The End of the World as We Know It

Note: This is the extended, unedited, dance mix version of my story that will run as this week’s Bay Guardian cover story (it also ran in Las Vegas CityLife and Metro Times in Detroit), with more woo and hope than the upcoming version. Enjoy, and look for my dispatches from Mexico on the sfbg.com Politics blog starting Wednesday. See you on the other side.
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Imagine a world where humans feel deep connections to one another and the planet. That’s the first step. It begins with our imagination and then we begin to make it our reality.

To unify at the top of the proverbial pyramid, where we remember our past and envision our collective future, could start with a magical moment. Or it could come from our recognition that it’s just time to travel a different path. Either way, it’s up to us to create our future.

We’re already doing it. Just read the news, if you can bear it. Global warming, mass extinctions, fiscal cliffs, social unrest – now stop and turn the channel, because we’re also writing another story. Through technological innovation, community empowerment, spiritual yearning, social exploration, and global communication we’ve already entered a new era.

What does it look like? Well, it looks a little different to each of the billions of people who populate this planet, but we can start with a focus on solutions instead of problems. It’s a simple flip. Once we make it, we can enter an exciting and empowering new reality beginning to unfurl before those willing to see it, right now, this week, on December 21, 2012.

That’s a date charged by prophecy and mysticism, both derived from observing the cosmos. It’s also a date that popular culture has infused with layers of conflicting meaning, from Hollywood-style doomsday scenarios to New Age predictions that we’ll suddenly become aware of vast new dimensions.

It’s also just another day, followed by the longest night of the year, and a fine time to set our intentions for the lengthening, brightening days to come. So before we explore the fascinating terrain of 2012 predictions and possibilities, let’s imagine the world we want.

How about a world where we cooperate instead of just competing, where we live in harmony with the natural world, where we let go of old dogmas and divisions that are no longer serving us, replacing them with new models infused with energy from our hearts instead of just our heads?

Maybe your vision is similar, or perhaps it’s different, but let’s all take a moment to just breathe and imagine the world we want. Then let’s have a conversation, and see whether we can take advantage of this energetic moment to will our shared vision into being.

The long view

The ancient Mayans – which created a remarkably advanced civilization during their Classic period from 250-900AD – had an expansive view of time, represented by their Long Count Calendar, which ends this week after 5,125 years. Like many of our pre-colonial ancestors whose reality was formed by watching the slow procession of stars and planets, the Mayans took the long view, thinking in terms of ages and aeons.

The Long Count calendar is broken down into 13 baktuns, each one 144,000 days, so the final baktun that is now ending began in the year 1618. That’s an unfathomable amount of time for most of us living in a country that isn’t even one baktun old yet. We live in an instantaneous world with hourly weather forecasts, daily horoscopes, and quarterly business cycles. Even the rising ocean levels that we’ll see in our lifetimes seem too far in the future to rouse most of us to serious action.

So it’s even more mind-blowing to try to get our heads around the span of 26,000 years, which was the last time that Earth, the sun, and the dark center of the Milky Way came into alignment on the Winter Solstice – the so-called “galactic alignment” anticipated by astrologists who see this as a moment of great energetic power. Right now, we’re near the peak of an alignment that lasts 25-35 years, depending on one’s source and perspective (again, it’s good to patient when pondering planetary paths).

The Aztecs and Toltecs who inherited the Mayan’s calendar and sky-watching tradition also saw a new era dawning around now, which they called the Fifth Sun, or the fifth major stage of human development. For the Hindus, there are the four “yugas,” long eras after which life in destroyed and recreated. Ancient Greece and early Egyptians also understood long cycles of time clocked by the movement of the cosmos.

Fueled by insights derived from mushroom-fueled shamanic vision quests in Latin America, writer and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna developed his “timewave” theories about expanding human consciousness, using the I Ching to divine the date of Dec. 21, 2012 as the beginning of expanded human consciousness and connection. And for good measure, the Chinese zodiac’s transition from dragon to snake also supposedly portends big changes.

So what’s going to happen? Nobody really knows, not even the authors, scholars, and researchers who have devoted big chunks of their lives to the topic, such as Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzacoatl and star of the documentary film 2012: A Time for Change; and John Major Jenkins, who has written nearly a dozen books on 2012 and Mayan cosmology over the last 25 years.

“I never proposed anything specific was going to happen on that date. I think of it as a hinge-point on the shift,” Pinchbeck told me, also taking the long view.

Yet many people do believe the end is nigh. A poll commissioned by Reuters in May found that 15 percent of people worldwide believe that human life as we know it will come to an end in their lifetimes, and 10 percent believe the end of the Mayan calendar means it will happen in 2012. The percentage of Americans who believe they’ll experience the end of the world is even higher than other countries at 22 percent.

