Stop Telling me the Earth is Dying
January 27th, 2021 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said, “It is 100 seconds to midnight.” This is part of their sound-the-alarm strategy for getting the world to wake up and do something about all the impending disasters we face. But it seems like the world has been about to end for a long time and we keep hitting the snooze button. After reading too many articles in the last few months that use the phrase “the Earth is dying,” I am getting more and more concerned about this flawed storytelling strategy. It isn’t that the evidence of lost species or collapsing ecosystems aren’t true, but what we make of all this evidence is a choice.
I’ve been concerned about doomsday narratives for a while. Here’s a reprint from a blog post in 2015 from Full Spring Studio.
Pondering the Crisis Narrative of the Doomsday Clock
What time is it? According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “It is 3 minutes to midnight. (r)” They’ve even registered the trademark for this phrase along with a graphic of a clock as the minute hand approaches dangerously near the top of the hour. I ran across a link this week to their Doomsday Clock Timeline. It is a powerful use of narrative to try to inspire action (or maybe at least more attention) on large crisis issues like nuclear threat or climate change. Their website shows assessments at various years as to how close we are to “doomsday” represented by midnight on the clock, and taking into account governmental changes in policies and actions. It is fascinating to me that they’ve kept up this narrative since 1947. It seems counter to the “final hours” mood their metaphor evokes.
There are other things I find interesting in their approach from a narrative-design perspective. Over the years, the clock moves forward or backward in its countdown, with 1991 enjoying a full 17 minutes of time left due to the end of the Cold War, whereas, 1990 only had 10 minutes left. This ability of human effort to conceptually turn back the clock is encouraging, except that the idea of a clock (at least our normal experience outside of sci-fi films) is that they move forward — inevitably and mercilessly — so that a doomsday clock seems doomed to reach its tragic destination. The only positive path offered in this approach, appears to be slowing down time by reducing crisis conditions, so we can enjoy these years (minutes) before the coming catastrophe.
What could be a hopeful twist in this narrative, is that although midnight, or the “witching hour,” is associated with anxiety over untold horrors, it is also the beginning, technically, of a new day. What would happen if we said the crisis is now? How much suffering do we need in order to declare the time to be midnight? If it were midnight, or 12:01 am right now, how might we see our task differently, perhaps in terms of emerging from the darkness toward a restored morning?