When current events make us feel the end is near history provides an uplifting perspective of what humanity can survive. These are times the world didn’t end.
It’s hard not to have apocalyptic notions on the brain after the kind of the year 2020 has been. Starting bad and quickly getting worse, from fires to threats of war, to pandemics, civil unrest, murder hornets to more fire, reality has once again proven stranger than fiction. Where there’s a tragedy, however, there’s always someone looking to profit from it. Those wearied by current events make excellent targets for manipulation by fear-mongering. This article explores the recent history of doomsday speculation, how it draws us in and what we can do to guard ourselves against it.
Y2K — January 1, 2000
The new millennium brought with it excitement and trepidation. The internet was becoming a household staple, even in rural Midwestern towns like mine. Major corporations, utilities, and society in general, could see the internet’s potential usefulness. By 1999, many had made the switch away from physical documentation and record-keeping. However, the internet’s unproven trustworthiness tempered excitement of its limitless potential.
Y2K is shorthand for the “The Year 2000 Problem”. Up to that point, the computer’s date-related operations recognized the year by its last two characters. The problem arose from malfunctions caused by the year rolling over from 99 to 00. Secretary of Defense John Hamre likened their worst expectations to an “electric El Niño.” They anticipated “nasty surprises” to break out all over the world. Basic household utilities were of particular concern. Electrical outages and water shortages were the biggest worries for the average person. Extreme interpretations expected food and gas shortages, crashing airplanes, and the literal end times. On December 31st, my family and I counted down the New Year with a bathtub full of water on hand, just in case.
Corporate, religious, and conspiratorial instigators stoked the flames of unease to their benefit. Survivalist groups stockpiled food and built shelters. Many prominent figures surfaced to create and exploit monetization opportunities. The new millennium came, and the lights stayed on. Various countries reported only minor incidents. The United States reported 150 malfunctioning slot machines in Delaware, and the Naval Observatory website briefly read 1 January 19100. An underwhelming performance by modern apocalypse movie standards.
Large Hadron Collider — September 10, 2008
In 2008, a scientific experiment in Geneva, Switzerland, was garnering an unusual amount of attention. Paranoia laced conversations about a machine that could create black holes. The Large Hadron Collider (or LHC) was the most sophisticated particle accelerator ever created. Yes, it could still create a black hole someday. No, it would not be the end of the world if it did so. Our understanding of physics is still rife with unanswered questions. The LHC’s primary goal was not to create black holes. It was to find the link between quantum mechanics and general relativity and find the particle that causes things to have mass.
Einstein’s theory of relativity involved the discovery that time was a form of matter. Time was not an immutable force unto itself, nor just a useful social construct. It is real, and we can change it. Our own speed and distance in relation to the earth itself can change how we experience it. Remarkable as this discovery was, it was only halfway toward the theory Einstein really hoped to solve. He called it the Theory of Everything.
Relativity did not explain the obtuse nature of quantum mechanics, nor does it fully explain gravity. This is where the LHC comes in. The LHC accelerates particle beams using supercharged magnets to bend them towards one another at light speed. These particles are put on a collision course as it draws together the opposing beams. 12 years later, a collision hasn’t even occurred yet. Though, we’ve collected other useful data from the LHC.
Actually, once the LHC is running again and begins producing collisions, physicists will be ecstatic if it creates a tiny black hole. It would be the first experimental evidence to support an elegant but unproven and controversial “theory of everything” called string theory.science.nasa.gov
This is one reason doomsday predictions surrounding the LHC were unfounded; it couldn’t produce a collision on its first day operating; it was a test run without particles. Also, consider how unlikely it is to fire two bullets into one another, now try it with particles smaller than a single cell of your own body. Any black hole created would be no bigger than the particles that created it, not nearly big enough to be stable. This microscopic black hole would also travel at the speed of light. It would be harmlessly flung into space long before it could begin feeding on the surrounding matter. However, these facts did not stop the usual suspects from having another media field day with the topic.
