasn’t limited to the United States either. The breakdown of related web searches shows a high online interest in Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Norway, Canada, Malaysia and many others (though, interestingly, almost none from Central or South America). The Mayan apocalypse theories were also very popular in China. According to The Guardian, the Chinese government arrested 500 apocalypse believers from the Church of the Almighty God, and Wikipedia claims the number could be up to a thousand.

The end of the Mayan Long Count calendar meant something else entirely to the Maya themselves, however.

Aurora Saquí is a renowned Mayan healer and one of few women to hold such a position. She learned how to find medicinal plants in the jungle from her uncle and how to shoot a cigar off a clothesline from her father when she was little. I met her in Cockscomb Wildlife Basin, Belize, when she came to speak with our Tropical Ecology block abroad. She told us about her background, including her spiritual and political beliefs. She said that she did believe that the end of the Mayan calendar was a significant event, but that no one in Belize had ever thought it would be the end of the world. Instead, she viewed it as a positive transition that heralded a new era of equality between men and women.

Aurora’s husband, Ernesto Saquí, who used to be the manager of Cockscomb and still helps run the reserve, also had something to say about the Mayan apocalypse. On our very first night in Belize, he told us that there had been some giant parties at various Mayan ruins on Dec. 21 and that many of the ancient cities had been damaged.

Fox Latino, The Huffington Post and New York Daily News reported that tourists in Guatemala irreparably damaged one of the most iconic Mayan archeological ruins and a UNESCO world heritage site, Tikal National Park. Numerous Mayan ruins across Central America opened their sites to partying doomsdayers in order to make a little money off of the apocalypse craze. The International Business Times reported that tourists (including Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla) disrespected many traditional restrictions at Tikal: they flew private helicopters onto the site, placed lights on the temples for better illumination, used the plaza as an auditorium and illegally climbed the two main temples. The New York Daily News quoted Carla Molina, president of Guatemala City-based Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, who said that they “hijacked the park and made it their own private event.” Additionally, the indigenous Maya people in the area who were attempting to hold a ceremony at the ruins were refused entry, and protested outside the park.

Regardless of whether or not the partygoers were “true believers” in the Mayan apocalypse, they got caught up in the moment. In the end, they caused permanent damage to an ancient historical site that is of great archeological and cultural importance to a large number of people.

As shameful as I find the results of the Dec. 21 revelry to be, especially after meeting a few of the remaining Maya descendants in Belize and seeing how much they value such sites, I still think it could’ve been a lot worse. 

Doomsday cults—groups that believe in a prophesied end of the world—are not new, and some of the most infamous examples have done much more harm than damage ancient ruins. In 1978, 907 people committed “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the cult community of Jonestown, Guyana at the urging of their leader Jim Jones (many, including the few survivors, consider the deaths a mass murder rather than suicide). Jones used apocalyptic images to encourage his followers to not fear death; on the infamous “death tape” that recorded the event, Jones tells his followers that, “Death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you—if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.

In 2000, the leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God blew up their church in Uganda on the day they predicted to be the apocalypse. For 530 of its followers, the world really did end that day.

Another group is the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph), which bases its doctrines off of an end of the world scenario inspired by ideas of nuclear holocaust, Christianity, Nostradamus and strange interpretations of Yoga philosophy. In 1995, they used a volatile nerve agent, sarin gas, to attack the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 people, injuring 50, and causing temporary vision problems for almost a thousand more.

A group called Heaven’s Gate from San Diego, Calif. believed that the Earth was going to be destroyed and the only way to escape the destruction was to give up the trappings of their everyday lives (such as families, jobs and possessions) in order to be prepared to leave Earth at the proper time. That time came on March 20, 1997, with the passing of comet Hale-Bopp, which they believed was accompanied by an alien spacecraft. However, they believed that only their souls could board the craft. Thirty-seven members committed suicide by ingesting cyanide, arsenic, Phenobarbital and vodka and tying plastic bags around their heads. Their bodies were discovered six days later with $5.75 in each of their pockets for the interplanetary toll.

These examples stretch far back into history as well. “The apocalyptic vision is quite old,” CC psychology professor John Horner said. “If you read Revelations you see it there, but also throughout much of history, different groups thought they were living in apocalyptic times, so I don’t think of it as anything new. Why people are so interested in it, I don’t know—probably the same reason why they’re interested in Survivor or football; it’s part of the social consciousness, and people pay attention to it.”

Psychologists, sociologists, and religious scholars have pointed to a number of different concepts such as cognitive dissonance and rationalization, or Terror Management Theory to try to make sense of apocalyptic beliefs. These theories primarily center on how someone might believe in something that they would ordinarily see as false or contradictory because of their fear of death and desire for social acceptance.

“We realize our own mortality,” Horner explained. “In surveys, older people tend to think about apocalyptic ideas more than younger people do, so maybe they’re projecting their own mortality onto other people or the planet in general.”

In 1956, social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter conducted a study on a UFO cult before and after its predicted apocalypse failed to occur. Interestingly enough, they found that the group only got more fanatical after the failed doomsday. The three psychologists published a book on the subject, called "When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World" that outlines how these groups form and stay together, even when their prophecies do not come to fruition.

