I have bad news. The world is going to end. But I also have good news. Probably not anytime soon.
It’s only a very recent, very wrong and arguably very wilful misinterpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar to conclude it ends on 21 December 2012. And that even if their “long count” does stop then, there’s no more reason to think it will immediately lead to a planet-wide liquidation sale than if your desk calendar reaches the end of the year before you’ve bought a new one.
Even Nasa – who ought to have plenty on their hands looking for traces of life on Mars – have weighed in to apply logical to the eschatological by publishing Beyond 2012: Why the World Won’t End. There’s no need to recap here on the details of their argument – suffice to say that after reading it only the most hardcore conspiracy nut would still have worries about an upcoming end of everything. The more interesting question – at least for me – is why so many, so often, are drawn to these tales of impending destruction? Why do we seem to want it to be the end of days, and to have the apocalypse, now?
The doom-mongers are only around to – probably – be wrong about the world ending on 21 December this year, because they’d already been wrong about it ending in 2003, when the entirely fictional planet Nibiru was first supposed to collide with us. And wrong about it ending on 31 December 1999 simply because of an arbitrary change of date that wasn’t even the end of the millennium. And wrong about it ending on at least six other dates in the 1990s. And also wrong about it ending at least two or three times every single decade until at least the 1840s, with evidence of scores of other more sporadic global false alarms stretching right back to ancient Rome.
Not that I’m suggesting it’s the same spread-betting catastrophists backing all of these options – although there are some groups and people like the Bible Student Movement and US Christian broadcaster Harold Camping who have come up with multiple off-beam predictions. But collectively it means that at any given time there is always a supposed terminal cataclysm just around the corner, causing distress to the gullible and vulnerable.
Just in case anyone is thinking that won’t be the case once we make it past 21 December , there are already apocalyptic predictions about various subsequent dates. My favourite is the one best summed up in the London Evening Standard headline, “The world will end in 2060, according to Newton”. Now it’s true that besides being one of the greatest scientific geniuses, Sir Isaac did have some odd beliefs. But the world ending in 2060 isn’t one of them. The “prediction” derives from a letter he wrote in 1704 “to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end” – even back then this nonsense was clearly common. In it Newton says he can’t see any reason why the world would end before 2060, “it may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner”, and explicitly states “this I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be”. Despite being so clear he’s writing on a not-for-prophet basis, type “Newton end of the world” into Google and you’ll get over 50 million hits.