I slept through the end of the world. This is something I have done many times in my life: once in September 2008 and again in March 2010, when the Large Hadron Collider experiments outside Geneva failed to convert the earth into a ball of strange matter. Once in May 2003, when Nancy Lieder’s alien implant fed her false intelligence about an impending planetary pole switch. Another time in July 1999, when Nostradamus’ arrival date for the “King of Terror” came and went. I have slept through two predictions by fundamentalist minister Ronald Weinland, and six from Christian radio host Harold Camping.
The so-called Mayan Apocalypse of December 21, 2012 reached a wider audience than any of them yet. I had hoped at least to raise a toast to the end of the world, but I forgot. I was visiting family in Hiroshima, a city with its own cataclysmic history, and I was too busy drinking beer and eating noodles to notice the irony. When I woke up late the next morning with a hangover, I checked my email and concluded that, even accounting for the time difference, the world hadn’t ended.
I took the phenomenon more seriously after the fact, when I came across a Reuters poll conducted in March 2012 across twenty-one countries. The study found that one in seven people believe the world will end in their lifetime, and one in ten were convinced the end was marked by the Mayan calendar. Another eight percent admitted to experiencing fear and anxiety about that looming date. Looking at the numbers for Japan, I saw that thirteen percent of the people I met in Hiroshima were holding their breath.
Not that I’m immune to apocalyptic sentiment. In the bottom drawer of my desk is a draft of a novel from my early twenties, in which a young man discovers that evolution proceeds a million times faster in his closet. At first he tries to control the phenomenon, but eventually his apartment building sprouts tentacles and crawls away, spewing new and colourful lifeforms from its windows. The army arrives and bombs it to smithereens.
The agent I submitted it to said it read like veiled autobiography. Obviously, he didn’t read far enough.
The book expressed a vague yearning I felt for renewal at a time when everything seemed to be withering up and dying. The litany is familiar by now: melting ice caps, choking smog, dead and derelict coral reefs, drowning polar bears and disappearing bees. Conditions have only gotten worse, but I seem to think about them less. I interpret this as fatigue. I am sti
ll environmentally and politically concerned, but somehow I remember feeling more acutely in the past. It’s as if my brain has turned away because it cannot grasp the enormity of the issue, like a dog trying to bite a beach ball.
These days I carry the anxiety mostly in my gut. I’m not alone.
On December 21, 2012 the Mayan Long Count calendar completed its 5,125-year cycle, as described by Mesoamerican astronomers. That the cycle did indeed end on this date is well documented, but how exactly the ancient Maya felt about it is a murkier question. Of the nearly 400 million websites devoted to the subject, the kind that advertised courses in aura reading foretold the end of life as we know it. Meanwhile, organizations such as NASA sought to prevent the spread of online hysteria by comparing the end of the Long Count to nothing more than the passing of a Gregorian calendar year.
If you’re paranoid, that’s exactly what you’d expect NASA to say when the end is near.
Still it’s hard to question the sincerity of NASA scientist David Morrison. He battled the apocalypse phenomenon in countless interviews, articles, and online forums for years leading up to December 21, 2012. A PhD in astronomy from Harvard, Morrison rarely lost patience when explaining that not only was the rogue planet Nibiru not on a collision course with Earth, it didn’t even exist.
He wasn’t sure how he fell into the role of doomsday debunker, but from the outside it’s obvious. Alternately appearing in a suit jacket and a burgundy cardigan, Morrison could project scientific authority or grandfatherly kindness as the situation demanded. He summoned all the reassurance he could for a job freighted with real and frightening responsibility. As host of the online “Ask an Astrobiologist” Q&A, he frequently received letters from people, mostly teens and children, who were terrified at the prospect of the world coming to an end.
“My only friend is my little dog. When should I put her to sleep so she won’t suffer in the cataclysm?” Read one of the more unsettling submissions, but it didn’t end there. “At least a once a week,” Morrison said, “I get a message from a young person ― as young as 11 ― who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday.” Most disturbing of all were parents who queried him for advice on mercy-killing their children.
Despite Morrison’s best efforts, apocalyptic rumours continued to spread. Apart from Nibiru, other theorists proposed that solar flares would cause poles to flip, or the planet to spin in reverse. On December 20 and 21, 2012, these rumours had reached such a fever pitch that authorities in Argentina closed access to the highest mountain in the country, Uritorco, after reports of a planned mass suicide surfaced. “We will abandon our impure flesh and transport our spirit through the inter-dimensional portal which will open at 21:00 on 21/12/12,” read the Facebook invitation. “Unite with the Army of Light which will save all humanity!” One hundred and fifty recipients had confirmed their attendance.
