Dec 21 2012 is the most eagerly-awaited date since 2000. But we’ve a history of getting it wrong, says Oliver Moore
WHILE Mayan scholars do not consider Dec 21, 2012 important, popular culture has focused on that date as the end of the world.
The date is regarded as the end of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar, converging with astronomical alignments and numerological formulae. While some have redefined this date as transformative rather than apocalyptic, solstice 2012 is the most eagerly-awaited date since the millennium. But, then, we have a history of over-hyping events.
The year 1666 contained that biblical 666 — the number of the beast — which conjured up apocalyptic dread. 1666 was also the final year of bubonic plague and it was when the great fire of London occurred, so it is perhaps understandable that many Londoners thought tomorrow wouldn’t come.
War of the worlds
Perhaps the shortest moment of mass panic about impending global doom was when the 1898 HG Wells book, War of the Worlds, about a violent Martian invasion, was broadcast on radio.
Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, it went out at Halloween, 1938. A debated but significant level of mass panic ensued: the programme featured an advert-free news-bulletin format, adding to the sense of dreadful reality.
Rapture and religion
Religion is the mother and father of doom — from Noah’s Arc to those four horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the fifth century, Moses of Crete led his followers into the supposedly parting sea, where they drowned, or were rescued by passing sailors.
In 1843, tens of thousands of Millerines took to the hills to await the end of this era and the second coming of Christ. Twice. Just last year, evangelical radio preacher Harold Camping convinced thousands, who had abandoned their possessions, to expect, in May and then October, the final rapture.
Oil was super-cheap before the two oil crises of the 1970s — in ’73 and ’79 — radically changed the balance of power globally. Middle Eastern countries flexed their muscles, which led to queues at petrol stations as prices went through the roof.
Meanwhile, many eminent voices were predicting the end of oil — US president Jimmy Carter went on TV in 1977 to say “unless profound changes are made to lower oil consumption, we now believe that early in the 1980s the world will be demanding more oil that it can produce.”
Certainly in the category of real, and still with us, the fear of AIDS in the early 1980s was overwhelming. Fear started in the gay community, but quickly spread: Oprah Winfrey said on her TV show in 1987, with great emphasis, that “one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS” by 1990. Treatments improved and AIDS, though still a major cause of death in Africa, did not become a global epidemic.
Bird flu burned bright, and then, though it lingers residually as a potential global epidemic, disappeared as quickly. Avian influenza can mutate to infect humans. It emerged in Hong Kong in 1997, and killed 60% of the initial few hundred people who came into contact with it. This spooked authorities globally, as did its rapid spread.
Mad plans were hatched (sorry) to bring all outdoor farm birds indoors, rather than end far-eastern factory farming, which was the likely cause and source of a virus that followed agri-food transit lines, not bird migratory patterns. We survived. Honourable mention: Swine flu.
There was genuine fear that Scientists at the CERN in Geneva were about to create an earth-destroying black hole. CERN’s particle accelerator allows subatomic particles, called hadrons, to collide, while creating temperatures a million times hotter than the centre of the sun, the hottest since just after the Big Bang.
Y2K (year two thousand) had a global reach: otherwise perfectly sensible people stocked up on durable essentials. A few even relocated to remote islands. From the 1960s to the 1980s, computers used two digits rather than four to represent a year. The fear was that this would create chaos when 99 turned into 00, as everything from banks and business to governments and aeroplanes were, by 1999, very computer-dependent.
An International Y2K Cooperation Centre was established, 120 countries joined in the efforts and, in total, the equivalent of half a trillion dollars in today’s money was spent updating computer systems — again and again.
Some people saw it as a monumental waste of effort, others as prudent — while individual African countries like Zaire spent a small fortune, China, Russia and Italy did very little.
This was seismic in terms of apocalyptic worry, and it persists in the thousands of nuclear warheads still in existence.
Mutually assured destruction — the ability of each side to wipe out the other at the same time, while retaining the ability to launch second strikes from submarines — meant that when events like the Cuban missile crisis occurred during the Cold War, nuclear drills were practised in schools and children cowered in their beds at night.
Today’s most likely cause of apocalypse. So is the end nigh? With the economic trends of the developing world, scepticism in the US, the lack of significant improvement in Europe, and no binding international agreement, who knows? We only have to get the Apocalypse wrong once.
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