In countries with stronger beliefs in myth and mystical thinking, there is genuine anxiety about the Dec. 21 date in significant segments of the population. A Dec. 1 front page story in the New York Times reported that many Russians are so panicked about the Armageddon that the government put out a statement claiming “methods of monitoring what is occurring on planet Earth” and stating the world won’t end in December.

Here in the US, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was also concerned enough about mass hysteria surrounding the galactic alignment and Mayan calendar that it set up a “Beyond 2012: Why the World Won’t End” website and has issued press statements to address people’s eschatological concerns.

Unlike skeptics who are certain that nothing will change, those who hope and believe that the end of 2012 marks an auspicious moment in human evolution – or at least that it represents a significant step in the transformation process – seem fairly patient and open-minded in their perspectives on the subject.

“The debunking type isn’t some rational skeptic. They are true believers in the opposite,” Jenkins said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve been filtering 2012 through some kind of Nostradomus filter.”

Sure, there are some wild theories about 2012 out there on the Internet, from the solar flares that will cook us to Biblical plagues to the extraterrestrials that are coming back to either help or harm us. Yet Jenkins and others like him have been clear in stating that they aren’t expecting the apocalypse. Instead, they emphasize the view by the Mayans and other ancient thinkers that this is a time for renewal and rejuvenation.

“I think the Maya understood that there are cycles of time,” Jenkins said. “2012 was selected by the Maya to target this rare procession of the equinoxes.”

If the ancients had a message for we modern people, it was to learn from our observations about what’s going on all around us. As Jenkins said of the classic Mayans, “They recognized their connection to the natural world and the connection of all things.”

Achieving Synthesis

Many Bay Area residents are now headed down to Chichen Itza, Mexico, where the classic Mayans built the Pyramid Kukulkan with 365 faces to honor the passing of time and where the Synthesis 2012 Festival will mark the end of the Mayan calendar with ceremonies and celebrations.

“It’s probably one of the most pointed to and significant times ever,” Synthesis Executive Producer Michael DiMartino told me, noting that his life’s work has been building to this moment. “As a producer, I’m very focused on the idea of spiritual unity and events with intention,”

In addition to producing major gatherings in Egypt, Brazil, and the American Southwest, DiMartino has been leading tours of the Mayan pyramid and ruins in the Yucatan for almost 20 years, establishing a good working relationship with the Mayan community in the closest town to Chichen Itza, Piste Pueblo.

“They asked me to work with them on connecting to the world and heralding the transition of the paradigm,” he said. “We’re doing something that will support the local communities and give back to them.”

DiMartino told me he believes in the significance of galactic alignment and the ending of the Mayan calendar, but he sees the strength of the event as bringing together people with a wide variety of perspectives to connect with each other and work on the transformation that humans need to make.

“We’re at a crossroads in human history, and crossroads is self-preservation or self-destruction,” he said. “Synthesis 2012 is the forum to bring people together into a power place.”

Debra Giusti, who is co-producing Synthesis, started the Bay Area’s popular Harmony Festival in 1978, co-wrote the book Transforming Through 2012, and “has been at the forefront of transformational festivals for the last 30 years,” DiMartino said. She also emphasized what a momentous time this is.

“Things are escalating to the point where we have to make a big choice. So this is really showtime,” Guisti told me. “Synthesis itself will be a great activation for this time period…to take the power back and really do something on this planet.”

She’s excited to unite her community from the Bay Area with this ancient home of an advanced civilization that was based on studying the skies and taking a long view of history and its cycles.

“Obviously, the planet has been getting out of balance and there is a need to go back to basics,” said Giusti. “The Maya, along with other native cultures, based their systems on natural cycles…We need to get back to the values of the indigenous people, but in the modern context making use of our technology.”

They are reaching out to people around the world who are doing similar gatherings on Dec. 21, urging them to register with their World Unity 2012 website and livestream their events for all to see. “We are launching this whole global social network to help develop solutions,” DiMartino said. (You can also follow my posts from Chichen Itza on the SFBG.com Politics blog).

DiMartino said this moment is about creating cohesion between our heads and hearts in order to connect with each other and the natural world. “Then we function at a higher level and it goes out in an energetic frequency,” he said. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between people and the planet and we need to come back into collaboration.”

Two of the keynote speakers at Synthesis 2012 are a little skeptical of the significance of the Mayan calendar and the galactic alignment, yet they are people with spiritual practices who have been working toward the shift in global consciousness they say we need.

