This article, written by Michael I. Niman, originally appeared at ArtVoice, on 12/20/12
Recently, a friend in a small Mayan village where I once lived in southern Belize, invited me to attend the wedding of his daughter, who was marrying a boy from a neighboring village.
We’ve known the bride and her family since she was a small child, but regrettably we could not break away from our stateside commitments to attend. This was a traditional Maya wedding, joining Kekchi and Mopan Maya families from two different villages and Maya ethnicities together. And I’m sure it was a great celebration, with music, dancing, roast pork, chicken caldo, and all the trimmings of a grand Mayan feast.
The reason I bring this up is because people don’t have festivals like this, making lifelong bonds and celebrating the future, a week before the world is supposed to end. The Maya that I know clearly were not expecting the world to end this week.
In fact, nobody that I know in Belize, in the Maya heartland, surrounded by Mayan ruins and speckled with traditional Mayan villages, expected the world to end. What those familiar with their history did expect on the solstice was an end to the 13th baktun, a 144,000-day period comprised of 20 k’atuns, each having lasted 7,200 days. The 13th baktun, of course, is followed by the 14th, in much the same way that it followed the 12th baktun. Since this only happens every 400 years or so, this is somewhat of a big deal, like the onset of the Christian calendar’s third millennium in 2000, which honestly, really wasn’t much of a big deal at all.
None of this is really a big deal to most Maya, who, like most everyone else on earth, pretty much use the Christian calendar for their day-to-day scheduling needs. The move from the 13th to 14th baktun, however, is a big deal to a bunch of white New Agers who, despite not knowing a tzolk’in from a haab’ cycle, are quick to embrace ersatz constructions of native cultures. This is especially true when the myths they construct might promise destruction.
So, while Maya are aware of their calendar, and this historic change, they’re not freaked out about it. If anything, this is a cause for celebration, like New Year’s Eve, when we make resolutions for the new year. This is not the end of the world.
Of course, this wasn’t the first end-of-the-world prediction. They come pretty regularly. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, predicted the world would end it 1914. And when it didn’t, they changed their prediction to 1918, then 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, and, most recently, 1994. In 1999 televangelist Jerry Falwell warned that the Antichrist is living among us (as a Jewish male), and hence the end times are near. Harold Camping, who until last year was president of a Christian radio network broadcasting to more than 150 American towns and cities, used his radio network to warn that the world would end in 1994, later warning of a September 29, 2011 destruction, and, when that also didn’t work out, an October demise. Pope Leo X allegedly wrote in 1514 that the world would end in 2014. The Weekly World News has it all going kaput in 2016.
The problem with all these wacky doomsday predictions, aside from being baseless, is that they all predict an abrupt end. Truth be told, the end is coming. It’s just not coming all at once. It’s more like we’re swimming in a vat of water as it slowly rises to a boil. The flame under that pot was lit a long time ago, some say with the advent of agriculture and, later, civilization. Others more conservatively argue it was the industrial revolution and the carbon economy that set the wheels in motion.
However it got lit, the flame was turned up once again earlier this month, with the effective collapse of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar. The consistently record-breaking catastrophic weather we’ve been experiencing globally for the past decade has resulted from a global temperature increase of less than one degree Fahrenheit since 1980. Barring any significant action, the scientific consensus has global temperature rising approximately another six degrees before the end of the century. A four-degree rise would cause enough environmental chaos to collapse human civilization. The US National Intelligence Council lists climate change as a major threat to national security. But unlike your usual end-of-the-world scenario, this one won’t come, bang, all in one day, or even a week, month, or decade. It’s been happening at an accelerating pace for hundreds of years. We’ve known about it with certainty, conservatively, for about 30 years. But aside from branding environmentally destructive habits and products as “green,” because other habits and products are worse, we’ve pretty much done nothing.
During the previous month, we’ve all heard about the supposed end of the Mayan calendar, which isn’t actually ending. Except for a handful of cranks, we also knew the world wasn’t going to end on December 21. But the media still covered the story. And they covered it well. The Nexis/Lexis database shows that during the past 30 days the US newspapers and “news wires,” which are the sources for much of what is broadcast and distributed online, ran twice as many stories mentioning the Mayan calendar as they did mentioning the UN Climate Change Conference. This fact alone is terrifying on many levels.
Climate doom isn’t a certainty—that is, we still have a very small window of opportunity to take some very drastic and radical action to avert the worst effects of global warming, and prepare for what’s already heading our way. This is a tale of two doomsdays. One is nonsense, but it entertains us. The other is real, and unless we change the way we live, it will destroy us—or, more accurately, it will allow us to destroy ourselves. And that’s why we’d rather talk about the end of the 13th baktun.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.