In the United States, Michigan officials elected to close thirty-three schools on a Wednesday two days ahead of the holidays. Matt Wandrie, superintendent for Lapeer Community Schools, wrote that, “Given the recent events in Connecticut, there have been numerous rumors circulating in our district, and in neighboring districts, about potential threats of violence against students… rumors connected to the Mayan calendar predicted [sic] end of the world on Friday have also surfaced.” Wandrie was referring to the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14 that killed twenty children and six adults. The perpetrator of that crime, Adam Lanza, smashed the hard drive of his computer and so erased the best clue to his motives, but his actions contributed to an atmosphere of dread.
A survivalist’s obsession usually begins with a simple BOB, or Bug Out Bag. Loaded with the barest essentials (matches, freeze-dried meals, handgun), the bag sits on a shelf until such time as the world ends. When it does the survivalist bolts into the wilderness, BOB slung over his or her shoulder.
For serious 2012 survivalists, however, a BOB was not enough. They had graduated to the BOL, or Bug Out Location. Belgian author Patrick Geryl led the charge.
Outwardly Geryl appeared brittle and fussy, the kind of man you’d expect to find folded up in the back of an antique shop. Yet he was no stranger to bold statements, claiming in his 1979 book A New Space-Time Dimension to have disproved Einstein’s theory of relativity. In subsequent books he championed a fruit diet that would lead to incredible longevity, until the end of the world put a kink in those plans.
Plagued by apocalyptic nightmares, Geryl studied Mayan and Egyptian histories. He published his findings in The Orion Prophecy, arguing that both cultures were founded by ancient Atlanteans who’d escaped the calamity that befell their homeland. Ever the Renaissance man, Geryl delved into astrology and linked his thesis to impeding solar flares, earthquakes, and tsunamis, adding a Luddite twist: since the disaster would destabilize the nuclear reactors dotted across Europe and North America, the safest place to establish a survival colony would be South Africa.
At age 51, six years before the apocalypse he saw in his dreams, Geryl quit his job as laboratory worker for an oil company and devoted himself full-time to the cause. By March 2012, he reported having sunk $130,000 into building a survival community. Electing himself “person responsible for reconstructing the new world,” Geryl encouraged fellow survivalists to buy into his vision of a self-sufficient post-apocalyptic commune. At €50,000 the asking price was steep, and Geryl refused to divulge the exact location even to investors. He only promised that he wanted “To give the people a comfortable feeling after the cataclysm, not that they are back to the Stone Age.”
In the United States, anyone willing to splash out could enjoy all the comforts of a five-star hotel, even after the cataclysm. Inside an old Atlas F missile silo somewhere in the middle of Kansas, developer Larry Hall constructed the most luxurious BOL ever built. Consulting the same firm that had provided designs for Geryl, he equipped the complex with motion detectors and remote guns. The completed Survival Condo extended fourteen stories underground and was impervious to everything, from atomic blasts to sieges by starving refugees out of Wichita.
Hydroponic and aquaculture floors made it self-sustaining, while a pool, spa, indoor shooting range, rock-climbing wall, theatre, dog park, arcade, and library promised distraction from the scorched and lifeless world above. A full-floor condo went for two million dollars, but pinchpennies could elect to buy half a floor for a million. Hall mused, “Most of my calls are from doctors and well-educated [people], engineers, a much higher caliber of people, and they like the overall concept, and they’re glad that I’ve been open and on some of the publications and TV programs because it gives credibility to it.”
Hall grew weary of the media attention when it interfered with the business of construction, and refused access to National Geographic’s popular Doomsday Preppers television show, which begged him for the rights to a three-day shoot. The series, which premiered on February 7, 2012, featured different “preppers” each week and provided expert commentary on their survival strategies. The show created a bizarre feedback loop with the apocalypse movement and the Hollywood-inspired culture many sociologists felt had helped to spawn it. As Lorne Dawson, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Waterloo argued, while global crises create a sense of helplessness, “the advantage of apocalyptic movements is they give you something to do.”
Larry Hall was hellbent on preserving his old way of life, but others were all too eager for sweeping change. The optimists in the apocalypse crowd insisted that the world would not end on December 21, 2012, but instead the date signaled a sea change in human understanding. This is how the meme started, before doomsayers took the ball and ran.
In August 1987, author and one of the “originators of the Earth Day concept,” José Argüelles, organized a Harmonic Convergence. At “acupuncture points” around the globe, including Mount Shasta in California and Ayers Rock in Australia, thousands of dancing, humming supporters focused their energies on world peace. Argüelles himself was encamped near Boulder, Colorado, blowing a conch shell one hundred and forty-four times. It was his way of kicking off the final phase of the Long Count.
