In the Cottonwood Ballroom of the Four Seasons in Jackson Hole, the contemporary shaman Daniel Pinchbeck sipped Fiji water and prepared to discuss the end of the world. He was having trouble with his BlackBerry, so the sound engineer suggested he switch it to Airplane Mode. Pinchbeck stared at the machine through his thick glasses and asked, in a nonplussed nasal drawl, “Airplane? Wha?”
Pinchbeck shared the dais with two other “2012ologists.” Each man was preparing to give the Hollywood press corps a ten-minute PowerPoint crash course on 2012.
Because the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012, these 2012ologists—along with their thousands of followers—believe that something drastic will happen then. Maybe. “I’m not a fundamentalist about the date,” Pinchbeck said, and the other two experts nodded in agreement. Yet they all continue to publish books with “2012” in the title.
2012 is also the title of a blockbuster movie released on November 13. To promote the film, Sony Pictures sponsored this weekend junket in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, featuring the stars and director of the movie, the three 2012ologists, and a guided tour of Yellowstone National Park, which is vividly incinerated in the film.
The director, Roland Emmerich, has been called Hollywood’s “Master of Disaster”; with 2012, he becomes the first A-list director to demolish the White House twice. “2012 is this date, you know, which there’s a lot of ideas about,” said Emmerich. “And we chose the destructive one.”
Later, in the lobby of the Four Seasons, a junket attendee translated: “Roland doesn’t give a shit about the Maya stuff…He wanted to make a disaster movie and he tacked that on. The studio figured, as long as we have that tie-in, as long as it’s 2012 and not some random date, we might as well exploit it.”
In 2012, Woody Harrelson plays Charlie Frost, a wacky Cassandra howling that the end is near. (You can check out his fake blog, written by the Sony marketing department.) But the real-life 2012ologists on the dais were not so easy to nail down. Asked what will happen in 2012, they punted, speculating instead on what might happen. Past millenialists have made spectacular predictions resulting in generations of cognitive dissonance (e.g., Matthew 16:28), but these 2012ologists preferred more guarded rhetoric.
Pinchbeck, in particular, has made a career of walking the line between prophecy and equivocation—the former sells books, but the latter hedges against I-told-you-so criticism come 2013. He is fond of referring to 2012 as a “Jungian archetype,” the implication being that, to put it crudely, the meme is what we make it. In the introduction to his recent essay collection Toward 2012: Perspecives on the Next Age, Pinchbeck begins a paragraph by writing, “I do not pretend to know what will happen on that date.” The same paragraph ends: “Some, perhaps many, will not survive.”
A former journalist, Pinchbeck said in his PowerPoint that he thought of 2012 as “a useful deadline” for humanity to curb global warming and upend “systems of oppression.” The Hollywood press asked him what would happen if we didn’t meet the deadline, and Pinchbeck said he wasn’t sure. He just hopes we use it as an opportunity for transformation.
Of the three panelists, the independent researcher John Major Jenkins knew the most about Mayan cosmology. He spoke of a Mayan prediction that a “galactic alignment” would occur in 2012. I won’t go into the astronomy behind the term—Jenkins barely scratched the surface in his ten-minute talk—but the basic claim is that 2012 will be a sort of cosmological midnight, a turning point in the history of the universe. Jenkins showed slides of his many trips to Mexico, eager to prove that he interprets the Mayan predictions accurately. Even if he does, though, he didn’t address what those predictions might mean for our post-2012 lives.
Lawrence E. Joseph—whose website prominently displays a countdown to “Apocalypse 2012”—was the most alarmist of the 2012ologists. Joseph is not as interested in the Maya as he is in NASA. 2012 will be a banner year for solar flares, he warned, which could wipe out our electrical grid unless we prepare. “Surge protectors,” he said, wrapping up his talk. “I never thought my career would boil to down to surge protectors, but there it is.”