“It’s more of a marker along the way,” Joe Marshalla, an author, psychologist, researcher, and public speaker, told me. “We’ve been in this transition for almost 30 years.”

He said there are just moments in time when there is a mass awakening and realization that the status quo has to change, citing the period from 1968-1972 as an example. But the momentum of that time, when people liberated themselves from convention and launched the environmental and consumer rights movements, was lost before it achieved critical mass. Yet he thinks the momentum has been quietly proceeding behind the scenes.

“The magical hope is that this is all going to be better after this unifying moment for the planet, and I wish for that, too,” Marshalla said. “We have to be realistic that there is a transition and that has to involve us working together.”

Yet he thinks there is real power in the moment if we seize it to make the shift we need. Marshalla said his speech at the festival will be about using certain memes to focus people’s energy on creating change, starting with letting go of the thoughts and structures that divide us from each other and the planet and replacing them with a new sense of connection.

“Everyone is waking up to the deeply held knowledge of the one-ness of all the planet, that we are in this together,” Marshalla said. “I think the world is waking up to the fact there are 7 billion of us and there are a couple hundred thousand that are running everything.”

Caroline Casey, host of KPFA’s “Visionary Activist Show” and a keynote speaker at the Synthesis Festival, also takes a skeptical view of the Mayan prophecies and how New Age thinkers have latched onto them. “Everything should be satirized and there will be plenty of opportunities for that down there,” she said.

The goal creating a new world is one she shares. “Yes, let’s have empire collapse and a big part of that is domination and end the subjugation of nature,” she said. “It is worthwhile to have a good story. We want to emerge from imperialism into a cultural renaissance.”

Reading the stars

The ancient Maya based their calendar and much of their science and spirituality, which were deeply connected for them, on observations of the night sky. Over generations, they watched the constellations of stars and planets slowly but steadily drifting across the horizon, learning about a process we now know as precession, which is the slight wobble of the Earth as it spins on its axis. The ancient Egyptians learned this lesson when the peepholes in their pyramids stopping lining up with the constellations they were aimed at.

Astronomers say the change in our perspective on the cosmos is 1 degree every 72 years, taking 26,000 years to complete a full cycle. Linea Van Horn, president of the San Francisco Astrological Society said there is something simple and powerful about observing natural cycles to tap into our history and spirituality. “All myth is based in the sky, and one of the most powerful markers of myth is precession,” she said.

She said the Mayan Long Count calendar is about one-fifth of the precession cycle, marking the Five Suns or ages that the Aztecs described, while astrologists divide precession by 12, representing each of the zodiac signs. Right now, we are leaving the Age of Pisces and entering the Age of Aquarius, which Van Horn said represents an age of increased cooperation.

As with the planting of bulbs for spring, Van Horn said the Winter Solstice is the time to sow the political and spiritual seeds of future growth. “You need to have a lot of faith now to plant the seeds now knowing you won’t see them grow,” she said, noting that it’s a difficult but important time to do spiritual work.

The longer view is that our alignment with the galactic center, from which all energy and life emerged, is moving back toward the Summer Solstice. Van Horn said the significance of this big transition coming now is that we’re at the point of maximum darkness, both literally and figuratively.

“The whole thing about the darkest night is there is a promise of the return of light,” she said. “It’s a potent time and it’s easy not to see it.”

“It is energetically a time for going within and reflection,” Jenkins said of the Winter Solstice. “It’s a great opportunity to achieve some of the wholeness and integration we need.”

DiMartino said it wasn’t just the Maya, but ancient cultures around the world that saw a long era ending around now: “They each talk about the ending and beginning of new cycles,” he said. “Prophecies are only road signs to warm humanity about the impacts of certain behaviors.”

“Everything is reflecting that we’re at a major bridge of transformation,” he said. “It’s not just a Mayan thing, it just reflects the different fields of research that show we’re at a major point of transition. We create the future. We make decisions and we create our future now.”

Rob Brezsny, the San Rafael resident whose down-to-earth Free Will Astrology column has been printed in alt-weeklies throughout the country for decades, agrees that this is an important moment in human evolution, but he doesn’t think it has much to do with the Mayans.

“My perspective on the Mayan stuff tends to be skeptical. It might do more harm than good,” Brezsny told me, rejecting the idea of shortcuts in either our spiritual or political development. “It goes against everything I know, that it’s slow and gradual and it takes a lot of willpower to do this work.”

That means listening to each other and the needs of the natural world and learning to set aside our egos and desires for immediate gratification.

“This has nothing to do with the galactic center,” Casey said, decrying the “faux-hucksterism” of such magical thinking, as opposed to the real work of building our relationships and circulating important ideas in order to raise our collective consciousness.

