March 9, 2010

Science and Environment

Mayan Mayhem: Is 2012 the End of the World?

Dan Cloer

Reading through the current literature on modern man’s predicament, the question of how to achieve a balance between doomsday pessimism and irresponsible optimism emerges as a central theme. It seems to be in man’s nature to produce polarized viewpoints. . . . To maintain the view that the unrestrained growth of today can be perpetuated for any length of time is unjustifiable. . . . Such growth has taken place in the past, but extinctions are also a fact of the past. In other words, growth will be checked, and the checking by nature involves unpleasant consequences for those being checked. It would be too much to expect any lower form of life to take preventive action. This kind of forethought requires the level of consciousness developed only in humans.”

Peter Gretener, geologist, The Vanishing of a Species?

The concept of an end-time apocalypse punctuates human history. From the book of Revelation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, we gravitate toward anything that seems to give insight into the future.   

End-time connotations inevitably draw our interest. Thus, like a newly discovered celebrity, the Mayan Calendar’s 2012 phenomenon is taking hold—first with a notable documentary in 2008 and accompanying book, 2012 Science or Superstition, in 2009 (both published by the Disinformation Company) and also with the recent major Hollywood release, 2012. Despite its company name, the documentary does give some measure of informative balance to the claims anthropologists make concerning the meaning of the Maya chronology. The big-screen version was less engaging. 

With the tagline, “We were warned,” director/writer Roland Emmerich seemed to be making a bid to portray the worst-case scenario. Adding 2012 to his stable of previous films including Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow (which brought the world, New York, and North America respectively to ruin), Emmerich is making his mark as a modern prophet of doom. But doom sells. 

2012 is the ultimate disaster movie embodying (or disembodying) the best of Emmerich’s penchant for destruction. According to Marc Weigert, the film’s coproducer and visual effects supervisor, “One of the biggest challenges is the sheer number of different types of disasters that happen in the film: earthquakes, fissures opening in the ground, several cities are destroyed, floods, huge volcanic eruptions. And each one of these had to be designed. We had to do research and development for things that had never been done before.” 

Movies do have the capacity to encapsulate great themes and generate deep conversation. According to cowriter Harald Kloser, the challenge and opportunity of a restart, a rebirth of culture (as the Maya believed) is intriguing, especially during difficult times. “Things are going wrong, society isn’t working anymore, and the planet starts over. Some people get a second chance to start a new culture, a new society, a new civilization.” 


The subject of the Maya Long Count Calendar has come to the fore in this ongoing exploration for things of the end: the popularized understanding has this system of timekeeping coming to a close on the December 2012 winter solstice. 

Ancient peoples like the Maya did not understand the physics of the motion of the planets and the galaxies, but they did understand the cyclical nature of the heavens. Although most in the Western world give little thought to the great celestial mechanism of which we are a part, to ancient peoples, life was tied to the sky. This became incorporated into their creation and religious mythologies. The precession, or slow wobble of the Earth on its axis, causes the solstices to occur against a different set of background stars each year. The plane of the tropic and the rising of the sun will occur in what is called the “dark rift” of the Milky Way in 2012. 

According to archaeologists who believe they have successfully overlaid the modern Gregorian calendar with the Mayan, the “grand cycle” of the world comes to completion in 2012. Vincent H. Malmström, of Dartmouth College, writes, “Another interval of time as the Maya conceived it was what we call a ‘grand cycle,’ composed of 13 baktuns, which can likewise be translated as ‘a world.’ If the present world began on August 13, 3114 B.C., then it is due to end on December 23, A.D. 2012, according to the Maya, because that is when the 13th baktun will be complete.” 

John Major Jenkins, independent researcher of all things Maya adds, “For early Mesoamerican skywatchers, the slow approach of the winter solstice sun to the Sacred Tree [the “dark rift”] was seen as a critical process, the culmination of which was surely worthy of being called, the end of a World Age. The channel would then be open through the winter solstice doorway, up the Sacred Tree, the Xibalba be, to the center of the churning heavens, the Heart of Sky.”


While there is much popular interest focused on a prophetic, end-time interpretation of the Long Count calendar, the Maya culture itself collapsed long ago, unraveling long before having an opportunity to see the date that was to them a time of rebirth and renewal, the beginning of a new era. 

UCLA professor of geography Jared Diamond examines the disappearance of the Mayans in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He seeks an explanation for what he calls the overlooked but “obvious facts that cry out” concerning the end of the Mayan civilization—what he calls, “a collapse both of population and of culture that needs explaining.” More than 90 percent of the population disappeared after 800 C.E.; this included the disappearance of kings, Long Count calendars, and other political and cultural institutions.

