We are doomed. Are we doomed? December 21, 2012 is 12 days away. The world will end on that day, says the ancient Mayan calendar. Or does it say that? Whether it does or not (most experts now agree it does not) other dangers loom — a fatal “galactic alignment,” a mysterious wandering planet on a collision course with Earth, solar storms, breakaway continents resulting from “pole shift.” Or are these chimeras? Sober science urges calm — in vain. An apocalyptic mood is upon us (not for the first time in human history), with millions worldwide fearing the worst — or hoping for the best, for might not ultimate good, in the form of a better world, ultimately arise from ultimate catastrophe?
God created the world and saw that it was good, as the Bible tells us. But it wasn’t, as the Bible also tells us. Soon God wanted to destroy his creation.
He did destroy it.
Not once. Many times.
At least five before humanity was even born. Scientists recognize five mass extinctions. The first was 430 million years ago. The last, 65 million years ago, was the one that killed the dinosaurs.
Eons passed. Humans evolved, or were created. We didn’t turn out well. “The lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth,” says the Biblical book of Genesis. A massive flood would wash out the stain. Only one man and his immediate family were worthy of survival.
We owe our own survival to that one righteous man, Noah. Or to Utnapishtim, his counterpart in an eerily similar ancient Sumerian myth recorded in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” circa 2700 B.C. Or to Manu, lone survivor of a world-destroying flood described in the Hindu Vedas, of comparable antiquity.
Floods seem to have been the primal terror of early humans. Not earthquakes, or predatory beasts, or starvation or disease. Certainly not, as in our own day, environmental blight and catastrophic climate change; still less, presumably, arcane calculations based on ancient cryptic prophetic writings — Biblical, Mayan or otherwise.
The Sumerian flood story has the gods exasperated not by mankind’s evil but by his obnoxious profusion. There were too damned many of us. We disturbed the gods’ peace. And so, “Errakal (god of the underworld) tore out the mooring posts of the world. . . . Adad (god of thunderstorms) flooded the land, he smashed it like a clay pot!” Later the gods themselves “became frightened of the deluge, they shrank back. . . . The gods cowered like dogs. . . . Ishtar (goddess of sex, love and war) screamed like a woman in childbirth.” Never again, the chastened gods resolved, would they unleash such horror. Next time, “Instead of bringing on a flood, let the lion rise up to diminish the human race! . . . Let the wolf rise up to diminish the human race! . . . Let famine rise up to wreak havoc in the land. . . . Let pestilence rise up to wreak havoc in the land!”
The Biblical God’s withdrawal of his wrath was more dignified: “God said in his heart, Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”
That sounds like the end of our story. But of course it isn’t.
‘Now or Never” is a fittingly apocalyptic title. The book that bears it was written in 2009 by the eminent Australian climatologist Tim Flannery. He writes, “Our despoliation of Earth’s life support systems seems to mark us as the destroyer of our own civilization, and as the planetary crisis deepens, it is certain that no savior will ride across the cosmos to rescue us from ourselves.”
“This is most emphatically not a counsel of despair,” he adds. “No savior” doesn’t mean no salvation — only that we must save ourselves.
Some people take that literally. They are called survivalists. They were profiled in The Washington Post in September as “a loose national movement of individuals who advocate self-sufficiency in the face of natural or manmade disasters.” Their main fears are that “the electrical grid could fail tomorrow. Food would disappear from the shelves. Water would no longer flow from the pipes. Money might become worthless. People could turn on each other, and millions would die.”
The survivalists’ answer is self-sufficiency — build cabins in the woods, learn to live off the land, stockpile anything you can’t grow. One prominent survivalist is Roscoe Bartlett, an 86-year-old U.S. congressman. His own “off-grid” cabin is in a West Virginia wilderness. “I enjoy being isolated,” he says. “And I ask myself, you know, if the world fell apart, I wouldn’t know it here, would I?”
Good for him. That’s not, of course, what Flannery had in mind. His “salvation” involves reversing climate change before it becomes irreversible. Not much progress has been made since the landmark but limited and expiring Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. Time is very short. “I think there is now a better than even risk,” writes Flannery, “that, despite our best efforts in the coming two or three decades, Earth’s climate system will pass the point of no return.”