Yet both Casey and Brezsny do believe in rituals. “Humans have been honoring the Winter Solstice for 26,000 years,” she said. “Every Winter Solstice is a chance to say what is our guiding story that we want to illuminate.”

“That’s the best thing the Dec. 21 date can be, a ritual of acknowledging that we’re in the midst of a fundamental transformation,” Brezsny said, acknowledging the important role rituals play. “The activists believe this may be a good moment, a good excuse to have a transformative ritual and to take advantage of that. We need transformative rituals.”

When one considers the transformation that our world is crying out for and the courage that will take, humans should take whatever help we can get. As Brezsny said, “Ritual has been a way to marshal inner emotional resources and spiritual resources.”

Global tipping point

The world is not going to end, but it could end for much of life as we know it if we don’t change our ways. Humans are on a collision course with the natural world, something we’ve known for decades, starting with the nuclear age and continuing through the environmental movement.

In the last 20 years, the scientific community and most people have come to realize that industrialization and over-reliance on fossil fuels have irreversibly changed the planet’s climate and that right now we’re just trying to minimize sea level rise and other byproducts – and not even with any real commitment or sense of urgency.

The latest scientific research is even more alarming. Scientists have long understood that individual ecosystems reach tipping points, after which the life forms within them spiral downward into death and decay. But a report released in June by the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology has found that Earth itself has a tipping point that we’re rapidly moving toward.

“Earth’s life-support system may change more in the next few decades than it has since humans became a species,” said the report’s lead author, Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley.

While the Earth has experienced five mass extinctions and other major global tipping points before, the last one 11,700 years ago at the end of the last ice age, “today is very different because humans are actually causing the changes that could lead to a planetary state shift. Ultimately, we are changing the surface of the Earth in places where we live, and further afield because we rely on resources that come from far away.”

The main problem is that humans simply have too big a footprint on the planet, with each of us disturbing an average of 2.27 acres of the planet surface, affecting the natural world around us in numerous ways. The impact will intensify with population growth, triggering a loss of biodiversity and other problems.

“The big concern is that we could see famines, wars, and so on that are triggered by the biological instabilities that would occur as our life-support system crosses the critical threshold towards a planetary-state change,” Barnosky said, explaining that the changes would be something humans couldn’t engineer solutions to. “The problem with critical transitions is that once you shift to a new state, you can’t simply shift into reverse and go back. What’s gone is gone for good, because you’ve moved into a ‘new normal.’”

Barnoksy says he’s not sure if the trend can be reversed, but to minimize its chances, humans must improve our balance with nature and avoid crossing the threshold of transforming 50 percent of the planet’s surface (he calculates that we’ll hit that level in 2025, and reach 55 percent by 2045). That would require reducing population growth and per-capita resource use, speeding the transition away from fossil fuels, increasing the efficiency of food production and distribution, better protection and stewardship of natural areas, and “global cooperation to solve a solve problem.”

His conclusion: “Humanity is at a critical crossroads: we have to decide if we want to guide the planet in a sustainable way, or just let things happen. If we continue going forward as we always have, without realizing we are now a geological force on the planet, we are probably going to get hit with some unpleasant surprises.”

Perhaps it’s not merely a coincidence that our knowledge of the need for a new age is peaking in 2012. “It’s not surprising the world is in a crisis as we approach this date,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know how it works, but there is a strange parallel with what the ancient Maya foresaw.”

But the change that we need to make isn’t about just buying a Prius, composting our dinner scraps, and contributing to charities. It requires a rethinking of an economic system that requires steady growth and consumption, cheap labor, unlimited natural resources, and the free flow of capital.

“Basically, we are going to have to have a rapid shift in global consciousness,” Pinchbeck said. “You would not be able to create a sustainable economy with the current monetary system. It’s just not possible.”

Yet to even contemplate that fundamental flip first requires a change in our consciousness because, as Pinchbeck said, “We have created a stunted adult population that isn’t able to think in terms of collective responsibility.”

Among the young people coming up, he said the shift is already happening, citing Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street as examples. “It is happening in terms of peer-to-peer, cooperative movements with no top-down hierarchy,” he said.

Since the 1960s, people have been experimenting with a wide variety of important solutions – clean energy, sustainable agriculture, localized economies, efficient homes and transportation systems – to just about every problem we face.

“Things can happen quickly. It doesn’t have to be try this and try that,” Pinchbeck said.

“We know that we have ingenuous solutions to the innumerable horrible problems we’ve inflicted on ourselves,” Casey said.

