Even though there are still three years to go, give or take a few months, before the end of civilization as we know it, Hollywood has decided to cash in now with 2012, director Roland Emmerich’s $200-million love letter to special effects. Perfectly reasonable plan. After all, millions worldwide believe that cataclysmic destruction—or, just maybe, total spiritual transformation—will commence as soon as the millennia-old Mayan calendar grinds to a halt on Dec. 21, 2012. In either case there won’t be any Ferrari dealers, cocaine suppliers or anyone else to lavish the film profits on. And, for true believers, there’s every motive to go for the gold now. That may have been the thinking of Richard Heene, when the father of six-year-old Falcon concocted the Balloon Boy stunt. “Heene believes the world is going to end in 2012,” according to his friend Richard Thomas. “Because of that he wanted to make money quickly, become rich enough to build a bunker or something underground, where he can be safe from the sun exploding.”
Our friendly neighbourhood star going supernova may be the only destructive touch missing from 2012. The official trailer for the movie, which opens on Nov. 12, has earthquakes, tsunamis and super-volcanos. Whole cities slide into the ocean, and an aircraft carrier, tossed like a child’s toy, lands on the White House. Religious imagery is even harder hit: the dome of St. Peter’s rolls over the faithful; in Rio de Janeiro the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer crumples to the ground; and a lone Buddhist monk (an ecumenical touch, perhaps) is swept away as a wave crashes over his mountaintop shrine. What brings on this Götterdämmerung is barely hinted at in the trailer; according to early reports, it’s not much clearer in the film itself.
The movie opens in the present, as scientists note unusually fierce solar storms, which they fear will have alarming, although unspecified, effects on earth. By 2010 the American president (Danny Glover) knows the planet has had it; he calls a meeting of world leaders, in part because he needs the help of a dictatorship untroubled by nosy news media or basic human rights. And so in China, the army starts displacing villagers to begin what it calls a dam-building project.
By 2012 signs of the coming apocalypse—minor earthquakes and random fissures along the U.S. West Coast among them—are plentiful, and the movie proper begins. John Cusack, playing Los Angeles science fiction writer and limo driver Jackson Curtis, picks up his two children to go camping in Yellowstone National Park. (Leaving L.A., what with the quakes and the fissures, is a good idea; heading to Yellowstone, the currently quiescent site of the world’s largest super-volcano and a major focus of 2012 anxiety, is not. You’d think a SF writer would know that.)
Meanwhile, the conspiracy, like the San Andreas Fault itself, cracks wide open. We learn what the Chinese were really up to: constructing high-tech ships for world leaders and a sprinkling of the global elite to ride out the storm. The only happy ending in sight means cheering for the Curtis family to make it onto one of those new arks; that almost everyone else on earth will perish is a given. “I said to myself that I’ll do one more disaster movie, but it has to end all disaster movies. So I packed everything in,” Emmerich cheerfully sums up.
As over the top as 2012 may seem—a tsunami that washes over the Himalayas?—for those who actually believe 2012 marks the end of all things and have actual explanations why, it may not be over the top enough. Belgian author Patrick Geryl, who in 2002 penned the bestselling The Orion Prophecy: Will the World Be Destroyed in 2012? (he dispensed with the question mark in 2005’s The World Cataclysm in 2012), believes the North and South poles will switch positions in a cataclysm of destruction. He wrote in a recent online posting, “I explained abundantly clearly that life after a polar reversal is nothing but horror, pure unimaginable horror. All securities you presently have—food, transport, and medicines—will have disappeared in one big blow, dissolved into nothingness. As will our complete civilization. It cannot be more horrifying than this.” He then added, in the aggrieved tone used by prophets through the ages who found their audience’s attention drifting, “Are you grasping the facts?”
