How will the world end? And would you make it?
Chances are you've wondered. The questions have proven perennially seductive for centuries now.
"Folks have been talking about the end of the world since there's been a world to end," says Steven Schlozman, a psychiatry professor at Harvard University (who is also a zombie apocalypse aficionado). "It's a fascinating phenomenon."
According to a loose interpretation of an ancient Mayan calendar, the world will come to an end on Friday. A smattering of people around the globe are preparing earnestly for this, just as some did when U.S. Christian radio host Harold Camping predicted the end of the world as we know it on Oct. 21, 2011.
It isn't the first highly anticipated end of the world, but it may be the first crowd-sourced doomsday.
"I call it the first Internet apocalypse – the first really, truly public apocalypse," says Lorenzo DiTommaso, professor and chair of religion at Concordia University in Montreal. In previous visions of end times, he adds, "you have a top-down prediction – it's passed through a flock and disseminated."
Prof. DiTommaso suggests that a combination of unprecedented ease of communication with the malleability of the 2012 "Mayan" prophecy has made this the everyman's apocalypse.
The proliferation of predictions of astronomical disaster can get on Pauline Barmby's nerves. The University of Western Ontario astronomy professor isn't too hard on some end-times believers who think Planet X is heading our way. Outer space is tough to understand, she says.
"The scale of how far apart things are in space, that's really hard to picture," she says. "You see pictures of the solar system and all the planets are lined up together."
But it's a bit frustrating when former students call her up to ask whether Earth will be wiped out by an asteroid on Friday.
"I say, 'Don't worry.' And then I privately sigh and say, 'I have to do better next year.' "
Friday's "doomsday" predictions have only the most tenuous connection to actual legend or scripture, so there's no shortage of theories about how the world will end.
"The Mayan apocalypse became almost like a Rorschach test for anyone who had a problem with the world and understood its solution in apocalyptic terms," Prof. DiTommaso says. "This could not have happened without the Internet. There are analogues in the past: People took predictions, pulled them apart and wrote medieval texts on it. But there's only so much you can do with that."
Apocalyptic narratives, Prof. DiTommaso says, are cultural constants for anyone with a linear conception of time – the idea that there is an end, eventually. Cultures with cyclical views of time didn't develop their versions of the end of the world until Western influence came along.
And apocalyptic tendencies wax and wane. When real life looks particularly insurmountable, there's an increasing number of narratives involving an external, all-powerful resolution.
"There are peaks and valleys," Prof. DiTommaso says, "certain times in cultures in which more people saw the world and their place in it through the lens of apocalypticism and other times when they didn't.
"We're in a huge upswing now."
Chalk it up to millennial angst, or just societal frustration about global problems with no easy solutions. It would be far easier if a cataclysm took care of global warming, cross-border sectarian warfare and unsustainable pension liabilities all at once.
And that, Prof. DiTommaso argues, is why this line of thinking can become "catastrophic."
"The moment we say that this is not our responsibility is the moment we abrogate the future. … It's toxic to a modern, liberal, mature society."