I'm writing this at a little after midnight, and December 21, 2012 is just getting under way. Of course, December 21 started many hours ago on the other side of the earth, but that's beside the point. Despite what many believe the ancient Mayans predicted, I have a feeling that December 21, 2012 will be a lot like December 20, 2012--and December 22, 2012 for that matter. True, there are still twenty-four hours to go before I can safely say that nothing bad or "earth-shattering" happened on this date, but I feel pretty comfortable believing that the world is not going to end today.
The End of the World, Doomsday, The Apocalypse, Judgment Day, Armageddon and many other ideas about how and when our planet will end have been predicted for centuries. It seems like every couple of years we are presented with a new date for the end of the world. Heck, it was only about a year-and-a-half ago that we were hearing all about Judgment Day and The Rapture (which passed very quietly). Sometimes these dates are based on translations of writings/predictions from centuries ago. Sometimes they come from some mystical cult leader who will somehow manage to convince a dedicated following that he/she knows what they are talking about. With any luck these predictions will simply pass, the leader will be discredited and those poor souls under the cult's spell can try to get back to their lives. Unfortunately, in some instances the leader's personality and magnetism are so strong that his/her followers might be led to believe that they must kill themselves to satisfy some need of the Gods or aliens or whatever crazy story the leader dreams up.
Predictions about the end of the world can come from biblical passages, from oracles and prognosticators of the future (like Nostradamus), from self-styled messengers of God (see cult leaders above) or many other sources. While most of these predictions seem mystical and religious in nature there was also a very real threat of global destruction which for decades had the world teetering on the brink of disaster. This was the threat of atomic and/or nuclear disaster known as the Cold War. It's probably hard for someone growing up today to imagine how real this threat felt at the time. From the late 1940s right up until 1989 there was a general sense of potential doom as the United States and Russia held a dangerous stalemate between them. One bad decision or one small mishap or miscommunication could have ushered in a man-made disaster the likes of which had never been seen. Over the years the two main combatants of the Cold War were joined by other countries which managed to develop their own nuclear arsenal.
For a look at the Mayan civilization and its "predictions"--from a 1970s point of view--here is an episode from the classic TV series "In Search of..." from 1977 titled "Mayan Mysteries".
In Search of... Mayan Mysteries
Interestingly, this episode says that the ancient Mayan calendar we hear so much about ends on December 24, 2011 instead of December 21, 2012. I believe that this discrepancy is due to the fact that the Mayans didn't have leap years. Thirty-five years after this episode we have finally reached the end of the Mayan Calendar. Hopefully December 21, 2012 will end the same way as thousands and thousands of days have ended before it and we will live to see December 22, 2012. Then perhaps we can finally feel safe again. ...But, for how long?