Brezsny said that we shouldn’t need a galactic alignment or Mayan prophecy to feel the compelling need to take collective action: “I can’t think of any bigger wake-up call than to know that we’re in the middle of the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaur age.”

Yet for some reason, that’s not enough, largely because humans have build a wall of separation between their heads and their hearts, between their thoughts and their emotions.

“Science and philosophy are now merging and a lot of people call that quantum physics,” DiMartino said, delving into the idea that energy flows within and between all of us and the universe around us.

He said what comes next is really about how humans use and guide their energies. “We, through our actions and intentions, create the world and take the path that we are creating,” DiMartino said.

As for progressive people who don’t necessarily believe in the power of energetic or spiritual transformation, DiMartino said they are partners in the process anyway. “We have a common foe and that is ignorance and planetary destruction,” he said.

Out of that destruction and breaking down of old structures comes an incredible opportunity to build new ones and make a big evolutionary leap forward.

“Structures are collapsing, but the energies that created them become available,” Casey said. “What makes us passive is toxic, what engages us is tonic.”

It’s about energy

This moment is about energy more than anything else. It’s about the energies showering down from the cosmos and up through the earth and human history. It’s about the energy we have to do the hard work of transforming our world and the vibrational energy we put out into the world and feel from would-be partners in the work ahead.

Energy is the basic building block of life, as biologists understand. A key driver of the global tipping point that Barnosky discusses involves an “important redistribution of how the energy that powers ecosystems flows through the food chain.”

Many people believe there are other unseen energies that help to animate life on the planet, and that can be tapped through meditation, yoga, and other spiritual work. And they believe that energy ultimately comes from the cosmic forces that originally created all life, and that this is the moment to tune into them.

“The earth is being flooded with energies from the galactic center,” said Van Horn, who has been do presentations on the alignment since 2004.

These energies are difficult for traditional science to measure. Issac Shivvers, an astrophysics graduate student and instructor at UC Berkeley, confirmed the basic facts of the alignment with the so-called “dark rift” in the Milky Way and its rarity, but he doesn’t believe it will have any effect on humans.

“The effect of the center region of the galaxy on us is negligible,” he said, doubting the view that cosmic energies play on people in unseen ways that science can’t measure. In fact, Shivvers said he is “completely dismissive” of astrology and its belief that alignments of stars and planets effect humans.

Yet many people do believe in astrology and unseen energies. A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 25 percent of Americans believe in astrology, with that percentage higher for women and minorities than for white males. A similar percentage also sees yoga as a spiritual practice and believes that spiritual energy is located in physical things, such as temples or mountains.

“There is a level of galactic and cosmic information that is imprinted on these sites,” Pinchbeck said of the main Mayan pyramids in Chichen Itza, Palenque, and other sites.

Jenkins said Pyramid Kukulkan was “built to capture this alignment.”

Scientists can measure unseen energies, even if they can’t explain them. Chinese medicine is based on the movement of energy in the body, Qi, which can be modified by acupuncture to relieve maladies. Studies have shown acupuncture works, but science can’t explain why or measure the energy flow. Similarly, scientists have documented incidents of extrasensory perception and other psychic phenomenon, even if they can’t explain them

There are also strong indications that there is global consciousness that connects humans to one another energetically. Renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung found evidence of a “collective unconscious,” in which certain spiritual archetypes were shared by remote tribes with no connection to one another.

More recently, the Global Consciousness Project, an international study based at Princeton University, has been measuring the connection of collective human consciousness – what theorists have called the “noosphere” – to the physical world.

For the last 14 years, the project has been recording data from random number generators placed at 70 sites around the world, computer programs that should have a predictable and measurable randomness. During significant events that capture human attention – World Cup finals, big natural disasters, New Year’s Eve, the onset of wars, huge group meditations – there are unexplainable fluctuations in the results. Some of their highest levels came in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the 1998 terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania.

“The behavior of our network of random sources is correlated with interconnected human consciousness on a global scale,” the project’s website states. While they continue to study a number of hypotheses about why this happens, these scientists still can’t definitively explain it.

DiMartino hopes the gathering of intentional people at Pyramid Kukulakan can connect with the earth’s energy field and project a sense of unity and goodwill: “When human beings are plugged into a unifying field, that plugs into the Earth’s unified field in a symbiotic way.”

Our energies shape our consciousness and our understanding of the world and our role in it. That’s one reason that most of the people I interviewed for this article told me that the global transformation we need must start from within each person.

“If the consciousness isn’t evolving and the new support structures aren’t evolving we’re going to have destruction and chaos,” Pinchbeck told me. “People are recognizing that the earth is going through a rapid shift right now…If you’re a liberal person without a spiritual grounding, it does look pretty bleak.”

