Have a nice doomsday

Richard Handler on the end of the world.

On my desk, I've cleared a little section that I call Atlantis. That's where I put all the doomsday books publishers send me.

Atlantis has grown heavier over these last months and one day I can see it breaking through my desk and sinking to the bottom of the sea like its namesake.

Some of these books have a worthy Canadian connection. My favorite title is Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans are Looking Forward to the End of the World.

It was written by a Nicholas Guyatt while he was a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, though it was obviously aimed at the American market (10 times the population).

Guyatt tells us that 50 million Americans have come to believe that the apocalypse will take place in their lifetimes. "They're convinced that, any day now, Jesus will snatch his followers and spirit them to heaven."

It's a jaunty book, full of information and conversational contractions as befits an academic aiming for a popular audience.

An actor dressed as an ancient Mayan in Tegucigalpa. Could they predict the future? (Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters)

But I must say that making fun of fundamentalist apocalypse mongers is like shooting fish in a barrel.

If only they weren't so darn scary!

Mark this date

Mind you, many apocalypse believers are rather sanguine types (unlike liberal worrywarts like me).

That's because they believe they're only "just visiting" on this Earth — even as they insist they are America's super-patriots — on their way to the hereafter.

That's called taking the long view.

For them, financial meltdowns and war in the Middle East presage The End of Days, which opens the door to God's salvation.

It is a holy paradox: Bad news means good news, just wait a bit. That's the apocalyptic formula.

But the Christian Apocalypse, including raptures and the arrival of the anti-Christ, is taking a media back seat to a newer, more secular version, which we can all believe in because it's multicultural.

For those who haven't heard, the end of the world will take place on December 21, 2012, according to the ancient Mayan calendar.

It's a hard rain

Those Mayans were ingenious astronomers who believed not only in human sacrifice but  that time moved in cycles, in coordination with equinoxes and other solar events.

If you want to read a New Age account of this prediction, you can leaf through Alexandra Bruce's 2012: Science or Superstition, which is deemed "the definitive guide to the doomsday phenomenon."

Clearing a path between fantasy and reality, Bruce asks this all-important question: "Is Earth losing its mojo?"

But serious folks are getting into this game, too.

Anthony Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University in upstate New York.

He has researched and written about Maya astronomy for four decades and his book, a recent arrival to my desktop Atlantis, is called The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012.

Aveni dedicates his book to Dylan, who turns out to be a Canadian high-school student, Dylan Aucoin, from Dartmouth, N.S.

Inquiring minds

For three years, Dylan has been peppering Aveni with questions about 2012.

Our teenager, it seems, was worried and sometimes horrified. "Is there anything to fear about 2012 and the New Age ideas of destruction and consciousness shifting?" he asked the scholar.

Aveni tells us that serious academics are reluctant to enter the popular marketplace (what world does he live in?).

But because of these Canadian promptings, he set out to write a more accessible guide.

But boy, is this a serious book. It's full of information about Mayan cosmology and astronomy.

I must admit it made my head spin. I think I'd prefer another book, which I haven't yet seen, but which Aveni mentions: The Complete Idiot's Guide to 2012.

Or wait for the movie

For those of you who don't want to read anything at all on this subject, you can always wait for the movie, 2012 — "in theatres November 13."

You may have seen the trailer already on TV.  It's amazingly gorgeous and full of monstrous special effects.

Slices of Earth rise up and tidal waves sweep entire cities away. The statue of Jesus overlooking Rio de Janeiro is knocked aside like an apocalyptic bowling pin. The Vatican is crushed. The aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy lands on the White House, riding the crest of a vast rogue wave.

The movie is directed by Roland Emmerich who directed the spectacular disaster films Independence Day and The Day After.

Digital technology is now so advanced that you can readily believe that the end of the world is just plain thrilling.

An end to ennui

This brings me to a serious point amid all this End of the World glamour.

It's a point that the scholar Benjamin Kerstein makes in his thoughtful, insightful essay The Age of Catastrophic Thinking.

Like everybody else writing about the subject, Kerstein takes us through the obvious points. Rogue states and terrorists with nuclear weapons. Epidemics. Depression (financial and emotional). An atmosphere filled with both greenhouse gases and pervasive anxiety.

Did I miss a few? Just fill in the blanks. We live in an age where catastrophe has become an intellectual staple.

Kerstein also tells us that we are also living in a time of "collective ennui," where we feel overwhelmed and vulnerable, tiny human beings beset by a potentially vindictive universe.

Visions of universal disaster are certainly not a new phenomenon. But our information technology passes them around quickly.

The result, says Kerstein, can be "exciting, a profound antidote to boredom and stasis. It even provides us with a very real sense of global solidarity."

Now, Kerstein is a morally serious fellow who notes that this forced panic does have its downside.

Thinking too much about the End of the World As We Know It "cuts us off from life" and oppresses us psychologically.

"A life lived in fear, after all, is a wretched thing," he writes.

But thanks to Kerstein, we may now also recognize that hidden in all this apocalyptic news is a gleeful note. While we wait for The End, we can munch pop corn, delight at all that lovely destruction and root for our global saviours.

The books keep coming in. I'm piling them on Atlantis like a great Mayan temple.