We humans have a strange relationship with this little world of ours — this “pale blue dot,” to paraphrase the late astronomer Carl Sagan. We’ve never lived anywhere else, and yet we are not fully at home here. Thousands of years of civilization have blunted but not eradicated our most primitive emotions, two of which are blind fear and blind hope. Near or distant, the end is always in view. We greet the prospect with dread or with joy, sometimes with both at once — dread of annihilation, joy because “the next world” will surely (we hope) be a better one, at least for good people.
So the prospect we face at the close of this year — of the world ending in a matter of days — is nothing new, except that now there are scientists to assure us it’s all bunk. Imagine our remotest ancestors, without such assurance, without a well-developed rational faculty, for whom every day’s twilight, every onset of winter, would descend like the awful beginning of the awful end. Something of the primeval panic was captured — much later — in the ancient Greek myth of Demeter, goddess of corn, whose boundless grief at the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, god of death, turned fertile soil barren. No crops grew, mankind faced extinction, until Zeus, god of gods, intervened personally and demanded Hades surrender Persephone for nine months of every year. The three winter months are those the poor child must continue to spend in the netherworld.
Across the Mediterranean from Greece lay the land of Israel, where, circa 800-600 B.C., the prophets Isaiah (there were two) had other, happier visions of the end of the world. Their visions glowed with promise. The world was harsh but would be made gentle. Man was evil but would be reborn good. “Behold,” God said, “I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered… The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” Men “will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
A similar vision animates the Book of Revelation (“Apokalipsis” in Greek), written nearly a millennium later, early in the Christian era. Various “beasts” representing evil or political oppression are conquered at last, and the prophet sees “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband… There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The Hindu Vedas speak of a primeval man who existed even before the universe did; whose self-dismemberment in fact generated the universe. His name was Prajapati. “The brahman was his mouth; of his arms was made the warrior; his thighs became the vaisya (merchants); of his feet the sudra (laborers). The moon rose from his mind; from his eye was born the sun… from his navel came the air, from his head there came the sky,” and so on.
Hindu time is not linear but cyclical — and what cycles! The basic unit is the kalpa, equivalent to 4.32 billion years. (The universe, according to the big bang theory, would then be roughly four kalpas old, the Earth roughly one kalpa old.) The kalpa is subdivided into 14 manvantaras — we are now in the seventh manvantara of the present kalpa. Each manvantara is divided into 71 maha-yugas of 4.32 million years each — we are in the 28th maha-yuga of the present manvantara. Each maha-yuga is made up of four yugas — the Krita Yuga, a golden age; the Treta Yuga, the age of ritual; the Dvapara Yuga, the age of doubt in which man loses the sense of the divine reality of the world; and the Kali Yuga, the age of conflict and confusion in which we now find ourselves. It began (by one of various reckonings) in 3012 B.C. and will end with universal destruction. When that’s due is disputed. One hypothesis posits 1939 — a fateful year indeed, marked by the discovery of atomic fission and the onset of World War II — as the beginning of the twilight of the Kali Yuga. By this computation the final catastrophic end would occur in 2442. But in cyclical time an end is but a beginning, the whole vast cycle to begin all over again, and end, and begin, and end — again, again and again!
The inhuman awfulness of that prospect is no doubt what led the Buddha (c.563-483 B.C.) to conceive nirvana as liberation from “the wheel of birth and death.” The word “nirvana,” explains Indian scholar Mysore Hiriyanna (in “Outlines of Indian Philosophy,” 1932), “literally means ‘blowing out,’ or ‘becoming cool,’ and signifies annihilation — the ‘heaven of nothingness.’ ” The word “heaven” aside, it sounds rather like the various inevitable endings contemplated by modern cosmologists — the gradual extinguishing of the sun over the next 4 billion to 5 billion years, or the reversal of the big bang known as the big crunch — the contraction of the now-expanding universe into, finally, nothing.
The Christian West lived in narrower time. God created the world a mere few thousand years ago, and the end — the Second Coming of Jesus and the Last Judgment — was always near. How near no one knew. “No one knows about that day or hour,” Jesus told his disciples according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, “not even the angels in heaven” — but he also said, reminding them of the flood that had swept away all but Noah, “(People) knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away… Therefore, keep watch,” he warned, “because you do not know what day your Lord will come.”
