Let's first cover the '2012 apocalypse', a fabrication based on pseudoscience. Modern Mayans are annoyed at the 2012 rumors. The misinterpretation of their ancient culture-- that somehow an apocalypse is predicted for 2012-- has finally reached its nadir. Hollywood is going to make a movie about it. Imagine your own history being reduced to a single 90-minute special effects extravaganza.
More crucially, the hype is obscuring genuine lessons we can learn from ancient Mayan history. A student-led research team joined up with archaelogists to use infrared satellites images and computer models in order to reconstruct the sudden collapse of Mayan cities, as described in this NASA release. This is real history using real science, not selective misinterpretation of found relics.
Mayan civilization during the 8th and 9th centuries was tremendously advanced. Cities had population densities rivaling modern Los Angelos. They built reservoirs to store a year and a half of water in case of drought. They had advanced farming, architecture, and arts. And yet "a deadly cycle of drought, warming and deforestation may have doomed the Maya."
"The Maya are often depicted as people who lived in complete harmony with their environment," says PhD student Robert Griffin. "But like many other cultures before and after them, they ended up deforesting and destroying their landscape in efforts to eke out a living in hard times."
The parallel to studying the effects of climate change, pollution, and overindustrialization in today's world are uncanny. National Geographic recently covered that there will be no more glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2020. One earthy-crunchy site showcases several upcoming ecological disasters in 5 Places to Go before They're Gone. Travel site concierge.com gives us 20 Places to See Before They Die. These include a mix of ecologically doomed areas, over-touristed spots, and places soon to be ruins due to political strife. Like ancient Mayan cities, chunks of our modern world will disappear or be ruins in our lifetime.
Archaeologist Tom Sever gives us two points to walk away with. The first is the value of space science. "Space technology is revolutionizing archeology. We're using it to learn about the plight of ancients in order to avoid a similar fate today."
And the other is the fate of leaders who lead their populace to collapse. "In some of the Maya city-states, mass graves have been found containing groups of skeletons with jade inlays in their teeth-- something they reserved for Maya elites-- perhaps in this case murdered aristocracy."
So forget vague prophecies about 2012 and pay attention to this world. Science isn't magic, and we have indications that we can indeed outstrip our ability to live. If we do have an apocalypse in 2012, or later, it isn't going to be due to cosmic alignment, it'll be doom from our own foolish decisions.
Alex, The Daytime Astronomer, Tues&Fri here, via RSS feed, and twitter @skydayRead about my own private space venture in The Satellite Diaries