After their presentations, the 2012ologists were treated to a buffet lunch of paninis and elk chili. Then they were blotted with makeup, propped in front of cameras, and subjected to a gauntlet of five-minute interviews. Dozens of television reporters cycled through, all asking variations on the same question—“Will the world really end in 2012?”—and the 2012ologists answered, patiently at first, that the Maya didn’t really say that it would.
“¡Eventos catastróficos!” shouted Maria Salas, a critic from Miami. “¡Erupciones volcánicas!” Her staggering bleach-blonde curls, three inches in diameter and radiant with hairspray, trembled as she addressed the camera. “¡Es el fin del mundo como predice el calendario Maya!” The 2012ologists soberly shook their heads.
By the time the 2012ologists sat down with me, off-camera, they looked weathered. “I think the real story is that 2012 is not about doomsday,” Jenkins told me. At some point, each of the 2012ologists used the word “counterproductive” to describe the film’s catastrophic vision.
All of which raised the question: what were they doing there?
“That’s a good question,” said Lawrence Joseph. “I got a message today that the tuition for my kids’ private school’s going up. And what does that mean? That means I’ve got to sell x number of books to pay it. And as true to my principles and beliefs as I’d like to be, you know, I’ve got to come up with another ten grand next year above what I expected. Sony is feeding me first-class tickets and scallops wrapped in bacon and chauffeuring me around—I cannot claim to be totally immune from that. There’s a certain level of compromise that is indefensible but, to me, unavoidable.”
While I talked to Jenkins and Joseph, Pinchbeck hunched over his BlackBerry and pounded out emails with his thumbs. Though he is best-known for ingesting psychedelics in the Amazon, Pinchbeck carries himself like the 43-year-old New York Jew he is; and though The New York Times described him as “equal parts Jesuit and Jim Morrison,” he reminds me of an eccentric kid smoking pot after Hebrew school. He was silent for most of the interview, but when I asked, “What will you do to sell books in 2013?” Pinchbeck glanced up from his Blackberry and said, with a glint of hope, “1984 still sells well.”
When the interviews were over, we boarded charter buses for a private dinner at the Lazy Moose Ranch. As a country band fiddled in the corner, guests sipped Chardonnay and admired the taxidermy.
Pinchbeck had planned to leave Jackson that night on a friend’s private plane, but the plane was grounded due to snow, so they all came to dinner instead: Pinchbeck, his friend the pilot, the pilot’s wife, and Heather Hill, the 22-year-old whom Pinchbeck introduced to me as his “girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend, or whatever.”
Earlier in the day, while rolling a cigarette of organic tobacco and “natural ceremonial smoking mix,” Hill told me how they first met. “I heard Pinchbeck talk at a festival in Arkansas called Coalescence. It was really beautiful… And I was sitting there—and it was the first time I’d ever tripped acid as well, so I was experiencing that—and the things he was saying were things I had been thinking about my entire life. Things that I can’t really talk to people about because they’re so—almost taboo, you know? It’s taboo to talk about consciousness and astral projection and, fucking, lizard people, you know? Nobody is comfortable addressing these issues, even though they’re arising and surrounding us and choking us to death.” Hill, a dropout from the University of Kansas, believes education is “a scam to keep people enslaved to the system. Though I might change my tune if the system is around in five years.”
After a few glasses of Chardonnay, Jenkins’s wife, 46, visited the dinner table where I was sitting with the pilot and a few Sony marketing reps. “We just give off light,” she announced, “because we believe…in…spirit!”
When the dinner was over, we walked through the snow to the buses. “This is the best junket ever!” yelled one TV personality, buzzed on Red Bull. “Long live the apocalypse!”
Pinchbeck and Heather had the back row of one bus to themselves. Heather pulled her hat down over her head, curled up next to Pinchbeck, and closed her eyes. Pinchbeck pushed up his glasses and squinted, his face illuminated by the light of his BlackBerry.
Want more? We’ve got a whole series all about 2012.
Andrew Marantz is a freelance nonfiction writer living in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in such publications as New York magazine, Slate, Heeb, and the New York Times. He blogs sporadically at Culture Medium and thinks the four most overrated things in life are bars, irony, Sonic Youth, and home fries.