The End of the World: The Imminence and Art of the Doomsday Clock
By Raina Sparks
The last shreds of light fade into a confused, chaotic darkness. The Earth reaches its twilight, and the end is near. A brutal and unforgiving end to humankind and the environment as we know it is perhaps inevitable at some point. Only a few questions remain: When will the end occur? Will it be a natural product of changing environmental conditions or directly of our own making? The Doomsday Clock, moderated by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since 1947, explores these very questions. Consisting of a simple black clock outline with two hands and dots that denote hours, the clock is a symbolic representation of how close humanity is situated to the destruction of humankind. It denotes proximity to “midnight,” representing the end of most living beings and the world in its current era. Each year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists decides where those arms should be most accurately placed, having evaluated the state of global proximity to crisis.
Because the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was created in response to the United States bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the majority of historical clock settings have reflected the evaluation of a nuclear threat. In 2007, however, climate change was incorporated as well to reflect the changing landscape of danger. At first, the clock was set seven minutes to midnight. The furthest it has ever been is seventeen minutes to midnight, after the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It now stands at just 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to that disastrous final second.
The Clock debuted in 1947 as a newsletter circulated among physicists working on the Manhattan Project. Its creator was Martyl Langsdorf, artist and wife of one of the physicists, who mostly painted peaceful landscapes. The request to create a minimalist symbol of approaching disaster for the newsletter cover contrasted with the rest of her work in both technique and message. Professor Joanna Fiduccia, who teaches the course “Art of Crisis” at Yale, lends insight into Langsdorf’s creative process. Langsdorf faced numerous restrictions: she could only use three colors, so “the symbol would have to be graphic.” She contemplated a piece centering uranium and eventually decided on the motif of the clock, a classic approach for thinking about end times. The Doomsday Clock, while a highly relevant guide for think tanks and politicians nearly 75 years after its creation, is at its core a piece of art. Langsdorf in particular faced the difficult task of reconciling states of peace and chaos in her work. “Langsdorf’s landscapes are contemplative works that solicit much calmer modes of attention,” Fiduccia elaborates. “She clearly recognized, however, that for something like the Clock, where the real goal… is to make people feel warned, something much more immediate is necessary.” Ultimately, despite her dedication to natural landscapes, Langsdorf is remembered for a piece centering fear and conflict that she created during a time of war.
It is easy to question whether the symbolism of the Clock is defeatist in nature. Should we focus on the alarming proximity to midnight or the capacity for change in those precious 100 seconds left before the end? Fiduccia further explores the symbolism of “midnight” as a concept introduced to the public. “Midnight in the Clock’s context is the end of times and the critical hour, but in older christological timelines, the origin of creation and the end of the judgement might meet at midnight.” The symbolism of the Doomsday Clock thus caters well to an audience familiar with themes like Armageddon,judgement day, and beyond. Even the Vikings have a version of the reckoning story, Ragnarök, in which all Viking gods are defeated and killed by demons and giants. The common lesson of these myths is that total reckoning inevitably results in disaster and the end of humankind due to our own folly. “Midnight” also relates to the exploration of doom by capitalism, a popular theme for visual artists in the past few centuries. Fiduccia notes that, for example, a gathering storm is often deployed in religious paintings in the 19th century to ponder the impacts of industrial capitalism. In English painter J.M.W. Turner’s works, a roiling, approaching dark sky can seem religious in its fearsomeness but it is often clearly coming from an urban space like trains or factories. Doom as a theme is easily recognizable: dread of impending death shapes the human experience, and that dark, ultimate end transfers easily to the larger sphere of human existence. Unlike individual death, however, the timeline for the end of humanity is one that humans have the agency to decide. A central feature of the Clock is that it measures human destruction by our own making. One cannot stop the marching of time towards the individual end, but as a collective we do have the power to turn back the Clock.
The Doomsday Clock in the modern era focuses on two key areas in which human technology breeds destruction: nuclear proliferation and climate change. Fiduccia argues that it is impossible to separate the two threats, as making a climate less inhabitable increases the chances of total warfare and vice versa. Proliferation and climate change intersect to map the probability of a cataclysmic end, and so the two must be focus areas in any attempt to redeem time as the Clock moves forth.
Lauren Sukin, an Editorial Fellow for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, studies the threat of nuclear weapons to international security. “States with nuclear weapons have a disproportionate amount of global influence,” she explains. “Their nuclear capabilities only cement the power that allowed them to acquire the weapons in the first place. Nuclear weapons are also a reaction to security threats: states develop nuclear weapons in response to changing international security threats. It’s important to pay attention to states that may perceive strong nuclear threats to their existence and think about what we can do to try to prevent that from happening.”
