Just how widespread are catastrophe obsessions anyway? Does the sweet tooth for catastrophe scenarios really span eras and continents? Or is it just one of our self-defeating Western eccentricities?
First off, apocalypse obsession goes back a long way. Early Christians were certain that Jesus had predicted the end of the world as we know it, certain that Jesus had foretold sweeping disasters that would usher in the coming of a Kingdom of God. These first century AD Christian believers expected to see Jesus return from the grave bringing a new world order any day or week. That was nearly 2,000 years ago and 5,700 miles away in the heart of a Jewish territory in the Middle East. But when Christ failed to show up, that didn't discredit his religion. In fact, the belief system based on a faulty prediction has grown by leaps and bounds.
Two millennia down the line and 8,200 miles away on the West Coast of the United States, in Hollywood, there arose another such prediction. And it proved even more instantly popular than early Christianity. It was bequeathed to us in the form of a feature film-2012-the film whose maker, Sony Pictures, claims it's the number one movie on the globe today. 2012 sums up its message in its tagline-"Who will survive the end of the world?"
But 2012 is not the only apocalypse-centered bit of Western pop culture enjoying runaway success. If you manage to plow through the more than a hundred 2012 books on Amazon.com and are still starved for armageddon, you can quaff your thirst for fire and brimstone with Tim LaHaye's sixteen right wing Christian apocalypse novels, The Left Behind series, books that have sold 65 million copies in a publishing market that feels it's done well if it sells a mere 50,000 books.
Where does the concept that the world will end in 2012 come from? Why 2012? The date allegedly comes from the Mayan calendar and from Mayan mythology. According to the Mayans, the gods tried three creations of mankind and failed in each. Then they got the hang of human-making and pulled off the creation of creatures like you and me, creatures capable of singing their praises. That was in August 11, 3114 BC. But according to the Mayans, a creation can only survive for 5,126 years, then it collapses and makes way for yet another try. Ours, the fourth creation, is due to end on December 20, 2112. Or so the story goes. Some Mayan experts say that this is a wild and frenzied fabrication. In other words, there is a good chance that we Western connoisseurs of calamity have concocted the concept of a cataclysmic 2012 using the Mayans as an excuse.
To a historian of religion, all of this would sound eerily familiar. Americans have hungered for the thrill of imminent disaster for a long time. In the early 19th century, an upstate New York farmer, William Miller, preached that the globe would collapse cataclysmically in 1843. Then, when the end failed to arrive on time, Miller's followers reworked his prediction and claimed the world would cease its comfy existence in 1844. That should have been the end of Miller's credibility. But it wasn't. Miller's predictions were so compelling that his followers today number sixteen million. They're called Seventh Day Adventists.
But that's just our nutty Western civilization. Surely other cultures are not so cataclysm obsessed. Especially the wisest cultures on the planet, those of indigenous peoples. But once there was an indigenous people in Meso-America, a people totally isolated from Western influence. So isolated that Westerners didn't have a clue that this tribe and its lands existed. Nor did these native folk have any suspicion that other continents lay across the seas. These indigenes were sophisticated city-builders and empire-crafters. But they were also so end-of-the-world obsessed that they helped bring about a real apocalypse-the end of the world as they knew it.
They did it with their religion's self-destructive prediction that white gods would come from the East bringing the strife of end-times. When Cortez and his conquistadors showed up, the pale strangers seemed to fulfill the prediction. And in the beginning, Moctezuma, the indigenous emperor, made the mistake of welcoming these Spanish killers into the heart of his city. The name of the civilization that made this great mistake? The Aztecs. And their self-defeating predictions were so powerful that there are no more Aztecs left today.
But what about peoples who actively oppose the Western way of life? Peoples who believe in radically different truths? Surely they are not so twisted that disaster scenarios appeal to them. Right? One of the two great cultures opposing Western ways today is the empire of Islam, an empire whose conquests span a territory eleven times the size of the conquests of Alexander the Great, five times the size of the Roman Empire, and seven times the size of the United States. From 622 AD onward, militant Islam pieced together the greatest empire in the history of the world, one that maintains its hold on believers from Nigeria and Algeria to Indonesia and Malaysia, 11,300 miles apart, with or without a united political structure. Surely a belief system that has supported such astonishing achievements is not weakened by catastrophe fixation. Or is it?
Eighty five percent of Muslim Shiites-the Islamic Twelvers--believe in the appearance of a 12th imam who disappeared in the ninth century and who will show up any day now to bring the light and truth of Islam to the entire world. How will that imam cleanse the planet of its old and radically incorrect ideas-sins like democracy, secularism, Western human rights, and tolerance? With end-of-the-world catastrophe. Catastrophe followed by a new world order in which the laws of Islam will rule from one end of the planet to another. Bringing you and me to Islam...or eliminating us entirely. What's chilling is that one of these catastrophe believers is Ahmad Ahmadinejad, the current president of Iran, a man who seems to be racing to pocket one of the keys to apocalypse-nuclear weaponry.
