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The Beginning Is Near

Novelty theory, the Noosphere, and other indications that the 2012 apocalypse will not star John Cusack

by Josh Potter on January 19, 2012

“It’s 2012!” the “new-age girl” gleefully proclaims between riffs on raw foodism, quantum physics and Deepak Chopra. In the past couple weeks, the “shit people say” meme has swept the Internet, playfully skewering personality types like hipsters, single girls, skiers—by now, pretty much everyone—in short YouTube videos. While spot-on, the “Shit New Age Girls Say” video feels almost too easy, that amorphous community of the spiritually inclined providing endless theories and buzzwords for fuel. Yet, in simply (and enthusiastically) stating the year, the video spoke a sort of master mantra, referencing one of that community’s most complex and contentious theories, an Internet meme in its own right (probably one of the Net’s most sweeping), a metaphysical proposition that is finally coming to bear with the new calendar year.

On the heels of a Roland Emmerich disaster flick, alarmist Discovery Channel specials, and evangelical radio minister Harold Camping’s false prediction of the rapture last year, mainstream culture has come to regard (and dismiss) the “2012 theory” as another crackpot apocalypse, this time based around the supposed termination of the Mayan long-count calendar on this year’s winter solstice. There certainly are many who interpret aspects of the theory in this way. Late-night AM radio is full of such talk, and a NASA public outreach site has been inundated by frightened questioners looking for the astronomical truth.

And yet, the most established thread in 2012 theory, dating back to the ’70s, makes no cataclysmic predictions. Daniel Pinchbeck, whose 2006 book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl continued and synthesized the work of Terrence McKenna, José Argüelles and John Major Jenkins, has insisted that mainstream culture’s interpretation of the theory as an end-of-days event has far more to do with our deep-seated Judeo-Christian fear of the coming judgment than anything the aforementioned thinkers have propounded. Pinchbeck, who allegedly was parodied by Woody Harrelson’s character in the 2012 disaster movie, has built his career (and a vast community of adherents) on explaining that the word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek for “lifting of the veil,” and that 2012 more appropriately represents a global paradigm shift, a transformation of human consciousness and the passage of humanity into the next era—that is, something for the new-age girl (and everyone) to get excited about.

While it’s hardly the only measurement of this shift, the Mayan calendar is central to most versions of the 2012 prophesy. A complex system, the calendar was arranged in both cyclical and linear intervals, the linear “long-count” measured in a b’ak’tun equivalent to 144,000 days or around 394 years. The Mayans believed we were living in the “Fourth World,” which was set to terminate at the end of the 13th b’ak’tun, believed by adherents of the theory to fall onDec. 21, 2012. According to Jenkins, an incredibly rare astronomical event will happen on this date—something he supposes the classical Maya foresaw: Our sun will align with the “dark rift” galactic center of the Milky Way.

What follows the completion of this cycle and alignment is where opinions differ. Mayanist scholars almost categorically dismiss the notion of a doomsday apocalypse, while the more liberal are sympathetic to the notion of some kind of unifying shift in consciousness. In his book, Pinchbeck finds resonance with the Mayan prophesy in a number of other ancient world cultures. The Hopi predict a similar passage of worlds, as do most Hindu sects, who regard our point in history as the climax of the war-torn, materialistic kali yuga.

It wasn’t until Jenkins and Argüelles published their theories in the late ’80s (Journey to the Mayan Underworld and The Mayan Factor, respectively) that many were paying attention to the year 2012, but it was already being used as a place holder as early as the ’70s by philosopher and psychonaut Terence McKenna, whose infamous explorations with psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca lead to the development of “novelty theory.” Using an early computer modeling system based on a sequence of the I Ching, McKenna sought to graph the “timewave” of human history according to “novel,” transformative events. What he discovered was a fractal spiral in which novel events (the birth of Christ, the European discovery of America, the bombing of Hiroshima, etc.) coincided with one another as the nautilus wound tighter. The rate at which the Ice Age became the Stone, Bronze, Iron, etc., was exponential, and when the model processed the novel events of the 20th century and burgeoning Information Age, it proposed an almost immediate passage and inevitable end point.

The “singularity,” as it’s known, is the moment at which all novel information that has and can be known will become available and known simultaneously, thus marking the passage into the age of wisdom, or the “Noosphere,” as Argüelles called it. McKenna’s model placed the singularity in December of 2012. He fine-tuned the prediction to the solstice after later encountering notions of the Mayan long-count.

The publication of Pinchbeck’s book, his website Reality Sandwich, and the film 2012: Time for Change are largely responsible for the traction these ideas have received in the run-up to the prophetic date. By avoiding dogmatic adherence to one notion of what 2012 could bring, he’s made the meme an open-source rallying cry for spiritual seekers of many modalities to envision what the world could look like on the other side of economic and ecological collapse, political intransigence, consumer capitalism and religious fundamentalism, insisting that conscious activity will “will the transformation.” The film has as much to do with sustainable agriculture, alternative currencies and design science as it does Mayan cosmology, making the 2012 meme a one-size-fits-all, Occupy-style contextual framework for the alt-lifestyle set. Which seems to suggest that Pinchbeck and company expect to be hanging out on Earth well after this winter’s solstice. As Pinchbeck often states, when pressed on his personal belief in the prophesy, “It’s already happening.”