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The end is nigh

December 21, 2012

THE other day, I paid 950 Sri Lankan rupees per kilo for seer fish. Although this is the favourite kind here, it’s still the highest I have ever paid in all my years of visiting the island. I asked Nandi, our wonderful cook, why the price was suddenly so high.

“It’s because the fishermen are afraid to go out to sea,” she explained. “Most of them think a tsunami might hit the coast very soon. It has to do with the end of the world predictions.”

This reminded me of the prophecy that apparently foretold of some major changes at the end of the Great Mayan Cycle on Dec 21, 2012. So-called experts have been divided on what this date in the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar might signify, but clearly, many around the world were taking no chances.

Apart from superstitious Sri Lankan fishermen, millions of Americans have been stocking up on guns, machetes, food and water. Others are staying put, refusing to fly or drive until the danger is past. On an American website (, we are warned of the many different ways the world might end.

One of these was the possibility of a series of solar flares striking our planet with unprecedented frequency and ferocity. These would not only fry all electronic devices as well as communication satellites, but would strip Earth of the ozone layer that protects us from cosmic rays. Actually, solar activity has been growing, and is expected to peak at the end of the month, adding grist to the end-of-the-world mill.

In Douglas Adam’s cult classic science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is destroyed by aliens to make way for a ‘hyperspace expressway’. But not to worry: a backup Earth Mark II has been created by a planet-building race; one of them receives an award for making Norway…

It’s not just science fiction that’s full of apocalyptic themes: many sages also foretell the end of the world. Nostradamus is one of the most widely quoted of these wise men. This 16th-century French monk is credited with predicting everything from Kennedy’s assassination to the 9/11 attacks.

Currently, this quotation from Nostradamus is doing the rounds on the Internet as evidence of the imminent apocalypse: “From the calm morning, the end will come/ When of the dancing horse the number of circles will be nine.”

Korea is traditionally known as the Land of the Morning Calm. Intriguingly, Gangnam Style, the latest hit by Psy, the Korean rap artist, has been interwoven into this prophecy because of the dance’s imitation of horse riding. The nine circles allude to the 844 million hits the video has already received: once the figure rises to a billion, the world will end. So please, please stop downloading Gangnam Style!

Most religions, too, contain dark warnings of the end of the world in which mankind will be wiped out in a holocaust for our sins.

This sense of atonement is deeply embedded in much of Biblical literature: indeed, monotheistic faiths are very keen on punishing us for our deviations from the true path.

One reason so many evangelist Christians in America support Israel so fervently is because of their interpretation of the apocalypse. According to this, the end of the world will occur when Jews return to the land promised to them by God. At this moment, the Chosen will be raised up to Heaven; ironically, Jews will not be among these few.

One prediction for the end of the world on Dec 21 was that Earth would collide with the Planet Nibru. Thus far, there is no evidence that such a planet exists, but believers are convinced it’s lurking behind the sun. Another theory holds that a giant black hole will soon come into alignment with the sun and Earth, and swallow our planet in the next few days.

So why this preoccupation with the end of the world? Clearly, the dates (12/12/12; 21/12/12) have something to do with it. But this is a recurring theme in human history: at the end of the last two millennia, there was lots of hysteria about coming disasters.

Older readers will recall the ridiculous speculation about global gridlock when the clocks chimed midnight on Dec 31, 1999.

Apparently, old mainframe computers had not been instructed to turn to the next year when 2000 rolled around, and would therefore malfunction, causing massive chaos. A whole minor industry sprang up for a couple of years before the event to rewrite the computer programmes. But the new millennium came and nothing happened.

This is what was going to happen on Dec 21: nothing. What is more likely is the gradual collapse of the ecosystem because of pollution and over-exploitation of natural resources. Already, global warming is causing polar ice to melt at a frightening rate.

This will push up water levels, spelling disaster for coastal states.

The other threat comes from a meltdown of the world’s financial system. The American and European economies are already in turmoil: the banking crisis of 2008 has destablised many states, and major financial institutions are still on the brink. As economies contract, unemployment is rife, carrying a threat to social cohesion.

Mankind’s fecundity poses yet another danger. We have already surpassed a global population of seven billion, and are not expected to stop this growth till the number peaks at nine billion. This enormous population needs more food, water and resources of all kinds.

Wars over water and minerals will probably occur sooner rather than later. Another worry is large-scale migration from poor and poorly managed states to those that offer a better life. Already, hundreds of thousands are on the move, risking their lives to escape their miserable lot. As shortages increase, this number will only rise, giving rise to further conflict.

So clearly, there is much cause for concern about the future of mankind. Instead of seeking supernatural reasons for the end of the world, we should address the problems we have control over. And most of these crises have been produced by human greed and indiscipline: if we could regulate our numbers and our needs, we might not have been in the precarious situation we find ourselves in.

Thus we really need not have lost sleep about what would happen on Dec 21. Me? I was on a flight to Hanoi.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.