Making a buck off the end of the world

The Mayan site of Palenque. According to the Mayan calendar, the world is supposed to end next week. But some business people are definitely counting against it.

It's beginning to look a lot like the end of the world. At least, if you look at the Mayan calendar a certain way. For years we've heard that December 21 marks the end of the Mayan calendar, and possibly life as we know it. Hey, that's next Friday!

Well, the notion that the world will end this month has already made at least $770 million. That's the global box office take from "2012," the movie, made three years ago. Remember, it starred John Cusack and mass CGI destruction?

Since then, there have been plenty of other tongue-in-cheek apocalypse-themed items, including the Stevens Point Brewery's 2012 Black Ale. The beer with the Mayan calendar on the label has sold well, says marketing director Julie Birrencott, and it goes great with grilled food.

"So if you want to go out grilling some steaks or salmon, pair it with a Point 2012 and see what happens, I guess," she says.

The site CafePress.com has sold tens of thousands of doomsday items.

"It's spawned a new cottage industry, yes," says company CEO Bob Marino.

He says most of it's tongue-in-cheek. Think thong underwear that says "Time's up! 12/21!" or a T-shirt with the Planet Earth on it saying, "Expiration Date: 12/21/12." Because Café Press only prints items when you order, it won't have tons of useless stuff sitting in warehouses if the prophecy's wrong.

Lots of tour companies will take you to Mayan ruins for 12/21. I called one that costs $5,000 per person, but got voicemail. The message said this: "Leave a message and we'll get back to you as soon as we re-enter this dimension."

Okay...

Religion history professor Philip Jenkins says end-of-the-world prophecies spring up all the time. People quit their jobs and give away all their earthy possessions. So what happens the next day, when this pesky world is still around?

"Rather than abandon all the huge investment they've put in, plus they don't want to look stupid, they adjust, and form, often, a new kind of religion," he says.

Thus we get a new date for the end of the world, and a new cycle of apocalypse frenzy. That, he says, is inevitable.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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