ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
For those of you making long-term plans, take note: The end of the world as we know it will be on December 21st, 2012, that is, if you believe the Mayan calendar. And that potentially fateful day is creating the biggest buzz among people who are concerned about such things.
But as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, there's a debate about whether that day would be an apocalypse or a spiritual rebirth.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: According to the ancient Mayans, the last page in the calendar is 1,241 days away. Lawrence Joseph is waiting.
Mr. LAWRENCE JOSEPH (Author, "Apocalypse 2012"): 2012 is indeed considered a profoundly pivotal date in human and, in fact, terrestrial history.
HAGERTY: Joseph is author of "Apocalypse 2012." He began looking at Mayan prophecy years ago, and he noticed their end date coincided with peak activity of solar flares three years from now. Those flares, he speculates, could fry the world's electrical systems, leaving people without electricity for months or years — affecting the distribution of water, fresh food and medication.
Mr. JOSEPH: I think we're looking at a non-negligible possibility that the year can be, really, unprecedentedly tumultuous and lead to a next and scary chapter in civilization's history.
HAGERTY: Joseph doesn't predict the end of the world, but Hollywood does. "2012" starring John Cusack comes to theaters this fall.
(Soundbite of movie, "2012")
Unidentified Male #1: So when do we let the people know?
Unidentified Male #2: Our mission is to ensure the continuity of our species.
HAGERTY: There are tsunamis cresting over mountains, covering cities, toppling the Dome of St. Peter's. The storyline is drawn from various scenarios laid out in books such as "The Complete Idiot's Guide to 2012," which foresee earthquakes, drought and planetary collisions. Those books point to both scientifically accepted events such as an upcoming alignment of planets in our solar system — and well, the arrival of a mysterious Planet X into Earth's orbit.
Professor LAWRENCE RUDNICK (Astronomer, University of Minnesota): We don't miss big things like that.
HAGERTY: That's Lawrence Rudnick, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota. He says it's great science fiction, but…
Prof. RUDNICK: If there was any possibility, even wildly possible that this stuff were true, there would be all kinds of conferences. There would be articles. There would be a feeding frenzy, and that frenzy just doesn't exist.
HAGERTY: Okay, if not the end of the world, how about a shift in spiritual consciousness? Daniel Pinchbeck, another writer who's authored a book about 2012 thinks that's already happening.
Mr. DANIEL PINCHBECK (Author, "2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl"): People are experiencing more synchronicities, more telepathic foretellings, more - a deeper awareness of how their intention actually inflects what then manifests in their own lives.
HAGERTY: Pinchbeck sees signs in the current age: Look at climate change, he says, or the broken financial system. That corresponds with another astrological shift, as the Age of Pisces - associated with individuality and sometimes greed - gives way to, yes…
(Soundbite of song, "Aquarius")
Unidentified People: (Singing) This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius.
Mr. PINCHBECK: The Age of Aquarius is water. So it's a flow. It would be more about collaboration, maybe a shift towards a mystical value system.
HAGERTY: Just as "Hair" is making its Broadway revival. Coincidence? Still, anthropologist John Hoopes at the University of Kansas sees something profound here. He says the 2012 believers may be forming a new religious movement centered on certain mythologies.
Dr. JOHN HOOPES (University of Kansas): The idea that the ancient Mayas had a deeper understanding than we do of the nature and reality of mystical experiences and insights into other realms of consciousness that we have lost touch with today.
HAGERTY: And even if the world is still here on December 22nd, 2012, Hoopes thinks this community of like-minded New Agers will continue. As for "Apocalypse 2012" author Lawrence Joseph, he says he's not at all sure that disaster will fall on that date.
Mr. JOSEPH: My basic advice is don't run away. Be a little bit proactive and pray.
HAGERTY: And don't run up your credit cards, Joseph says, you'll probably have to pay them off.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, "Aquarius")
Unidentified People: (Singing) Aquarius.