As Raidió Teilifís Éireann reported on January 23, 2020, the Doomsday Clock was moved to 100 seconds until midnight. The clock’s timekeepers, all members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, adjusted the clock forward by twenty seconds, a symbolic gesture indicating the world is closer than ever to a human-caused catastrophic event.
Maintained since 1947, the clock is a metaphor for the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe with risk factors assessed primarily in terms of nuclear war and climate change. The Doomsday Clock update sparked a variety of public statements that warrant further scrutiny and critical analysis.
Even a cursory search in scholarly databases reveals that global climate modelling and related research on the current and likely future impacts of climate change occupies a great deal of the energy and resources of the scientific research community. In fact, a search of Google Scholar on January 25, 2020 reveals over 500,000 individual citations since 2016 for a search on “climate change models.” By contrast, a search for the even more general root term, “nuclear war” for works since 2016 has only 90,300 unique entries.
Daily we are bombarded by the rhetoric and imagery of impending ecological disaster. Having grown up during the twilight of the Cold War and the various strategies of deterrence born in that era, it is clear that the perception of imminent and pressing threat of global nuclear war occupies far less public attention than it once did, regardless of the current risk level or lack thereof. Climate change is the anticipated catastrophe of our age.
Former Irish president Mary Robinson, who is also Chairwoman of The Elders and former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, made the following statement to note the significance of the Doomsday update.
The Doomsday clock is a globally recognized indicator of the vulnerability of our existence. It’s a metaphor backed by rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is no mere analogy. We are now a hundred seconds to midnight, and the world needs to wake up. Our planet faces two simultaneous existential threats . . . and time is running out.” (Lee 2020).
We might easily call attention to the baroque hyperboles embedded in Robinson’s remarks and how they mirror the rhetorical tropes of much of progressive neoliberal crisis talk. More interesting are the subtle and fundamental distortions of language Robinson casually introduces into her statement. Their rhetorical impact is both subtle and powerful.
First, she states that the Doomsday Clock is an indicator. The word typically has connotations of a sign or a signal that makes a situation known or clear. A thermometer is an indicator for temperature, for example. And various statistics can be used as indicators or proxies for other information of interest. The Consumer Price Index is an indicator for inflation rates. The Doomsday Clock is not an indicator. It is a symbol of a consensus on the overall risk of a cataclysmic, human-caused disaster at a given point in time.
Robinson then goes on to say that it is a metaphor. Indeed, the clock symbolizes the perceived global risk of disaster in terms of a clock and how near we are to midnight: an 11th hour for the world. Just after this statement Robinson goes on to contradict herself in that, “this is no mere analogy.”
Literalizing metaphors can be an effective rhetorical technique, but the crass political manipulation embodied therein is both dishonest and dangerous. Here Robinson leads us to believe that we are no longer talking in analogous terms. We really are a hundred seconds to midnight. Is there not a feint in Robinson’s language here, which seems to say one thing but means something else entirely? The implication gives the Doomsday Clock incredible force and reality.
Seen in the softest light, Robinson implies that the clock is actually measuring something. For all of the quintessentially modern power of a clock as the symbol of precisely-measured, linear, chronological movement forward, the Doomsday Clock has gone forward and backward, closer and farther from the dreaded midnight of Doomsday. It is not a clock in any technical sense of the term. It does not measure anything. Rather, it symbolizes a form of globalized anxiety over a looming deadline — in this case, a deadline perceived to have disastrous consequences.
Seen in the harshest light, Robinson’s statement is nefariously misleading and manipulative at the very point she literalizes the metaphor of the clock. “We are now a hundred seconds to midnight,” she says. For at least three key reasons, Robinson’s discourse around the Doomsday Clock is dangerous.
- The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists provides its annual assessment in January each year. This is a snapshot in time of the key global risk factors likely to contribute to a human-created disaster. The Doomsday Clock updates occur on a time scale that is out of sync with the velocity of factors that determine risk.
- Robinson’s discourse reifies a symbol of risk as though it is an indicator of risk, and she literalizes the clock such that it represents a real trajectory through time toward an eventual deadline.
- Robinson’s discourse creates an irrational sense of anxiety and dread relative to the risk of nuclear war and climate change, and it elides the fact that while there is general scientific consensus around the reality of global warming, there is much ongoing research on the possible future scenarios this entails.
Regarding point one, the closest the U.S. has been to nuclear war since deciding to unleash the first nuclear warfare on the world was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The events leading us to the brink of nuclear war occurred in October of that year. The key events related to diplomacy, national security, military intelligence, and foreign policy all occurred on a time scale such that the Doomsday Clock time for 1962 did not reflect in January what would be the reality by October of that same year, and the crisis had already subsided by the time the 1963 update was made.
In other words, the Doomsday Clock is a periodic snapshot of conditions that change dynamically and sometimes at a velocity (i.e. at a speed and in a particular vector) that is much too fast for a once-per-year assessment to capture appropriately. It would be responsible to not mistake this symbol for a measurement or indicator.