The Maya mythology embedded in their calendar envisions a coming time of new birth, a refashioning of human consciousness, and an enlightenment of symbiotic connectedness to the planet. Unfortunately, just as many voices warn of our own global plight today, the Maya themselves weren’t listening. They apparently did not let this hope of a rebirth stop them from self-destruction. Diamond offers a sobering two-stroke description to the historic Maya extinction: warfare and drought. These too are descriptive of our time. 

While some archaeologists view the Maya as gentle and peaceful, Diamond contends that “we now know that the Maya warfare was intense, chronic, and unresolvable, because limitation of food supply and transportation made it impossible for any Maya principality to unite the whole region in an empire, in the way that the Aztecs and Incas united Central Mexico and the Andes, respectively.” Complicating matters, says Diamond, “around 760 C.E. there began the worst drought in the last 7,000 years, peaking around the year 800 C.E., and suspiciously associated with the Classic collapse.” 

It is interesting that today we focus great interest on a failed civilization’s calendar. Did the Maya believe that their survival to December 2012 was inevitable, somehow predestined, a part of the greater cosmic scheme? That the people who foresaw this date as significant failed to survive to see its fulfillment is ironic. Were they really giving the rest of us an important clue? 

Maybe in some way they were. If one draws from the story that the Maya disappeared “out-of-time” so to speak, then Diamond’s conclusion as to the cause reverberates today. “We have to wonder,” he writes, “why the kings and nobles failed to recognize and solve these seemingly obvious problems [resource wars and water shortages] undermining their society. Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all those activities. Like most leaders throughout human history, the Maya kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them.” 

In their book The Dominant Animal, Paul and Anne Ehrlich provide the follow-up to Diamond’s discussion. They hope to discover the societal levers that could lift the focus from short-term wants to long-term necessities. Having a better sense of how customs change, they conclude, is at the heart of resolving “today’s human predicament, the threat posed by the great weight of human numbers coupled with our unprecedented technological capacity.” 

“The penalties for continued ignorance, malfeasance, and folly among opinion makers and the leaders of society—indeed, all of us—have escalated enormously, and now those penalties may have global rather than merely local or regional consequences. We have utterly changed our world; now we’ll have to see if we can change our ways.”


Whether one believes the biblical passages concerning a worldwide flood, or the anthropologists’ tales of a migratory bottleneck out of Africa 50,000 years ago, events of our past may have imprinted on us a concern for the future. Down through time we seem to be an ever-anxious species. This is of course no different today: we are pummeled with new ways of extinction. To believe that one is living in a time period prior to the cataclysmic or apocalyptic hinge of history is a very contagious thought. It is a stimulating thought, both exciting and threatening. 

While this concern may lead to fearfulness about future events, the pessimistic view is not the only view. The disciples, for instance, did not ask Jesus for a sign of the end out of fear but out of anticipation. The belief that one is living on the cusp of a new world is a ubiquitous and long-lived theme found in human cultures, including the Maya. Scenarios of the culmination of end-time events also change and mutate to take on contemporary trappings as in the movies. 

While end-time biblical passages are often dismissed for their obscure meaning, they too are often updated and given modern contexts. For instance, the apostle John’s startling first-century vision of “locusts” like horses prepared for battle “their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lion’s teeth,” breastplates of iron and the sound of their wings “like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle,” (Revelation 9:7–9) is often today reimaged as helicopter gunships or similar modern instruments of warfare. 

The good that will come from the horrific collapse that is the final fulfillment of these prophecies—a restoration of all things, a refurbished Earth, and an opportunity for all humans to know their potential as children of God (Revelation 21)—is often overlooked. But this message of a new beginning has become more compelling as the conditions of the world and human relationships have continued to deteriorate over the millennia. A time of rebirth, as the Maya cosmically conjured and the Bible assures is the ultimate plan of God, will lift humankind past the crisis of our own making. 

As philosophers, religionists and scientists have recognized, we need to change our way of living. “If the term Homo sapiens remains the designation for a mechanical genius and a spiritual imbecile, the fate of the species is sealed,” said the late University of Calgary geologist, Peter Gretener. “After the agricultural and industrial-scientific revolutions, it is now time for the Human Revolution.” 

Although we will bring ourselves to the brink of destruction, the Bible promises that our Creator will preserve us. A revolution is on the horizon; while we can see the necessity of it, we are powerless to make it happen and forever unaware of its timing. Nevertheless, we can individually seek and apply the ways of God which are timeless and available to all who seek them out.