It should be pretty well known by now that the Mayan’s never predicted the end of the world this Friday, but they have a reputation for doing so because the last day of their calendar had the 21st December 2012, or thereabouts, as the last one.
However, that doesn’t stop us from speculating over what it might mean, if it really was the end of the world in a couple of days. After all, we will be confronted with this at some point in the future, whether it is the Mayan predictions, global warming or some other global catastrophe.
So, what would you do, if you had complete certainty about the world ending on Friday? Imagine further that you only learned this right now, upon reading my essay. This article is the equivalent of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast announcing aliens had landed. Your reading it was the moment when everything changed. What would you do?
The first thing you might want to figure out is the conditions of our predicament. Just what do we mean by ‘the end’? Does the end of the world mean the end of humanity, the end of planet earth, or maybe just the end of all other living species, for instance? Is it a bit like a nuclear attack that we could, technically, survive, if only we insulated ourselves from the damage? In each instance, things are pretty damn serious, but each demands quite different reactions. If it were the end of planet Earth – as in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia – then we might want to figure out an exit strategy.
How could we get off this planet and into some other kind of planetary environment? This is a pretty common scenario in science fiction stories on, not least because they often rely on an exit strategy to have meaningful end for characters. This is why Von Trier’s film is so novel. Everyone dies and there is a resignation to a more powerful force, which is an unavoidable, pending, tragic, but beautiful reality.
Now, to be frank, there is not a lot you can do to get off planet earth within 48 hours. Even if you could physically get off the planet, you won’t get very far before you run out of fuel and need to land somewhere. So, escape is not really an option for most of us. Our Prime Ministers and Presidents might have some escape route we don’t know about – they always seem to in films like this – but they’re also in a pretty tricky situation, unless escaping to the international space station or some other outer stellar environment is an option. Some desert in the Midwest just won’t do the job for Barack Obama, even if it is deep under ground. In any case, the fact that we’ve all died mean there’s not much of a case for them going at all, since the people they govern will no longer exist. If failed policies don’t cut the mustard, surely the annihilation of the entire electorate invalidates an administration’s right to govern. So, it might be better to choose a rocket full of people who have the range of skills necessary to rebuild the population, even if that possibility is remote.
But let’s suppose that our ‘end of the world’ is one where everything, as we know it – and as it has ever been known – disappears, a literal collapse of everything compressing into nothing, just a complete absence of life, existence, space, and matter. A state of being where we can not knowingly conceive of any possible return. All gone. Forever. What would you do right now? There is nobody who can help you, no device, technology, or strategy that could avoid this pending certainty from coming about. How would you spend your last 3 days?
The first thing I’d want to know is what time exactly will it all come to an end – and what time zone! Let’s say it is 7:13pm on Friday in the United Kingdom. I’d then want to know exactly where everyone I love is presently located and, if they are away from home, figure out whether they could get there. After all, being together with my loved ones seems like the most likely thing we’ll try to achieve. Unless of course, my loved ones are like the family in Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen, where a family gathering turns into a raucous exposure of family child abuse, bringing about the rapid demise of the gathering and familial bonds. This kind of scenario might actually be quite common at end of world family parties where the most heartbreaking truths about each other could surface to ensure we go out with least some degree of knowledge about what our lives really meant to one another.
Yet, even getting people together is going to be tricky. The reality is that most people who require some form of transportation to get somewhere will not make it, as there would be chaos in the transport system. Pilots will stop flying. Train drivers will stop driving. Traffic control workers, signal guards, road maintenance and emergency service staff, will all face the same question as us – why spend time at work, when you only have 3 days left to live? In any case, the entire energy distribution system would grind to a halt, leaving most vehicles stranded with a tank’s wroth of gas left to get them to their destination. Furthermore, drivers would be insanely reckless, making most major roads unusable, so driving is likely to be out. It might be worth figuring out how to hot wire cars, in case you find one with fuel in it, but it’s going to be a long shot.
Once I’ve dealt with the possibility of not seeing some people ever again, I want to round up the few people I have near whom I care about. Now, unavoidably, you might find that this is going to be impossible. If you are that guy who happens to be in some random hotel in some random country doing business, you’re pretty much on your own. You can realistically face the end of your days sharing it with a mini bar – if you were lucky enough to have had it restocked before the news broke, as that person has definitely quit their job by now.
So, it’s a reasonable assumption that everything would grind to a halt, making most forms of travel impossible for a lot of people. We would very quickly descend in to the kind of chaos that is found only in films like The Day After tomorrow, where not much beyond human energy drives the planet forward. However, if you are lucky enough to herd up the key people – not withstanding the fact that you might not be in their list of people they want to herd up – then what do you do next, once you are all together? Well, since it is nearing Christmas, maybe some games, a film, opening presents that presently sit under the tree (bad luck for those who have family members who are last minute shoppers). This may sound trivial, but what else do you expect?
The pursuit of normality in moments of finitude is likely to be highly prized by people who are beginning a journey of nostalgia into an already lost future. Why shouldn’t we just calm down and carry on? When all is said and done, I’d probably want to just sit with my wife and play with our son, watch him do things that amaze us, maybe do some drawing or painting, go to bed together and hold each other the entire time without a break. Eat some food from time to time. Go for a walk. Play with his teddy bears. Not talk about the end of the world and just enjoy every minute left with him. An appreciation of intimacy is not unique to our species, nor possible to enjoy only with members of our species. You might even choose the final sunset as your companion. But, whatever form we can get it, intimacy is likely to be the one thing we seek out in moments of certain, collective doom. There will be no grand statements; no dramatic moments. Just sharing the same space, going through it together, understanding we are lucky to have each other. That will probably do.
On the other hand, I might try to get up some high mountain and jump off the edge a few seconds before it all comes to an end. I’ve always wondered what that would be like. Got to time it right though.
Professor Andy Miah, PhD (@andymiah), is Chair in Science Communication & Digital Media, in the School of Environment & Life Sciences, University of Salford, Manchester. He is also Global Director for the Centre for Policy and Emerging Technologies, Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, USA and Fellow at FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, UK. He is currently part of a European Commission project called Digital Futures 2050 and of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Digital Participation in the Scottish Government.
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