What I Don’t Believe: The End of the World (3/3)
I suppose this one was obvious, but it was the original reason I wanted to write the series in the first place. As you probably know, on the winter solstice this year — just a week away! — the world will . . . not end. The Mayan calendar will . . . not end. And the Maya . . . didn’t predict anything particular about the date, other than that it is the end of a b’ak’tun, a long cycle of about 400 years. We’re currently in the 13th b’ak’tun, until Friday, when we will begin the 14th b’ak’tun.
This will not end the world any more than the beginning of January will end the world, or next Monday will. It’s just the flipping over of a cycle of time.
So why do people want to believe that it will herald the end? They did the same thing in 2000, as well as 1987, as well as 1844.
In fact, that last date is worthwhile to examine closer. According to some complex reading of the Bible, William Miller predicted the end of the world on October 22, 1844. As you probably remember from your high school history classes, the world didn’t end in 1844, but continued on a few additional years. However, so persuasive was Miller that he convinced quite a lot of people to sell all their possessions and await the return of Christ. Of course, since he didn’t show up, they were disappointed, and in a delightful bit of historical whimsy, this event is called The Great Disappointment.
They were disappointed. They were disappointed, that the earth didn’t end. They were disappointed that they and everyone they loved didn’t die. Why is that? Well, of course, they believed that they wouldn’t die — just all those nasty unbelievers would. They’d live forever. But I think the disappointment has its root even deeper.
I think the root of the disappointment, and the root of this eschatological urge in general, lies in the structure of narrative. We want to believe that our stories are real, that they matter, and stories — at least, most stories in the west — have beginnings, middles, and ends. The story’s not done until we see the end, and so they are disappointed that there’s another chapter after this cliff hanger.
Will the world end some day? Oh, yes. On some find morning an asteroid will smash into the earth, or the sun will burn out and expand into a red giant, or global warming will take off as a self-reinforcing feedback loop and turn us into Venus, or we’ll just kill off the ecosystem. Something, someday, will destroy the earth. The difference is, we have some control of these things. We can mitigate the ecological and climatological damage that we’ve done. We can watch for and attempt to deflect asteroids. We can’t do much about the lifespan of the sun, but we can leave the planet. We can do stuff, if we don’t think that the end is coming any second and it’s inevitable. That’s the rub. We have real work to do, and imagining the earth’s poles will shift on some day or another in the near future doesn’t help us do that work. It is a lazy reader skipping to the end of the book.
I don’t believe in the end of the world because I think this novel is longer than that. I think we still have many chapters to write, and I hope that we will not see the end of the world until we are so far beyond H. sapiens that we would not easily recognize ourselves. I’m not a transhumanist, another particular flavor of eschatology — but I do think that we’ve got improvement and advancement ahead of us if we act wisely, but not if we abdicate our responsibility.