We won't go into the Native American Ghost Dance religion. Or into Japan's Aum Shinrikyo. Take my word for it. They are catastrophe-beliefs. Instead, let me take you back to the question that's been puzzling me. Why are we so often hooked on millennial movements, movements that say the world is about to end? What's the underlying biology of this seemingly whacky and counter-productive addiction? A belief that sucks up our energies, saps our resources, and almost always turns out to be wrong? Surely in a world where each organism is tuned to survival, such wrenching belief systems should not exist. Right?
Try this out as answer number one. Sometimes disaster predictions come true. They have to. War, earthquake, and famine happen fairly regularly on this bleak and threatening earth. So even if you toss dice to see when the world will end, your toss will sometimes be on target. That lucky toss of the dice happened to a would-be 19th century prophet from Pittsburgh, a preacher named Charles Taze Russell, who predicted that collapse and disaster would arrive before 1910 and culminate in 1914. In a sense, Russell was right. In 1914, Europe entered the very first World War, the very first industrial war to engulf the globe. That war killed an unprecedented 40 million. And in the view of many historians, that war-the War to End All Wars-wiped out the old European views of the world and ushered in a very new weltanschauung. But there was a snag. A big one. Catastrophe did not usher in the rule of Christ that Russell had predicted. This central glitch, however, didn't stop Russell's millennial belief system, his predictions of imminent catastrophe. Today his followers are called Jehovah's Witnesses. And there are seventeen million of them.
Accidental accuracy doesn't seem a strong enough reason to keep a catastrophe fixation alive in humans all through historic time and in cultures seated on opposite sides of a planet. Surely biology and evolution must have a greater reason for holding on to such a deep disaster passion. Try this out as answer number two to the riddle of rapture and end-of-the-world-in-a-ball-of-flame visions. It's in a 60-year old experiment that plays a key role in my first book, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History. Here's the description from The Lucifer Principle:
"In the late 1940's, the German researcher F. Steiniger put fifteen brown rats who had never met each other into a cage. At first the creatures cowered in the corners, frightened and apprehensive. If they accidentally bumped into each other, they bared their teeth and snapped. Gradually, however, it dawned on some of the males that among this batch of strangers were attractive young females. The gentleman rodents became budding Don Juans and went a courting.
"The first male and female to win each others' hearts now had something all the others lacked an ally. The pair took full advantage of the situa¬tion: they terrorized their cagemates. At first, the lovers simply chased their fellow rodents away from food, sending them scurrying to the safety of the far end of the enclosure. Later, the romantic duo hunted down their neighbors one by one. The female was a particularly quick kill¬er. She would sneak up on a victim as it was quietly chewing a bit of chow, spring with a sudden speed, and bite the unfortunate in the side of the neck, often opening a wound in the carotid artery. Some of the attacked died of infection. Others, mauled and worn down by frantic efforts to escape, succumbed to exhaustion. When the happy couple had finished, they were the only survivors.
"The rats had cleared the new territory of competitors, transforming the cage into a spacious land of milk and honey for themselves. A new promised land. Now, they could found a tribe that might if left to its own devices thrive for genera¬tions to come. A tribe that would carry the parental line of genes."
How does this relate to the popularity of notions that the world is about to end? Think for a second. Every millennial end-of-the-world movement has a hitch. We'll all be broiled, fried, or caught in the crossfire of apocalyptic battles and plague. WE'LL be wiped out. But not the true believers. They'll be saved. And they'll have a fresh new world, a world purged of us, a world they can turn into their own private paradise.
Apocalypse-beliefs, I suspect, are land-clearance and land-grab dreams in disguise-dreams left over from our time as beasts.
Now for a few closing suspicions. One of the most popular apocalyptic belief systems of the last 30 years has been the idea that we humans are bringing the destruction of the planet. The greenhouse-gas scenario is partly a scientific hypothesis and partly a deeply appealing myth. Climate-change-beliefs are a secular expression of an antique pattern...perhaps an instinctual pattern. They are a new way of saying that the end is coming and that only the believers will be saved. Only those who've embraced the right god or the right philosophy will survive. Only they will know the truth behind the new world order. And they will do more than remain alive, they will come out on top. They will flourish and thrive.
Which leaves us with three simple questions. Questions whose answers can have a powerful effect on your life and mine:
1.) Are the climate change believers right? Or will they force us to cripple our civilization so badly that the second great civilization we're competing with today-the 2,200-year old empire of China-will come out on top?
2.) could the apocalypse obsession that rules Iran today end in the fire of nuclear war?
And 3.) How do we evade the fate of the Aztecs? How do we make sure that our end-of-the-world predictions do not become an end-of-the-world reality? How do we make sure that the kind of world we would like to live in survives?