The world didn’t end last Saturday. I wasn’t really surprised. Just within my
lifetime, the end of the world has been predicted a bunch of times.
The end of the millennium caused a wide variety of predictions as to how the world was going to end. As I recall, the return of Haley’s Comet made many people nervous, too, for reasons I can’t recall at this late date.
There are also the less absolute “end of the world” predictions. I grew up during the Cold War. Back then, the threat of nuclear war made us school kids all wonder just how hard we should try to get good grades. After all, it seemed fairly likely that we weren’t going to get to grow up anyhow.
One of my favorites non-theological end of the world predictions was the Y2K fuss. That’s the one that said all the computers were going to crash all at once because of a flaw in the underlying calendar. At the very least, we were told, the banks were going to crash. If things got really bad, all the nuclear weapons would go off.
I heard about Y2K long before it became a trendy media pseudo-event when Gordon Garb made it the subject of a presentation at Bubonicon, New Mexico’s Science Fiction convention. Gordon’s both a computer guru and a great speaker so he was the perfect person to make the threat seem very real. However, even as he unfurled all the reasons why Y2K could happen, I found myself thinking, “But the computer industry already knows the problem is there. Surely someone will work out a fix before all the banks crash and computer guidance systems go awry and everything goes to hell.”
Maybe that’s why end of the world predictions based on biblical or astrological or astronomical materials are so fascinating. The circumstances are beyond not only your control, but anyone’s control.
What fascinates me is that end of the world scenarios have entered what must be called “entertainment culture.” Print Science Fiction has frequently speculated on how the world might end, ranging through death by war, disease, asteroid, alien invasion, and a bunch of even less likely scenarios.
Even more popular are those books and movies that look at the end of the world as a neat challenge – neat, that is, if you’re one of those who get to survive and wear cool fur bikinis (as in the “Mad Max” movies) or rebuild the world from scratch (and presumably in your own image).
There have even been pop songs based on the premise. One of my favorites is David Bowie’s haunting “Five Years.” There’s also R.E.M.’s scarily perky “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” I believe the Carpenters sang about aliens warning us not to do anything dumb in “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Crafts.” I’m sure there are many other examples.
Oh… Let’s not forget the businesses that have developed to cater to apocalyptic interests – especially those where the world ends only for a small, select group. There are bumper stickers voicing various opinions on what a vehicle might do in case of “rapture.” Last week’s Wall Street Journal mentioned that one company offers to forward e-mails to your chosen list if you’re “raptured.” Another, staffed by atheists, promises to care for your pets if you’re taken bodily to heaven.
What is it that fascinates us so about not only the concept of the end of the world, but about these predictions? What keeps drawing people back, even when numerous expectations have been disappointed?
I guess the next big End of the World prediction is the one based on the ending cycle of the Mayan calendar in 2012. Anyone want to place a bet?