Published in collaboration with The Conversation, a website that features commentary, research and analysis from Australian universities and the CSIRO.
If you believe the doomsayers, the human race is not long for this earth. By the end of this year, our number will be up: the four horseman of the apocalypse will be upon us, fire will rain from the skies, the poles will reverse and the end will be, as so many have predicted for so long, nigh.
2012 has been feted for decades as the year the human race will be destroyed. But where did this apocalyptic vision come from? And why are we so attached to the date of our demise?
A CONSPIRACY BEGINS
Most people understand the 2012 end-of-the-world phenomenon to have something to do with the end of the Mayan calendar. In some ways, this is the case. The Maya used the long count calendar which dates back over 5000 years and is divided into b'ak'tun cycles of roughly 394 years.
We are currently in the thirteenth b'ak'tun of the Long Count, and this cycle ends (depending on your interpretation) around 21 December, 2012. But the Maya didn't say much about what would actually happen when the cycle ends. To find the roots of the current apocalyptic spin on 2012 we have to look beyond the Mayan period, and to the modern interpretations of this ancient calendar.
The narrative began in the 1960s with a book called The Maya. In it, American archaeologist and anthropologist Michael Coe somewhat sneakily slipped in the following prophetic reference about what would happen with the closing of the thirteenth b'ak'tun: “Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day”.
And so began the 2012 phenomenon.
Most people who are interested in 2012, work on the assumption that the grand day will usher in a new form of human consciousness, akin to the Age of Aquarius. Those who interpret the calendar in this way are a diverse group following a spectrum of esoteric lineages, from borrowed indigenous traditions, to fantasy histories of Atlantis, to Theosophists and psychedelic counterculture.
Some of these spiritually-inclined individuals view 2012 as something that will happen whether we like it or not; others have a more proactive view, assuming any changes that occur around 2012 must be the result of our collective actions.
A smaller number of people interested in 2012 are catastrophists. These people propose all sorts of Earth-destroying scenarios such as pole reversal, mega-tsunamis and crustal displacement (as seen in the blockbuster movie 2012), through to a massive asteroid colliding with our planet.
It is also often suggested there is some form of governmental cover-up to prevent the knowledge of these imminent disasters spreading among the masses. And don't think this is the kind of thing that only happens in America. In May 2010 police raided a religious community in South Australia called Agape Ministries, who had woven a narrative about the government microchipping the population during the course of a 2012 apocalypse.
Even those who believe that there will be a catastrophe in 2012 are not sure what form it will take.
It continues to surprise me how 2012 feeds into the dreams, anxieties and full-on anger of numerous people for various reasons.
I recently wrote a sceptical-but-optimistic 2012 talk which I give in various contexts. At the MindBodySpirit Festival a woman came up to me and said she wished she could clone me so more people could hear my balanced message; at the Atheist Society a man publicly called me a parasite because I did not denounce everything to do with 2012 as a dangerous cult.
What both these positions demonstrate is the potent force of the idea of 2012 — indeed, the apocalyptic imagination in general — as we endeavour to find meaning in the world around us. This struck me again recently watching Lars von Trier's movie Melancholia, which is basically an arty 2012 movie, in which a planet crashes into Earth.
Of course, we each have a kind of death-delivering planet hurtling towards our orbit – we each have to imagine a universe in which we no longer exist. Because of this we each want to identify some kind of meaning in our existence, and construct a beginning, middle and end for the world.
PLANNING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD
I have what I like to call, with tongue firmly in cheek, “the Gelfer Prophecy” about how 2012 might pan out down here in Australia.
There are various prophetic narratives which suggest that Australia is a safe place to be on the big day. As the first continental landmass behind the International Date Line, Australia will see the alleged New Age before anyone else. And shortly before, on 14 November, Australia will witness an eclipse of the sun, visible in its totality from tropical Queensland. It's easy to imagine an End Times holiday package, and such things are already underway.
In my “vision”, unprecedented numbers of people line the Eastern seaboard to see the New Age race across the horizon. Of course, when nothing happens they will return, dejected, to their rental vans.
But in that moment of dejection it may just be that people realise the changes they dearly wish to see in the world will not come from some cosmic source, but rather instead political agency and social activism. And that, ironically, may result in 2012 being a catalyst for a shift in human consciousness, exactly as the prophets predicted.