The Maya Calendar — December 21, 2012
The Mayan civilization developed a sophisticated understanding of astronomy, and from this a mathematically intricate calendar based on the sun’s movement across the sky throughout the year. There’s was a 365-day year like ours, split instead into 18 months of a 20-day length. The last five days comprised the last month of the year, which held sacred significance in Mayan culture. The calendar comprises several concentric circles or “counts” each ring a longer cycle than the last. The short count repeats every 52 years, and the long count repeats every 5,125 years indefinitely. The last long count ran from 3114 BC to the now infamous Dec. 21, 2012 date.
Worn and barely legible Mayan hieroglyphics predicted an event involving their god of war and creation, Bolon Yokte. The professional consensus from sources such as the La Trobe University of Australia and the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico interpreted the event as a transformative beginning to a new era. Despite this, apocalyptic predictions surfaced across the internet promoted by Youtubers and even the Discovery Channel. Catastrophic predictions had a “stellar” quality to them, including gravitational flux caused by the black hole in the center of our galaxy, meteor strikes, or collision with a hypothetical Planet X called Nibiru.
Media that sought to profit from these rumors included Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” and the none too subtly named ’09 disaster film “2012”. On the day itself, two million people descended upon Teotihuacan near Mexico City, a site not unaccustomed to gatherings celebrating the Winter Solstice, but never of this magnitude. Similar gatherings occurred all across the world, primarily in Mexico and Central America. Seeing as the world didn’t end, these gatherings’ outcome was mostly positive with groups petitioning new holidays like World Spirit Day or a birthday celebration for the Earth.
Rapture, Armageddon & Tribulation — Various Dates
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God — 2000
Like many, this Ugandan Christian sect expected the end to come with the New Millenium with Movement leaders instructing their congregation to sell their homes and possessions and abandon their fieldwork in preparation. When nothing happened, a rift tore through the group with parishioners demanding their money back from donations funded by their liquidated livelihoods. Many were quelled when their apocalypse was rescheduled for March 17. On which day, an explosion brought authorities to the remains of the Movement’s church and congregation who had been boarded into the building from the outside. Investigation revealed dozens more poisoned, stabbed, and strangled corpses at other Movement properties bringing the death count to 924. The nature of the deaths and the Movement’s leaders’ disappearance prompted the Ugandan government to determine the incident a mass murder as opposed to cult suicide and put out a warrant for their vile leadership.
Grigori Rasputin — August 23, 2013
Yes, “that” Rasputin, infamous for abetting the fall of the Romanov Dynasty and not dying when he should. The Mad Monk predicted the end of the world on August 23, 2013. He predicted a string of worldwide misfortune from ’01 to ’13. This included mass suicides after the scientific verification of reincarnation, a pandemic originating from a US lab, a rampaging loch ness monster, and climate change (Got 1 of 4 at least!). His predictions culminated in the return of Jesus and a 7-year war between Christianity and Islam that would kill millions. Flames would then devour the rest of life on earth, though it’s not clear whether these flames were because of war or supernatural means.
Ronald Weinland — Various Dates
Minister of the Church of God and convicted tax evader Ronald Weinland wrote about the end times more than once. In 2008 he announced to his followers that he and his wife were the end-times prophets of God mentioned in Revelation and claimed the world would end on September 30th of that year. As the date approached, Weinland moved the date back to Pentecost 2012 (May 27th), predicting “Great Tribulation” up to that point. When that date came and went, he recanted the claim before finishing the full 360 turnabouts by claiming this date was only the beginning of the end. The apocalypse would definitely fall on the next Pentecost, May 19th, 2013. Beyond this point, his rhetoric devolved into predictions without years, questioning even those predictions and begging church members to stay when his predictions continued to fail.
