For many people, the week leading up to Christmas is a blur of last-minute holiday shopping, parties, and quality time with loved ones. But for some in 2012, it will signify the end of the world—literally. On December 21 of that year, say these doomsday prophets, our planet will undergo mass destruction that will cause its operations to cease forevermore.
Apocalyptic predictions have existed on the fringes of popular culture for centuries: some ancient Romans believed that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 foretold cataclysmic events; Pat Robertson preached that Jesus would return to Earth for the Rapture in the 1980s and trap unbelievers (and Satan) in a lake of fire; in 1997, members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide, based on the idea that humanity was about to perish and that a UFO hooked to the then-nearby comet Hale-Bopp would rescue the group from certain ruin. (And the list goes on and on—who can forget Y2K?) With 2012 just two years away, how did this particular end-of-the-world concept originate, who’s espousing it now, and just how afraid should we be?
According to NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist website, the theory that the world will end in December 2012 is a conflation of two ideas, one derived from the Sumerians, the other from the Maya. An author named Zecharia Sitchin claims to have translated documents describing the Sumerians’ discovery of a planet called Nibiru that orbited the sun every 3,600 years. Then psychic and self-proclaimed alien channeler Nancy Lieder took up the cause, reporting that she had received word from aliens that Planet Earth was in danger of being attacked by Nibiru in May 2003. When that month came and went without incident, the time frame was revised to December 2012.
Meanwhile, the ancient Maya, who reached their cultural apex between 250 and 900 in Mexico and Central America and who were renowned for their astronomy skills, created an elaborate time-keeping system and circular calendar called the Long Count. Based on the Maya’s calculations, December 12, 2012, is a crucial date on which the current era of the calendar, which began on August 11, 3114 BC, and extends 1,872,000 days, will terminate and a new era will dawn to renew the earth. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Sitchin and Lieder (or the legions of followers they amassed) hitched their wagon to this particular day when it came time to revise their own doomsday timetable.
On NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist website, senior scientist David Morrison stated that as of June 2009, Amazon.com was selling more than 175 books pertaining to 2012 apocalypse theories, and that believers were flocking to experts for answers. In November 2009, Morrison told National Geographic News that the NASA site had already received approximately one thousand questions related to the topic, many from people who were “genuinely frightened.” He was alarmed to report, “I’ve had two teenagers who were considering killing themselves, because they didn’t want to be around when the world ends. Two women in the last two weeks said they were contemplating killing their children and themselves so they wouldn’t have to suffer through the end of the world.”
Proponents of 2012 disaster hypotheses have widely varying visions—often characterized by hysteria surrounding scientific phenomena—of what occurrences, exactly, the end of the world will entail. Some, including the creators of the cinematic saga 2012 (released in 2009), foresee a planetary “pole shift,” in which the earth’s crust and mantle will disengage from its liquid outer core, thus causing monumental disruption to landmasses’ current arrangement and giving rise to all manner of natural disasters. Others, writing for ultra-alarmist websites, warn of life-ending catastrophes, such as the sun’s producing deadly solar flares that incinerate earthlings where they stand, or Nibiru’s colliding directly with Earth in a massive explosion. But more often than not, these warnings are worded so nebulously that they’re difficult to comprehend, let alone heed. One example, from 2012Warning.com, reads as follows: “The 11 1/2 year solar flare cycle will peak on 2012 causing solar flares that can knock out power grids around the world. These solar flares in conjunction with the return of [Nibiru], will cause devastation on the earth. The sun, earth, and milky way will align at the galactic equator, on December 21, 2012, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the end of the Mayan calendar. This only happens every 25,800 years! For the first time in recorded history, our entire solar system will move BELOW the milky way galaxy. These combined cosmic events, will be the end of the world as we know it.”
According to scientists at NASA and other, like-minded organizations, these fire-and-brimstone fantasies are easily explained away. Certainly, some of the facts at hand are valid; for example, the Maya did have a Long Count calendar, pole-shift theory does exist, and solar activity does wax and wane. None of these concepts is earth-shattering unto itself, however; it’s the extreme sensationalization of these ideas, coupled with their propagation by individuals who may be predisposed to paranoia or fixated on world-ending events, that continues to give rise to the current propagation of 2012 death-and-destruction forecasts. In short, as Morrison explains it, “ordinary astronomical phenomena are imbued with a sense of threat by people who already think the world is going to end.”
And what of the original foundations of the 2012 myth? They’re largely unfounded, say top astronomers, who roundly dismiss Zecharia Sitchin’s “evidence” to the contrary; Morrison asserts, “The claims that Nibiru is a planet and was known to the Sumerians are contradicted by scholars who (unlike Zecharia Sitchin) study and translate the written records of ancient Mesopotamia. Sumer was indeed a great civilization … [However, claims] that Sumerians had a sophisticated astronomy, or that they even had a god named Nibiru, are the product of Sitchin’s imagination.” As for the Mayan calendar, Morrison says, “Ancient calendars … cannot match the ability we have today to keep track of time, or the precision of the calendars currently in use. The main point, however, is that calendars, whether contemporary or ancient, cannot predict the future of our planet or warn of things to happen on a specific date such as 2012. I note that my desk calendar ends much sooner, on December 31, 2009, but I do not interpret this as a prediction of Armageddon. It is just the beginning of a new year.”
So, as we kick off what some fearmongers believe are the last couple years of life on Earth, rest assured that December 21, 2012, will most likely not be a day on which you will have to run from a global flood, become a human fireball, or be swallowed up by the Milky Way. Chances are, you’ll be doing the same things you may be planning for this year: sitting by the fire with your family, sampling the new holiday beans at your favorite coffee shop, or wrapping gifts to stack under the tree. Oh, and if that date rolls around and you haven’t written your annual letter to Santa yet, you should still be able to reach him at the North Pole.