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Pondering the alarmist, the mystical, the way-out-there … and the surprisingly hopeful sides of the Mayan end of the world



It’s easy to dismiss the hype surrounding the auspicious date of Dec. 21, 2012. There’s the far-out talk of Mayan prophecy and the galactic alignment. There’s the pop-culture lens that envisions the apocalypse. There are the extraterrestrials, about to return.

But even the true believers in Mayan folklore and its New Age interpretations say there’s no end of the world in sight. Time doesn’t end when the Mayan cycle concludes; it’s actually a new beginning.

And even the most spiritually inclined on the 12/21 circuit agree that it’s highly unlikely that anything of great moment will happen during this particular 24-hour period in history. The sun will rise and set; the winter solstice will pass; we’ll all be around to see tomorrow.

In fact, instead of doomsday, the most optimistic see this as a signpost or trigger in the transformation of human consciousness. Their message — and it isn’t at all weird or spacey or mystical — is that the world badly needs to change. And if all the attention that gets paid to 12/21 reminds people of what we have to do to save the planet and each other, that’s worth getting excited about.

Check out the news, if you can bear it: Global warming, mass extinctions, fiscal cliffs, social unrest. Now turn the channel, because we’re also writing another story — technological innovation, community empowerment, spiritual yearning, social exploration and global communication.

Both ancient and modern traditions treat the days surrounding the solstice as a time for reflection and setting our intentions for the lengthening, brightening days to come. And if we really take this moment to ponder the course we’re on, maybe the end of the world as we know it might not be such a bad thing.


The ancient Mayans, who created a remarkably advanced civilization, had an expansive view of time, represented by their Long Count Calendar, which ends this week after 5,125 years. Like many of our precolonial ancestors whose reality was formed by watching the slow procession of stars and planets, the Mayans took the long view.

The Long Count Calendar is broken down into 13 baktuns, each one 144,000 days, so the final baktun now ending began in 1618. That’s an unfathomable amount of time for most of us living in a country that isn’t even one baktun old. We live in an instantaneous world with hourly weather forecasts, daily horoscopes and quarterly business cycles. Even the rising ocean levels that we’ll see in our lifetimes seem too far in the future to rouse us to action.

So it’s even more mind-blowing to try to get our heads around the span of 26,000 years, which was the last time that Earth, the sun and the dark center of the Milky Way came into alignment on the winter solstice — the so-called “galactic alignment” anticipated by astrologists who see this as a moment of great possibility. The Aztecs and Toltecs who inherited the Mayans’ calendar and sky-watching tradition also saw a new era dawning around now, which they called the Fifth Sun, or the fifth major stage of human development.

Using insights derived from mushroom-fueled shamanic vision quests in Latin America, writer and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna developed his “timewave” theories about expanding human consciousness, using the I Ching to divine the date of Dec. 21, 2012, as the beginning of expanded human consciousness. And for good measure, the Chinese zodiac’s transition from dragon to snake also supposedly portends big changes.

So what’s going to happen? Nobody really knows, not even the authors, scholars and researchers who have devoted big chunks of their lives to the topic. Two of the most prominent are Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzacoatl and star of the documentary film 2012: A Time for Change, and John Major Jenkins, who has written nearly a dozen books on 2012 and Mayan cosmology.

“I never proposed anything specific was going to happen on that date. I think of it as a hinge-point on the shift,” Pinchbeck told me.

In countries with stronger beliefs in myth and mystical thinking, there’s genuine anxiety about Dec. 21. A Dec. 1 front-page story in The New York Times reported that many Russians are so panicked about Armageddon that the government put out a statement claiming it had “methods of monitoring what is occurring on planet Earth” and stating the world won’t end in December. Here, NASA was concerned enough that it set up a “Beyond 2012: Why the World Won’t End” website.

Then there are those who hope that the end of 2012 marks an auspicious moment in human evolution — or at least a significant step in the transformation process — and they seem fairly patient and open-minded.

“The debunking type isn’t some rational skeptic. They are true believers in the opposite,” Jenkins said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve been filtering 2012 through some kind of Nostradomus filter.”

