The end of the world

My inbox has been flooded with dire predictions of the end of the world according to the Mayan Calendar. Is it time for the sackcloth and ashes, or is it time to party, asks Susan Erasmus.

Predicting the end of the world has mostly been the domain of people who look as if they might be in need of a straitjacket, but recently otherwise functional people have joined their ranks.

As a species we have an unnatural fascination for imagining the cataclysmic end of our known world. There are few cultures on earth that don't have some vision of creation, catastrophe, or both. And do I have bad news for you: things don't seem to end well in any of the stories.

You can take your pick from giant fireballs, meteoric crashes, huge natural disasters. Then there are also the famines, the plagues, the pestilences. If this is starting to ring a bell, refer to the previous paragraph. Or to the Old Testament.

Right, our existence on earth is precarious, and there are any number of things that can take us out quickly. Take a look at what happened in New Jersey and Japan. No wonder we are feeling slightly paranoid at the moment. To quote Shakespeare: "When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions".

A precarious existence

We are spinning through the universe at  enormous speed on a planet of which 80% is covered with water. It is also decidedly runny inside. And the outside seems to be on the march as well, as tectonic plates reshuffle themselves with enthusiasm.

 In only a very narrow band of this planet are we able to survive oxygen-wise. And if this one bombs out, we have nowhere to go, should there be anyone around who has not gasped their last.

There are a couple of things that need to be remembered at this point:

  • The end of people is not the end of the world.
  • Financial disaster, though dreadfully inconvenient,  is not quite the same as the end of the world
  • Even during the worst political crises, the sun still comes up, the seasons still change
  • Up until now every single person who has predicted the end of the world has been wrong (You're still reading this, right?)
  • The earth has been around for a very, very long time
  • There are many major cataclysmic events that came near to destroying life on earth, but not the earth itself

In a worst-case scenario, should the earth spin off its axis, or we should be hit by some flying debris from outer space, or whatever other possibility of disaster movies have implanted in everyone's heads, the end should  probably be quicker than being eaten by a shark. OK, maybe that analogy doesn't quite work, but you get the picture. Quick, very quick.

If a more lingering end is on the cards (radioactivity in the water, general starvation) rest assured that millions of people on earth experience that grim reality right now. As a species we seem shockingly robust, though. And innovative. And destructive. And homicidal.

As you can see, the last few months have not really contributed to my feeling of general security on this earth. Or my faith in mankind. In a way I feel the end has to be near when I start feeling actively grateful that there have not been any major catastrophes in my neck of the woods today.

So what now?

re to now? Do I go out and buy myself a sandwich board and find a convenient street corner from which to harangue passersby about the coming Armageddon on the 21st December? (I won't be doing any Christmas shopping until the 22nd of December, just in case.)

I think not. I tend to be philosophical about these things. When there is chaos, fire and brimstone out there, one possible reaction is to refocus our attention on our immediate surroundings. I am grateful for kind conversations in the lift, a phone call from a friend, a fascinating book I am reading, a safe and dry bed in which to sleep. Call me simple, by all means, but an eschatological world view and the accompanying panic cannot make for a very pleasant vantage point from which to view the world, even if it should be experiencing its last days.

If I lie awake for a whole night about the coming end, it will not change the outcome at all. I have to use my energy to make my own life and that of those people and animals around me as pleasant as possible. And to do my bit on an environmental level to not do any more harm to the planet.

Right. Now I am off to go and buy a sandwich board. On it I will write: if the world is going to end on Friday, would you like to come to a party on Thursday?

Just think: no dishes the next day.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated December  2012)

(Portions of this column were published in March 2011 when the end of the world was also predicted.)

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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