Argüelles saw the distortion of natural cycles as the root of society’s ills and, inspired by the Mayan system, devised his own thirteen-month, twenty-eight-day “Dreamspell” calendar to compensate. If adopted by 2012, the harmonies from living in concert with it would be powerful enough to create “biopsychic electromagnetic batteries of human beings” and manifest a Circumpolar Rainbow Bridge around the planet. Argüelles called it the “equivalent of the spiritual atomic bomb.”
“The post-2012 world will be a world of universal telepathy,” he told the New York Times. “We’ll be literally living in a new time… by a 13-month, 28-day synchronometer that will facilitate our telepathy by keeping us in harmony with everything all the time. There will be a lot fewer of us, with simple lifestyles, solar technology, garden culture and lots of telepathic communication.” He began to call himself Valum Votan, Closer of the Cycle.
Argüelles died of peritonitis in March 2011, a year and nine months before he could see his prophecy through to its end.
On December 21, 2012, in Bugarach, a tiny village in the French Pyrnees, dozens of police officers waited tensely for the influx of fanatics rumoured to be converging on the area. Bugarach Mountain was alleged to contain either an alien spaceship or a space-time portal that promised deliverance from the coming apocalypse. Mayor Jean-Pierre Delord pled with believers, “I am making an appeal to the world – do not come to Bugarach,” insisting the village of one hundred and eighty-nine would not be able to support thousands of deliverance-seeking tourists.
Anyone approaching the roadblocks would have passed long lines of satellite trucks. Reporters had been encamped in the village for two days, rubbing elbows and anticipating juicy soundbites from milky-eyed cultists. On the fateful morning, all was quiet but for the shuffling of journalists and a handful of pranksters in costume. Whether they respected Delord’s appeal or lacked the means to get there, nobody showed. Police made four quiet arrests, and TV crews spun the story into reports of a media circus.
Elsewhere, large groups did gather to observe the date. The party at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza reached an official headcount of over 20,000. UNESCO World Heritage Site Tikal in Guatemala saw a similar stampede, where revelers caused irreparable damage to Temple II. Perhaps organizers should have listened to Mayan alliance Oxlajuj Ajpop, which had been opposed to the doomsday celebrations. While the phenomenon had led to a perception in some circles that the Maya were extinct, contemporary Maya were very much alive and protested the profiteering done in their name.
In Yavapai County Arizona, the Forest Service watched along with a crowd of onlookers to see whether retired lawyer Peter Gersten would attempt the deadly leap off Bell Rock. Earlier in the year, Gersten had claimed that the world was a massive computer simulation that would shut down at 11:11 a.m., unless he jumped into the cosmic portal opening at precisely that time. He had vowed to do so “to help all carbon-based lifeforms,” and when the portal failed to open on schedule, he waited. Late in the evening, after many observers had already done so, Gersten slunk home.
Apocalyptic predictions fizzled on December 21, 2012. The reaction of failed prophets varied.
A few weeks before the big day, Patrick Geryl had already recanted. Housebound due to complications from diabetes, Geryl stated that he was too weak to make the trip to South Africa. After the 21st, he deleted all videos from his website. On December 23, Spanish newspaper La Razón ran an interview with Geryl. After seventeen years of prophesising, he told the paper he felt he had ruined his life.
NASA’s David Morrison opened a bottle of champagne. He retired as host of “Ask an Astrobiologist,” reporting in his resignation letter that he had received many thanks from concerned citizens, some of whom told him he had saved their lives. He was also frustrated and exhausted, having received few apologies from instigators of the crisis.
Far from being chagrined, Larry Hall began construction on a second Survival Condo. Every floor of the first had sold, and the price per unit had risen by a million dollars. The website is plastered with testimonials from satisfied customers: “The same quality of condo in New York would have cost me the same, if not more per square foot and you get peace of mind with this.” Hall posed triumphantly in front of HDTV “windows” with a simulated view of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. On having to turn away potential buyers, he said, “We really are looking for long-term neighbors, not people who just want to come in here and buy it and turn around and flip it as soon as one threat passes.” All of which provided plenty of fodder for National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers, which was renewed for a second season and continued into 2013.
And in the small town of Kootwijkerbroek, there is a man named Pieter Frank van der Meer. Already in possession of a Noah-esque beard, van der Meer invested roughly $17,500 in a lifeboat big enough for fifty friends and relatives. An evangelical Christian combining his faith in the Book of Genesis with his knowledge that the Netherlands is below sea level, van der Meer ordered the vessel in preparation for 2012. While purchases like this one drove a wedge between some families, the van der Meers rallied. “It may be another ten years,” said Mrs. Van der Meer. “The Scripture says that the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. You need to be ready every day.” The ark sits in their garden in Kootwijkerbroek, awaiting the day when they and theirs will be borne to safety on rising floodwaters.