Jenkins and others like him have been clear in stating that they don’t expect the apocalypse. Instead, they emphasize the view by the Mayans and other ancient thinkers that this is a time for renewal and transformation, the dawning of a new era of cooperation.

If the ancients had a message for moderns, it was to learn from our observations about what’s going on around us. As Jenkins said, “They recognized their connection to the natural world and the connection of all things.”


Many Americans are now headed down to Chichen Itza, Mexico, where Mayans built the Pyramid Kukulkan with 365 faces to honor the passing of time — and where the Synthesis 2012 Festival will mark the end of the Mayan calendar with ceremonies and celebrations.

“It’s probably one of the most pointed to and significant times ever,” Synthesis Executive Producer Michael DiMartino told me. He said he believes in the significance of the galactic alignment and the ending of the Mayan calendar, but he sees the strength of the event as bringing together people with a wide variety of perspectives to connect with each other.

“We’re at a crossroads in human history, and the crossroads are self-preservation or self-destruction,” he said. Debra Giusti, who is co-producing Synthesis, co-wrote Transforming Through 2012. “Obviously, the planet has been getting out of balance and there is a need to go back to basics,” Giusti said.

Two of the keynote speakers at Synthesis 2012 are a little skeptical of the significance of the Mayan calendar and the galactic alignment, yet they are people with spiritual practices who have been working toward the shift in global consciousness they say we need.

“It’s more of a marker along the way,” Joe Marshalla, an author, psychologist, researcher and public speaker, said. “We’ve been in this transition for almost 30 years.”

Marshalla said his speech at the festival will be about focusing people’s energy on creating change, starting with letting go of the thoughts and structures that divide us from each other and the planet and replacing them with a new sense of connection.

“Everyone is waking up to the deeply held knowledge of the one-ness of all the planet, that we are in this together,” Marshalla said. “I think the world is waking up to the fact there are 7 billion of us, and there are a couple hundred thousand that are running everything.”

Caroline Casey, host of a Bay Area radio program, “Visionary Activist Show,” and a keynote speaker at Synthesis, takes a skeptical view of the Mayan prophecies and how New Agers have latched onto them. “Everything should be satirized, and there will be plenty of opportunities for that down there,” she said. But the goal of creating a new world is one she shares. “Yes, let’s have empire collapse, and a big part of that is domination and ending the subjugation of nature,” she said. “We want to emerge from imperialism into a cultural renaissance.”


The ancient Maya based their calendar and much of their science and spirituality on observations of the night sky. Over generations, they watched the constellations slowly but steadily drifting across the horizon. “All myth is based in the sky, said Linea Van Horn, president of the San Francisco Astrological Society. DiMartino said it wasn’t just the Maya, but ancient cultures around the world that saw a long era ending now. “They each talk about the ending and beginning of new cycles,” he said. “Prophecies are only road signs to warn humanity about the impacts of certain behaviors.”

Casey’s a bit more down-to-Earth. “This has nothing to do with the galactic center,” Casey said, decrying the “faux-hucksterism” of such magical thinking, as opposed to the real work of building our relationships and circulating important ideas in order to raise our collective consciousness.

Issac Shivvers, an astrophysics graduate student and instructor at UC Berkeley, confirmed the basic facts of the alignment with the galactic center and its rarity, but he doesn’t believe it will have any effect on humans.

“The effect of the center region of the galaxy on us is negligible,” he said, doubting the view that cosmic energies play on people in unseen ways that science can’t measure.

Yet many people do believe in astrology and unseen energies. A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 25 percent of Americans believe in astrology, with that percentage higher for women and minorities than for white males. A similar percentage also sees yoga as a spiritual practice and believes that spiritual energy is located in physical things, such as temples or mountains.

And Casey and others believe in rituals. “Humans have been honoring the winter solstice for 26,000 years,” she said. “Every winter solstice is a chance to say what is our guiding story that we want to illuminate.”


The world is probably not going to end on Dec. 21 — but it could end in the not-too-distant future for much of life as we know it if we don’t change our ways. Humans are on a collision course with the natural world, something we’ve known for decades.