But that spiritual grounding doesn’t mean that people need to believe in Mayan prophecies, traditional religion, or galactic energy fields. As Brezsny said, “For me, so much of what the revolution is about is how we treat each other moment-to-moment.”

Casey’s advice at this important time is to have an open heart and open mind, but also a sense of humor and “believe nothing, but entertain notions.” Those notions can be tricky, which is why she embraces the presence and role of the Trickster, mythologically represented by the coyote in Native American cultures, the spirit that shows up at times of turmoil and transition to coax us forward by tweaking our conventions.

End of world

Rev. Billy Talen definitely started off as a trickster, a performance artist and political activist appropriating the role of the evangelical preacher (ala Jerry Farwell or Jimmy Swaggart), pastor of the Church of Stop Shopping, standing in from of the Disney Store in Times Square railing against the evils of sweatshops and consumerism.

That was more than 10 years ago, and Talen, his choir, and his flock have grown and evolved since then, although they retained their core tactic of invading the citadels of their enemies to engage in performance art and civil disobedience. They renamed themselves the Church of Life After Shopping, wrote books and made a movie called What Would Jesus Buy?, and then became the Church of Earthalujah five years ago when their focus switched to climate change and environmental justice issues.

Along the way, their issues and concerns became more dire, the threats they were addressing elevated to matters of survival rather than social justice. So with the Dec. 21, 2012 date approaching, Talen returned to Times Square – this time fitting right in with its doomsday preachers – and wrote a new book called The End of the World, which he’ll release in Times Square on that auspicious date.

“I’ll be back with a science-based Armageddon,” Talen told me. “Now I’m looping all the way around the tracks back to Times Square where I started. But Hurricane Sandy makes this not so tongue-in-cheek.”

When Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York City and the surrounding coastline with the rare strength of superstorm that climatologists say will be more common in our warming world, Talen said it was a wake-up call for those insulated by that urban environment.

“New York doesn’t have climate, we have culture,” Talen said, but Sandy changed that perspective and brought the reality of climate change home, right into the heart of capitalism. “The idea that nature is beyond the city limits, that may be over now.”

These real-world events – 9/11 and hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans and Sandy in New York – “made us lose our irony and dial back our parody.” Now, it’s real, all those far-away byproducts of the system fueled by the interests of Wall Street.

“There is ecosystem collapse going on everyday,” Talen said. “Earth is a total ecosystem and Earth has a tipping point, just like local ecosystems have tipping points.”

His latest book leans heavily on the research of Barnosky and his team, which Talen said dovetails perfectly with the Mayan prophecies and the hopes that the galactic alignment will spark a shift in global consciousness that wakes us up to pressing problems that demand immediate action.

“It allows us to have a stage for the question, a frame for the question. We have to ask very basic questions about our survival,” Talen said. “We have this uncanny mythic, prophetic calendar, this 5,000-year calendar ending and beginning. And we have the scientists saying the same thing, so where does that leave you?”

To Talen and those like him, the answer seems obvious. It’s time to find the collective will to make big changes in our relationships to one another and the planet.

“We all have to be Earth people now, to be beings in this world, and I’ve had to go through that shift,” Talen said. “All the issues become one issue, life, and that’s the moment we’re at. Now, social justice and earth justice have to be the same thing because it’s the end of the world…It’s apocalyptic, end of the world, and this is how we have to start thinking.”

Catastrophism has limits

It may be the end of the world as we know it, but sounding that warning may not be the best way to motivate people to action, according to a new book, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

Two of the book’s authors – Sasha Lilley, a writer and host of KPFA’s “Against the Grain”; and Eddie Yuen, an Urban Studies instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute – recently spoke about the limits of catastrophism as a catalyst for political change at Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco.

Christian conservatives have long sounded the apocalyptic belief the Jesus will return any day now. Yet Lilley said those on the left have had a long and intensifying connection to catastrophism – “seen as a great cleansing from which a new society is born” – based mostly around the belief that capitalism is a doomed economic system and the view that global warming and other ecological problems are reaching tipping points.

As committed progressives, Lilley and Yuen share these basic beliefs. “Capitalism is an insane system,” Lilley said, while Yuen said climate change and loss of biodiversity really are catastrophes: “We are living in an absolutely catastrophic moment in the history of the planet.”

Yet they also think it’s a fallacy to assume capitalism will collapse under its own weight or that people will suddenly decide to support drastic reductions in our carbon emissions. These changes require the long, difficult work of political organizing – which has been underway for a long time – whereas Lilley called catastrophism “the result of political despair and lack of faith in our ability to take mass radical action.”

