Preparing for the End of Time so soon?

18 August 2008

While browsing the newsfeeds a couple of nights ago, I came across an interesting article from ABC News about people dropping out of workaday life and preparing for the end of the world. From the United States to France to the Russian Confederation, stockpiles of crop seeds are being built, water purefiers are vanishing from the shelves, and basic knowledge about farming, medicine, and engineering is being crammed into many a brain. Normally, this isn't a very interesting phenomenon because people have been doing this for literally centuries - the end of the world as we know it is a hot topic of discussion in the western world thanks to the sex-and-death trip. Sometimes it seems as if you can't throw a crashed hard drive without hitting someone who declares that the apocalypse is coming and we should all be ready for it. Their theories now incorporate magnetic pole reversal, solar flares, world-rending earthquakes, and potentially alien invasion or the second coming (sometimes both).

In truth, I closed my browser window seconds before one particular tidbit of information jumped out at me, and I re-opened it to take a closer look: Rather than Christmas Day, New Year's Day, the Year 2000, 5 May 2000, or any of the other dates that come and go, the date they're shooting for is 21 December 2012. Afficionados of the strange and unusual will recognize this date immediately, but for those of you who aren't up on your western psychedelic mysticism this is the date that the Mayan calendar comes to an end.

Sit back with your drink of choice, and let the Doctor tell you a tale, a yarn spun by another who actually Did the Work and came back to recount his adventures. Unlike the man whose story I'm about to summarize, I'm a bit of a curmudgeon about stuff like this. The Maya were a Mesoamerican culture whose heyday spanned the years 300 to 900 of the Common Era. I'll spare you much of the details about them and cut to the relevant bits (though if you do decide to read up on them, I highly recommend walking to your local library and taking out a couple of books on Mesoamerican archeology because there is a great deal of trash on the Net).. the Maya were on the all-order trip and pondered the cycles of nature. When your primary means of sustenance comes from farming, you can't really ignore the processions of the seasons or the weather if you expect to survive. It seems from the evidence that archeologists have uncovered and the conclusions drawn therefrom that the Maya were fascinated if not obsessed with the concept of Time and sought to unify their growing knowledge through the calculation of calendars. Three calendars, to be precise: the 260 solar day Tzolkin, or sacred calendar; the 365 solar day Haab, or civil calendar; and the long count, which is anologous to the Julian Calendar in that it counts the number of days from a certain event. For the Julian Calendar, this is the first day of the year, or 1 January. The Mayan Long Count measured the number of days since the beginning of the Mayan Era.

It makes sense for the ancient Maya to pick what they believed to be their genesis when you take into account the fact that their cosmogony was based upon the belief that the world had been through a cycle of creation and destruction four times, and that they lived in the fifth world.

Let's figure out where this is heading.

Some time in the 1970's of the Common Era, a man named Terrence McKenna journeyed to the Amazon Basin to learn from the medicine men of the rainforest. During his time there her participated in a number of ceremonies that involved ingesting threshold doses of an ordinarily endogenous compound called N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. DMT is by all accounts weird, weird stuff: some say that the trip closely parallels a near-death experience while others (like McKenna) say that your sense of time and reality is blown away completely. People taking it have reported a large number of strange things happening to them which I'll not list in the sake of brevity, but McKenna was inspired to study a Chinese method of divination called the i ching, or Book of Changes, and within that system he said that he found a pattern underlying both Time and the progression of events on this planet.

Sometime in the 1980's of the Common Era, McKenna and a couple of coders worked out a mathematical model - a fractal, actually - which he claimed was a graph of how fast events would come to pass the closer the date got to a certain point. McKenna called this effect novelty because he said it reflected the speed with which things would change from that which came before. Oddly, the far edge of the novelty fractal bottomed out at the point which represented virtually limitless novelty - Timewave Zero. You can think of it as a point at which everything in the world changes in the blink of an eye - the works and cultures are replaced by something so far removed from our daily experience that we can scarcely imagine what that time would be like. The problem with the Timewave model is that there aren't any signposts or hyperlinks along the graph that say "11 September 2001 - World Trade Center taken out by hijacked jetliners" or "4 October 1985 - Misfits of Science premieres on NBC", so mapping world events to the Timewave graph is something of a crapshoot.

Somewhere along the line, McKenna found out about the Mayan Long Count and found a way to map it to the Timewave fractal. After a bit of re-jiggering, he was able to make the two systems line up and declared that the Mayan Long Count would end on 21 or 23 December 2012 (depending on whose calculations you go by) at the exact same moment as Timewave Zero. Thus, the eschaton. The End of Time, as McKenna saw it. Possibly a singularity, if you happen to be a transhumanist.

Or, as these folks see it, The End of the World.

I've often wondered how long it would take before the survivalist community latched onto this date.

