The End of the World

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

December 2012 has arrived, and some say if you don’t read this article before the 21st, you will have missed your chance. According to those people, December 21st is the last day ever on the Mayan calendar– the day the world will end.

From the earliest times to the present, predictions of the end of the world have always captured enough attention to sell books, gain followers for a leader, inspire works of art, literature, or music, and boost tourism to the place where the end is coming. But if you are more interested in being correct than in momentary fame or wealth, you know it is not prudent to predict the end of the world on a certain day – if you are right, no one will be around to recognize your accomplishment, and if you are wrong, everyone will know.

Children are taught to laugh at Chicken Little for proclaiming “The sky is falling, the sky is falling,” after an acorn hit him on the head. And most people scoff at social movements that announce the imminent end of the world. Such cults have appeared and, after being proved wrong, disbanded time and again throughout recorded history and probably before then.

Many doomsday movements have involved oppressed minority groups coalescing around a charismatic leader who promotes a vision of the end of the current corrupt world and the advent of a better world available only to faithful adherents. An event such as this is commonly called an apocalypse, after the Greek word for the revelation which is found in the last book of the Christian bible. Other doomsday movements have been based on rapid transmission of an interpretation of a current event, such as pointing out the appearance of a comet in the sky and claiming that the earth will soon be destroyed.

To some people, the end of the world means the end of life as we now know it, to others it means the extinction of human beings on earth, and to others the destruction of the planet itself. During the last century, some astrophysicists calculating the expansion of the universe developed an equation showing the universe would stop expanding, then contract, and collapse into a tiny dot – just the opposite of the big bang. For them, the end of the world meant the end of the entire universe! You should feel comforted that the opposing view – a continually expanding universe – prevails among the scientific community.

But most doomsday movements have been unscientific in nature and based on beliefs that run counter to solid evidence. For example, fear of the world ending underlies many religious holidays and observances around the winter solstice, when the days grow shorter and shorter and the sun seems to disappear. Christmas lights, Hanukah candles and Kwanza candles all reflect such basic fears.

If you think about it though, the end of all human beings on earth is not really implausible. Over the course of history, the earth has experienced dramatically different conditions than now prevail. Other dinosaurs might have scoffed at the dinosaur who, observing whatever was going to destroy them, said “This will be the end of us!” But it was true.

As we approach the end of the current cycle of the Mayan calendar, which was explained in an article in the November issue of The Eye, one naturally mulls over the enormously successful Mayan civilization at its height, with its advanced governmental, religious, scientific, and mathematical skills. Modern science still has not reached a firm conclusion about what combination of natural and human-caused events brought that civilization to its destruction. But it only seems reasonable that at the time there were many Mayan scholars who understood what was happening yet were powerless to do anything about it. How would they react to today’s fatalists, mostly from north of Mexico, who say the end of the Mayan calendar on 12/21/12 portends the end of the world? Maybe they would chuckle and applaud the tourist industry in Mexico, which has capitalized on this phenomenon and created a substantial increase in the number of travelers visiting Mayan ruins.

Today’s scientific community is once again nearly unanimous in predicting we are facing a future that is unsustainable for human beings if nothing is done. They have documented in great detail the myriad changes reflecting climate change due in most part to human activity:

Sea levels rising at double the rate of the last century. Global temperatures rising; the last 12 years have include the 10 warmest years ever recorded.

Ocean temperatures rising globally 1/3 of a degree since 1969. That may not seem extreme, but think of the vast expanse of ocean that had to be heated to raise the temperature that much.

Major portions of continental ice sheets disappearing; Greenland and Antarctica lost 36 cubic miles or more each year between 2002 and 2006.

Shrinking Arctic sea ice glaciers retreating in Africa, Alaska, the Alps, Andes, and the Rockies.

The acidity of the oceans increasing; each year the upper layer of the oceans is absorbing about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

Increasing numbers of extreme weather events including record breaking temperatures and record breaking rainfalls.

Scientists use these data about the past in computer models that predict what will happen, with and without any specific changes being made by the people who live on earth. In March 2009, an international array of scientists and engineers gathered in New York to meet among themselves and with New York City emergency preparedness officials. They not only predicted the rising threat of severe storms with storm surges, they also explained what should be done to mitigate the damage and laid out the costs. Basically, large parts of New York City cannot survive very long without extremely expensive action being taken. We all know there is not now the collective will to spend what is required. How soon will tourists be visiting an empty southern Manhattan, with the same sense of awe that they now have at Chichen Itza and Uxmal?

In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences (US) published its report on climate choices. The scientific panel said that additional climate changes can be expected for all plausible scenarios of future greenhouse gas emissions. There is not any doubt what is occurring, only doubt about what choices will be made. They urged that prudent risk management demands advanced planning to deal with possible adverse outcomes—known and unknown—by increasing resilience to both gradual changes and the possibility of abrupt disaster events.

How do you envision the worst consequences of climate change? Will whole areas of North America catch on fire, a huge firestorm engulfing everyone? Will all drinkable water on earth dry up? Will everyone starve to death when it becomes impossible to grow plants or raise animals? Will our infrastructure of roads and bridges and buildings and electricity be destroyed, reducing people to primitive existence? Will our archeologists and anthropologists have enough time to find out what happened to the Maya?

Perhaps you might set aside December 21st for clarifying your own personal thinking about the end of the world. Tell us your conclusions by responding to The Eye survey available on the online version of this issue. If the world hasn’t ended, the results will be published in the February 2013 issue of The Eye.

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