American nuclear policy does not seem to actively support disarmament, but rather to support a system of benign protection and deterrence to other powers. Insofar as this tactic of the US remains, the existential nature of the nuclear threat will likely never be eliminated. American policy thus limits positive progress in the Clock’s evaluation of the nuclear threat. This limit to the goal of disarmament cements the ethical imperative of the US to prevent the further use of nuclear power. The US is the only country to deploy nuclear weapons in conflict against an adversary, and the effects of that were devastating. Sukin argues that the US therefore has an obligation to ensure it does not happen again. The US now stands at an intersection of reconciling with past harms and mitigating future ones. Moreover, it faces the dilemma of using its immense military power to fend off total war without further impinging on the autonomy of the nations it must protect. This dilemma highlights the reality that the Doomsday Clock does not implicate an equal burden of action to all nations and actors. It was created because of destruction caused by the US (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and it mandates action from the US and other similarly industrialized and powerful nations because they have the capacity to cause the greatest harm through either nuclear weapons or environmental destruction.
The other path to destruction considered by the Doomsday Clock is environmental catastrophe. Professor Kenneth Gillingham of the Yale School of Environment explains the statistical modeling of the likelihood of various degrees of climate change. The current model operates in the form of a bell curve, with only benign climate impacts on one (unlikely) end, and severe end-of-the-world impacts on the other. Severe outcomes would translate into a surface temperature increase of six degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, which would greatly increase climate sensitivity and subsequently raise the probability of severe damage.
Gillingham emphasizes that although the doomsday scenario is certainly one to take seriously, it is equally and perhaps more important to consider the variety of intermediate scenarios that carry the highest likelihood. He personally worries more about the average types of outcomes, because they still lead to powerful, lasting damages including a rise in sea levels, floods, and storms, as well as forced migration and spread of diseases. These changes are in fact already taking place. One potential harm of centering the Doomsday Clock is that it conceptualizes doom as a binary concept that exists as a future possibility, when doom is actively manifesting itself for many people that have lost their homes due to rising sea levels or forest fires. To consider doom as a single event is to negate their lived experience, and so it is important to include marginalized peoples already experiencing the impacts of climate change in any conversation about doom for humanity as a whole. In fact, that larger, looming doom is difficult even to conceptualize. Gillingham elaborates that “it’s those tail events [doomsday destruction] that are hard to quantify [and envision], but they are very real.” It would take adaptation to survive extreme scenarios. Humans now do survive in the middle of deserts and tundras in a variety of temperature and precipitation ranges. Gillingham notes that, however, “there’s a tiny probability that the earth becomes truly uninhabitable.” It is unlikely that doom will manifest itself suddenly or unexpectedly; the path to doom, if doom occurs, will be paved with many little dooms, and countless instances of human ingenuity and adaptation to survive what is just short of the unsurvivable.
The biblical Armageddon imagery of total war against a red sky as the world descends into total doom is difficult to conceptualize as a concrete set of events, but runs parallel to possible disaster scenarios in the modern era. To explore one Doomsday hypothetical: climate change makes vast regions of the world uninhabitable. The refugee crisis increases exponentially; xenophobia rages, borders are tightened, and millions are left in a chaotic lurch. Insurgent groups continue to grow, and the US engages in and escalates the conflict with the Taliban and ISIL. There is an upset to the delicate balance of nuclear restraint, perhaps with North Korea developing a warhead and launching it into a remote region in a demonstration of power. The US, alarmed, responds by launching an exponentially more destructive missile at Pyongyang and wipes out millions. There is no longer any deterrent factor to maintain the balance of power as it currently exists. Tension erupts and most major military powers deploy nuclear and other weapons in a desperate attempt to save themselves. Nations without military power are left to perish in the fallout, and nations with it become direct targets. There is no longer a hospitable environment for humanity to continue to exist as a species, and in fact most current species are wiped out collaterally. Only hardy insects and well-adapted deep-sea creatures live on unharmed. The human era is over, and Earth reinvents itself once again, as it has done many times over the past four and a half billion years.
Is this end inevitable? Will runaway capitalism push the climate past a point of redemption? Should we as humans resign ourselves to the demise of our species? Should we avoid having children in fear of the reality they will face in fifty years? These are philosophical questions as well as practical ones, and they touch on the back-and-forth tug between hope and nihilism that characterizes the human dilemma in any era. The theme of crisis is as timeless as it is current; it is one pondered by visual artists and economists alike.
The Doomsday Clock is therefore an elegant dovetail of multiple disciplines attempting to grapple with the question of whether technological advancement will elevate us or spell our demise. It forces us to confront the optimism and desperation within ourselves, to take immediate action or resign ourselves entirely as the seconds tick on. Only one conclusion is evident: resignation produces no outcome but midnight. Hope is necessary to turn back time.
Raina Sparks is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.