In the last 20 years, the scientific community and most people have come to realize that industrialization and over-reliance on fossil fuels have irreversibly changed the planet’s climate and that right now we’re just trying to minimize sea level rise and other byproducts — and not even with any real commitment or sense of urgency.

The latest scientific research is even more alarming. Scientists have long understood that individual ecosystems reach tipping points, after which the lifeforms within them spiral downward into death and decay. But a report released in June by the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology has found that Earth itself has a tipping point that we’re rapidly moving toward.

“Earth’s life-support system may change more in the next few decades than it has since humans became a species,” said the report’s lead author, Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley.

While the Earth has experienced five mass extinctions and other major global tipping points before — the last one 11,700 years ago at the end of the last ice age — “today is very different because humans are actually causing the changes that could lead to a planetary state shift,” Barnoksy said.

“The problem with critical transitions is that once you shift to a new state, you can’t simply shift into reverse and go back,” he added. “What’s gone is gone for good, because you’ve moved into a ‘new normal.’”

Barnoksy says he’s not sure if the trend can be reversed, but to minimize its chances, humans must improve our balance with nature and avoid crossing the threshold of transforming 50 percent of the planet’s surface (he calculates that we’ll hit that level in 2025, and reach 55 percent by 2045). That would require reducing population growth and resource use, speeding the transition away from fossil fuels, increasing the efficiency of food production, better protection of natural areas and “global cooperation to solve a global problem.”

But the change that we need to make isn’t about just buying a Prius, composting our dinner scraps and contributing to charities. It requires a rethinking of an economic system that requires steady growth and consumption, cheap labor, unlimited natural resources and the free flow of capital.

“Basically, we are going to have to have a rapid shift in global consciousness,” Pinchbeck said. “You would not be able to create a sustainable economy with the current monetary system. It’s just not possible.”


It may be the end of the world as we know it, but sounding that warning may not be the best way to motivate people to action, according to a new book, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

Christian conservatives have long sounded the apocalyptic belief the Jesus will return any day. Yet Catastrophism co-author Sasha Lilley said those on the left have had a long and intensifying connection to catastrophism — “seen as a great cleansing from which a new society is born” — based mostly around the belief that capitalism is a doomed economic system and the view that global warming and other ecological problems are reaching tipping points.

As progressives, Lilley and co-author Eddie Yuen share these basic beliefs. “We are living in an absolutely catastrophic moment in the history of the planet,” Yuen said.

Yet they also think it’s a fallacy to assume capitalism will collapse under its own weight or that people will suddenly — on Dec. 21 or at any other single moment — decide to support drastic reductions in our carbon emissions.

“Capitalism renews itself through crisis,” Lilley said, whether it was the collapse of the banking system in 2008 or weathering the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Sounding the alarm that capitalism and climate change will devastate communities doesn’t motivate people to action. “It focuses on fear as a motivating force, but I think it really backfires on the left,” Lilley said. “It’s really immobilizes people … It’s paralyzing and deeply problematic.”


So what if the sky doesn’t fall Dec. 21 — and solutions don’t fall from the sky, either?

“Really, what’s happening is a psychological death, an identity death of what it means to be human on the planet,” Marshalla said. He compared it to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Marshalla thinks humans are in the depression stage, verging on accepting that our old way of life is dying.

Part of that acceptance involves embracing new self-conceptions. When humans developed the prefrontal lobe in our brains, it allowed us to not only climb to the top of the food chain, but to achieve unprecedented control over the natural world.

But at this point, we’ve become too smart for our good, rationalizing behavior that our heart knows is out of balance. “That’s the best thing the Dec. 21 date can be, a ritual of acknowledging that we’re in the midst of a fundamental transformation,” astrologer Rob Brezsny said. “The activists believe this may be a good moment, a good excuse to have a transformative ritual and to take advantage of that. We need transformative rituals.”

The ancient Mayans and the energies of the galactic center may not deliver the solutions we need, although I’m certainly willing to wait a few days — or even a few years — to receive this moment with an open mind. Why not? Let’s all bring our own visions and prophets, mix them into the cauldron, and watch what bubbles up.

Steven T. Jones is managing editor of The San Francisco Bay Guardian. Follow his posts from Chichen Itza on the Politics blog.