Endism goes mainstream

It seems to be human nature that every generation is inclined to believe that it lives in history’s singular moment, on the edge of profound change. Two millennia of Christians and countless other religious lived their lives convinced they would witness the imminent Apocalypse. The Aztec and the Maya harbored similar beliefs tied to the recurring cycles of their calendar systems. New-Agers have picked up on the same calendar to conclude that the world would change during the 1988 “harmonic convergence” and now a hypothesized Mayan calendar end in 1012. And then there are the UFO believers from the mellow Unarians to suicidal Heavens Gate cult, “shedding their containers” in hopes of meeting up with a space craft they believed was hiding behind Comet Hale-Bopp.

I have always been a skeptic of endist thinking — any betting person would, based on the vast number of failed prophecies through history. I have watched with bemused detachment as endism has gone mainstream with notions like Ray Kurzweil’s forecast “Singularity,” and I have become increasingly alarmed at the possibility that, amplified by today’s media revolution, rampant endism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ever wonder how Cortés and a mere 500-odd soldiers conquered the vast Aztec Empire? By unhappy (for the Aztec) coincidence, Cortés landed at the end of a 52-year Calendar Round, the period during which according to Aztec myth the world would eventually end. Given the vast popularity of the apocalyptic Left Behind series today, the danger of self-fulfilling prophecy is quite real.

Meanwhile, I keep finding serious researchers who are quietly beginning to wonder if something really is afoot. The optimistic Ray Kurzweil is certainly no crank, and his voice is joined by prominent pessimists like Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, who gives humankind only a 50/50 chance of surviving the next century. More recently, futurist John Petersen of the Arlington Institute, has sharpened his observation that we are approaching a “punctuation in the ‘equilibrium’ of the present era — a major, fundamental reordering of the essence of who we are and how we live.” Of course neither Kurzweil nor Peterson are predicting an apocalypse — quite the opposite — but their vision is apocalyptic in terms of the sheer scale of change that they and others foresee.

Are these mainstream thinkers right, or is it all just another example of the chronological foreshortening that has tricked every previous generation into seeing an eschatological mirage on the horizon? History favors skepticism, but history also offers examples of wrenching shifts that must have seen world-ending to those who lived through them. I take additional comfort in the fact that of the many who anticipate vast changes, when it comes to specifics, the pessimists and the optimists seem equally divided. Let us thus hope that if all this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, the optimists win.