Happy New Year! (It could be the last)

Are people’s fears of a world-end related to our neglect of nature, asks Célia Zwahlen.

Maya pyramid in Chitchen Itza, southern Mexico

Chances are you heard it countless times this New Year’s Eve: 2012 marks the coming of doomsday.

At dinnertime, guests started a reasoned discussion on the unlikely plot of the 2012 blockbuster. Those brave enough to admit they actually researched the subject laid down some facts on the Mayan calendar. “It’s not doomsday,” they told you, “it’s just the end of the world as we know it.”

By 10 minutes to midnight (as you made a mental note to check the Nasa website), half the room was nodding in agreement that something could well happen on 21 December 2012. The winter solstice will not only be the end-date of a 5,125-year cycle; it also marks a galactic alignment occurring every 28,500 years. The Mayas were not the only ones to flag it. And, truth be told, we’ve all noticed the Earth acting strange lately, right?

Two hours after the bells rang, Hair’s “Age of Aquarius” played for the second time and everyone swore with drunken fervour that we must change the way we treat our planet. If natural disasters, climate change and the extinction of species are not proof enough that nature is in danger, then what is? And so started a fresh round of New Year’s resolutions: visit wonders of the world before time is up, buy organic and water the plants.

So how rooted in reality are people’s fear of a world-end? How can it be so widespread at a time when reason and science far outdo spiritual mysticism? Is it pure superstition to believe that environmental problems foretell a world-devastating cataclysm?

“Natural disasters and climate change are in a way reviving or giving more impetus to the beliefs that some people have about [the end of the world]. It is understandable given that indeed there are many quite alarming predictions,” says Gonzalo Oviedo, Senior Advisor for Social Policy at IUCN.

Apocalyptic scenarios are common in religion or spiritual philosophies across cultures. After all, they reflect our observation that everything has a beginning and an end. But today, scientific circles too can sometimes paint a rather grim picture of the future.

“Some predictions are that, in a century or so, the world might change so dramatically that many forms of life we know today will no longer exist,” explains Oviedo. “I think it is a little pessimistic perhaps, but also there is a good amount of reality in perceiving the future that way.”

So, if it is extreme to expect Armageddon in 2012, is a scientifically-backed vision of biodiversity collapse in as little as 100 years enough to confirm people’s fears? Perhaps, this is precisely the intention behind alarmist conservation messages. One would hope the imminence of a doomed punishment for continuing to disregard nature could trigger change in behaviours.

But it’s a risky gamble. Where some individuals may feel inspired to redress their attitudes, others could sink into extremism and religious dogma. Of course, spirituality can have positive aspects. But past examples of cult mass suicide are too many to ignore the dangers of an end-of-world reasoning. Even if such tragedies stay in the margins, they highlight that spiritually-inclined responses tend to be based on superstition and myth – and are ultimately disconnected from reality.

Consider Maya cosmologist Michael Major Jenkins, who discovered a rare alignment between the sun and the centre-line of the galaxy on 21 December 2012. A popular figure in New Age circles, he explains it, not as doomsday, but as a mind shift: “It’s really about an open door, a once-in-a-precessional-cycle zone of opportunity to align ourselves with the galactic source of life. (…) We are being called to create, to nurture, to help unfold, something that will not flower until long after we, as individuals, have died. The larger life-wave of humanity is at stake.”

What a nice vision – and how necessary it is to remind ourselves that our actions have lasting implications. The problem is, no one can tell for sure where the galaxy equinox is situated.

Such an out-of-touch rationale can only attract criticism. The danger is that all attempts to inspire change we so desperately need may eventually get rejected outright. This is why alarmist predictions on a future we simply don’t know can stifle positive transformation on a collective scale.

According to Oviedo, “Any radical perspective on things doesn’t lead to good solutions; it normally leads to psychological resistance, to polarization of opinion and to incapacity for objective reasoning and objective assessment.”

The problems we must find solutions for are those happening right here and right now. Not in 100 years, not in outer space. We won’t wake up one December morning to find the world has transformed overnight. Nor can we predict how future societies will have evolved to cope with environmental challenges. So let’s take one step at a time, starting today, in 2012.

Celia can be contacted at: celia.zwahlen @ gmail.com

Five simple New Year’s resolutions to make a difference:

Chuck out old habits: sort your waste and recycle
Push and pull: push the off-button and pull out your chargers
Love thy neighbour: buy local
Eat less meat: beef production alone accounts for up to 22% of the world’s CO2 emissions
Show off: let everyone know how great it feels to make a difference

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