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How to Survive The End of The World (Part 1)

The Doomsday Clock Reveals How We Think About the Real Doomsday

Image: Getty

After the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project created the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a publication dedicated to informing policymakers and the public about nuclear threats. While not everyone has heard of the Bulletin, many have probably heard of its most famous creation: the Doomsday Clock.

The brainchild of atomic scientists and artists, the clock offers invaluable information about the survival of our planet. But it has also become an object onto which everyday people project their own ideas about doomsday.

The Doomsday Clock debuted in 1947 with the goal of warning the public about the precise imminence of a massive, human-caused catastrophe. Midnight on the clock signifies this disaster state. Each year, the clock is set to a number of minutes before midnight based on the perceived magnitude of great nuclear and climate threats. The clock has since become iconic and is perhaps the ultimate resource that everyday people can use to understand how close we are to a major catastrophe.

Some context for the present day: In January of this year, the Doomsday Clock was moved from three minutes before midnight to 2.5 minutes (in large part because of Donald Trump’s presidential victory). Compare this to two minutes before midnight in 1953, by which time both the United States and the Soviet Union were testing hydrogen bomb technology. The farthest the clock has ever been from midnight was in 1991: With the Cold War over and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in place, the clock was set to 17 minutes from midnight.

Doomsday is an inherently emotional subject. The thought of it alone easily causes panic about the state of the world. Because the Doomsday Clock is a public-facing and, indeed, very existential project, the people behind it hear concerns from the public year round, especially when the time is reset, which happens only once per year, in mid- to late January. Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin, says this is when the publication receives by far the most attention from readers and the press. Concerns that readers send to the Bulletin staff illuminate the varied ways people respond to these uncertain times.

Janice Sinclaire, communications director at the Bulletin, says worldwide interest in the clock increased significantly this year, thanks to President Trump, who was inaugurated less than a week before the Bulletin’s annual announcement. Between the election and the inauguration, Sinclaire says, “People were worried because the president-elect had, at that time, said some things that are really frightening to people who are concerned about nuclear weapons.”

Trump has repeatedly tweeted taunting or incendiary remarks directed at the North Korean government. He’s made similar comments in media interviews, including calling dictator Kim Jong Un a “bad dude.” Since becoming president, he’s made further unnerving statements, including a Twitter response to a North Korean missile: “Does this guy [Kim Jong Un] have nothing better to do?” More recently, Trump said of North Korea during a meeting about the opioid crisis, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen…he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury, and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” The words “fire and fury” trended nationally on Twitter.

Once the 2017 statement regarding the Doomsday Clock’s new time was released, Sinclaire says she was surprised by how few critical comments the Bulletin received. Overall, readers were “supportive and thought the new time was a legitimate and accurate reflection” of the state of the world. While Sinclaire says they’re less common, the Bulletin also fields comments from people who are angry about the mere existence of the clock or are panicked when it advances.

An extreme example of this came from a young person who believed that the Doomsday Clock itself was somehow pushing the world closer to a massive disaster. “She thought that if we [kept] moving the clock forward, the world would end,” recalls Sinclaire.

Some individuals accuse the Bulletin of using the image as a fearmongering gimmick, according to Sinclaire. Bronson recalls receiving emails from a mother who was angry that her 10-year-old daughter had seen a story about the Doomsday Clock and became terrified.

In some part, negative comments or inflammatory inquiries come as a result of misunderstandings about what the clock actually is. Some people are under the impression that the clock is a predictive tool, explains Sinclaire. “They try to turn it into the Mayan calendar in order to legitimize it,” she says. Still others opine that the Bulletin exaggerates the world’s most dangerous issues to scare the public and drum up attention.

In the case of the latter objection, Sincalaire says “it’s a conscious misrepresentation” meant to delegitimize the work behind the Doomsday Clock. She says that in some of these cases, people have strong, negative opinions about the fact that the clock engages with pop culture and uses art to communicate scientific information.

But the Doomsday Clock cannot predict the future, doesn’t act as a vehicle driving the earth closer to destruction, and isn’t intended to scare people for the sake of drumming up empty concern. “It is a metaphor,” says Sinclaire. It’s intended to advise the public and policymakers about nuclear and climate threats in a way that’s easy to understand and, further, to motivate individuals to take action.

Sinclaire says that her team does their best to address misconceptions or concerns. She says that talking things through to clear factual inaccuracies or misunderstandings ultimately leads to a call to action: participating in disarmament anti-proliferation campaigns, speaking to elected officials about nuclear issues and climate change, and so on.

While she can’t be sure if any of these people go on to become activists, Sinclaire says she can’t think of a single instance when engaging with people who are confused or concerned hasn’t helped matters.

There are many people who are thankful the clock exists. Bronson says she’s received many emails over the years from people who are glad to know that the Bulletin exists and are grateful that someone is paying attention to these threats. In fact, Bronson says she receives more of this type of message than the opposite.

But this does not mean the clock is a tool of consolation; nobody should see how near we are to midnight and be able to talk themselves into feeling okay with this state of affairs. The goal of the clock and the Bulletin’s work is not only to educate the public but also to motivate individuals to act on climate and nuclear issues.

The Doomsday Clock helps people acknowledge reality and prompts them to act on it. While nuclear proliferation policy and evidence of climate change may feel like heady, remote issues to some, these issues matter to the planet whether or not we pay attention. “It’s not just some distant future. It’s happening now,” says Sinclaire. Perhaps a sense of urgency is the gift we should accept from the Doomsday Clock.