Fear-creating writers sold over 45 million books citing every conceivable catastrophe from civil war, planes dropping from the sky to the end of the civilized world as we know it. Reputable preachers were advocating food storage and a “head for the caves” mentality. No banks failed, no planes crashed, no wars or civil war started. And yet not one of these prophets of doom has ever apologized for their scare-mongering tactics.Col Stringer – President of the International Convention of Faith Ministries International in Australia
David Meade — Various dates
Self-professed Christian numerologist under the pen name David Meade is a secretive character trafficking in conspiracy theories like the aforementioned Plant X and numerous failed end-times predictions. He’s written 13 books and made a handful of media appearances to discuss the subject. His Sept. 23, 2017 prediction included Nibiru blocking out the sun, a levitating Trump, nuclear attacks from Russia, China, and North Korea, Obama’s third term as president, as well as general Tribulation. According to Meade, Nibiru would make two more attempts to destroy the world in 2018, first in February and then in April when that failed to come to pass. Meade has since been thoroughly discredited and outed for plagiarism, dismissed by critics and Christians alike.
The Appeal of the Apocalypse
Studies have found those who believe in the soul are more likely to believe in an apocalyptic end to humanity. This can even provide reassurance in the often accompanying notion that they have fortuitously been born into the “correct” religion (of thousands to exist throughout history) by which they may avoid judgment. However, these same people become more skeptical of doomsday predictions when made aware of the “symbolic immortality” achieved by having children or accomplishing things. This indicates not a desire to watch the world burn but of the timeless aversion to natural death and the struggle for meaning and purpose. The forbidding allure of the end seems rooted in fear of failing to establish a legacy. Can’t get your life together? Hopefully, the sun will explode.
“the cold truth is that preaching chaos is profitable and calm doesn’t sell many tapes or books”Betsy Hart, the Deseret News
The appeal for the false prophet is obviously monetary. Purveyors of doomsday prophecy operate as snake-oil salesmen. The first step to selling your idea is to convince people they need what you’re selling. Fables of fear and chaos create the panic that motivates people to give up everything for the chance to find answers in an over-priced, plagiarised, self-published book. For the buyer, the apocalypse appeals to the incongruence created by the Problem of Evil, a contradiction insinuated by the practice of religion in which we cannot consolidate a truly altruistic god with the evil we perceive in the world.
The world is smaller than ever, thanks to the modern flow of information around the globe. Humanity’s perspective of our problems has remained proportionally the same. This gives many the feeling that our issues are beyond resolving. Desperate people want to feel that someone or something with more power than them will intervene and make things right, even if that means ending it all. This failure of confidence and fear of personal agency creates victims ripe for controlling.
Come Hell or High Water
So, where do we go with this knowledge? What can the average person do to tell precaution from paranoia and identify legitimate threats to the future of the world? Climate change is a topic that has received criticism similar to that levied against general doomsday hype, so what’s the difference? A plethora of expert-driven research, collaboration, and cross-references from highly educated individuals worldwide is a start. Unfortunately, science isn’t always the most open and accommodating way to share information. Scientific illiteracy among the general populace leaves room for sensationalist interpretations from media and dogma alike.
A key difference between doomsday hype and sensible calls to activism is whether the message offers solutions based on real, verifiable action on all levels, especially individual; does the message empower or terrify? The prophet will tell you only they have the answers, while the scientist will tell you what you can do to help. The doomsday prophet works alone or in small groups to sell their messiah image. The scientist is supported and held accountable by every single one of their peers and competitors with replicable truth their metric for success. When confronted by inconvenient forecasts for the future, ask yourself, does the call to action ask more of you than just sending a check to the man on the TV and wishing it away?
Whether it’s Armageddon or the ocean knocking at your door, there are healthy ways to take precautions against the unknown. Consider the most common natural disasters in your areas and prepare in accordance with what is most likely to happen. Identify your storm shelter, have backup heating, keep a reasonable stockpile of canned or dry goods on hand. Consider learning a new skill like gardening, canning, or sewing. Work to gain independence from utilities by investing in solar panels or other environmentally friendly household appliances. Prepare for what you can expect because it will still benefit you for what you can’t.
With many doomsday predictions past and many more to come, history offers us a sobering perspective of current events. Existential anxiety is an inescapable component of being human. However, bearing witness to the end times is the “taking the ball and going home” approach to circumventing this fear. Living like every day is your last is about having a fulfilling life, not giving up on making something out of it. Strive for a unique legacy, don’t “abandon your fields,” scrutinize all new information and live a life worth seeing through to a natural end.