Relative to point two, reifying Doomsday Clock serves the rhetorical ends of progressive neoliberal policy wonks, bureaucrats, climate crusaders, and politicians, but it does so at the risk of further alienating communities from the living, breathing, changing environmental, scientific, political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural realities that inform these periodic assessments. It is one thing to say we are in the 11th hour regarding some potentially irreversible human impacts, the full implications of which we do not completely understand and that will likely impact the most vulnerable populations in some of the most vulnerable places. It is another level of crass political puppetry to tell the world, “We are a hundred seconds from midnight,” and by the way, this isn’t an analogy, folks, it’s real.
Concerning point three, Robinson’s rhetoric follows the manichaean logic of the apocalyptic wing of global environmentalism, which characterizes global warming specifically, and anthropogenic ecological change generally, as an all-is-won or all-is-lost proposition (Pielke 2019). Within climate activist circles, this has not always been the case, but as Roger Pielke points out,
It’s true that apocalyptic narratives have always had a place in discussions of climate. In 1989, the United Nations warned that the world had “a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control.” But the escalation of apocalyptic climate rhetoric in recent years is unprecedented. The drumbeat of doom has led some prominent figures to turn on the mainstream climate community, complaining that “climate scientists have been underestimating the rate of climate change and the severity of its effects.” In reality, climate science has not just accurately anticipated unfolding climate change, it has done so consistently for the past 50 years.
There is thus an inconsistency here. Discussions of climate change have become more apocalyptic, but climate science has not. (Pielke)
Robinson’s rhetoric serves an implicit agenda of increased globalism and internationalism as the only realistic antidote to the pending doom while concealing the fact that most of post World War II internationalism (in both its Left and Right leaning manifestations) has served to perpetuate various forms of neo-colonial economic development, dependency-driven economic relationships between first world and third world countries, and has been a progressive handover of large-scale economic systems to corporate entities with little or no social accountability. In other words, the globalists have created many of the problems they now ask us to trust them to ameliorate.
Alexander the Great and the Great Khan Mongke could not have found more fervent proponents of polyglot, multi-ethnic, global empires in their own courts than they could find in the current champions of progressive neoliberalism, which is to say that there is always an unspoken fidelity to the law, governmentality, universalism, and subjection concealed in the heart of social crusaders looking to impose solutions from above: the gift of ‘civilization’ . . . if you only submit; the promise of ‘peace’ . . . if you only acquiesce; ‘Doomsday’ averted . . . if you only let those who know best administer you.
The term ‘progressive neoliberalism’ was conceptually (re)introduced by Nancy Fraser, in both her 2013 book, Fortunes of Feminism and more explicitly in her 2017 Dissent article, “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism.” Fraser’s article prompted a response article by Johanna Brenner and subsequent rejoinder by Fraser.
Carl Raschke has propelled a critical analysis of progressive neoliberalism well beyond Fraser’s much narrower scope in his recent work on the topic. Raschke demonstrates compellingly how the post-WWII international order has served the parochial interests of intellectual, social, and economic elites under the guise of a progressive moral vision masking contradicting real world effects.
And poor Greta Thurnberg — is she not to be pitied rather than admired? Certainly, she deserves no scorn and derision from public officials, including the president of the United States. Nevertheless, how did she become canonized as the patron saint of environmental consciousness? If it is true that the generation before hers has somehow ‘stolen’ her childhood and the childhood of so many others, it is because we have instilled a kind of all-consuming anxiety, exaggerated sense of agency, rage, and an outsize sense of personal responsibility in the current generation of children and young adults.
These youths embody a massive internal contradiction in which we all participate. For example, you don’t typically walk to Davos to discuss the global threat of climate change. You can’t sail the world’s oceans in a modern sailing vessel hewn from naturally occurring fiberglass, steel, and canvas. You show up at environmental rallies through the same modes of communication and transportation that bring a miner to his mine site or a corporate executive to her office.
This contradiction is real and inseparable from the attempt by many to maintain an unscathed and innocent distance within the contemporary situation. Rather than acknowledge that the very global consciousness and perpetual rage machines that fuel their identities were called into being and made possible through the very processes they excoriate, the prophets of doom conceal their full participation in the world behind the mask of non-consent and victimhood.
Equally concealed behind the doomsday prophecies is the sleight of hand that happened in the move from global climate science to environmental activism and climate policy advocacy. Climate scientists have more or less modeled various global climate scenarios over the past fifty years or more based on historical and contemporary climate data along with simulations based on key climate drivers. These include levels of greenhouse gas concentrations, for example, and the modeled impacts of those climate change drivers in conjunction with various feedback loops, both positive and negative, that can accelerate or retard these impacts.
