Deep under a hill in Petrolia, in a 20-by-400-foot tube of concrete and steel, the Church of Spiritual Technology -- Scientology's archival arm -- has squirreled away the words of the religious group's founder, L.Ron Hubbard. Some are preserved in gold and enveloped in clouds of argon, an inert gas. The church has spent tens of millions on the Petrolia bunker and others elsewhere. They're supposed to be good for 1,000 years and able to withstand nuclear blasts.
But the rest of humanity likely won't want to rely on the Scientologists' take on things. So, here's a question: What should we have in our bunker? What should we leave behind for the survivors to rebuild civilization? Or to amuse the aliens as they pick over our bones? What were we, and did we matter?
Sounds like a question for a philosopher, so we call John Powell, in the philosophy department up at Humboldt State University. Don't worry, he's not pompous. Philosophers, he says, are more like the rotorooter operators. "We're rooting out bad thinking," he says. "We're catching people in making mistakes."
And, so, the apocalypse bunker ... ?
"First of all, nothing is going to be preserved," Powell says. "Sooner or later, the sun is going to go nova ... so the idea that we're going to preserve things forever is just ludicrous. We and everything we have done is going to go away."
Even if we wanted to shove stuff into a bunker -- Powell admits he'd like to bring along his Shakespeare and Plato, for starters -- it couldn't possibly all fit. Better, Powell says, to think of the world as our bunker and take care of what's in it now, while it lasts. Powell suspects apocalyptic thinking might be an attempt to shirk this duty.
"I think it's kind of a cop-out," he says. "I think lots of people think the end of the world is happening because they don't want to keep going on."
You know: The whole world's going to hell in a handbasket -- wars, environmental scares, psychopaths, sociopaths, fiscal devil's diving boards, personal troubles -- why not just end it all with a big bang-up catastrophe to end all catastrophes?
Apocalyptic thinkers can get so wrapped up in the Big Event, Powell says, they neglect to live in the present, to find value in particular moments, people and tasks.
"There are so many things that are worth living for," he says. "I've got a couple of little kids, and they help remind me of that. I tend to live in my head, thinking about abstract ideas; they want to go out and look for owl pellets in the woods."
Contrarily, Powell says it's possible that belief in an apocalypse allows some people to find meaning in their world.
Well, then, what is it exactly that makes humans desire, crave and expect an apocalypse?
One answer, for many, is that the Bible has said there will be an apocalypse -- and that they'll be sheltered from it (so the bunker question's moot). A 2010 poll by the PEW Research Center found that 41 percent of Americans believe Jesus will return in this century. Jews and Muslims also believe an apocalypse is coming, as do some other religions. But many non-traditionally religious people get wrapped up in predictions like this Mayan thing, as well. One in 10 people in the world believes the world ends this year, according to a poll conducted for Reuters by Ipsos Global Public Affairs.
Humans have been predicting apocalypses since long before Christ, says Stephen Jenkins, a professor in HSU's religious studies department. Jenkins, who's Buddhist and usually teaches courses on Buddhism and Hinduism, taught a special course on apocalyptic thought in 2000, called Why2k.
"For a staggering amount of time, almost every generation has had groups that believed or wondered if they were the ones who were going to witness the end of the world," Jenkins says.
Why? That can't really be answered, Jenkins says, although he has a couple of theories. One is that apocalyptic thinking is a projection of an individual's own mortality.
"Everybody faces the end of time for themselves," he says. "So that day may arrive at any moment. And they project this on their world, on their culture."
The other possible reason for apocalyptic thinking is, as Powell also suggests, that it makes time meaningful. Jenkins tells a story about a student who took his apocalypse class. He was talking about numerology and how easy it is to debunk some of the weird mathematical calculations apocalyptic thinkers dwell on by, for instance, pointing out that the reason people think in terms of 10 is simply because they have 10 fingers.
"This woman looked at me and said, 'You mean, this could all just be going on and on and on?'" Jenkins recalls. It rattled her to think there was no cosmic plan, that time was not going anywhere."
So, whenever it comes, what will you do on the last day of your world?
Maybe you'll rise, open the shades, see the yellow light on the poplar trees, the pink-suffused clouds against the rain-washed blue sky, and say, my, what a pretty morning. No, no -- don't go wondering how you're ever gonna fit that sunrise into your bunker. Just grab your morning brew and enjoy it.