It’s tempting to believe that capitalism is one crisis away from collapse, or that people will be ripe for revolution as economic conditions inevitably get worse, but Lilley said that history proves otherwise. “Capitalism renews itself through crisis,” she said, whether it was the collapse of the banking system in 2008 or weathering the anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street protests.

She recited the history of labor movements, which enjoyed their biggest advances during times of economic expansion, not during recessions when anxieties run high. Sounding the alarm that capitalism and climate change will devastate communities doesn’t motivate people to action.

“It focuses on fear as a motivating force, but I think it really backfires on the left,” Lilley said. “It’s really immobilizes people…It’s paralyzing and deeply problematic.”

Yuen agreed. “It’s insufficient to tell people the bad news and think they will become activists,” he said, citing a recent study showing that the more people know about climate change, the more likely they are to be apathetic, believing there’s nothing we can do at this point.

Yet they said that it’s equally true that capitalism is clearly bad for the planet and the vast majority of the world’s people, as demonstrated by growing disparities in wealth, alarming loss of biodiversity, and a host of other problems. She said that activists need to win these arguments to create a new economic order, a process that has already begun.

“Attack capitalism on its strengths rather than thinking it’s a frail system about to crumble,” she said. “It’s important that we don’t succumb to what’s been called the left’s Rapture.”

Death and rebirth

So where does that leave us if the solutions don’t fall from the sky on Dec. 21? Are we are just going to die? Yes, we are, at least in old forms, a process that can be cause for celebration and empowerment.

“Really, what’s happening is a psychological death, an identity death of what it means to be human on the planet,” Marshalla said.

He compared it to the five stages of grief identified by author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally acceptance. Marshalla think humans are in the depression stage, on the verge of moving into acceptance that our old way of life is dying.

Part of that acceptance involves embracing new self-conceptions. When humans developed the prefrontal lobe in our brain, it allowed us to not only climb to the top of the food chain, but to achieve unprecedented control over the natural world.

But at this point, we’ve become too smart for our good, rationalizing behavior that our heart knows is out of balance, causing us to forget essential truths that we once knew, such as our power to create our reality and the humility to live in harmony with the natural world.

“The majority of people believe that thinking thing is who they are,” he said, but it’s really just a chemical reaction in our brain that has been repeatedly reinforced and it becomes what he called the “consensus reality.”

We learn apathy and competitiveness, just like we can learn empowerment and cooperation, it just depends on our focus. “The goal is to bring on that peaceful, loving state of mind where we see all of us as equal,” he said, noting that it doesn’t really matter whether that’s achieved through traditional religion, meditation, political organizing, or belief in ancient prophecies and energies showering down from the galactic center.

“It’s less about being right than finding any way to lift us up, so whatever thoughts take us there,” he said. “It’s whatever causes us to realize that shift is upon us.”

“Every system seems to be moving toward the same point, and that is what is bone-chilling,” Van Horn said of the various prophecies and synchronicities pointing to the transition to a new era. “If you’re folding into fear, you’re missing the point.”

Is she hopeful that most people are feeling the same sense of hope and opportunity?

“I have much more hope when I don’t listen to the news,” Van Horn said. “The true reality is the world is magical, and there is a unity and synchronicity that is crystal clear for anyone that is aware enough to see it.”

Casey emphasizes that it needs to be based on real egalitarian principles, “not sneaky mythology that we are the enlightened ones.” In fact, she has been discovering the value of reaching across the aisles and past old labels and divisions to create new paradigms and ways of connecting: “Tossing all tired language into the cauldron is good.”

Whether the universe and mythology have anything to do with it, the hold they have on human imagination, belief, and intention is still a powerful force that can create self-fulfilling prophecies that a new age of global consciousness and cooperation is dawning.

“Cultural myths and energetic forces love to mix. Differences make things happen,” Casey said. “We are in this synchronizing cauldron now.”

Ultimately, we get to choose our prophets and our prophecies, infusing them with our energies to transform them into reality. Many chose Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed – or they chose Mammon, Adam Smith, or Milton Friedman – but perhaps it’s time to conclude that isn’t working out very well for the Earth and its creatures.

The ancient Mayans and the energies of the galactic center may not deliver the solutions we need, although I’m certainly willing to wait a few days – or even a few years – to receive this moment with an open heart and open mind. Why not? Let’s all bring our own visions and prophets and mix them into the cauldron.

It’s time to imagine a new world, so I’m going to call on the spirit of John Lennon – a prophet from our last big leap forward – to offer this final wish: “Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you will join us, and the world will be as one.”

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2012: Beginning of the End or a New Beginning?

