Beyond the Mayan Calendar: A deeper look into society’s fascination with the End of the World

end of the world 07 flooded_ny_0

At the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, scientists sat down with world leaders to set a target of keeping the global mean temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In order to do so, greenhouse gas emissions would have to significantly cut from the “business-as-usual” approach – or from projected levels of 50 gigatons in 2020 to 44 gigatons.

But many climate scientists today are sceptical we will reach those targets with the current road we are on.

“I’m getting a little bit pessimistic about [reaching the targets] because people haven’t woken up yet even though there is so many major catastrophes happing around the world due to climate change,” says Kirsten Zickfeld, a climate change expert at the University of Simon Fraser.

In a 2006 Ipsos Reid poll, nearly three-quarter British Columbians believed that life on the planet would be wiped off in two or three generations unless immediate action was taken to curb climate change.

Zickfeld, who spent two years working at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling in Victoria, B.C., says with the course we’re on today, in two to three generations, or 40 to 60 years, the world as we know it might not come to an end, but there will significant loss and hardship caused by climate change.

“What I see is a world that is becoming more violent with more conflicts over resources. People will be not getting access to the water and the food they need, or being flooded.”

She says we’ve already used up 0.8 of the 2 degree Celsius limit and with the fossil fuel infrastructure in place, we have already committed to reaching the limit.

Zickfeld blames inaction on a lack of political leadership and the powerful influence of the oil and tar sands lobby to sway the public’s minds that the science behind climate change is not settled. She says compounding the problem is misleading articles often published in the media. And on an individual level, she says many deny the reality of climate change because they do not want to alter their consumer lifestyles.

If temperatures rise above 2 degrees Celsius, she predicts there will be many environmental refugees because they’ll either have to leave low-lying areas such as Richmond, B.C. or Cairo, Egypt, or areas that are affected by massive droughts such as the arid zone south of the Sahara Desert. Zickfeld says we can expect more extreme weather with hot and dry summers similar to the 2003 heat wave in Europe where skyrocketing temperatures claimed around 40,000 lives.

With this ominous picture of our future world painted by Zickfeld and other climate experts, the idea of civilization collapsing in the relative short future may not seem that ludicrous after all.

But regardless whether or not the warning signs are based off of peer-based research using empirical data, people preparing for collapse will always have their detractors.

“I think they’re L-O-O-N-I-E-S,” said David Bond, former chief economist at HSBC, over the phone with a cackle. “They’re absolutely out of their tree.”

end of the world 05Bond, who also used to be a economics professor at UBC, laughed off the prepper movement and said it was only good for the economy and because “it proves that there are stupid people and we should let them be stupid.”

However, Bond did say the future wasn’t going to be a “happy, joyful time.” He says since World War II until 2007 we have seen an overall boom period despite a few recessions along the way. But we’re not going to see that level of growth for around a decade according to Bond.

“My children probably won’t have it as good as when I was their age.”

Perhaps not as cataclysmic a scenario as other financial forecasters portray, but still for many preppers it’s reason enough to stock up.

“Food storage is not just insurance against a major disaster, it’s also insurance against getting laid off,” Rawles says.

“Even if there’s not a major economic catastrophe, if you have a personal catstrophe … having six months or a one-year supply of food represents one less problem you have to deal with,” says Rawles, who also pointed out the large savings from buying items in bulk.

For Rawles and his band of followers it makes sense on many levels to be self-reliant. And Robert Belton, an expert in psychology and critical thinking at UBC – Okanagan, doesn’t disagree.

“When it comes down to it, it’s just common sense we should be prepared (for disaster). We should 72 hours worth of fresh water available, and I’d guess most of us in B.C. don’t.”

Belton says it’s a good thing to take on the boy scout mentality and prepare, but he says it crosses the line “when preparing approaches a level of militancy.”

He says the increased access to information today has fuelled the prepper movement. People can find concerning information and share it rapidly with their friends, which “causes a sort of contagion effect.”

One thing Belton does see fallacy is people who pick actual dates the world will end. But many people in the prepper movement set a date on the coming destruction.

“I think it’s foolish to set a time frame for any of these potential disasters,” Rawles says.

But for Rawles the writing is still on the wall and it’s just a matter of time before we see major catastrophic changes on the planet.

And even for Belton, an avid reader of Skeptic magazine, preparing for hard times ahead isn’t as crazy as people making claims about the Kennedy assassination, flying saucers or Obama’s birth certificate.

“None of that, by the way, has any baring on whether the prepper movement is valid, because certainly we could be entering the end of times economically – just look at the news.”

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