Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Mayans and the end of the world

When a news reporter called me this past week to ask me how the world might end, it took me a moment to clue in that she was doing a story about the Mayan end-of-time thing. I’m afraid I missed the Hollywood movie 2012, so I’m not entirely sure what popular culture has to say about it, beyond that some people seem to believe the ancient Mayans predicted the Earth will come to an end on December 21st this year. Exactly how it is supposed to end the ancients Mayans neglected to say.  In fact, they even forgot to tell other Mayans. Despite the best efforts of Spanish colonizers, there are Mayan people alive and well today in Central America, and apparently they aren’t expecting anything noteworthy to happen between now and Christmas. But hey, I’m a firm believer in science and open-mindedness, so was willing to help the reporter  speculate on what might bring about "the end".

(Here's a link to the published news story)

First, though, a little background… Before European contact, Central American peoples had their own way of counting time. For that matter, they had their own way of counting (we use a base of 10, they used a base of 20). They described long periods of time in blocks of 144,000-days (sometimes referred to as the Mayan long-count calendar). These blocks were in turn nested within even longer cycles of time that stretch well-off into the distant past and the distant future. It has been calculated by scholars who study the ancient Mayan civilization that the current 144,000-day cycle finishes on December 21, 2012. December 21 is the date of the winter solstice, in case you’re wondering why there’s such precision as to the day.*

Now, the ancient Mayans didn’t actually say that the world would come to an end when the current 144,000-day cycle ends. 144,000 days is only about 400 years, and the ancient Mayans knew their civilization had been around a lot longer than that, and counted back at least 12 cycles prior to the present one. So, it is most likely the ancient Mayans, had their culture survived unchanged to the present day, would be gearing up for a really big party on December 21st and a mighty big hangover on December 22nd. Sort of like the way it was across much of the world on December 31st 1999.

When you think about it, there were a lot of end-of-time scenarios floating around in the lead-up to 1999 as well. Remember how all the computers on Earth were going to crash? I was working in Vienna for the government of Canada at the time, and was issued with tablets that I was supposed to swallow in case nuclear reactors in the Czech Republic melted down when their computer systems failed. I am not making this up. The tablets would apparently provide me some sort of short-term resistance to radiation sickness. Whoever decided to issue these pills overlooked the simple fact that the Soviet-era nuclear reactors built in the former Czech republic were for the most part operated manually, and not by computers. A meltdown is more likely to be caused by human error, which can happen anytime (Chernobyl melted down on the 26th of April). Needless to say, I left my tablets at home on New Year’s Eve and instead took a couple bottles of champagne to a friend’s house.

I’ve digressed. Getting back to my original tale, I was quite happy to help the news reporter speculate on what might cause the end of the world on December 21st. The first question, of course, is “whose world?” Are we talking only about humans, or about all life on the planet as we know it coming to a sudden end? I discounted the possibility the entire planet, including its very core, would simply disappear, since I really couldn’t think of any physically plausible mechanism by which that could happen except, I suppose, the sun going supernova. But scientists have already calculated that is quite some time off (the sun has barely reached half its projected lifespan). So, if we’re looking for something that will happen a little sooner, and which could cause all life on the planet to end suddenly, the only real possibility is a direct strike by a large asteroid or similar object. It is most plausible that this will indeed one day happen again (after all, such things have happened before in the long past – perhaps the ancient Mayans knew this). Although no one knows when it will next happen, it won’t be in December 2012. NASA scientists do try to keep track of such things, and the next foreseeable time for a collision is in 2040, with a relatively small object. Even then, there’ not much reason to panic; it’s only a 1 in 600 chance it will collide with Earth, and as it draws closer, the odds will probably become slimmer, since we’ll be able to calculate them more precisely – 1 in 600 is only a ballpark estimate. The forecast for the remainder of this month is asteroid-free, so we can safely rule out all life on Earth coming to an end between now and Christmas.

What does that leave us? What might wipe out all the humans, if not all the other creatures? I suppose the traditional 20th-century worries of global nuclear war or global neuro-chemical war would be the best candidates. There are still far too many of these nasty weapons floating around, with the idiot leaders of places like Iran and North Korea trying to acquire more. The conflict in Syria, political instability in Egypt, and Israel’s latest clashes with Hamas are worrying, but I do not believe any of these will spread to global conflagrations by December 21st. I still have confidence in the ability of diplomacy (albeit with the stick of western military force and behind the scenes intelligence) to keep us safe from global conflict, if not regional conflict. So, if the likelihood of global warfare is low for the coming weeks, that doesn’t leave much left that might finish us off. Pandemic disease, I suppose, but even the worst pandemic of the 20th century – the influenza of 1918-1919 – needed as a precursor several years of trench warfare in Europe and tens of thousands of returning veterans to help spread it. Wash your hands with soap and water frequently, and you should make it past the 21st alright.

As the song goes, if it’s the end of the world as we know it, I feel fine. Having just finished a full semester of teaching introductory environmental studies, in which we canvass issues like climate change, air pollution, deforestation, land degradation, it’s easy to get pessimistic about the future. Fortunately, our planet will not come to its end on December 21st. The real danger to its long term health is wastefulness and ignorance of those of us occupying it right now, so we’d best start taking better care of it. I’m sure the ancient Mayans – whose grand societies collapsed in part because of environmental degradation – would agree.

*If you’re looking for a detailed scholarly analysis, I recommend starting with this article by Robert Sitler.

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