The great pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico.  Photo by Charlie Nelson, 2009.

2012: Apocalypse or Anticlimax?

Apparently, millions of people are convinced that ancient Maya priests calculated December 21 2012 as the end of the world.  This is probably the biggest mass hysteria about doomsday since people worried about the Y2K bug that had been predicted to cause havoc on 1 January 2000 (see our article on the real Y2K bug).

There is no doubt that there has been a cluster of major events over the past ten years or so and perhaps this has fed fears of a looming apocalypse.  For example:

  • There have been five major earthquakes, which measured 8.5 or more, out of a total of 16 such earthquakes since 1900.  The first, on 26 December 2004, caused a Tsunami which killed hundreds of thousands of people.  That and two others were recorded on Sumatra.  There was one in Chile.  The most recent, in Japan on March 11 2011, also cause a Tsunami.  Over 10,000 people were killed and the economic repercussions were felt around the world, particularly in the automotive industry.  In addition, a nuclear power plant was destroyed creating a major and long-lived nuclear fallout problem.
  • Hurricane Katrina devasted New Orleans in 2005.
  • Major flooding has struck Pakistan twice, Colombia twice, and many other parts of the world over the past two years - including Australia which also suffered a major bushfire catastrophe in 2009.
  • Civil unrest from late 2010, known as the Arab Spring, has unseated dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya - with perhaps more to follow.  There have also been major riots in Britain and "Occupy" protests in advanced economies.
  • There has been a global financial crisis (GFC) which hit in 2008 and is still playing out in early 2012.
  • Their have been terrorist attacks in many parts of the world including the catastrophic 9/11 in USA followed by Bali (twice), London, and Madrid.

But such clusters of major events, while rare, are not unprecedented.  Consider the 1960's for example:

  • Four of the greatest earthquakes occurred in the 1960's, including the two most powerful on the list.  Another one happened in 1957.  Great earthquakes sometimes come in clusters.
  • The Cuban missiles crisis of October 1962 was one of the most frightening events of global significance in history.
  • The president of the USA (JFK) was assassinated, followed by several other high profile political figures.
  • The largest, and most effective, civilian protests in recent history took place in the USA (and Australia) against the Vietnam war.

There have been many books, articles, and even a film on 2012 (if you haven't seen it, you haven't missed much).  Lawrence E. Joseph has written a book called Apocalypse 2012, subtitled an investigation into civilization's end, describing "the hard science behind the calamities portrayed in the movie 2012".  The book canvasses a range of doomsday scenarios including the breaking down of earth's protective magnetic field, an increase in solar activity, the solar system moving into an interstellar energy cloud, and rogue nanoparticles.

Of course, if a mega-volcano such as Yellowstone exploded or a large asteroid struck the earth then that would be the end of life as we know it.  Such an event will happen eventually, but there are no signs that there will be such a cataclysm in 2012.  Nor is there any association between such events, and others mentioned by Joseph, and the knowledge possessed by the Maya.

The Maya civilization of the period Ad 250-900 was very intelligent.  They understood the concept of zero and used it in calculations (as did the Arab mathematicians) well before Europeans understood it.  They also had many calendars for various purposes.  One of these was a 260 day calendar which regulated the timing of agricultural activities, religious ceremonies, and family affairs.  Another was the 365 day calendar associated with the earth's annual journey around the sun.  The 1,872,000 day "Great Cycle" (about 5,125 years) depicted the existence of a "world" which would be succeeded by another in the succession.  Not a doomsday ending of a world but rather more like the dawning of the age of Aquarius - which is based on the 26,000 year cycle of the rotation of the earth's axis.  The current Maya Great Cycle started in about 3,114BC and will end on about December 21 2012.  The world did not change greatly in 3,114BC and is unlikely to change greatly between 2012 and 2013.  

There is no evidence that the end of the current Great Cycle involves a prophecy of doom.  The collapse of the Maya grand civilization in about 1000AD (Toltec invasion) and the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500's would have been more significant dates for the Maya than 2012!

Mexico usually attracts 22 million international visitors per year.  But Mexico is hoping to cash in on the alleged Maya doomsday prophecy by drawing 52 million visitors to the southeastern regions which were heartland Maya territory (International Herald Tribune. December 22, 2011, page 18).  No doubt Guatemala has similar hopes.  The two most spectacular and visited Maya cities are Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala.  A conspiracy theorist may argue that the Maya prophecy was invented by the Mexican tourist authority.  It is certainly a case of making an opportunity out of a perceived threat!  A risk management case study!

For business, government, and investors, it would be wise to focus our risk management on more tangible, but often ignored threats.  These include the ongoing global financial crisis and associated poor risk management, global warming, and overpopulation.  We can do something about these threats but seem reluctant to act.  There is little we can do to stop Yellowstone creating a five-year winter, although we could stock up on canned food in an attempt to survive as individuals.  But it might be more than 100,000 years before the next mega-volcano or major asteroid collision!

UPDATE 19 January 2013
We are still here, well into 2013!

Black Swan events and the likelihood of catastrophes.

Charlie Nelson
January 2012