Back in the mid-1990s when I was researching my book Claiming Sacred Ground — on the ‘sacralization’ of space, place, and landscape, with a focus on two places where it’s been happening at a rapid clip over the last three or four decades (Glastonbury, England, and Sedona, Arizona, which has been in the news recently for the multiple sweat-lodge deaths associated with prosperity self-help guru James Arthur Ray) — I heard a lot about “prophecies” leading up to major earth-changing events in 2012. For believers, the Harmonic Convergence of August, 1987, heralded the beginning of the final quarter-century of the current era, affording us twenty-five years to get our acts (ax?) together, collectively and individually, before being ground up for cosmic compost.
There’s a lot of research on belief and the tremendous resilience of the human mind’s capacity to bounce back with creative reinterpretations when alleged prophecies fail to occur. I actually believe that “creative (re-)religioning” is one of the things that will help us get through the “earth changes” coming up in the near future, so it’s something we need to think about and get better at. But December 21, 2012, is not the date we need to fear (or hope for, if you’re apocalyptically inclined), as the changes facing us will more likely be a matter of creeping climate system effects, ecological breakdowns (probably starting with our oceans), the steady decline of cheap energy sources, and growing economic dislocation for millions, than any sudden cosmically induced calamity. Blogging Mayanist Johan Normark’s 2012 postings are an excellent place to start for more informed readings of the whole 2012 phenomenon. (And see also what Mayan elders say about the whole thing, and Gary Lachman’s piece on the groovy Reality Sandwich.) What we need is not a rapid spike in fear and fearmongering, but the cultivation of our collective capacities for adaptive resilience, creativity, and empathy — plus pressure on political actors for quick and radical policy measures when possible.
It’s understandable, though, that Hollywood and the pop-culture industry would shift into high gear over this opportunity to sell movie tickets ($225 million worldwide in its first weekend!), books (what an incredible list), survival gear, spiritual solace, and tickets on the next spaceship out of here, and that, in reply, even NASA would issue statements (see here and here) to calm the ill-informed and worried.
Just as we like, even need, to mark out particular spaces and places as sacred — they become emblems for more genuine “reality,” utopian kernels to which we can actually travel, in our hearts or in our bodies (a hermeneutically flat topography just doesn’t compare, and probably makes us sick) — we also like to do that with time. It allows us to plan and organize our lives, look forward to things, and give our present bearings the weightiness of meaning. By saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that our lives are meaningless to start with and that we do these things to give ourselves the illusion that they are not. Meaning is woven into our activities; it oozes out of everything we do, and what we do is oriented, from day one, at allowing its ooze to flow. The same goes for any living thing, though obviously we humans are a lot more obsessed with it, for various reasons (to do with our neotenous nature, our complex and highly neuroplastic brains, our utter dependence on language and narrative, and much else).
Cognitive sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel writes of the “sociomental topographies” that mark our understandings of space and of time, and the forms of “mnemonic socialization” by which we learn what the important dates, events, check-points, and cycles are in our collective identity worlds. We live, however, in a world transitioning to the global scale, one in which national memories and identities are weakening and in which ethnic and civilizational ones are filling in the void, but where, for many of us, the latter don’t do the trick very well any more. Many people look to the global scale for their collective identity bearings, but that scale remains a work in progress, a contested arena without clear and effective markers in place, with science being one (or more) of the contestants, but others readily spilling into the vacuum. The appeal of 2012 doomsters is therefore understandable.
There were things I liked about Emmerich’s previous mega-doom-pic The Day After Tomorrow (like the scenes of an ice-age Manhattan), and some research has shown that it played a role in catalyzing discussion about climate change (see Leiserowitz and Lowe et al). What the effects of the 2012 asteroid will be is anyone’s guess. But I’m willing to wager an awful lot of money that life will go on…