I do not believe in things like ghosts or astrology or gods who care if you eat shellfish, so I feel unwaveringly confident in saying that the world is not going to end in 2012. If I did believe that, I think I’d whittle away the rest of my time at a months-long beach party in Thailand, physically and mentally removed from cable news caterwauling and any chance that I’d humiliate my mother in a whiskey mishap. I’d dance and probably ease my negative opinions on drum circles, and, as the sun collapsed over the horizon, I’d find someone to hold hands with and stand before the boiling ocean. I’d try to have my eyes open the instant before I became ash, and my ashes united with the ashes of everything else, flitting into the black sky and the ancient silence.
I’m not sure if that’s how the Mayans envisioned it, and I’m not a Roland Emmerich fan, but it doesn’t really matter, because, again, the world is not ending in 2012. In fact, the world is not ending for a long, long time, and for me, that’s the problem.
Most people don’t know this, but the beginning of the end of the world happened on October 5 of this year. That’s the day Frito-Lay announced it was ceasing production of most of its compostable bags due to customer noise complaints. That is, full-grown adults had whined so much about the biodegradable bags’ unusually loud crinkling that Frito-Lay caved and returned to housing its chips in standard, difficult-to-recycle mylar containers. It was one of the dumbest decisions made this year, and it went largely unnoticed for the abomination it was.
In the most famous scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Walter Kurtz tells Martin Sheen’s Captain Benjamin Willard about a time his Special Forces unit went on a medical mission to a small Vietnamese village:
We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. … We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember, I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! … And then I realized, like I was shot, like I was shot with a diamond, a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God, the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that!
I thought of Kurtz nestled in a dank cave the day I watched Frito-Lay’s good idea fall to a handful of developmentally disabled adults bitching about noisy chip bags. Just as the colonel was simultaneously enchanted and disgusted by his enemies, I, too, couldn’t help but smile at the situation: a society amidst one of the ugliest wars in history, amidst one of the ugliest political climates in history, that bands together to protest for quieter sacks of sodium treats. The stupidity behind the drive to destroy the biodegradable Sun Chips bag was hideous, to be sure, but it was also a version of stupid so profound and pure you had to find it a little awe-inspiring before weeping with disgust.
I’m sure it sounds silly to some, but I can’t help but consider that day in October a significant landmark on the highway to our collective downfall. Staring at that heap of arms, Kurtz knew with instant clarity that his war was unwinnable. I got the same feeling looking at the Facebook group “SORRY, I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER THIS SUN CHIPS BAG.” How do you compete with a general population whose dedication to its own comfort takes precedence above all other people and things? How do you compete with billion-dollar companies that are too craven to stick up for important innovation for fear of losing a few idiots’ dollars? Also, how do you compete with a government that allows those aforementioned corporations to buy politicians who will then lord over those aforementioned people and things?
This is what we’ve become, and the Mayans were wrong: the end of the world has nothing to do with calendar dates and solstices; the end of the world belongs to who it’s always belonged to: thoughtless jerks, jerks who live out whole lives in pursuit of little more than personal prosperity and a moat with which to keep out the realities of everyday life. Knowing this, I’ve begun to think altogether differently about things like the ice caps and the rainforest. While people like to talk often and at length about both, few if any have mentioned what I think is increasingly obvious: it’s very possible we don’t deserve the ice caps, nor the rainforest, nor any of the other miracles of life we’ve already managed to forever destroy.
In thinking about the end of the world, it’s only fair to be rigorous and think about whether it would even be a bad thing. Are we as a planet so great—with our ceaseless environmental disasters, our wars, our bigotry, our rampant and intractable inequality—that our unbiased termination would be all that disastrous or unthinkable?
Something tells me Donald Trump would hate a cosmic clean slate. Kim Kardashian, too. But what about the hundreds of thousands of child prostitutes in India? Or the countless American veterans living on the streets while Holly Madison gets paid four grand to tweet that she likes high heels? Do you think they’d have a problem with someone hitting a giant reset button? Do you think a Haitian eating mud to survive would think it entirely catastrophic to know that, in 2012, everything in the whole world would burn and be equal for the first time in his life?
I posit that we—in the broadest sense of the word—are not that precious or necessary, and that we never were. And because of this, I find it hard to fear our inevitable extinction, even if that’s only a year away. What I fear far more, and what I believe to be far more probable than some prognosticated meltdown, is a gradual, personal acquiescence to our end and its ugly harbingers. I fear waking up one day and, like David Foster Wallace or Tyler Clementi, feeling as if quitting makes more sense than trying anymore to beat back the bullshit that sometimes makes it difficult to just get out of bed in the morning.
I fear not being able to look at my nephew and tell him I believe he is headed into a good and just society. I fear losing faith in the power of one. I fear no longer being able to find glimmers of joy and hope in friends’ weddings, the birth of children, the contours of a warm body next to me in bed or a hug from my mother.
I fear a lot. And though I know the world is not going to end in 2012, I’m going to spend 2011 trying to not wish that it would.