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The End of the World as We Know It?

WIE talks with futurist John Petersen about 2012, peak oil, and the future of our planet

Interview by Maura R. O’Connor

Forecasts about the end of the world have been with us since the dawn of civilization, to the point where almost every generation or culture has claimed that theirs could be the one to witness doomsday. This decade is no different. Indeed, the most popular hypothesis currently making waves on the internet and in bookstores is centered around the pre-Columbian civilization of the Maya and their prophecies concerning the year 2012. In the sixth century BCE, the Mayans developed a complex calendrical system in which four “worlds,” or cycles of time, existed before human beings inhabited the earth. The fifth world began in 3113 BCE, and because each cycle is exactly 5125 years long, it is due to end on December 21, 2012. Theories about what will happen on that day vary widely, and some seem downright outlandish, from a spontaneous leap into higher spiritual consciousness to the instantaneous destruction of planet Earth. So WIE was intrigued when it discovered that John Petersen, president of the Arlington Institute, a Washington, DC–based think tank focused on our global future, is also interested in 2012 and is even preparing a book on the subject. We decided to find out how a 2,300-year-old prophecy caught the eye of one of the most respected and informed futurists of our day.

What Is Enlightenment: When did you first get interested in theories surrounding 2012?

The End of the World as We Know It

JOHN PETERSEN: As far back as 1986, I figured out that there was a whole string of potential events that were converging and could result in a major disruption within twenty-five years. Around the same time, I discovered the work of Chet Snow and Helen Wambach who together wrote a book, Mass Dreams of the Future, based on their work doing remote viewing exercises [clairvoyance under hypnosis]. They asked twenty-five hundred people to envision the United States in the year 2030. About eighty-five percent of them reported the same thing: It’s a place with no government, divided politically into four quadrants, and everyone is living in small communities, some of which are very defensive and full of guns and others where people cooperate and work together. Then Stephan Schwartz, a man who was involved in the U.S. government’s remote viewing program developed during the Cold War to psychically spy on the Soviet Union, reported a very similar thing. In his remote viewing exercises, he asked thousands of people what North America would look like in the year 2050, and they said: “There’s no government; it’s split into four; there are these small communities.” Now, at the time, Schwartz had no idea about the work Snow and Wambach were doing. If you’re in my business, when you hear things like that you start asking yourself, “What in the world?” Then when somebody shows up and tells you the Mayans prophesied that the world will end in 2012, you say, “Hmmm.” Who knows what it means, but the timing seems uncanny.

WIE: The Mayans weren’t the only people to prophesy major changes around this time, were they?

PETERSEN: No, Native American cultures like the Navajo and the Hopi have forecast major changes around the same time period. You’ll find similar prophecies among the Aborigines and some African tribes, too, each alluding to a major shift in our near future. Some Hindus are saying that the Kali Yuga [Age of Darkness] is coming to a close, not to mention all the New Age types running around and talking about going from Aquarius to this or that. The author Zechariah Sitchin has written that every 3,500 years a big planet comes screaming through our orbit causing earthquakes and tidal waves. And what do you know—according to Sitchin, it’s due any time now. There’s a book called Fourth Turning written by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who have catalogued every major event in American history since the pilgrims landed and found that there are underlying cycles in our history that repeat themselves every four generations. So basically, every eighty-eight years there is some kind of enormous upheaval in the United States, from the Civil War to the Depression. And guess what—the current cycle is ending somewhere between now and 2012.

WIE: Are there other signs that you believe point to an imminent shift in our future?

PETERSEN: We’re currently on the edge of rapid climate change, and more and more scientists and government agencies are absolutely convinced that the consequences are now inevitable. There’s overpopulation. There’s the intrinsic fragility of global financial markets, which some are predicting are going to come down soon like a house of cards. There are shortages of drinking water and the likelihood of future wars over that precious resource. In the United States, if things such as Social Security and health care aren’t fixed, they will inevitably bankrupt the country. There’s the issue of peak oil and the fact that the whole system could come apart if we don’t find an alternative source of fuel. Then there are things like terrorism and the gross disparities between the haves and the have-nots in the world.

WIE: Many scientists and futurists agree that there may be a whole host of major calamities in store for us, but some believe that these will lead to a positive transition for humanity, depending on how we respond to them. Others even feel that 2012 will be the year that humanity enters a kind of Golden Age and collectively evolves to a higher, more spiritual state of consciousness. Have you seen any evidence that this could be true?

PETERSEN: I don’t know if that’s going to happen. There isn’t a fundamentally clear notion of what will happen, and that’s the difficulty with predictions and the future. These days even maharishis are telling us that 2012 is going to bring big changes. Well, what kind of changes? Will they be spiritual? Will they be physical? Will terrorists blow up nuclear weapons? We can’t know. But it is obvious that there are all kinds of places where this thing could come apart at the seams, and they’re converging together and getting worse rather than better. In that regard, I basically feel that the writing’s on the wall.

WIE: Some people would argue that every generation thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

PETERSEN: Elements of every generation do feel that way, but this is a completely different situation than we’ve ever seen before. First of all, anyone who has catalogued the rate of change, such as Ray Kurzweil, agrees that the world is on an exponential growth curve. Just think about how the world wide web has changed things, and it’s only been around for fifteen years. The things we’re confronting are so much bigger than anything in the past. There didn’t used to be nuclear weapons, and we haven’t always been at the onset of rapid climate change. I think those people’s response is a defense mechanism, and in this context it just doesn’t work.

WIE: It definitely adds up to a pretty bleak picture for our collective future. How do you think people can respond when they find out about these things?

PETERSEN: The purpose of trying to anticipate the future and identify these indicators is to allow us to make better decisions today. The early indicators suggest that big change is on our horizon, so it only makes sense that we should think about how to prepare for these disruptions. For instance, most of us live within highly interdependent systems, far downstream of supply chains for things like food or energy. So one response would be increased independence. Some groups are pursuing what they call “relocalization”—moving toward smaller highly cooperative living situations that produce more of their basic needs. In any case, we can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing.

WIE: As a futurist you must grapple with the gravity of our situation on a regular basis. How do you deal with it?

PETERSEN: I believe that consciousness is causal and that your intentions and outlook shape the future that you experience. This is closely connected to the nature of one’s motivations. If these things are all positive and in alignment, I think that things will work out. May not be pretty. May not be easy. But it will be okay, and we’ll emerge as better, more evolved people for the experience.


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This article is from
Our Future of Women's Liberation Issue


July–September 2007