The psychologists outline five conditions under which followers usually show increased fervor and commitment after their beliefs are challenged: 1) The belief must be a strong one and must influence how the person behaves; 2) The person must have committed themselves in a way that is difficult to undo (often giving up personal possessions, jobs, family, etc); 3) The belief must be one that can actually be disproved (if the world does not end, for instance); 4) This “undeniable disconformity” must be recognized by the person; and 5) The person must have social support—a large part of why these groups often persist after the failure of the event.

“The church in which I grew up had been based on an apocalyptic prediction and when it didn’t happen there were different ways of dealing with it,” Horner said. “But it was to make up a story about why it didn’t happen: ‘By our righteousness we postponed it,’ or ‘We have only been given borrowed time.’”

What is interesting about the Mayan apocalypse theory is that, unlike so many other previous doomsday movements, it mostly existed online, rather than as part of a social group or cult. The Huffington Post interviewed Stephen Kent, a sociologist from the University of Alberta, about the potential fallout of the Mayan non-apocalypse for believers. “The isolated individuals who encounter these predictions on the Internet may be terribly alone,” he said. Kent tied the potential trauma for believers to the concept that doomsdays can help people cope with mortality. Many people who believe in doomsday scenarios also believe that their knowledge will help them survive the end, but when the end doesn’t come, they are forced to realize that they will die in the same way as everyone else.

Ultimately, despite how unbelievable doomsday cults may be, they are not wholly unrelatable. When people talk about how the Maya supposedly predicted the end of our world, part of the mystique lies in the fact that the Mayan civilization really did end. They were once a powerful, sophisticated society—with cities, a written language, sports, commerce, and travel—that was at its peak for 500 years. Yet, last month, I walked through the deserted city of Lubaantun: once a regional Mayan capital, now an ancient ruin in the middle of the jungle.

In his book "Collapse," Jared Diamond uses the Maya as a cautionary tale for our own society. “Lest anyone be misled into thinking that crashes are a risk only for small peripheral societies in fragile areas, the Maya warn us that crashes can also befall the most advanced and creative societies.” The Maya suffered from issues not unlike those we face in the United States and other countries as well: population density, environmental degradation, climate change, political corruption, and war.

On some level, we all know that human civilization will one day end. We have seen the rise and fall of so many societies and have seen how their collapses can be rapid and absolute. On a biological level, there are more species that have gone extinct than currently exist on Earth. Not only can we not hold on to the idea that the United States will continue in perpetuity, but we are also confronted with the fact that the human race itself is limited just like every other form of life.

“That’s an apocalyptic vision in and of itself,” Horner said. “We all know that most of the species that have ever existed on the planet have gone away, and it doesn’t take much extrapolation to believe that the same will happen to ourselves.”

None of that matters, however, because the whole universe has an expiration date, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics and our good friend entropy. This law of physics essentially states that isolated systems will always increase in entropy, moving towards thermodynamic equilibrium. Not only does this kill the possibility of perpetual motion machines, but it also may kill the universe itself. This is because when the entire universe reaches a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, there will be no more potential energy or really any energy at all, such that any processes that require work (life, for instance) would cease. This concept has been around since the 1850s and is called the Heat Death of the Universe. Of course, this will only occur after all black holes have decayed (so make sure you have all your affairs wrapped up in the next 10100 years). Nonetheless, a time limit on life itself is still a pretty big deal.

The point is, ultimately, that we all know that the end of the world isn’t as implausible as “doomsday crackpots” make it sound. In some ways, our reactions to real problems are often similarly illogical.

In the face of fires, hurricanes, and floods, there are almost always people who refuse to evacuate. This was the case with Hurricane Irene in 2011, the flooding of Vau i Dejes dam in Albania in 2010, California’s Gold Canyon Fire in 2009, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and even our own Waldo Canyon Fire last summer. Perhaps the most famous example, as Horner mentioned, was Harry R. Truman, the man who lived on the edge of Mt. St. Helens, who refused to leave and was killed when it erupted. “There are people who, for whatever reason, just keep going down the line when things are happening. The 2008 financial crisis is a perfect example, because there were people who knew they were making a mistake and yet they kept doing it,” Horner said.

On a larger scale, global climate change really does have the capacity to end our world as we know it and may severely impact humanity within our lifetime. Yet, the response from people so far has overwhelmingly been one of willful ignorance.

Why would some people make up visions of an apocalypse while others refuse to accept the destruction in front of them? I think it all ties in to our fear of death and the myriad ways we react and cope with that fear. But we still have a choice in our reaction.

Horner’s childhood church has changed its tone over time as well. “By the time I was a member of the church in the 1960s, they had developed a very wise approach to the end time,” Horner said. “They preached that no one knows when the end will come. So it is best not to worry about it.” The church focused instead on living a good life with honor and dignity.

It’s hard to know what we can take away from stories of suicide, mortality, insanity, doom and disappointment, but one positive lesson we can learn from the doomsday cults is the power we have as a social group to effect change.

The end of the Mayan calendar was not the end of the world. We know that now. But perhaps we can finally listen to the Maya themselves and take this year as a new beginning. Perhaps we can transform our fear of death into a productive tool to help us combat the real world-ending forces we face.

Archival Issue | March 2019