How to Sell an Apocalypse

Photo: Tobias Klutke/Courtesy of Penguin Group

In the Cottonwood Ballroom at the Four Seasons in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the New York neo-shaman Daniel Pinchbeck sipped Fiji water and prepared to discuss the end of the world. The Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012, and Pinchbeck has built a multiplatform enterprise on the notion that something drastic will happen on that date—maybe.

But 2012 is also the name of a big-budget disaster movie based on the Mayan scenarios depicted in Pinchbeck’s books. To promote the film, Sony Pictures sponsored this junket, featuring the stars and director of the movie; three 2012ologists, including Pinchbeck; and a tour of Yellowstone National Park, which the film destroys.

But nobody in the Four Seasons seemed to believe that the end was near, least of all Pinchbeck, who was once described in the Times as “equal parts Jesuit and Jim Morrison” and is known for ingesting psychedelics in the Amazon. “I’m not a fundamentalist about the date,” Pinchbeck said, and his fellow 2012ologists nodded in agreement. Yet all three continue to publish alarmist books with 2012 in the title.

“Two thousand twelve is this date, you know, which there’s a lot of ideas about,” said the director Roland Emmerich, who demolishes the White House for the second time in his career with this movie. “And we chose the destructive one.”

After giving PowerPoint presentations, the 2012ologists were dabbed with makeup and subjected to a gauntlet of five-minute television interviews. They were asked countless variations on the same question: “Will the world really end in 2012?” The 2012ologists answered, patiently at first, “Actually, the Maya never predicted any doomsday scenario,”

“¡Eventos catastróficos!” shouted Maria Salas, a critic from Miami with bleached-blonde curls, as part of her report. “¡Erupciones volcánicas!” The curls, three inches in diameter and radiant with hairspray, trembled with the force of her words. “¡Es el fin del mundo como predice el calendario Maya!” The 2012ologists soberly shook their heads.

By the time the 2012ologists sat down with me, off-camera, they looked beaten down. “I think the real story is that 2012 is not about doomsday,” John Major Jenkins said. At some point, each of the 2012ologists used the word counterproductive to describe the film’s catastrophic vision.

So why were they there? “That’s a good question,” said Lawrence Joseph. “I got a message today that the tuition for my kids’ private school’s going up. And what does that mean? That means I’ve got to sell x number of more books to pay it. And as true to my principles and beliefs as I’d like to be, you know, I’ve got to come up with another ten grand next year above what I expected. There’s a certain level of compromise that is indefensible but, to me, unavoidable.”

While I talked to Jenkins and Joseph, Pinchbeck hunched over his BlackBerry and pounded out e-mails with his thumbs. When I asked the 2012ologists how they planned to sell books in 2013, Pinchbeck glanced up from his screen and offered, with a glint of hope, “1984 still sells well.”

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How to Sell an Apocalypse