Unsurprisingly, the world didn’t end yesterday, despite all the hype about the “Mayan Prophecy” which is derived from the end of a cycle of the Mayan calendar. It’s been interesting to see how this idea, in common with many an apocalyptic prediction, has successfully and widely entered public culture. There’s an uncomfortable irony that people will talk, often jokingly, more easily about ideas such as the Mayan doomsday – for which there is scant evidence – than about the slow, seemingly inevitable slide towards real crisis which is unrolling in the biosphere, and for which evidence exists in grim abundance.
It’s possible that catastrophic events have led to extinction events in the past – for example, the KT Extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic is often attributed to an asteroid impact, or extreme volcanic activity. It’s clear the the current mass extinction, however, is a cumulative process, more death-by-1000-cuts than guillotine. Although gradual, it’s alarmingly fast, with the species extinction rate estimated to be between 1000 and 10,000 times the “normal” background rate. This (along with climate change, which contributes to biodiversity decline) is the real crisis in the natural world. It’s a shame so few people are talking about that.
The attention drawn to the Mayan civilization by the current doomsday chat, however, is instructive. In their day, they were one of the most impressive and stable civilizations on Earth, but their civilization collapsed in a relatively short period of time. Most scholars attribute this to a complex of factors driven by overwhelming environmental stresses; that’s worth pondering amidst the talk about the “end of the world”.