Now, after everything is said and done, you're probably wondering where I stand on topics like this. While it isn't a secret that I'm something of a mystic, I also stop and think logically about such matters, and from time to time I even step back, have a beer, and look at the big picture. The reason for all of this is simple: bending your mind in unusual ways using any number of practices can be an eye-opening and inspiring path. However, what matters is what you do with the knowledge that you bring back from wherever it is that you explore. How does it enrich your life? How do you apply it? Most importantly, can you support yourself while having those experiences under your belt?

The first thing that comes to mind is depressingly mundane. Let me lay it out for you: Just because a calendar ends does not mean that Time itself will end. On 31 December 2007 when the clock tolled midnight, signaling the beginning of the new year, did the world come to an end?

No. Your calendar ran out of little numbered squares. Just because the Maya stopped updating the Long Count calendar does not necessarily mean that they thought the world was going to end, it probably meant that their civilization changed in such a way that they simply stopped extending the Long Count and moved on to other things.

I've come to the conclusion that it would take a hell of a lot to end the world as we know it. The Earth is a hell of a big place - 12,700 and change kilometers in diameter, 1.08e12 cubic kilometers in volume, and packing a mass of approximately 5.97e24 kilograms. A couple of nuclear warheads won't crack the planet in half though they'll leave a lot of craters. Would the biosphere of this planet take a kick betwixt wind and water if someone did decide to detonate a couple of nukes? Damn skippy. Potentially billions of lifeforms would perish if that happened. Would life in some way, shape, or form continue? I think so. The Earth has been bombarded a number of times in its geological history, and each time life has continued and returned to cover the planet. I mentioned nuclear war first because it's what most people think of when you say those magic words, but I really don't think such a thing will happen in my lifetime, and I hope I'm right about that.

Pole reversal: when the magnetic north and south poles of a planet (like this one) switch positions. This has happened a number of times in the history of this planet; in fact, there is an entire field called paleomagnetism devoted to studying this phenomenon. If you read the academic literature, you'll find some interesting things, such as the fact that the magnetic poles of this planet have switched places nine times in three million years. As living things go, that's a hell of a long time - longer than homo sapiens sapiens has been wandering around the face of this planet, in fact. You know what, though? That's not long at all in geological terms. Three million years is is equivalent of taking a wrong turn or having a coughing jag insofar as the Earth is concerned. There's an excellent chance that the biosphere of this planet barely noticed the last time there was a geological pole reversal. In fact, scientists studying paleomagnetism can and have charted the exact course taken during pole shifts by analyzing the magnetic orientation of ferrous rocks in the ground. There is no evidence that the continents suddenly shifted around. In fact, there is probably a good chance that it was barely even noticed on the surface of the Earth because much of this planet's geological activity is located deep below the crust. Also, the shift, as far as anyone can tell from the evidence, was so gradual that it wouldn't surprise me if regular maintenance of navigation systems used on this planet could compensate for the shift as it occurred.

By and large, the modus operandi of the planet rarely involves forklift upgrades, cataclysm, or Steve Jobs walking on water. Very large, very complex systems can't alter their operational patterns at the drop of a hat because major changes made to variables tend to be dampened by the values of other variables. To put it another way, one part of the system reacts badly to a sudden change but the rest of the system shifts to compensate. Sure, the whole thing feels the shock but more often than not the whole shebang doesn't go down like a server running Window NT 3.51. Instead, many small parts of very big systems shift toward a new state incrementally, and the overall state drifts in a new direction. Rather than a "rocks fall, you all die" situation, changes around you are so small that you often don't notice them, and they're distributed so widely that there are changes happening that you aren't aware of. That's the thing about having finite awareness - you don't know everything happening because you simply can't take in and process that much sensory data. Mortal bodies are equipped for neither that kind of sensory input or processing power.

Can I discount the cataclysm scenario? No. People a lot smarter than I am have identified and verified that there are serious threats to life as we know it on this planet - case in point, Asteroid 99942 Apophis, which have a non-zero (and in fact, slightly greater than 2.0%) probability of impacting this planet within the next thirty years. There is a far greater chance that it won't, however, and it's that far greater chance that nothing will happen that should not only give people hope, but remind everyone that they are here for a reason. Rather than living in fear that the world's going to end, why not live in hope and enjoy life while you've got it? There's no sense in hiding under the pool table on a perfectly sunny Saturday when you could be outside going for a walk and playing with the kids. I don't really see a point to digging bomb shelters, stocking up on consumables and survival gear, and spending all that time and energy preparing for a holocaust. Pluswhich, assuming that the worst possible scenario actually happens (which I doubt it will), will all of these preparations really do any good? Let's look at the earthquakes/volcanoes/tectonic upheaval scenario: do you honestly think that hiding underground will do any good? For any of these possible ends to the world as it's known today, what would the chances be that there would still be aerable soil or potable water to use for irrigation or drinking? If pole reversal wipes out the van Allen belts and floods the planet with hard radiation, where is the lead and concrete shielding to protect the bunkers? Where are the cooling systems for your bunkers and the decontamination gear? No matter how you cut it, the situations described are far too unrealistic.

I will, however, be throwing one hell of a party on 21 December 2012 because, hey... why not?