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Why doomsday theories live on... and on
Have you stocked up on your emergency supplies of tinned food, dry cell batteries, kerosene for your primus stove, and, oh yes, don't forget the dental floss? A lot of people in several countries - from China, to Russia, to France and the US have laid in supplies of essential items in the hope that they'll survive the end of the world, which according to a prediction based on an ancient Mayan calendar is due to occur on December 21, 2012. In short, apocalypse now.
In the San Fernando Valley in California, in a women's prison in China, in several parts across Russia's nine time zones and in the vicinity of a French mountain called Bugarach, local authorities have had to quell rising mass hysteria, fear psychoses and, in some cases, irrational exuberance and merrymaking at the prospect of the demise of Planet Earth as we know it.
The Earth has been around for some 4. 54 billion years, give or take a century or two. Humankind has inhabited it for the past six million years, again plus or minus the odd century. Of proven durability, one would have thought, both Earth and the human species. But despite this established track record of staying the course - even when the odds seemed stacked against it because of war and national and man-made calamities - doomsday prophecies predicting the end of the world and of humankind have been in fashion since over 600 years before the beginning of the Christian era. In 634 BC the Romans feared that their capital city - the centre of all civilisation - would be destroyed, by an unspecified agency, to coincide with the 120th anniversary of its founding.
From then on, premature obituaries of the world have been composed with unfailing regularity, with various causes being attributed to the impending demise, from plague and flood to planetary collision and invasions of aliens from outer space. That this chronicle of a planetary death foretold has been consistent only in being proved wrong time and again has not in the least dampened the enthusiasm of world-enders, as these prophetic Cassandras of global doom are referred to. Indeed, should the world survive beyond December 21, 2012, the future holds many more intimations of its mortality.
Diverse psychics, soothsayers, theologians, economists and scientists have put forward different dates and theories for the coming end of the world, ranging from 2018 (based on a Biblical interpretation of Armageddon, the ultimate battle between the Antichrist and Christ in his Second Coming) to 500, 000, 000 years from now when, according to scientific calculations, the Sun, swollen to red giant proportions, will scorch the Earth to a cinder. Don't make advance holiday plans for that summer.
What is it that makes end-of-the-world prophecies so ghoulishly popular? Some psychologists suggest that they are a form of expiation of collective guilt for the moral or physical despoilation that humankind has visited upon the planet. We've been bad - by worshipping false gods, by spreading AIDS and other diseases through sexual promiscuity, by causing irreparable harm to the environment through our rapacious greed in exploiting the Earth's resources - and now we need to be punished for it. In his novel, The Poison Belt, which describes an end-of-world premise, Arthur Conan Doyle said as much, using the analogy of a grape which has developed a toxic fungus on its skin and must be cleansed of it by being put through a pesticide. In the case of the Earth, the pest is the human species.
Guilty conscience apart, there might be other reasons to explain the scary appeal - similar to that of horror movies that world-end scenarios exercise over us. Like horror movies, doomsday prophecies help us to forget, for the moment, the humdrum cares and woes that beset our daily lives: My boss doesn't like me, does that mean I'll soon lose my job? Is my live-in partner having a secret affair with my best friend's livein partner? Is that creeping cellulite on my bum that I spotted in the bathroom mirror this morning?
If the world's going to end, in two weeks, or two years time, or if Dracula is going to rise yet again from the grave with a yen for Bloody Marys, the blood being yours even if your name isn't Mary, does your silly boss and sillier job matter all that much? Or your live-in partner's secret affair? Or that damn cellulite? Losing your job, or your live-in partner, or developing cellulite is an up-close and personal misfortune. Doomsday and Dracula are unclose and impersonal escapist tamashas.
So get a ringside view of apocalypse now. Which might be never. In any case, don't forget the popcorn to bring to the show. Or the no-show, as the case may be. Either way, enjoy.
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