2012 or Bust!
Judging from the title of J. Allan Danelek’s 2012: Extinction or Utopia, I expected a book that would skip over the agnostic question of “when” and barrel straight into the matter of “how.” Will it be a rogue black hole or biological warfare? Global warming or a global pandemic? I couldn’t wait. I’m fascinated by science fiction stories, despite my age (over 13) and gender. The Mayan calendar ends in December of 2012, but there’s no accompanying explanation as to what happens next. The date, imminent but so vague in its symbolism, seems like a perfect vehicle for fantasy; just two years away, the “how” is only waiting to be attached—if just by a thread—to reality by a convincing narrative.
Danelek’s book was quite a let down. A more descriptive subtitle for it would be “Extinction or Utopia or NEITHER.” His argument is that 2012 will not pan out. The book, Danelek writes in the introduction, is intended for those who are “inundated by doomsday scenarios.” The dynamic of a non-believer lecturing to the brainwashed hordes makes for quite a condescending read. Its tone drifts into that of a self-help book at times; there’s one chapter where Danelek lists a few psychological reasons why one might believe in the apocalypse, implying that his readers might be depressed, bored, or power-hungry. Yet upon finishing the book, I would much prefer to spend an afternoon with some of his ostensible readers—they at least might enjoy talking about science fiction—than with Danelek who, seething in his fury for these people, appears to be quite a lunatic.
Danelek is convinced that masses of people are inflicted by a belief that cataclysm will occur in December of 2012. He refers to “the 2012 hysteria,” insisting that “the Mayans and their mysterious calendar is the hottest thing in prophecy right now.” His source for the number of followers is a bit murky; he performed an Internet search once. “All one has to do is type 2012 into a search engine, and a quarter of a billion hits will be retrieved.” (It’s more like an eighteenth of a billion on Google currently; 2010 gets closer to a quarter, though.) The pervasive concern, Danelek argues, is a result of our overexposure to the media: we live in hard times and are constantly reminded of it. To the supposed masses of people who fear that the world will end in just two years, Danelek offers a bit of reassurance: don’t worry, yet. He provides an encyclopedic list of apocalyptic scenarios, ranging from the naturalistic (mass extinction, overpopulation), to the imaginative (aliens and robots), to the vaguely scientific (“nanotechnology mishap,” giant solar flares). He’s clearly spent some time on this topic: he gives a detailed summary of each belief, followed by an explanation on why that event is unlikely to occur by December 2012. He writes, for example, “Developing an artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to decide to do away with us is still a ways off.”
Danelek affects a stern disdain of all doomsday fantasies, despite his obvious obsession with the topic. He argues that apocalyptic beliefs have always been promulgated by cult-like figures and represent an erosion of human will. He speaks from experience. Danelek converted to Christianity in large part because of Hal Lindsay’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, which predicted that the rapture would occur sometime in 1988. (He has since left the faith.) In one chapter called “Failed Doomsday Prophecies of the Past”—perhaps the only readable one in the book—Danelek chronicles the history of failed predictions. John Napier thought the world would end in 1660; William Miller, a Baptist minister, convinced 50,000 people that end would come in October 1844; Jehovah’s Witnesses set the date for 1874, and when that “missed” they set it for 1914, and then again in 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941 and 1975. In each of his examples, there’s a specific person or religious group marketing the chosen date. 2012, however, is not a monolithic movement; unlike other prophecies, there’s no central figurehead to be found. According to Danelek, the evangelists of the 2012 prophecy include “paranormal writers, New Age gurus, and politically motivated environmentalists.” For him, this is worrisome: the environmentalists might be egging on the unshakably paranoid. 2012, he writes “appears to have been embraced by all aspects of society, including the secular and scientific communities, making each scenario more plausible than at anytime in history.” I, on the other hand, find this to be a huge relief. With so many soapboxes to choose from, it seems like the real-crazy leaders will get lost among the competition. Instead, the people he describes—ardent environmentalists and extraterrestrialists alike—just associate 2012 with whatever disruption haunts or excites their imaginations.
Furthermore, the thought of a “politically motivated environmentalist” arguing for the world’s end in 2012, seems a bit off—most environmentalists’ work is based on assumption that we have a bit more than two years left. 2012 is the year that the U.S. and Canada finally start a carbon-trading program. Does that count a significant enough shift? If environmentalists are really behind this 2012 thing, as Danelek insists, the date represents not our oncoming doom, but rather something that can be prevented with effort. Fate, then, seems to only have a partial hold on 2012; instead its followers can look to the date for a marker of just about anything. Danelek recognizes that some 2012 believers are only expecting a “profound shift in human consciousness” and he informs those readers that they are “quaint and a bit naïve,” and just plain wrong. He is ardent in his prediction that 2012 will be a boring year, and I suppose that’s his prerogative. But “a profound shift in human consciousness” is a much more interesting thing to work towards.
I am simply baffled Danelek’s decision to write this book. Why give credence to ideas you contempt? Why criticize the beliefs of people who buy your book—isn’t he just biting the hands that feed him? Perhaps he is preparing to be the leader of a 2024 prophecy? Or, perhaps, he’ll look deeper into his own circular logic and realize that 2012 believers aren’t so bad after all. Some of them are environmentalists, and others have just seen too many science fiction movies. Maybe then Danelek can relax and storyboard with the rest of us. He clearly he wants to.
Want more? We’ve got a whole series all about 2012.
Jessica Weisberg is on the editorial staff at the New Yorker and has published articles in The Nation and n+1, among other publications. If she had to name her favorite science fiction movie, it would probably have to be Dark City.