Climate scientists, for the most part, have modeled a variety of scenarios based on differing ranges of anthropogenic climate change inputs, but they have been quite responsible and modest in not making future predictions that this or that scenario represents what will happen if nothing is done. Climate scientists have been reluctant to state that this or that global warming scenario is the consensus future state.
As Roger Pielke demonstrates through his research and reporting, climate policy crusaders have moved an outlier climate modeling scenario known as Representation Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5) “from an extreme outlier to the center of policy discussion.” Pielke shows clearly how global climate policy advocacy changed considerably within the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Pielke writes that
An enormously consequential change in approach occurred from the fourth IPCC assessment to the its fifth in 2013 [sic]. The IPCC abandoned its earlier acknowledgment of fundamental uncertainties and ignorance about the future and instead fully endorsed the notion of choosing a “business as usual” scenario for the future. The “business as usual” scenario adopted by the fifth IPCC assessment was associated with one of its most extreme scenarios of the future.
This change in both the official advocacy platform of the IPCC and its broader impacts on climate change advocacy and climate science is profound.
On the one hand, earnest environmental activists plea with us all to “save the world.” What they mean to say is that the world is precious and precarious and on a path to possible ecological destruction and that we should do something about it while we have the chance. However, the very global structures and institutions they look to for salvation are the same ones that have imposed disastrous global development schemes on third world countries, the ones who have helped foster neo-colonial fantasies of hand-in-hand global capitalism and democratic nation building, and the ones who have diminished the significance of nationhood and sovereignty in the interest of globalized capital, transnational corporatism, and the NGO industrial complex.
If Timothy Morton is correct that certain large-scale global phenomenon, such as climate change, are what he calls hyperobjects, we are confronted with phenomena of such complexity and scale that we cannot see them or know them directly. In true Kantian fashion, however Morton suggests that we can nevertheless think these hyperobjects. Because we can think them and in an imperfect sense know them, we can (and should) care about them. We should empower ourselves to take action regarding hyperobjects while at the same time acknowledging some fundamental and constitutive/transcendental limits on what we can know about them with certainty.
Rather than our current mode of public discourse, which increasingly pits one set of protagonists as purveyors of absolute good against another set of antagonists, who are irredeemable and deplorable, we need more realistic and humble discourse that can mobilize collective action and consensus. It is simply not the case that, as a society or as a world, we must acquiesce to the demands of a small group of enraged seventeen year olds or else let the world die a fiery and terrible death. It is not the case that either progressive-minded Americans band together to vote in a new president in 2020 or else a nearly-the-same sized group of ‘unforgivable’ Americans will be responsible for the death and destruction of the United States as we know it through their ‘ignorant’ votes for Trump.
Likewise, it is simply not the case that English citizens, who voted to leave the European Union are ignorant, racist, xenophobic nationalists while those who wanted to stay are the enlightened ones, who know and understand the dream of European cosmopolitanism.
The dualisms of contemporary public discourse traffic in nefarious forms of anti-realism and undermine the ability for consensus building, for meaningful social action, and they perpetuate all-or-nothing narratives that maintain the power positions of global elites without accountability for actionable, practical solutions to problems.
Carl Raschke has described the cynicism at the heart of this kind of political discourse, which he attributes to a contemporary manifestation of what Nietzsche described as nihilism. Raschke writes, “Nihilism is increasingly evident today in our political posturing without truthfulness, in the cynical advocacy of policies cloaked in rhetoric without reference to anything except what secretly benefits special interests, and in the careful calibration of campaigning to maximize resentment against assorted specters of “otherness.” Raschke’s more recent works from the last five years and his most recent book especially, Neoliberalism and Political Theology uncover the immanent contradiction and incoherence lurking beneath the surface of progressive neoliberal rhetoric and policy.
Impotent, uninteresting rage is the mode de jour, and politicians and public policy advocates traffic in this discourse at everyone’s peril. Nancy Fraser carefully guides the political Left away from such obviously one-sided, demonizing discourse and tactics, suggesting instead a careful, public critique of neoliberalism that could help create natural alliances of the disaffected on both the Right and the Left.
There are situations we should care about. There are massive internal contradictions in the ways we produce and consume in the world. The increasing gaps in both income and wealth are problematic trends, which will come to a head at some point if not addressed. There is general scientific agreement on the reality of global warming, but it is honest and humble to admit that not all of the details and likely future equilibrium states are known with anything approaching certainty.
We do have a responsibility for collectively doing something about these situations, but we have to do so in ways that acknowledge and cultivate the integrity of communities, building new and stronger senses of community that uphold the basic dignity and social reality of peoples and their historical connections to places. If the ways we talk publicly about the most pressing issues of our day only serve to create increased alienation from other living beings as well as the knowledge, wisdom, and relational connections that would help us solve the issues, where do we think we are headed?
100 seconds to doomsday? Relax, it’s just a metaphor.
Patrick Soch is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder with an M.A. in Religious Studies. He has taught at C.U., Metro State, and Colorado College focusing on critical indigenous thought, cultural theory, and comparative religion.