There's an old riddle: What is always coming but never arrives? Tomorrow, because when tomorrow comes it will be today.
That works for predictions about the end of the world, too, yet apocalyptic prophets are convinced the year 2012 marks our global demise when the Mayan "Long Count" calendar – 5,125 years long – expires Thursday at midnight. On the 21st, the winter solstice, the calendar starts over. Twelve percent of Americans believe that's when the world will end, according to a recent Reuters survey. More benignly, some think we'll enter some sort of "new era." The rest of us will wait until New Year's Day to "start over."
Today's vision of Armageddon takes many forms: natural disasters, economic collapse, power grid failure, religious conviction, cosmic phenomena, nuclear war, terrorist attack, viral infection, alien invasion, government takeover, FEMA camps and, of course, zombies.
Now there is a difference between the end of the world and the end of society. One group prepares for perdition, selling their worldly possessions, like those embarking on a Harold Camping road trip last year, family in tow, awaiting Revelations. The other group is determined to survive whatever human Götterdämmerung awaits.
Such is the premise of reality TV's latest flavor, "Doomsday" programming. The National Geographic Channel's "Doomsday Preppers" profiles extreme survivalists fearful of the potential destruction they believe man has deeded himself. Fear, always a good motivator, also generates ratings. Now in its second season, "Doomsday Preppers" is the network's most-watched series.
We shouldn't be entirely dismissive. Californians live in earthquake country and floodplains. How many of us have emergency supplies of dried goods, water and medicine enough to survive a week or two "off the grid"?
But there's a difference between being prepared and "Extreme Boy Scout."
Braxton Southwick, who lives in Utah with his wife and six kids, stars in this season's "Doomsday Preppers," ready to retreat to his hideaway in the woods with more than 2,500 pounds of grains, eight chickens and 14 guns.
He tells listeners that preppers are foolish to worry over "things that are corny and not really possible, like a complete reversal of the magnetic poles," one doomsday theory.
His biggest fear: A smallpox attack. "We have protective gear for the whole family," he says.
Right, because the Utah forest is the first place terrorists would target with a disease that, according to the World Health Organization, was eradicated in 1979.
The Discovery Channel's "Doomsday Bunker" revolves around a Texas manufacturer of protective shelters. Clients can order anything from buoyant, spherical "Tsunami Pods" for flood-prone residents, to a steel-encased, 1,000-square-foot apartment, complete with kitchen and appliances, bathroom, living room and sleeping quarters, 500-gallon tanks for water and waste, even a flat-screen TV, all buried 12 feet underground. Cost: $450,000.
The program shows families practicing their firearm skills by shooting at "zombie targets." Some talk of gold they've purchased. Bunker-maker Scott Bales says many of his clients think the government is controlling the weather.
"Whether any of that is real or not, their fears are, and fear is great for business," Bales says to the camera.
"There's a long-standing history for predicting the world's end," says Kenneth Rose, a Chico State professor of history and sociology. "A lot of Christians thought the world would end in 1000 A.D.," predating Y2K by a millennium.
Rose's book, "One Nation Underground," offers a detailed and fascinating look at the curiously American preoccupation that was a byproduct of 1950s Cold War paranoia, the fallout shelter.
It's estimated there may have been as many as 200,000 fallout shelters back then.
"It's hard to know for sure," he tells me, "since most people who built shelters didn't want them publicized, fearing that if sirens went off, their neighbors would try to force themselves in."
"The fact 53 percent of Americans believed in 1961 there'd be a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union – I'd argue that 200,000 is a relatively low number." The U.S. population was 184 million back then, but like today, few could afford to build a shelter.
Yet people who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, engendered by a decade of Cold War mentality and still-fresh memories of World War II, will tell you that no time since has ever been more frightening.
"I don't think there's any doubt about it," says Rose, whose father was a bomber pilot for Strategic Air Command.
"When the Cuban crisis started, he just disappeared out to the base and we didn't see him for over a week," Rose recalls. "Later, when we asked him what he'd been doing, he said for much of the time he and his crew were sitting in their bomber with the engines running and a full load of nuclear weapons, just waiting for the 'go' code. That really brought it home, and that was going on all across the country."
And that happened without an Internet, social media or phony cable television melodrama, festooned with conspiracy theories, manipulative interpretations of Scripture and Mayan timetable tales.
How could a civilization that couldn't predict its own demise somehow predict the end of the world? The answer is, the Mayans didn't. Someone, somewhere, perhaps to justify their own fears, crafted a theory that appealed to the fatally obsessed, nurtured by a filterless Internet that specializes in cultivating the gullible.
"I was scared during the Cuban Missile Crisis," NASA astrobiologist David Morrison tells me, "but I'm not scared today. I'm just kinda disgusted."
Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, uses the Internet to debunk what's on the Internet. On NASA's Q&A site Ask an Astrobiologist, Morrison answers hundreds of questions about popular apocalyptic scenarios from people driven by faith, fear or anti-government tin-foil hattery.
"They'll say the whole '2012 thing' is a hoax to keep us from understanding about global warming, or a government plot like faking the moon landing," Morrison says.
Ah, a conspiracy theory about a conspiracy theory.
Yet some inquiries are genuine, and heartbreaking.
One person wrote Morrison: "My only friend is my little dog. Please tell me when I should put her to sleep so she won't suffer in the cataclysm."
And then there are the children. "That's my biggest worry," Morrison says. "Questions from people who say they're 11, 12 or 13. They can't eat, they can't sleep, they contemplate suicide."
How do they learn of these things?
"They got it all off the Internet."
Or perhaps elsewhere. Morrison tells of a Stockton middle school science teacher he met at an education conference who confided that parents of two of her students had come to her saying they planned to kill themselves and the whole family before Dec. 21.
Given the threats against the children, she contacted authorities.
"It's the young people and their parents where we want to do some good. If you can convince them not to worry, then we've accomplished something," Morrison says.
Still, the inevitable question remains: What happens when the paranoid discover they were wrong?
They double down.
The religious say, "It must've been a test," God's plan to warn us of the coming Rapture.
The paranoid "shape-shift." When self-appointed psychic Nancy Lieder's 2003 prediction of a planet colliding with Earth – a popular Mayan myth – failed to materialize, she claimed her prediction was a lie to fool the establishment, since disclosing the true date of calamity would give those in power time to declare martial law and trap people in cities the day disaster really strikes.
Preppers get pragmatic: Utah survivalist Braxton Southwick's rationale: "Some people collect china and trinkets. We collect food and other things. We'll use all our food and fuel eventually."
Those cold war bomb shelters? "Most are just glorified storage units today," Rose says.
Sometimes interdiction works.
"A lot of people who were terribly worried have written and thanked me for having set them straight," Morrison says. "But plenty of others who refuse to believe the empirical evidence write to say, 'Will you write me an apology on December 22?' "
I wonder: Does this person realize that if the world does end, no one will be around to write the apology?
Here's the real endgame I see in all of this: 2012 isn't a premonition, it's a business, fueled by fear, aided and abetted by the absence of logic, reason and critical thinking.
Don't believe me? Look around. The apocalyptic sales pitch is everywhere: Books, television, spiritual advice, tourist traps.
On sale is a magazine entitled, "Apocalyptic Prophesies." Inside, a cornucopia of Mayan calendar carnage. But on the cover, under the bar code, there is this notation: "Display until Feb. 11, 2013."
Somewhere, P.T. Barnum is smiling. And probably the Mayans, too.