Millions have. Books and websites about 2012 have mushroomed: Amazon lists 299 doomsday 2012 titles and another 87 “2012 transformation” texts; Googling “2012 end of world” brings 13 million hits; and 2012 conventions are a booming business. Popular awareness of the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar began to take off in 1987, when Mexican-American author José Argüelles, one of the originators of the Earth Day concept and founder of the first Whole Earth Festival in 1970, published his influential book, The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology. In it he argued that the end of the Mayan calendar would bring the dawn of a new era of spiritual awareness. At next January’s Tipping Point meeting in Cancun, Mexico, Argüelles and other leading New Age thinkers will discuss their visions of the future before leading a tour of Mayan sites.
That all sounds decidedly un-Emmerich, but the German director is well in the mainstream (so to speak) of 2012ers, most of whom—like Richard Heene—expect a far larger, and considerably more physical, bang. Their conventions tend to be survivalist-themed and feature tips on seed swapping and living off the land. The two wings of the movement have influenced each other—the New Agers often allow that birth brings pain and blood, as well as joy, and the doomsayers were happy to pick up a date stamp.
Those who predict disaster suggest, among other causes, the Yellowstone super-volcano that Jackson Curtis is heading straight toward. (But its appearance in 2012 is only as a sideshow, a mere continent-killer.) For real, planet-wide annihilation, you need something bigger. Outside the film world, some doomsayers have lasered in on the planet Nibiru, which—despite having no evidence of its existence— many say is completing its 3,600-year-long orbit around the sun. In 2012 it will crash into the earth or at least wreak serious havoc by a near miss. Or perhaps polar reversal. As Geryl and others argue it, North and South have suddenly switched position before, and are going to do so again you-know-when. The globe will start rotating in the opposite direction, making the sun seem to rise in the west, even as the momentum of the former rotational direction causes the planet’s crust to buckle and the seas to sweep, 2012-style, over the land. What links these suspects is the coming solar maximum: a Nibiru near miss will whack us by causing polar reversal: polar reversal, in 2012, triggers Yellowstone; most explanations of the pole switch pin it on a massive solar storm striking earth.
The sun’s storm activity waxes and wanes according to an 11- to 13-year sunspot cycle. That the next solar maximum, when storms are most frequent and powerful, will climax (probably) in three years is what gives the 2012 phenomenon its veneer of scientific validity. Although scientists reject the idea that a solar storm—or anything else for that matter—is about to start the earth abruptly turning in the opposite direction, many have their own worries about the coming maximum. The sun cycle’s supposed quiet period has actually been quite active, leading to questions about how it will behave at maximum. And as Laurence Joseph, a skeptical science writer and author of Apocalypse 2012, notes, “the cycle we’re now in is like the one that led to the Carrington event.”
That six-day solar storm of 1859—the most powerful ever recorded—brought down telegraph systems worldwide. Something like another Carrington event would now strike a civilization far more electricity-dependent. Joseph points to a study by the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Severe Space Weather Events.” The NAS notes that electricity makes everything else work; if we lose it for long enough, “water distribution will be affected within hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating and air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on.” A worst-case scenario would see giant solar flares frying the transmission grid sufficiently as to leave more than 130 million North Americans without power, perhaps for years.
Even so, despite the suffering that would result, it would hardly add up to the extinction of humanity. And the solution, according to Joseph and many experts, is relatively simple: a series of large-scale surge protectors placed at strategic points along the electrical grid. The cost? About $300 million to $500 million, chump change, Joseph says, in the age of billion-dollar bank bailouts.
Despite its recent rumblings, fear of 12-21-12, as it’s often styled, can hardly be blamed on our local star. Or even on the Mayans, who had virtually nothing to say about the day after—most scholars assume they expected to do what we do when the desk calendar reaches Dec. 31: start a new one. But it says a lot about what 2,000 years of half-expecting Armageddon has wrought in what was once Christendom, and about our fascination with numerology. A decade ago, for everyone who feared computer chaos as the clock ticked down to 2000, many more were simply in thrall—all those numbers turning over together had to mean something. But 9/11 notwithstanding, life hasn’t changed much. The sun still rises, and in the east too. But maybe a few surge protectors would be prudent.