In recent months, I’ve been exploring the rabbit hole of 2012 prophecy and possibility, a beguiling mixture of myth, spirituality, and hope that humans will finally awaken to the global ecological and economic catastrophes we’re creating and make a fundamental shift in our approach, whether that’s sparked by cosmic energies or our own earthly intention.

When the Mayan calendar ends on Dec. 21 – a date that also marks the Winter Solstice and the peak of our alignment with the galactic center (Earth, sun, and the dark center of the Milky Way lining up for the first time in recorded human history) – it will be a day anticipated by millions of people around the world. Thanks to the modern amplification by pop culture and the Internet, it will be an unprecedented and potentially auspicious astrological, energetic, and cultural moment.

“The earth is being flooded with energies from the galactic center,” San Francisco Astrological Society President Linea Van Horn, who has been giving presentations for eight years on the significance of a cosmic alignment that occurs once every 26,000 years, told us. “That was the alignment that the Mayans were marking on their calendars.”

It isn’t just the Mayan Long Count calendar that indicates the current age is ending and a new one dawning. Some Aztec, Toltec, Indian, and Egyptian scholars and writer Terence McKenna (who used the I Ching to make the revelation in his book The Invisible Landscape) and various New Age authors have predicted we’re entering a new era, one many believe will be marked by enhanced human consciousness.

But one needn’t believe any of this to understand the pressing need for humans to wake the fuck up and start working together on issues ranging from global warming and the alarming decrease in the planet’s biodiversity to the many shortcomings of global capitalism and the escalating social unrest it’s creating. So why not use this grand mystical moment to spark that discussion, as many progressive activists and conscious community advocates have suggested.

“It allows us to have a stage for the question, a frame for the question. We have to ask very basic questions about our survival,” said Rev. Billy Talen, an artist/activist whose latest book, The End of the World, delves into the earth’s ecosystems reaching their tipping points. “We have the uncanny, mythic, prophetic calendar ending and beginning. And then we have scientists saying the same thing, so where does that leave you?”

There will be many epicenters and gathering points on Dec. 21, both real and virtual. Personally, I’m headed down into the heart of the Mayan empire to Chichen Itza, Mexico, where I’ll be attending the Synthesis Festival and doing daily dispatches through this website. Daniel Pinchbeck, author 2012: The Return of Quetzacoatl, will be in Egypt at The Great Convergence “celebrating the dawning of a new era.”

“Basically, we are going to have to have a rapid shift in global consciousness,” Pinchbeck told me, arguing that shift has already begun, as seen in movements from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. “It is happening in terms of horizontal, peer-to-peer, cooperative movements with no top down hierarchy…We can make a much more rapid transition than most people realize.”

Both festivals, and many others around the world, will be heavily attended by people from the Bay Area, where many of the concepts behind transformational possibilities and alternative organizing models have incubated and evolved for decades. The organizers of Synthesis have also set up a World Unity 2012 online hub where people can participate with livestreams from where they are and join in conversation about what’s next.

“It’s probably one of the most pointed to and significant times ever,” said Synthesis Executive Producer Michael DiMartino, who has been leading tours of Mayan sites for almost 20 years, establishing a close working relationship with the Mayan community in Piste Pueblo adjacent to the pyramids at Chichen Itza that he’s tapping for this event. “We’re at a crossroads in human history – and the crossroads are self-preservation or self-destruction…We create the future. As we make our decisions, we create the future now.”

While DiMartino and other festival organizers believe in the spiritual and energetic possibilities of this moment, they emphasize that it is an opportunity to bring together people with a variety of worldviews and belief systems and have a conversation about how the global community of people can work together on solutions.

“Obviously, the planet has been getting out of balance and there is a need to go back to basics,” said Debra Giusti, founder of the Harmony Festival and author of Transforming Through 2012. “We need to get back to the values of the indigenous people, but in the modern context making use of our technology.”

As I’ve interviewed people about 2012, from true believers to skeptics, mystics to scientists, a common theme has been that nobody knows what this intriguing moment portends. They have their hopes and their fears, their doubts and their desires. I’ll be looking at the 2012 question from a variety of perspectives in my upcoming coverage, and I’m open to your suggestions and observations as well.

But for now, for me, I’m maintaining an open heart and an open mind. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, that are dreamt up in your philosophy,” Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, a statement for ages that our modern minds, so rational and cynical, too often forget.

Maybe this metaphysical moment will be the anticlimactic New Age equivalent of Y2K, or maybe it will be an important signpost on the road to global transformation in consciousness, or something in between. Whatever happens, it’s bound to be interesting, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

This post first appeared earlier today on the Bay Guardian’s Politics blog.