Seers and prophets have been seeing and prophesying the end of days ever since. Western civilization has unfolded under an apocalyptic cloud. A comet, a meteor, a solar eclipse, a barbarian invasion, plague, a new interpretation of an old text — almost anything could bear witness that the end was at hand. The cosmos and history sang in harmony, and the refrain was, “Prepare for judgment!”
It would come three generations after the destruction in A.D. 70 of the Jerusalem Temple, said Rabbi Jose the Galilean in A.D. 130; No, 400 years after, said Rabbi Hanina in the third century. A third century Roman priest warned of the year 500 — based on the dimensions of Noah’s Arc. In A.D. 410 Rome, “the eternal city,” fell to barbarians. What would the blaring Gothic battle trumpets have heralded, to all who were not Goths, but the end of the world? “The brightest light on the whole earth was extinguished,” mourned St. Jerome (347-419). “The whole world perished in one city.”
And so on and so on, down the ages. The millennial year 1000 passed with no mass (though some scattered) apocalyptic commotion — the illiterate masses hardly knew what year it was by the calendar, which in any case varied from place to place. But three and a half centuries later, the Black Death of 1348-50 ravaged Europe — “the nearest approach to a definite break in the continuity of history that has ever occurred,” wrote historian Anna Montgomery Campbell (in “The Black Death and Men of Learning,” 1931). Bubonic plague — for that’s what it was — killed off an estimated quarter of Europe’s population: some 40 million people. Was this not the end? What else could it be, if not God’s last word? No one dreamed that flea-bearing rats were the cause. The plague ebbed and surged for centuries. In 1665-66 it killed 100,000 in London — even before the Great Fire in September 1666 whipped up fresh hysteria. Few failed to notice (for chronological consciousness was firmer by then) the triple sixes — 666 in the Book of Revelation is “the number of the Beast.” Russia, spared the plague, saw instead that year waves of mass suicide as missionaries preached death as the only salvation from the clutches of Antichrist.
The year 1914 brought World War I but no apocalypse. Unchastened, the Christian sect known as Jehovah’s Witnesses shrugged off that miscalculation and issued fresh predictions, one after another, based largely on the ominous but obscure numerology of the Biblical book of Daniel: 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994. American evangelist Hal Lindsey wrote “The Late Great Planet Earth” in 1970. It was a global bestseller but not prophetic: 1988 faded harmlessly into 1989, despite evidence Lindsey found in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree (Matt. 24:32-34) that it would not. Radio evangelist Harold Camping, also American, pinpointed May 21, 2011, as the day of Jesus’ return. The righteous would fly up to heaven, he said, while fire, brimstone and plague consumed those left behind, culminating in the final destruction of the world on Oct. 21, 2011 — which, as we know, came and went, engendering nothing more dramatic than Oct. 22. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), discoverer of gravity, co-inventor of calculus, ranks among the greatest scientists who ever lived and yet saw no contradiction between science and revealed religion. Bringing his mathematical genius to bear on the mysterious numbers in the books of Daniel and Revelation, he arrived — tentatively — at the year 2060. The world “may end later,” he wrote, “but I see no reason for its ending sooner.”
In a 1950 essay titled “The Future of Mankind,” the British mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote, “Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized.” The first was the end of human life; the second, a reversion to barbarism; the third, unification of the world under a single government.
Nothing unforeseeable occurred, world government hasn’t materialized, and yet we can reply to Russell, no less than to Camping, if not yet to Newton, “We’re still here.” Smugness seems out of place, however. A mere 12 years after Russell wrote the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. Estimates of how many would have been incinerated had the United States and the USSR not more or less peacefully settled the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 range from tens of millions to hundreds of millions. That’s not quite an apocalypse, but it’s close.
Is it rash to conclude, based on what we’ve survived, that we are survivors? Perhaps it is. Will the coming winter solstice — Dec. 21 — generate anything more deadly than winter? The date loomed large for the ancient Maya — but as what? Their message is more ambiguous than doomsayers acknowledge (see accompanying story).
Michael Hoffman’s latest novel is “The Naked Ear” (VBW/ Blackcover Books, 2012)