I’ll always remember Y2K. It was a strange time to be alive. It was a strange time because people believed that going from the 20th century to the 21st century was going to bring about the end of mankind. In the context of modern human history, thinking that the world is going to end is not a new phenomena. Indeed, people have thought that they were living through the “end times” since the days of St. Augustine and there is even some evidence to suggest that Roman citizens believed that the disintegration of the Roman empire meant that humanity itself was waning. Since that time we’ve had Nostradamus claim that he could predict the end times. We’ve had various religious figures tell us that the world was ending and that everyone needed to get on board with whatever it was that they were selling or they would all die and subsequently go to hell. Interestingly enough Jim Jones, the cult of personality behind the actual cult that brought about the Jonestown massacre told his “followers” the exact same thing, though he did so primarily for financial gain. All of this comes on the heels of yesterdays’ supposed “end of the world” prediction by the Mayans. Why we took anything that the Mayans said seriously is simply beyond me, doesn’t anyone know how terribly poor the Maya were at predicting things?
The larger question that I have in the wake of the world not ending yesterday is: why do people constantly make the zero-sum bet that the world is going to end in the first place? Whether it’s Y2K or a snowstorm nowadays people seem to love to bet on the world ending as we know it. I could understand making a bet that things might go awry during say, the Cuban Missile Crisis, but right now? When we’re not really facing any monumental existential threat? That seems a bit irrational. Still, people like to make outlandish bets on the world ending for the same reason that there is always a guy at school in the middle of December in shorts and a t-shirt: they’re starved for attention. There simply is no other answer that makes any rational sense. 12-21-12 is the end of the world? How is that any different than 11-12-11 or 10-11-10 or perhaps I can start my own conspiracy theory here and suggest that there is something really off about 11-12-13. I’m telling you something just seems really off when we’re dealing with a date that follows sequential order like that.
I really do feel bad for those people who buy into the hype though. I see these folks at the store right before a snowstorm stocking up on canned goods as if driving in snow in Wisconsin (as most have been doing for their entire adult lives) is somehow akin to not knowing whether the sun will rise tomorrow. The psychology of it all is really quite baffling. But the date that I always look back upon is December 31, 1999 – January 1, 2000. We were all convinced that a small problem with our computers was going to lead to mass power outages or perhaps loose guidance systems for nuclear weapons and thus humanity as we knew it would cease to exist. Keep in mind that all of this took place before the 2000 election and the subsequent farce (or travesty depending on how you look at it) that put George W. Bush in office as President of the United States. I would suggest that we all felt a heck of a lot better in the times of relative uncertainty with Bill Clinton in office than we ever did with George W. Bush in office. After all, it was under George W. Bush that we incurred the largest attack on American soil, the largest invasion of a country that never attacked us, and the largest financial calamity to occur in most of our lifetimes. How there is any doubt among historical scholars as to who the worst President of all time was (yes, an argument can be made for James Buchanan, but he did not cause the Civil War) is simply beyond me. But alas, I digress.
The real questions should be: why do we continue to count on the end of the world, why do we have this huge existential fear of the unknown, and why is this fear so huge that we don’t plan for any potential contingencies? No one ever plans for say, a 12 Monkeys scenario or an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario, though some have been preparing (perhaps rightly so) for the zombie apocalypse which seems just as likely as any other scenario we have hastily planned for in the past. What made for an interesting story leading up to the Mayan Apocalypse was that the U.S. government had indeed made plans and prepared contingencies for a zombie apocalypse situation in the same way that it had made plans in the event of a Soviet invasion of the mainland United States during the Cold War. Why did a TV show make the government plan for something that a variety of films (and indeed an entire sub-genre of films) did not? Perhaps someone in the government knows something we don’t!
The incredibly astonishing thing to me at least is that people put a serious amount of money in to preparing for the end of the world without taking into account the mere possibility that the end of the world predictions may be wrong. Think about it for a second: what do you gain by preparing for the end of the world? Do you have a bunker that will protect you in the event of some apocalyptic event that no one else has predicted? And what makes you so sure that you would be able to get to that bunker in sufficient time to protect yourself in the event of an event that no one had planned for? You’re making a zero-sum bet that you’re right and everyone else is wrong where the only thing you gain is a slight advantage in time over those of us who weren’t quite as prepared as you were. The odds of you surviving are no higher than mine simply because you have protection and food to live off of for a few days. I think it’s time for us to realize, not just as a society, but as members of the human race that the preparations we made during the Cold War for the end of life as we know it are no better than the safety plan that was given to our nations’ kids in the event of a nuclear attack. Sitting under a desk is not going to protect you from a nuclear payload and sitting in a bunker during the apocalypse won’t be much help either. I think it’s high time we acknowledged that there is no rationale or reason to hide in a bunker, rather it is just something that some people in society do because they are either bored or starved for attention. In either case, we as a society should not do them the favor of indulging them.